Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Indigenous Healthcare and “Biomedicine” in Uganda

“Biomedicine” is a term used to describe formally recognized medical care that is available in hospitals, clinics and healthcare centers. In Uganda, legitimized by
Science (and the State), it is often characterized as Western or “modern” medicine.

The research I am conducting with the MHIRT team in Eastern and Northern Uganda, has led me to see the problematic nature of using this term, but how alternatives are few.

Because of the legacy of missionary medicine under colonialism and the structural violence inherent to the modern-day public healthcare system in Uganda, biomedicine as a term lends itself as yet another tool in a long history of subjugation in Africa.

To associate biomedicine with hospitals, clinics and formal education is to miss an important fact about indigenous medicine: Indigenous healthcare and biomedicine are not mutually exclusive. They certainly are not two opposite points on the healthcare spectrum (a spectrum that includes Chinese herbal treatments, self-care and Ayurveda). Healthcare, whether one is going to a “witchdoctor” to cure a fertility curse or to the local clinic for free HIV testing, should not be strictly divided into fact or fiction.

For example, rural communities in Uganda have been using the bark from a local tree to treat malaria for decades. Herbalists extracted quinine from this tree or people chewed on the bark to treat malaria infections, which proved to be effective. So before quinine was found in stock at hospitals and clinics (and before people built up a resistance to it), indigenous medicine was the principal public health system in Uganda. To talk of just biomedicine and then indigenous medicine is to place the two on a hierarchal scale where biomedicine is supported by Science while the latter is somehow not.

Today, this gives way to the disconnect between indigenous healthcare providers and biomedical providers. When J. Hanebrink, our program co-coordinator, started her research in southwestern Uganda, she approached her site asking how the two can work together to benefit the community. However, after talking with communities, she found that most members did not want the two to be merged. People enjoyed the freedom they had in choice. If the clinic failed them, they would go to the traditional healer, witchdoctor, herbalist, or bone-setter and vice versa. A merging of the two would limit their agency. And from an outsider’s perspective, the structural violence and inequality inherited from the colonial structure of public health would spill over into indigenous healthcare practices.

So while merging the two would limit agency and choice it does not mean that they cannot and should not inform each other. Right now, part of our team working in northern Uganda is assisting in the development of Hanebrink’s social medicine module. This module will identify all the socio-cultural factors that influence the community’s health-seeking behaviors by “increasing their [biomedical provider’s] cultural competency” so they can “work effectively in cross-cultural situations by improving quality of and access to care in order to improve health outcomes” (Hanebrink 2012).

Community in this way comes first and their socio-cultural experiences as well as economic challenges are incorporated into the education of biomedical providers to illuminate the choices community members make, painting more of a medical syncretic picture rather than one that privileges biomedicine.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

“If I die, I just die:” Health, Structural Violence and Neocolonialism in Eastern Uganda (Part I)

“If I die, I just die,” she said, “feeding is a problem, buying tablets [medicine] for my children … I won’t be able to go to Mbale” – Ugandan woman

I felt my head get heavy. Tears, as they always do in this work, swelled in my eyes and I fought to push them back. I stared at my computer trying to capture the information our translator, Francis*, was sharing with us. You see, this woman’s sentiments are most likely not isolated. She, like hundreds of other women, was expecting free health care for her illnesses and answers to the painful symptoms she was experiencing. A local clinic hosted a screening for women in the community and they’d found “something” during hers and she was referred to the main hospital in Mbale. However, she could not afford a biopsy or even money for transport. She was impoverished and resigned. If she died from not seeking treatment then that was her fate. She could do nothing.

This woman and many other women were looking for a comprehensive health care screening organized for women from the nearest sub-counties, but what did they receive? A hyper-political event that left many of them disappointed, confused and disempowered.

This post is part one of a two part reflection on this health event in Eastern Uganda, but also social commentary on the implications of mass social experiments on vulnerable and marginalized groups. Although this is my personal interpretation of the event, there is evidence (structured interviews, participant and complete observations) that we collected that support these findings.

