Our visit to Irene’s family home in Eastern Uganda brings to the fore issues of livelihood and education. They live in the shadow of Mt. Elgon, which divides the country from Kenya. We pass through the bustling city of Mbale, with its Islamic influence, elegant big central building dating from the 1930’s and 40’s, deep into the countryside, off the paved road, then off onto a narrower dirt road. The land is richer here than in the north, the vegetation lush.

We pass a small cluster of houses, old men and women, ragged little children sitting outside. The houses are mostly what I think of as daub and wattle—a framework of thin poles, filled in with dried earth—roofs of banana leaf thatch. Then there’s a group gathered around a bore-hole with its hand pump, and all the big rectangular yellow plastic containers that are used for water throughout the country. We’ve been traveling all day, and Irene’s children are impatient. Finally, not far up the hill past the borehole, we pull into a clearing with something akin to a lawn, and a substantial house of concrete block.

We are welcomed warmly and invited in. The living room has the two stuffed arm chairs and a couch that seem to be the standard here—we saw a long line of shops manufacturing them outside of Kampala—piles of wood, frames stacked two or three high on bicycles, finished products for sale—all the same style. There’s a dining room table and chairs in the adjoining room. It’s evening now, and I’m a little surprised that they don’t turn on the lights, till it becomes clear that there are none to turn on. After a while an oil lantern is produced. We sit in guestly elegance, while the life of the household is clearly somewhere else, if the sound of chickens and chatter is any indication. Dinner is very late and there is some confusion about washing before bed. The offer is made, but we are bone tired, and the job of finding the latrine in the darkness seems sufficiently challenging—we have no idea what a wash would involve. There had been a bustle of getting mosquito nets before we came, since this is a wetter part of the country and the dry season is coming to an end. But the room we’re showed to has no way to hang a net. We sleep without them and hope for the best.

Everything is clearer in the light of morning. Life indeed centers behind the house, in a little separate kitchen and under the trees. The latrine is a tidy little building with two doors and a pan of water and soap outside. Inside is a flat piece of wood covering a hole, with a pole attached to lift it aside, and toilet paper hanging on a nail. The only tricky part is squatting in the right alignment to the hole. (Later in the trip I see an abandoned concrete latrine floor standing on its side in the storage area of a school. It has the footprints that would have helped me out.) Bathing, we discover, is a straightforward matter of retiring to a closed off area with soap and a bowl of water heated over the fire.

There are a series of little outbuildings, chickens scratching, and three or four goats tethered here and there. An uncle shows me around, identifying all the fruit trees—mango, guava, jackfruit, banana—and pointing out the coffee bushes. He explains the traffic on the road—men on bicycles going up the hill toward the banana plantation, and bicycles with huge loads of bananas on the back coming down the hill headed to markets in Mbale and Tororo, over an hour’s car drive away. The man leading a goat up the hill is on his way to the weekly market not far beyond.

Later we get a much more extensive tour with two older uncles. Uncle James seems to be the main farmer. He has a little one-room banana leaf thatched house not far from the big one; a skeleton of poles out front are the beginning of an addition. The house is surrounded by banana trees—they have both the cooking and the sweet eating kind. There are also trees good for firewood and timber. Farther down is a planting of cassava, then closer to the stream more intensive vegetable production, then sugarcane. There are some new cabbage seedlings protected from the sun by a woven reed awning, then larger heads mixed in with tomato plants. We are followed by a growing number of small children, all ragged, several with hoes, some chewing sugar cane. Clearly we have interrupted their work.

We learn that Irene’s father moved to this place, up from the little cluster of houses we passed on the way where his clan is centered. He wanted to be closer to this stream, though they still have to go down to the bore hole for drinking water. After he died, the family supported themselves by growing cotton, all the children working to pick and clean it and selling it to the cotton gin next door. Then the bottom fell out of the cotton market. Those who were higher in the hills switched to coffee, but it doesn’t really grow well here. People are mostly farming for subsistence now; if they can sell enough surplus it will help cover school costs.

Luckily for Irene’s family, she had an older brother who got a job with the police, and was determined to help his younger brothers and sisters go to school. They did, and Irene ended up in the United States working as a nursing assistant in an old folks home. She sends money home, her other siblings help as well, and these extra resources have allowed the house to be built, and more land to be acquired for the farm. With this little extra cushion they seem to have all that they need—and significantly more than their neighbors.

Irene’s coming has provided the excuse for a family reunion. All of her siblings have shown up, and all the nieces and nephews who aren’t away at boarding school. The young adults are all well dressed, going to university or working at white collar jobs in Kampala (one of the uncles works in Kampala too, but in construction). When a ten year old is asked what he wants to do when he grows up, he says “work in an office”.

This is the upward mobility that everyone hopes for. It is sweet to watch the family together—the love is palpable. They are happy to do without electricity, haul water, cook over an open fire in the corner of the smoky little kitchen during this joyful reunion. But who, after going to university, will be happy to haul and cook that way every day? Who will come back and tend the land after Uncle James has died? I watch him on the last morning sharpening his machete on a stone, then stripping and cutting sugar cane for us to take back to Gulu—so effortless, so much knowledge in his hands. We weren’t there when he slaughtered the goat, but I can see it in my mind’s eye. His skills are so important for feeding this country, feeding this world.

