We went to Uganda to support Abitimo Odongkara in her work in education and peace-building in civil-war ravaged northern Uganda, where 20,000 children have been abducted by the rebels, and over a million people forced into Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps.

I would say that our major contribution ended up being in building the capacity for trauma healing, the thing I wanted to do most, but thought was least likely. We are trained in a shared listening form of peer counseling, and had two distinct opportunities in this area that merged into one by our final weekend.

Meeting with Young Adults: Telling Our Stories – Listenening to Theirs

The first set of engagements was with a group of young people, ages 19-29, that a young man in Abitimo’s household had gathered together (she has cared for countless war orphans over the years). Abitimo had taught them some of these shared listening skills and they were eager for more.

We arrive at a in the only transport available—an ancient pick-up truck, the interior worn down to the metal, door handles to stubs, too many cracks in the windshield to count. Waiting to greet us in the late afternoon shade, is a group of young men and women. We’ve never been here, don’t know any of these young people. Yet they know our friend and are eager to learn what we have to share about peer counseling. In less than an hour we are scattered around the yard in groups of three, sharing life stories.

The idea of taking turns listening to each other is pretty simple. I’ve done it tons of times. I listen to what’s on your mind and you listen to what’s on mine, without interruption, without criticism, without advice. If we get good attention, just the telling helps. If we have a chance to vent some of the feelings it helps even more. We get more space in our brains and in our hearts. I’ve listened to all kinds of stories—about hard days as work, love-life angst, fears about the future, hard times with children, hard times with parents, physical injuries, embarrassing moments. I’ve told my share as well.

But I’ve never done it in a dirt poor country in a region where civilians have borne the brunt of a horrible civil war for over twenty years. The process is just the same, but the stories are a little different. There is the young man who was abducted at age nine to serve in the rebel army and escaped at twelve, orphaned and stigmatized; another whose three little cousins were taken, the youngest one killed, the others returned years later, badly damaged; another trying to help a young woman from his village who was abducted and robbed of her childhood and is now raising an unwanted child of rape.

I don’t know which is harder—providing a container for these stories, or taking my turn, with problems that feel inconsequential to the point of non-existence in comparison. I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter. They don’t want my story to be as hard as theirs. They’re pleased that we came from so far to visit, happy to get a little attention. They find the concept that they’ve been traumatized very helpful; it puts their personal experience into a larger context. The idea that healing can come from listening well to each other’s stories and to the feelings that lie beneath is a powerful one. It gives them a new way of helping friends and loved ones. They are both challenged and intrigued by the idea of letting people find their own solutions. Mostly they are eager to be part of the healing process, eager to forgive, eager to let go of the past and look toward the future, eager to love.

For two weeks we meet with these young people daily. We find games to play that let us laugh together. They love giving and getting hugs. Individual personalities, strengths and passions begin to emerge. Stories of giving loving attention to others come back to us within days.

This process of taking turns listening and showing our caring, which has come to seem so ordinary in my life at home, here in northern Uganda has become something very special and precious indeed. I’m challenged to treasure it in all its stunning simplicity. I want to learn from my peers in Northern Uganda to cut through the layers of daily worry and irritation that are often the substance of my stories, down to what really matters, to the essentials of life that are so close to the surface here. I want my story to be one of accessing the deep well of love in my heart and putting it to the service of my world.

Working with Women in Refugee Camps

The other opportunity grew from my discovery before we left home of a British Quaker project in northern Uganda supporting the efforts of a group of young mothers who are returned abductees, now raising children of rape and reaching out to help other women in crowded refugee camps. The staff had been searching for ways to get them more counseling resources, and were delighted to take up our offer to share with the group what we know of peer counseling. “How can you listen,” one of the women asked, >if what you hear makes you cry too?” We helped them understand how you can show your caring as you cry along with them. They moved beyond airing old painful grievances and thought of retribution, and embraced the desire to heal, to help others heal, and become whole again.

We did a five-hour introductory workshop with them late in our second week, then invited them to send two representatives from each of the five IDP camps where they work to join the students for a final weekend workshop.

Both groups were very heartened to know of the other’s shared passion for helping their people heal from trauma. They all expressed great appreciation for these tools, and had already started using them before we left. All in all, 62 people participated, and we developed a plan for ongoing teaching, support and leadership development.

A second area of work was in support of the UNIFAT school that now serves 1300, including over 350 HIV-AIDS and war orphans. UNIFAT has high academic standards, a dedicated staff, a mission to instill values as well as teach academics, and a strong concern to serve the oppressed. It has a reputation as the best primary school in the region, yet is still critically under-resourced. We got a better understanding of the school’s financial status and needs, through in-depth conversations with Abitimo, the (very active and committed) board and parent/teacher association members, and the teaching and administrative staff. In addition, I worked with our son Timothy on conceptualizing the framework, getting the visual footage and doing the interviews to make a video. Since the story of the school is deeply embedded in the story of the last 20 years in northern Uganda, we hope to be able to use the video for general education as well as fundraising.

As an early childhood advocate by profession, I also came prepared to offer workshops and resources to the teachers of the youngest children. This led me to classrooms of 70 to 80 preschoolers, and a sad little library with shelves of culturally-inappropriate donated books. I ended up spending a lot of time in the library, weeding the picture book section and learning from the librarian about the pressing need for usable story books and texts. Most of the tools I came with presupposed a smaller teacher/child ratio, but I was able to offer one small workshop, and came away with a solid basis for education and fundraising in the early childhood community.

As her friends, we lived in Abitimo’s house and came to understand her life in Uganda much better. We got to know her family, helped her problem solve and separate out and organize all the different projects she’s engaged in, grieved with her over the loss of an adopted daughter to assassination last summer (most likely for her outspoken advocacy for the peace process). We gained a new sense of her stature as an important elder, resource, and peacemaker in northern Uganda, helped strengthen her ability to do that work, and left with new ideas of what more we could do on her behalf.

It was an incredibly rich time. We learned an enormous amount, connected quickly and deeply with many people, did our best to be of use, and made some real, if small, contribution to peace and healing. We come home with much more to do, and look forward to binding our communities and loved ones in the US more closely to these passionate educators and peacemakers of northern Uganda.