I arrived in Uganda June 13th for a research training program sponsored by a U.S. university. Our program broadly focuses on health, health disparities, biomedical care, traditional health care practices and the relational gap between the community and public/private health care providers. The research is community-based, but we are here under invitation from a local clinic. They commissioned us to conduct a study and provide a report, and any recommendations, that could bridge the gap between them and the community in an attempt to improve health care and outreach to surrounding populations. Our site locations are in Eastern and Northern Uganda. However, our team this year is mainly focused on a district in Eastern Uganda, in one of the, if not the, poorest regions in the country.

It should come as no surprise, thus, that we are not the only muzungus, or the Swahili word for “white people/foreigners,” doing work here. In our location we met a group of Canadian nurses helping at The Clinic and a group of less than two dozen American service and mission oriented volunteers. The American group was led by a woman who worked and traveled to this region before to assist The Clinic. Although well-intentioned, John Crump and Jeremy Sugarman warned of this type of “help” in their article Ethical Consideration for Short-Term Experiences by Trainees in Global Health:

“In many settings that involve the education and training of clinicians, there can be benefits and burdens for patients’ well-being. On one hand, having students simply paying close attention to these patients may be beneficial. On the other hand, those in training may lack experience in recognizing serious or unfamiliar conditions and skills in performing particular procedures. In resource constrained health care settings, trainees from resource-replete environments may have inflated ideas about the value of their skills and yet may be unfamiliar with syndromic approaches to patient treatment that are common in setting with limited laboratory capacity. These challenges may be compounded by language barriers impending communication, cultural barriers to understanding the meaning of patients’ statements or actions, lack of mutual understanding of training and experience, and the possibility that inexperienced or ill-equipped short-term trainees are given responsibilities beyond their capability. Each of these factors may further compromise patient safety and limit the benefit of service efforts by trainees outside of clinical settings”

It is too soon to truly know if the foreigners working and volunteering at The Clinic have employed these destructive practices, but what we do know is that they did take steps not to allow their volunteers to perform any procedures they were not trained to handle. In instances like this, one feels a sigh of relief. But their presence is still an ethical concern in itself. One volunteer could not even describe why she was there. She had heard about Uganda from her friend’s sister and decided to come. She said they were there to help The Clinic, go to a few schools and do outreach, but that is was mission-oriented and all of this was done through spreading the love of Jesus Christ.

If anyone knows anything about colonialism in Africa, you know the saying, “the bible came before the gun.” This is exactly what happened just a couple weeks after the volunteers arrived with their bibles. History repeats itself terribly well. The gun came in the form of the local MP (the equivalent of a mayor) organizing a cervical cancer screening for the woman in the region (the "health event” I referred to above). Well-intentioned volunteers in this scenario exacerbated the structural violence already associated with the screening.

If anyone would take the time to think about colonialism in Africa and the fierceness in which it destroyed traditions, whole populations, customs, forests, wildlife, and emotionally and psychologically imprinted its devastating ethnocentric and racist ideology on the people, one would think twice about “spreading the love of Jesus Christ.” It has literally been used as a tool of oppression on the continent for the past 500 years. If you are not convinced, please read Curing Their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness by Megan Vaughn which discusses in length “missionary medicine” and its horrific consequences on African peoples and traditions.

But like I said, it is too soon to tell the true effect these volunteers have had on The Clinic. What we do know is that many people from the community do not come to the clinic unless “the white people” are there. This is not only detrimental to their health, but undermines the local staff working there year-round under challenging conditions. Actually, it is even too soon to tell the true effect our team has had on The Clinic. We’ve taken precautionary steps to minimize harm and maximize the positive outcomes of our research not only for The Clinic, but for the community members we’ve come into contact with. We do not come with hidden agendas; we recognize that Uganda is an 80% Christian nation, but that religious syncretism is a relevant and complicated part of people’s lives. We do not come to proselytize, to heal, to save or to continue the culture of dependency normalized under neo-colonial policies and humanitarian intervention.

But we are here. And our presence means something. I am just not sure of the long-term effects. As it stands with the current political and governance authoritarian democracy model in Uganda, not only on the national level, but also on the local level the light at the end of the tunnel is so faint, that it may be a figment of my idealist heart.