I guess the ragged little neighbor children with their hoes will grow up to be ragged adults who get by somehow on a little plot of this productive land. But for this farming family that has built up some little buffer from extreme poverty, it looks as if the very goodness of the life they have created, with its opportunities for education, will leave it without a future.

I see a similar trend in the north, just compounded by war, drier land and greater poverty. The students perform a play for us. It is about an old peasant and his two sons. One is getting the land; the other is getting an education. The old man uses all his wiles to keep the first son at work and away from school, talking about how lucky he is to be the master of all this land. The son chafes, pouts, acts up. He knows he’s getting the short end of the stick.

All the young people we meet have pinned their hopes on education. Unlike Irene’s nieces and nephews, many of them are orphans. They have no money, no siblings with jobs, certainly no resource from the US. Yet they are waiting, hoping somehow that they can find someone who will pay their school tuition so that they can build a future for themselves that’s more than just scraping by.

As people begin to taste the possibility of peace, the more adventurous ones are leaving the camps, venturing back to the land, dismantling the little huts in the IDP camps and using the bricks to rebuild the traditional round homes with peaked thatch roofs that used to dot the countryside. This seems deeply right and very hopeful. Yet it is not a future that anybody we met looks forward to. What can make life on the land sufficiently tolerable that it is something to imagine doing as one’s job after getting some education, rather than consigning it to those who have no other choice?

Sustainability; Before and After the Age of Oil

Walking around Irene’s family’s farm, we can see all the ways that it is a model of sustainability, a living example of the kind of future that many far-sighted people in the west are working hard to make possible. The notion of perma-culture, using the land fully so that all parts work together to complement and support each other, is laid out in front of us in all its elegance and simplicity. I know people from the west who would feel like they had died and gone to heaven if they had a chance to get their hands on this place. Fruit trees are interspersed with trees for firewood, construction and timber. Below the taller mantle are the coffee bushes, then the goats and chickens that feed off what drops from above and grows low below. Their waste goes back into the soil. Banana palms provide food, both essential carbohydrates and sugar, and their big leaves are used in endless variations for holding and covering stuff when fresh and for roofing when dry. Sunny land is suitable for vegetables and cotton. There is no dependence on pesticides or fossil fuels. The water at the nearby bore hole is hand pumped; the bicycle is the basic means of local transportation.

What would it mean to take full advantage of this living example of life after oil? What are the sustainable inputs that could make this kind of life more productive and less arduous? We sit under the trees behind the house with the great uncles—the ones, along with Irene’s mother, who own and depend on this land. The conversation is full of speeches of welcome and thanks (we weren’t quite aware of the honor we were conferring on this family simply by showing up; it seems likely that no white person has ever been in their community before). They hope we can help them; we try to respond appropriately while being clear about how little power we hold in the US. It gradually begins to sink in that they have no contact at all with anybody who is working on appropriate technology or sustainability. They can’t even begin to know what a next step for their community might be because they have no frame of reference wider than their own experience.

I think of all the people I know who have studied and experimented. I think of the tremendous resource I have in the internet—I can start with a single word or question, and whole new worlds are opened up to me in seconds. I begin to wonder what I know, or could find out about, that would actually be of use. (They are intrigued by the pistachio nuts we have brought as a gift, and wonder if they might be a good cash crop. We promise to investigate, but I’m doubtful.)

Could there be something with solar panels? Something about the water? Some simple food processing techniques? Watching the women cook gives us our first real idea. The kitchen is a small pole and dried earth structure with one corner devoted to the fire. Big stones have been arranged so that there are three distinct places for pots and ways to get firewood under them. Smoke fills the room and filters through the holes in the walls and the thatch of the roof. (This is where the water for our baths was heated.) Even a simple modification, that my son knows about from his work in Nicaragua, would get most of the smoke out of the room. We wonder if this was the kind of idea the uncles were looking for; the women would certainly benefit. Maybe half a dozen ideas like that would help them imagine new possibilities, and choose what would work for them.

What could be done to make this life less arduous without going the big oil route? I think of those men up before dawn on their bicycles, riding for miles to the plantations, loading up enormous heavy loads of bananas, and riding miles again to distant markets. There is road drainage and grading work being done by the district government nearby—no access to heavy equipment, so a crowd of laborers work with hoes. The bicyclists have to dismount, balance those loads and push through loose dirt. I can feel their muscles straining. They need the work. Is there a way it could be less toilsome?

I wonder about the roads. We were on a few that were well-paved and maintained. The vast majority were dirt, rutted and washed out in places, ribbed like washboards in others, and full of dust. But these were easier to bear than the surfaced roads that had fallen into disrepair, which seemed to be the majority (or maybe we just spent most of our time in the part of the country whose infrastructure was not the central government’s priority). These roads were a penance to be on. Going into the potholes was damagingly jarring to body and vehicle alike; going around them was a feat of driving, requiring slaloms, scary use of the opposing lane, time on the shoulder, and, when none of these remedies worked, slowing down almost to a stop to ease into an enormous pothole and back out again. There was one stretch of road where the potholes were so deep and numerous that drivers both ways abandoned the road altogether in favor of the rutted dirt shoulder. We saw ragged little boys on the main north-south highway filling in potholes with dirt, trying to get a little money from bone-jarred drivers for their effort. Our son, with his long experience in Nicaragua, said that bad dirt roads were almost always preferable to bad paved ones. Assuming limited resources, what can we learn?