So the stage it set dear readers: You have us, health research team, the other muzungus, American and Canadian volunteers, and a poor, rural community that has not had a new public health care center built in the region since the current president came into power in 1986 (more about why later). You have an already over-worked local clinic staff, and then various community leaders along with the MP. The Clinic we are conducting research for is a private one that was started by the MP who is a member of the ruling party in Uganda: The National Resistance Movement (the president’s party). And lastly, you have a three-day cervical cancer screening organized unbeknownst to the American and Canadian volunteers who were basically corralled into supervising it.

Intense and historical power relations are in place for a screening meant for 400 women, in which more show up. But I shall continue this post in my next blog. Just keep in mind, that in a country where the average life span of a woman is around 52, diseases such as HIV, TB, Pelvic Inflammatory Disease and Malaria will affect and kill more people than cervical cancer, if they live long enough to develop cancer. So why have this particular screening in the first place?

Imagine what this screening really means. Imagine its political significance for the MP. Imagine its harm on the women and their community. Imagine its harm on the clinic. Imagine and keep that question in your mind.

*to protect the confidentially of the community and our informants, all names and place-locations have either been omitted or changed

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Reinforcing Power Structures and the White Man’s Burden through Goodwill: A Critique of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 Campaign

In an attempt to address the 21-year conflict and war in northern Uganda, Invisible Children has launched yet again another campaign to raise awareness. This new campaign, “Kony 2012,” is misguided, however and reductionist in approach. Invisible Children (IC), like numerous NGOs, fail to acknowledge their own affiliation and maintenance of power structures, American hegemony, and domination. Through trendy t-shirts, bracelets and symbols, IC sensationalizes the suffering of a community while advocating to alleviate it. They legitimize military intervention as a means to an end and reinforce the “White Man’s Burden” through goodwill and charity.

Because of this and many other reasons I will outline below, I say: something is wrong here. very very wrong.

I feel in taking this position, I have to make clear that YES Joseph Kony, the leader or the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) should be stopped, apprehended and brought to justice (whatever that may look like). However, I will not support IC’s campaign if it means reducing the conflict and people’s lives to an advocacy kit and deadline.

I first traveled to Northern Uganda in 2010 and spent over 5 months living in Gulu conducting research on peace education programs in secondary and primary schools. That experience did not magically change my life, but what it did was give me a unique perspective and insight on this issue. It helped me to see the obvious devastation of 21 years of war, but to also see the way in which people in northern Uganda are living out meaningful and complex lives. Their existence cannot and should not be defined by “Kony 2012” and a shallow understanding of Ugandan history.

Watching this new film by Invisible Children invoked a lot of memories for me. I don’t have the best history with Invisible Children. In 2008-9 I became involved with the Jazz for Justice Project (JfJ) at the Univ. of TN, which organizes concerts and film-screenings to promote peace and reconciliation in northern Uganda. Through JfJ I met a small group of incredible activists who were passionate about what happened and what was still happening there. I joined their campaign called “Educate" which was a response to IC's "Rescue" campaign that promoted selling "I heart the LRA" shirts and encouraged U.S. teenagers and young adults to "abduct" themselves until the U.S. government responded to their proposal on stopping the LRA. We wanted to show how insensitive and well absurd this campaign was, but we were heavily criticized by IC supporters. Eventually my friends arranged meetings with the IC leaders (including Jason) and they discontinued the shirts (to my knowledge) and they changed their website to reflect current developments of the war. By that time, the war had ended in a cease-fire between the LRA and the Ugandan government forces, but IC’s website never indicated that fact. I began to question how fair this was to the people they were claiming to help.

Over the years, I've encountered many IC supporters who still to this day are not educated about the history of the war and the powerful political nature of the war in which anthropologist Sverker Finnstrom called, “a global war even if fought on local grounds.” How does one tell IC and its supporters that this war has international implications and ramifications and cannot simply be summed up in “Kony 2012?” The film will tell you that Kony is not fighting for a cause, but for power and that he is not supported by anyone. This however, is a one-dimensional view of the conflict. The LRA began as a politically oriented group that released a manifesto denouncing the marginalization of the Acholi people by the Uganda government (President Museveni’s government). There is also a substantial amount of proof that Kony had help and was for a time supported by the Sudanese government. To think that Kony maintained this rebel group without support is truly misleading.

How does one explain this to someone who has been moved by IC? How does one say that many Ugandans do not agree with IC’s strategies? What is problematic about calling your supporters “an army of young people?” How does one say that this is not a black and white issue?

So yes, I was skeptical about this new initiative and film. But my mind held out hope that IC had finally taken this constructive criticism, not just by JfJ but by other groups and persons, and applied them. Sadly, I was mistaken. And now their new campaign is seeking to make Joseph Kony “famous.”

How ludicrous.

As I kept watching the video, I began to weep. It was just after Jason said we are “making Kony famous … a household name” that I could not hold back my tears. I cannot begin to explain how insensitive this approach is. Invisible Children’s ideals are rooted in American culture and that culture is hegemonic. The individuals who subscribe to “rescuing or saving African children” take for granted the privilege that they are afforded due to the degradation of the rest of the world. This is evident to me as I see young people subscribing to something that appears benevolent, but that maintains the system that made it possible for this war to go on without international attention.

Over half the film focuses on Jason and his young son. This is a theme in IC’s work, in which they spend far too much time and energy promoting what they have done instead of focusing on the issue. This is not a movement, it is a trend. It inspires people with great myths about changing the world if they could only catch this warlord. And the fact that there is still no mention that there is no war going on in Uganda is absolutely baffling. There is also no mention of the other countries that the LRA has committed atrocities in (the DRC, Southern Sudan and CAR).

IC: These children were never invisible. Their community saw them and continues to see them. You made them invisible so you can say you helped the world to “see” them. That is privilege. It is your American/Western privilege that allows you to assume such things and reconstruct people’s lives on film in a way that glorifies your efforts instead of bring attention to those suffering and those Ugandans working on behalf of peace, justice and healing in their community. The White Man’s Burden is so heavy, isn’t it?

This is not all to say that organizations such as Invisible Children should cease to exist or be dismantled; however, it is to say that in the current context of the world, one has to reevaluate how power is constructed, challenged or transformed in order to create a better world for people like those rebuilding their lives in northern Uganda.

I’ll be returning for the third time to Uganda this summer and the more I travel there the more I learn, but the more questions I have. This is the complexity, the depth the reality that is missing from Invisible Children. Instead of building bridges between communities they are making celebrities of themselves.

So I invite you dear friends to look at the structure, the bigger picture that we are in and ask yourself tough questions about the commodification of charity. Question how consumerism is increasingly made to look altruistic when the former is a primary cause for devastation around the world. Unlike what IC promotes, “Kony 2012” will not “change the nature of our country.” It will only reinforces cultural hegemony and ignorance. We may never be able to get around this structure, but there are better ways to go about advocacy.

Jayanni Webster
Senior, University of Tennessee

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Real and False Militarism in a Society: Peace Education in Acholiland

In 2010, when I traveled to Uganda for the first time, I made sure my expectations were minimal so that when I arrived in Gulu I could take it for what it was and not for what others had told me or for what I had read about. I wanted most to let those who I came into contact with construct and create this world I would soon make my second home What I experienced was the lived realties of people’s daily struggle to return to a sense of normalcy four years after the ceasefire. I observed as the northern Ugandan community made efforts to transition their fragmented past to suit a much more certain and “peaceful” future. For over four months I conducted research on the emergence of peace education initiatives in the districts of Amuru, Kitgum and Gulu. One of the major themes of my work was the real and false militarism in Acholi society. Real militarism refers to the very evident hostilities that exist in post-conflict northern Uganda and false militarism refers to the portrayal of the north as a budding bed of violence with a military-prone population that is largely inaccurate or exaggerated.