Bicycles are so well used here. They are a great form of transport. In Mbale they are used as taxis, with a bright rectangular cushion on the back, decorated with golden fringe. They can carry everything: children on the back, chickens over the handlebars, bed frames, sugar cane, water cans, charcoal. I needed to have one load explained to me. It looked like regular old thatch, but was bundled differently somehow. Turns out it was a load of rooftops—each sheaf of dried grass bound tightly at one end with what looked like tire rubber, made to be spread out like an umbrella to crown a conical thatched roof. What a great product, elegant, functional and sustainable, and what a perfect mode of transport!

Their latrines are another example of earth-friendly technology. Human waste clearly belongs in the earth and nothing could be more wasteful of water than a flush toilet. A clean and well-kept latrine is not a disgusting thing. Outside the public latrines at the game park was a little peak-roofed barrel of water on a stand, with a spigot at the bottom and a bar of soap in a tray—a perfectly appropriate system for handwashing. (Though I have to say that the blue-green dyed toilet paper without perforations was a mystery to me. I hadn’t realized that anybody still dyed toilet paper, and I discovered that I really do like the convenience of perforations; I guess it was better than nothing, which we also experienced.)

There are advantages and disadvantages to being several decades behind the modern world. One can only hope that some of the most wasteful practices of the west will be discredited before they even get introduced here—like excessive packaging and plastic bags. There was hardly any packaged food in the middle class household on the edge of town where we lived—some tea and jam, and boxes of fruit juices and bread for the children from America. In the pantry were big bags of groundnuts, flour, sugar and millet. Cassava harvested from a nearby field lay drying in the compound. Fresh cabbage and eggs were bought from the market. The chicken and goats wandered around underfoot.

On the other hand, they have just discovered the convenience of bottled water—just as we are learning its cost and trying to wean ourselves from it. Since water from most sources has to be boiled, and it’s hot most of the time, buying bottled water, if you have the means, becomes incredibly attractive. Though we saw very little trash, water bottles were the most common content. Some thought is put to recycling. When we passed children from the camps on the road out of town, Abitimo suggested that we hand our empties out the window to them. For somebody who has nothing, a good container can be a treasure. And local honey was sold in the market in recycled water bottles. All the soda is in glass, and the bottle has real value. Either you pay for it above and beyond the cost of the soda, or you drink the contents and return the bottle to its owner. Now that seems smart.

It took us a while on our long drive north the first day to identify the contents of the big tall bags that were everywhere by the side of the road and on the backs of bikes—clearly an important commodity of some kind to be produced, bought and sold. Timothy figured it out from his time in Nicaragua: charcoal. I worried about that charcoal. If some people need to eat, and they can make a little money by cutting down a tree and selling it for fuel, the logic for cutting down that tree is pretty compelling. But how long will it take till all the trees are cut down and people still don’t have enough to eat? I read a paper while we were here about using sugar cane waste as an alternative base for charcoal. This sounded promising, since it could be applied to other natural waste as well. The kicker was that it required a medium to hold together the carbonized sugar-cane stalks, and what they suggested was cassava flour. Is there enough cassava flour to spare from eating, at a cost that could compete with the trees? At least I’m glad that there are people in the world who are thinking about alternatives.

On the other hand, the brick kilns that we saw by the side of the road everywhere we went were appropriate technology at its most elegant. People dug up the red clay that is everywhere, shaped it into bricks, piled the sun-dried bricks into block towers with open channels at the bottom for fire, coated the whole thing with mud, lit a fire overnight, let it bake in that heat for three days, took off the coating, and voila: building materials. The hollowed out palm logs that are wedged into trees and attract swarms of bees seemed like another example of local elegance.

In the north, which has savannah-type vegetation, the Acholi build round houses with this brick on a raised clay floor, pounded hard to the consistency of tile, topped by a grass-thatched roof. They can be remarkably clean and spacious inside. In the southeast, which is wetter and more tree-covered, the houses are rectangular pole construction, with a lattice of thinner poles and dried clay and the occasional brick worked in to the gaps, and a banana leaf roof. These houses fit their environment. They make sense.

I wonder about the water at the bore hole wells, the hand-pump, the ubiquitous big yellow plastic containers that carry it from well to dwelling. Waiting for hours at the well, or carrying water for miles and miles, seems like a hardship that should be remedied. But does the good life require running water inside each home? Can the carrying of water become a small enough part of people’s days that it makes sense? How much time could I imagine carrying water myself in a world of the future where we are learning to do without oil? As we look around us, what do we see that is a relic of a poverty-ridden past, desperately needing to be dragged into the present? What do we see that is crying out for sustainable technology innovations that modern research has made possible? And what do we see that is true wisdom from centuries of experience and a signpost for a livable future?

Challenges to Traditional Tribal Values during Conflicts: Rights, Respect and Responsibility

Ojara Sunday Braxton is a thoughtful young man, very tuned in to the role of the traditional elders, and not inclined to dismiss them lightly. He sees how effective the traditional system has been in conflict resolution. Yet he also sees that some of the traditions need to change. He speaks of how women have been oppressed in the traditional culture, and of taboos that are strange beyond understanding. (If a prospective bride is seen eating chicken, for example, she is sent away in disgrace.) He wonders if we have found a better balance between tradition and change. I say that I think we’re in danger of going overboard on the side of change.