Looking at the history of Uganda will reveal that stereotypes were constructed by colonists portraying the Acholi population of northern Uganda as primitive and inferior to the Baganda of central and southern Uganda. To the British the Acholi had little to contribute to the development of the colony besides their service in the military. In the shared memory of the Ugandan people, this has had lasting psychosocial trauma. It has manifested itself along social and political lines with each new government, following independence, deepening not only the stereotypes about the Acholi, but about other ethnic groups as well. The Acholi maintained heavy numbers in the military throughout the 70s and 80s and for the Ugandan collective memory it was the Acholi who perpetrated the atrocities in the Luwero triangle during the early 1980s. It is this un-reconciled event, coupled with colonial stereotypes that have perpetuated the myth that the Achoil are militaristic and violent.

When conflict erupted between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan government, it came as no surprise to the country because the Acholi were always seen as violent. However, this is the sort of false militarism that has unfortunately been forced upon the Acholi identity. Looking at the pre-colonial era, though, will reveal that the Acholi are not historically violent. Even before 1986, there have been no notable rebellions in Acholiland. The only such rebellion that took place was against British colonial rule with a few clan conflicts between the Langi and Teso. Otherwise, they were generally known to be hardworking and hospitable people.

There does exist, however, a level of “real” militarism in Acholiland, but not as a result of some innate primitiveness, but the 21 years of violent insurgency and insecurity in the region. Acholi culture, just like any culture, is ever-changing and fluid; and the conflict has left a distinct impression on Acholi cultural values and norms. Honorable Jacob Oulanya, the Deputy Speaker of Ugandan Parliament, spoke of the war creating a generation that is morally disengaged, saying that nowadays when youth have disagreements they will say “I’ll kill you” rather than “I’ll box you.” This statement is just a small example of how militarization through the LRA insurgency has led to a culture of militarism in Acholiland that was not known before. Children playing with toy army tanks and reenacting battle scenes has been injected into the collective psyche of people in this region. For many who were born in the late 1980’s, war and uncertainty is the most familiar and normal existence they know.

Much is being done to reverse this trend, such as cultural restoration and revival that promotes and reinforces traditional ideas of peace and reconciliation. Peace education, on the other hand, serves as the medium between restoring cultural values and bringing in new strategies to deal with the massive trauma and violence that took place during the war. Instead of in the homestead this type of education will be taught in the schools in hopes that it will emanate throughout the community with the youth acting as change agents. It cannot be effective, however, if themes of positive peace are not incorporated into the lessons making the chances of relapsing into conflict that much more unlikely. There is only so much notions of negative peace can bring to a young person that cannot find work or enroll in school, especially when the next best option is to join a rebel movement against the system that is oppressing and marginalizing them presently.

(originally written: July 21, 2011)

“A Blessing and a Frustration” NGO Presence in Northern Uganda

Many speakers and lecturers for our Anthropology course on peacebuilding and conflict in northern Uganda have made remarks on the massive non-governmental presence in Gulu, Uganda. They tell a similar story of how the war in northern Uganda waged for over 15 years without much international attention and to a great extent without much national coverage. It was only after the United Nations’ head of humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, declared Uganda “the most neglected humanitarian crisis in the world” in 2003 that the international community began to take notice (BCC). By 2005, Gulu district had 264 NGOs in what some would say was the highest concentration of NGOs in Africa. However, even with so much support you will find many local and national officials echo the sentiments of Mr. James Latigo, member of the Grassroots Reconciliation Project, that, “NGOs are a blessing and a frustration.”

Although active fighting ended in the region with the 2006 cease fire between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Uganda People’s Defense Force, conflict still exists. Suffering is lived and relived through the lack of accessible healthcare, inadequate welfare services, and the psychosocial trauma remaining from 21 years of war. Conflict now is made manifest through land wrangles and economic insecurity due to a decade of displacement in internally displaced persons camps. These are all challenges faced presently and in the presence of hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGO) and agencies. Some northern Ugandans who have been shuffled through these organizations find that they speak a “different language” from that of the community. Others however, especially the youth, feel more positively about the NGOs because they offer temporary employment and volunteering opportunities. Civic leaders and elders, though, would warn you of the “fish syndrome” or the dependency of the northern community on aid and assistance from these NGOs.