In their culture it is the responsibility of the aunts and uncles to train boys and girls to play their respective roles as adults. What do we do in the US? When I talk about the strong emphasis on individualism, and the nuclear family as the conveyor of values in our country, he sees problems with the lack of strong extended families. He asks how the oppressive parts of the traditional culture can change without losing what has value? I ask if he could have these conversations with the elders. He has access to the elders in his family, but not the chief elders of the whole district.

He and others pose questions about responsibility: What to do about a marital/property dispute that ends up with someone calling the army and somebody else getting killed? Who is responsible? What about the family where the wife has gotten a well-paying job, stops playing the traditional role in the house, and is hardly even around, causing the husband to be increasingly upset?

Omona Richard wonders what to do about two clans in conflict after a wrong report from one family member to the rebel army led soldiers to massacre many in a different clan, who then forced the family’s clan off the land. Members of this clan want to be allowed back, yet traditional justice requires the whole clan to be responsible for one member’s misdeeds.

The traditional justice system is very clear and carefully thought out—based on compensation rather than retribution, with clans being responsible for their members. When the process has been completed, the issue is over and people can move on. It has worked well in the past, but is straining in its interface with modern institutions and pressures. In this last situation the younger generation of both clans are willing to be flexible—welcoming back all the clans except the offending family—but the elders are more rigid. The younger generation is working together to convince the elders—the war produced so may injustices—perhaps they can bend. It is a hard situation, but I can just picture Omona Richard’s steady calm good will helping to make something good happen.

A major sticking point in the peace talks has been rebel leader Joseph Kony’s unwillingness to be tried by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. While nobody doubts his guilt, the Acholi people are willing to abide by their traditional system of redressing grievances, which involves some measure of compensation, theoretically from his clan, and a clean start. From an individualist western perspective this seems like a terrible miscarriage of justice, with the one person who was most recognizably responsible for horrendous crimes going virtually free. For the Acholi, it would mean an end to war—a chance to return to their homes, plant their crops, be free from the terrible scourge of war. When you hold the guilt of one man against the well-being of a whole people, our insistent western focus on individual responsibility seems short-sighted at best.

We have heard several stories of the damaging impact of the IDP camps on traditional family structure. Evening times at home with family and elders where traditional values can be reinforced, have been disrupted. Instead, youth have been thrown together into a chaotic, undisciplined and dangerous environment, and exposed to the dregs of western video and music culture. There is more than one reason that people are dying to get out of the camps.

The extended family has clearly served a critical role in Northern Uganda, and other parts of Africa, as families have been decimated by the double scourge of war and HIV-AIDS. While there are thousands and thousands of orphans, most are quietly absorbed into existing families. When I finally do a tally of the number of parentless children living in Abitimo’s compound, I come up with five girls and five boys, along with three of her grandchildren. Her sister speaks of having one child and eight dependents (she sounds weary). When we meet with a group of young women who had been abducted by the rebels and have come home with young children, they describe their families: one of my own, two others; two of my own, three others. Not one of them is caring for just her own.

You see the importance of extended family in other less dramatic ways. Our entire group stops to wait and wait when we discover that a cousin is in Kampala needing a ride north and we have room to offer. When Abitimo’s adopted daughter died last summer, two members of the family her US-based son married into traveled across the country over terrible roads to represent the family at the funeral.

We come home one evening to find a goat tied in the compound. Some distant relative has died, and as part of the mourning process a goat has been presented to the family. As the senior female member she is the one to receive it and see that the meat is distributed appropriately. (She isn’t thrilled; it is one more thing to do, and since the billy had never been castrated, the meat will be tough.)

There are strengths in extended families and clans where people watch out for each other. A country of many different tightly-knit language/ethnic groups brings problems as well. Patrick has married into a different ethnic group. I feel so sad that the only language he and his wife share is English. I listen to him speak to his mother in his native tongue, then turn to use the colonial language to communicate with Irene. Needless to say, the children speak only English. Patrick also faces a hard situation with his mother-in-law. The custom in those clans is that the husband has no contact with his wife’s mother. Even entering her house is considered inappropriate and rude. Customs are changing and it now works for him to be in the same house, though without verbal contact and keeping across the room. Where did this tradition come from? What use can it possible serve in the present? Does his desire to know his mother-in-law threaten the traditional order?

Then there is Felix, with an Acholi mother and a Gisu father. When his father kicked his mother out of the house, she went back to the north and raised him there. Her family has tolerated his presence, but has not welcomed him in, certainly not claimed him as one of theirs. He has visited his father’s family once or twice, but is seen as an outsider there as well. He has worked hard to be thoughtful about and generous to members of his mother’s family, trying to win their trust, and he is planning to buy land in his father’s village, as a way of claiming his own space there. What a hard job for a young man, just trying to be a good and loving son and to have a home.

The current president, Museveni, has established a political system with the professed intent of combating the tribalism that plagues a multi-party system. Parties get so identified with tribes/ethnic groups that the political process easily devolves into tribal conflict. His solution has been to ban parties. People are expected to run as individuals on their own merits. There is something thoughtful and right about this, and some evidence that it works at the local level, where competent individuals can be identified and respected. But on a national level, one can’t help but wonder. With no alternative locus of organizing strength, the incumbent has an enormous advantage. While he can talk virtuously of transcending tribal differences, he has also used this no-party system to his personal advantage: he has been in power now for 21 years.

Our little microcosm of Gulu seems more hopeful. It is good to see a genuine elder in action—to watch people listen to her, defer to the wisdom they recognize in her, be led by her. It is very good to listen to these thoughtful young men struggling with the question of how to maintain respect for the elders, while still having the opportunity to learn new things and help their traditions evolve. There’s something about respect here that they really understand.

Contrasting Northern and Southern Uganda: Ethnicity, Identity and Oppression

The sense of shared identity is strong here in the north. We stayed overnight down in Kampala with a couple who had moved there from Gulu and were quite well-to-do. I asked what language they used with their housekeeper, and they said Acholi. She was from the north, and had come with them. They had never bothered to learn the local language, because if they weren’t speaking Acholi they could always get by in English. Even in this far-away setting, this potential melting pot, their ethnic identity was intact.

There is a common culture. All the houses look the same. It was noticeable when we traveled to the southeast, how the houses changed. First they got smaller with less exterior decoration in different colors of clay, pointier roofs, wider eaves and little porch-like extensions around the perimeter. Then as we got to the far southeast of the country, round houses disappeared almost altogether. The rectangular boxes that we started seeing were very disorienting; I could imagine them being culturally shocking.

There is a tightly-defined naming structure. The names are very distinctive—almost all male names, for example, begin with O, and people are vigilant to make sure that they are spelled right. We learn that the first born twin is Ochen if a boy, Achen if a girl. The second-born twin is Opiyo, or Apiyo. The children after a twin is Okello, or Akello. (I wonder if there are more twins there than here!) One young man who was given a Muslim name, but was not an active believer, had it changed to a more traditional Acholi name (Okello) so that he would not be always seen as different and outside. One of our host’s nieces has chosen to change her given name to one that is more pleasing to her ear. But if she uses that name when she takes her high school exams, it becomes legal forever after, and nobody will be able to tell that she’s Acholi. This grieves our host.

Physical similarities seem striking as well. I was in despair at the beginning of our stay, with every name an unfamiliar variation on “o” or “a”, and a sea of facial features and skin colors that seemed indistinguishable. It didn’t help that most of the women had hair almost as short as the men’s. I clung to the Christian names, that I could at least remember a little more easily, though I still struggled to match them with faces. Of course individuals became more and more distinct as our time together grew, but it seems likely that physical resemblance is part of the shared genetic pool that comes with geographic separation.

I wonder how people in other parts of Uganda know that somebody is from the north. Do they see striking physical characteristics (for which I had little basis of comparison), or is it the names—or something else? Clearly people are identifiable as Acholi. Castine spoke with me in full righteous indignation about the way people from the north are treated in the south. He spent some time in high school in Kampala and described a system of discrimination, with Acholi students consistently graded lower and punished more severely for similar, or lesser, infractions. He saw it as racism, and fiercely defended the Acholi youth who were mistreated—calling them the best behaved, the most hardworking, the least troublesome.

One way in which people are not the same these days is in their religion, but that is a fairly recent phenomenon, growing out of colonial history. Active, and sometimes fiercely competitive, missionary work by the Catholics, Church of England, and, more recently Pentecostal Christian sects has led to a diverse religious identity. We witnessed deep Christian faith as an integral part of daily life. Almost all the secondary schools are Catholic; the one we worked at is unusual in the region, as it is not affiliated with any denomination. It would wish to be seen as equally welcoming to all religions, but in practice, while not explicitly Catholic or Protestant, it is very Christian. Though we met only one man in Gulu who had been raised Muslim, Islam is more common in other parts of the country. As we traveled east, we saw more mosques and Muslim dress on the street.

The young man who gathered together the group that we spent time with, teaching peer counseling, was very happy to be working with this practice that had no roots in any denomination. Much of the humanitarian work in the north is associated with different religious sects. But with this counseling there could be no reason, based on religion, for anybody to feel more or less ownership, comfort, or identity with the process.

But religion was the exception. The strong sense of shared identity that we witnessed would seem to require strong roots. It was fascinating to read about the history of the people who lived in this region, and discover that there wasn’t even a common language or governance structure till the early 1800’s, and the name Acholi wasn’t used till the 1870’s, when the British were trying to distinguish one group from another. It was only in rubbing up against people whom they were not, i.e., the cattle-herders of the arid northeast, or the tight kingdoms of the south, that these people of the north came to see themselves as having a common identity.

Colonialism was the force that solidified their ethnicity. The British chose one language group in the south to govern, and identified the north as a source of unskilled labor. This set whole groups of people up on very different trajectories and set the stage for political conflicts after independence that became closely aligned with regional/ethnic identity. The high percentage of Acholi men who served in World War II and then the army of the first president has been a critical factor in the fortunes of the north since independence. The current president fought against these forces to win power, each side has seen the other as hostile ever since, and this is a major reason why the civil war has been so intractable. So long as the central government can contain the fighting in the north, with relatively light losses of army troops, and with damage to civilians limited to the Acholi, it hasn’t felt any great urgency to resolve the conflict. So the north has suffered atrocities for decades, and the rest of the country has gone on as normal, happy to consign the north to a hazy and unreal status of “other”.

What must it be like to be marginalized this way, to have your whole experience rendered invisible? No wonder Castine feels isolated, discounted, mistreated. No wonder the sense of ethnic identity has been so strong. The Acholi people understand the concept of oppression. They are passionate about how good they, despite what other people say. And they take a fierce pride in their traditions and culture.

That pride can slip into disparagement of others. When we returned from our trip to the east, where traditional houses are made of poles and dried earth, we heard disparaging remarks about “those people”. Here in the north, we were told, people know how to build houses right. The floors are raised, pounded hard, to the consistency of tile, the exteriors finished. Those people don’t seem to care—they just put up houses any which way. I had to wonder: how can you be proud without having to be better than someone else?

Yet I saw that kind of pride when they danced. Watching the youth at the school, then the young adults, do traditional dancing was a revelation. People we had known in a very western context—well-behaved English-speaking students in a school based on the British colonial model, well-dressed young adults eager to learn what we westerners had to offer—become fully Acholi. They danced to an insistent central drumbeat, men in an outside circle, women inside. They sang, they called out, they drummed, they leapt and stooped and stomped. And they had such a good time. People would get pulled in from the watchers. One person would think of another song/dance they hadn’t done yet, call out the first line, and everyone would join in. They hammed it up at times. They laughed. And they, and everyone who watched, were liberated to be proud and free as a group in a way that we hadn’t seen before, a way that looked very, very good.

Reflecting on Our Experiences in Uganda

As we bump back down the road from hell, headed toward Kampala and the airport, there is plenty of time for reflection. Though we’ve only just touched the surface of this country, we’ve taken in an enormous amount.

There is the role of women. I was shocked when we finally arrived for dinner at a traditional Ugandan home. The women went down on their knees to say hello. I had read something in the paper about a female member of parliament answering the question of whether she still kneeled for her husband, so I had the idea that there was something here, but it sure was unsettling to see it in real life. When I was visiting a pre-school classroom, at the break a beautiful little girl in a what looked to me like a fancy party dress (all the little girls who had one seemed to wear these fancy dresses all the time) came up to me, kneeled and put out her hand. I couldn’t decide if I was more touched or appalled.

In the student and young adult group that we spent time with every day, sharing skills in listening and peer counseling, the women and men seemed to interact with a degree of equality and respect that I found reassuring. But the women were much, much quieter, and when we talked about oppression, it was clear that the idea of equality had not been around long, that they were breaking a new path for their gender. Several of the young men asked me, in private conversations, about our practice of mixed gender pairs exchanging listening time. While they were comfortable doing it with these women, out in the yard in public, they foresaw lots of problems convincing parents and other adults that this could be appropriate behavior. We strategized about what could make such a situation workable—talking with parents beforehand, staying in very public places.

The young women returned abductees who joined the student group from the IDP camps for the final peer counseling workshop that we led, felt inferior and out of place in many ways. They keenly felt their lack of education, their lack of English. Higher education is clearly the driving force behind the changing roles of women. But I wonder how much it was hard for them, with so much experience of brutal gender oppression, just to be in the presence of so many men.

It was good to see our friend Abitimo as a respected female elder. It was good to see effective and committed female teachers. It was good to see women on bikes (though in the minority) and even an occasional woman in the driver’s seat of a motorcycle. Perhaps it was best to see the young women from the camps, though still burdened and limited by many traditional forces, determined to play a role in helping their sisters.

There is education. Formal education is an institution that came in with colonialism, and functions on a very British model. There are “do or die” exams at the end of primary and secondary school that basically determine a person’s future. Universal primary education was mandated in the late 1990’s, an enlightened step that just needs to be undergirded by adequate funding. (We heard of primary schools out in the country where the teachers came for a few hours a day, or just a couple of times a week. What, we wondered, did the children do the rest of the time?) Secondary education is entirely private and beyond the reach of most. Access to university is even more limited. Even the best schools are underfunded, with large classrooms, few resources, and high dependence on rote unison response.

We heard of an innovative experiment in the Karamojong cattle-herding region of the east, where the government was stymied by parents who simply refused to send their children to school. The parents had asked why it was that schooling made their children run away from their homes and made them disrespectful to their elders. Why did children leave primary school apparently lost and incapable of doing anything—unable to construct a house, look after animals, or even make a stool to sit on? (Ian Leggett, Uganda; An Oxfam Country Profile) So the government developed an alternative model that built on local customs and resources, welcomed the whole family, and emphasized interactive participation. I am glad they never experienced the colonial model, and can’t help but applaud these parents for holding out for something more sensible; I wish the rest of the country could imagine such an alternative model.

The Ministry of Education had recently decreed that every school hold elections for student officers, as training in democracy. We witnessed quite a touching “open air campaign’ where seven or eight hundred third through seventh graders gathered in the shade of the school’s two largest trees, enthusiastically waving little branches as earnest boys and girls told why they would be good at playing a role with the library, cleanliness or sports.

There is health and human welfare. We read about and saw signs of a very vigorous national campaign against HIV-AIDS. Rates are said to be steadily dropping—though progress against it has been slowest in the north where investment of all kinds has been hindered by the politics of war. We saw hospitals, big in places, always poor. We saw clumps of people on the grounds waiting and preparing food, sheets hung out to dry, an indication of how much care falls on the families. A westerner in an NGO spoke of the depth of mental illness that had come with the trauma of war in the north. The fact that many people equated such trauma symptoms with possession by evil spirits meant increased stigmatization.

There was evidence in many places of a vigorous hand-washing campaign. I’ve never washed my hands so often in my life, and it occurred to me after a while that the lack of towels was not really a problem. Shaking hands dry was more sustainable than paper, more hygienic than sharing cloth. And eating with your fingers is not a health issue if your hands are clean.

Much of the social service work appears to be done by international NGOs—and that’s certainly true in the north. We heard that the current president is very savvy in courting international lending agencies and managing aid, which forms a significant part of the national budget. One can only hope that some of this investment is bringing value that will last.

Employment is overwhelmingly agrarian, though we heard that there were a few large factories in the south. Heading out of Kampala we saw small cottage and service industries—a row of furniture manufactures, with beds and chairs in all stages from wood to finished products, a row of auto repair shops filled with used parts—all doing business out in front of small shops. In the countryside, the cottage industries changed to charcoal production, brickmaking, papyrus mat-making, and harvesting of grass for thatch—all those goods available for sale along the road. In Gulu there were lots of little communications businesses—offering phone, typing, internet, fax and reproduction services.

Retail can be seen everywhere, from the fast food entrepreneurs at busy highway intersections (any vehicle that slowed down would be mobbed in seconds by vendors of fruit, meat kabobs, fried cassava, ground nuts, and water), to the traditional markets with hundreds of tiny stalls selling local produce, rope and baskets, cheap imported goods, to the general stores with the few packaged products that could be found. The major employers in the north are the NGOs that have moved in to address the humanitarian crisis. We could also see how an institution like UNIFAT school was a significant employer, when you added up the teachers, administrative staff, cooks and cleaners and watchmen, and the full time carpenter and tailor.

There is infrastructure, or lack thereof, which shows the effects of poverty and decades of political tumult since independence (though the last 20 years have allowed some recover in the nation as a whole). The rail system, developed in colonial times, is now largely abandoned. The roads are in terrible shape (though it’s hard to know which is more aggravating—the enormous potholes, or the speed bumps repair crews put up to slow drivers on still-curing surfaces. My reflections are interrupted on the worst stretch of this road. In order to feel like we have some control we start counting speed bumps. We’d be happy to stop at fifty, or even a nice round hundred. But no, there are196 in one stretch of only fifteen or twenty miles.

I wish for public toilets. With such basic infrastructure needs, their absence is not surprising. But the lack of gas stations and convenience stores outside of big cities makes long trips a challenge. We finally learned that you just have to stop at one of the clusters of little brick commercial buildings that dot the side of the road, and ask. Someone will lead you around back, where all the women and children are, past the yard to their latrine.

I’ve noticed my western assumptions around government. Bribery is shocking, as is the lack of traffic control. In the countryside, where there is less traffic, it’s not so big a problem. At one point, where our lane was closed for resurfacing, with tree branches laid across it at short intervals for emphasis, we simply appropriated the on-coming lane, only having to give way once in miles. But on the outskirts of Kampala this evening our lane is blocked by road work, the oncoming traffic is steady, and there is nobody to direct those drivers to give us a turn—I start to seriously wonder if we’ll be there all night.

I think of all the images I’ve taken in during the last three weeks of the traditional jostling with the modern. Gas station attendants in smart uniforms bend over, sweeping the dust with brooms made from a generous handful of dried grass. A well-dressed woman walking down a dirt road greets a male acquaintance with a curtsy; the suitcase on her head stays perfectly balanced. We sit in Abitimo’s living room, chatting with one of her nephews, articulate and self-assured about his work with an NGO in the nearby town of Kitgum. His wife sits quietly on a mat at the doorway with two young children, making no move to be introduced or participate. When the children get restless she pulls out a cell-phone-like toy that makes very loud electronic sounds.

A young boy at a little weekly market of subsistence farmers deep in the countryside proudly shows us the flashlight he has made with a bulb and a battery, and wire wrapped around a stick. The supervisor of the student teacher in the K1 class comes in to observe. She sits by the doorway leafing through a sheaf of official looking papers, the feet of the little baby wrapped on her back sticking out in front on either side. A woman at a communications café in town sits out front working at one of the two manual typewriters there, and nursing a baby. A small boy walks down a long lonely country road with a little plastic water bottle on his head.

Cell phones are everywhere and people are thrilled with this means of being in touch. If most of the country has skipped over the era of land line infrastructure entirely, they have probably saved tons of money. On the other hand, while solar panels seem like a natural, without a dependable electrical grid the battery capacity to store their power becomes a significant financial hurdle. The logic of sharing a resource like computers at internet cafes is inescapable. But the ones in these cafés are excruciatingly slow and hard to navigate; Tim says they’re ten years behind Nicaragua. I wouldn’t hold out the one-computer-per-person model that we seem to be striving for in the US (personally convenient though it is). Rather, I’d lobby for a system of really good internet cafes for everyone.

We’ve seen the gamut of wealth, from the big new houses of the political insiders going up in Kampala to the destitution of the camps in the north. But except for very richest enclaves, there is little that is recognizable by US standards. The very middle class house we lived in has the luxury of electricity and running water, though both go off a lot. Air conditioning seems as far away as the moon. There is no kitchen; food is cooked (by others) on a simple wood-burning brick stove at the other end of the compound. There are no mirrors, no wastebaskets. When I ask where I should throw a piece of paper that I’ve used up completely, I learn that it still has value, as an alternative to toilet paper in the latrine by the kitchen. When we do a day-long peer counseling workshop, nobody can afford to contribute much toward food and there’s no other source of money, so we have big mounds of thick corn-flour mush and boiled beans, eaten with our fingers.

How do we bring our western identity to such a foreign place? In one way it’s salutary to remember that we’re not the center of the world. Reading the Ugandan paper, there is a nod to the US presidential campaign, but British soccer gets more play, and they care much more about their own people and problems than they do about us. At a supermarket in the town of Soroti (the only one we’ve come across), we find sugar-coated cereal from Italy, canned tomatoes from Dubai, Weetabix and digestive biscuits from Britain, silverware from China, local doughnuts, nothing recognizable as from the US.

But it’s so clear that we have more. At the school it’s good to see so many orphans supported by western philanthropies; it’s good that money has been raised to offer lunch. Our picture book donations to the library, however, make me want to gag—so clearly castoffs, and so inappropriate to this place. They’ve been given old computers that nobody’s been able yet to get working. But one teenage girl, who was the recipient of enormous US sympathy and generosity in helping her recover from terrible war-inflicted burns, was given the latest in lap-top computers—while the director, the bursar, and the librarian of the school that scholarships her all manage without. The generosity seems so random, so thoughtless.

We’ve had to think a lot about privilege. Buying dozens of necklaces from the woman with HIV-AIDS that Abitimo knows will help her, and can help leverage more donations for scholarships back home. The certificate we gave to those who completed the peer counseling training would probably be worth nothing at home; here just the US address might leverage some small opening. Toward the end of our visit, people started taking us aside, asking if we can help with their high school or university tuition. The need is so pressing; they would be crazy not to try. (There are many less straightforward strategies; somebody told us with disgust of religious sects that sprout up in order to seek a connection with their counterparts in the west, thinly-disguised entrepreneurial schemes to tap into the flow of dollars.)

It’s been hard. We’re glad that we have no big money to hand out, no careers to dangle. We focus on what they can offer to us—take in their friendship, appreciate their culture, start learning their language, where even the lowliest cleaning lady is the expert. While we’ll continue to raise money for the school, we try to remember that the most valuable thing we can give while we’re here is our friendship. The skills in listening that we offer have real value—and it’s a thrill to see people recognize it—but there’s no money involved.

Almost to Kampala, we come across the bustle of the trading centers at night, with crowds, taxi vans, traffic jams, oil lamps and candles in the more makeshift stalls out front, electricity in the stores behind. They say this night life goes on till 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. It feels very modern, and I’m already nostalgic for the relative agrarian innocence of the north. When we finally arrive at our friends’ place in Kapala, where we stay overnight on our way home, it seems impossibly luxurious compared to what we’ve known for the last three weeks. Then we miss our connection in London and get put up by the airline at a very posh hotel. Now that’s the wealth that westerners are used to; we can tell that we’re almost home.

To the Bone; Reflections on Contrasts upon Returning Home

There is something about sparcity in Northern Uganda that I value. People are of necessity engaging with the basics: “We want to live. We need to forgive. Our people are suffering and we need a better way.” The essential structure of life is exposed.

Would I choose to live this way all the time? Probably not. People whose bones rub against each other without any cushioning are in pain. But, while some cushion helps, is it always better to have more? After all, there can be such a thing as too many cushions. It gets hard to move. Ultimately you suffocate. Obesity has finally come on our country’s radar screen as an issue; how can we address the fat of our material culture as well? How can we become more spare, more able to see and know the value of the basic structures that sustain us? How can we cultivate an ability to discern and delight in what is central and what is enough?

There were many opportunities here to engage with the question of what is most basic to life. A young man in our group probed what I thought pointed to the central weakness of what we were offering. Why would people in the camps want to take time to learn listening skills when what they really need is the capacity to earn a living and get food? Coming well-fed and without food to offer, I felt vulnerable to this question and struggled for a response that would satisfy us both. It’s certainly not the whole answer, I said, and it won’t be for everybody, but maybe you can find the people in the camps who see this need for healing, who can use these skills to help free up space in people’s minds and hearts to think well about those other pressing needs.

It felt pretty lame. But then I remembered being surprised by surveys done years ago in other African countries that had been shattered and impoverished by war. People were asked what they needed most. It seemed like a no-brainer. Food security, You would immediately think, Food security? Economic development? No. They said we need trauma healing. We can’t care about eating, work, the future, if we’re consumed by these demons that have been visited upon us. First we need to be made whole. If these people are to be trusted, then listening from the heart really is at the core of what we have to offer, and what we need.

A wise Ugandan elder had something similar to say. “If we can notice that another human being is there on our side, caring about us, then we can handle these hard situations better, even if we can’t solve them right away. So if you want to help us, think about us and pray for us and love us”, she said. “That’s like having millions of dollars. It doesn’t cost money, but love from you to us could take us a long way.”

I think it works both ways. We need help too. The material poverty of our western culture comes cluttered with televisions and electrical appliances and junk food. Our spiritual poverty grows from the belief that more of the same will fill us up. We find ourselves fat and hungry at the same time. We’re confused, casting around more and more wildly for what will satisfy.

There’s something simpler about being hungry and lean; it’s easier to identify what we’re hungry for; we need food. Bur moreso, we need to love and be loved. We need a life of meaning. It is heartening to find other people in very different places and circumstances who know that they need the same things. One may not come before the other. But when we can keep this spare structure in mind, and remember what we’re really hungry for, we’ll have a better chance of being fed.