Today, the number of NGOs and projects has declined as the community moves from that of emergency relief to that of development and recovery. From an outsider’s perspective, I question the very logic behind allowing so many NGOs to operate in the region without consolidating their efforts. There have been documented cases of exploitation by major aid groups and extralegal activities carried out by aid workers. No one captures this more precisely than Swedish anthropologist Sverker Finnstrom: “The muno especially is a rather depersonalized agent, who visits the camps only briefly and seldom engages in any dialogical communication or intersubjective endeavor with the displaced people, nor takes the time to listen to their stories and frustrations” (Living with Bad Surroundings, 2008: 171). He continues by saying that to the Acholi community, visiting foreigners are rarely seen as individuals, but rather as a category of people.

NGOs filled and continue to fill a gap between the government and the community by providing technical, intellectual, financial and material aid. Their resources and access to resources are greatly needed and wanted, but there relationship with the community is one of varying reciprocity and agreement. Because of competition for donor support and funding, NGOs tend to resist working with each other. However, efforts like the Working Group in Gulu which brought together the INGO (international nongovernmental organization) community to compare notes do exist, but this type of system should be extended and required of all civil society and humanitarian agencies. The culture of aid or rather the politics of aid has to be transformed to a more community-friendly model in order for the population to become self-sustaining. Northern Uganda unfortunately is only just one example of a very convoluted system world-wide, but it is my hope that this can be remedied through support for forums like the Working Group, system reformation, and context-specific and accessible services.

(originally written: July 21, 2011)

Colonial Legacies: Understanding Modern Day Conflict and Oppression

The Great Lakes Region of Africa, which includes the countries of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, is said to be an area that not only has an interconnected and shared history, but interlocking and ongoing conflict. A lecturer for our course on conflict and peacebuilding in northern Uganda recognized this when he remarked that all of these countries gained their independence in the late 1950s and 60s. They all experienced massive population movements and were subjected to the redrawing of ethnic boundaries by colonial powers. Rwanda and Burundi were first under German rule but soon were taken over by the French. Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania share a history of British colonization, while the DRC endured through harsh Belgian subjugation. Moses Okello, our lecturer, made certain that we understood that systems of oppression and domination that were established under colonialism gave birth to modern-day conflicts.

The Great Lakes Region has endured through decades of dirty, full scale war and low intensity conflicts. Tensions in Uganda manifested around 1958 as they did in Rwanda with the Hutu Revolution. During that time, the Tutsi were expelled from Rwanda leading them to flee to neighboring Uganda, DRC and Burundi, adding to existing tensions in those countries. Tanzania and Kenya, although direct conflict in those countries did not erupt in 1958, are now facing budding tensions. For national and international actors it is convenient to define and reduce these conflicts as ethnic in origin. It is the most common reason, Moses pointed out, that gets overused in the “native population + settlers + colonialism = ethnic conflict” formula. Although it is true that the redrawing of boundaries by colonial powers led to different ethnic and linguistic communities being resettled and shifted, it is only one dimension to the conflict and oppression taking place today.

Looking more closely at the country of Uganda will show how the colonial policy of “divide and conquer” is a legacy that has held together a system of oppression kept functional by the very people who fought to end foreign control. Lecturer Stella Laloyo, was able to show this through her presentation on Ugandan history. Because the colonizers were able to better identify with the Baganda’s hierarchal system, they saw the group as more civilized and sophisticated than their neighbors to the north such as the Acholi, Langi, Karamajong and Iteso. The Acholi, more specifically, did not have such a defined and centralized monarchy system, but instead had a series of chiefdoms headed by rwodi or kings. The Acholi were viewed as inferior to the Baganda, having little to contribute to the development of the colony. To the British, the Acholi were backwards and their cultural practices primitive making them best suited for military service. The area, thus surrounding the Baganda, in central Uganda, was developed and invested in and still to this day contains the highest concentration of universities and businesses. In contrast, the northern region received its first public university in 2002 with the establishment of Gulu University.

The categorization of the Acholi as militant and violent and the Buganda as educated and civilized merely serves as a backdrop to what is fueling the conflict. The war that took place in northern Uganda from 1986 to 2006 is very much an extension of the five year conflict that was waged in the central region of Luwero. Anthropologist Sverker Finnstrom, after conducting extensive research in the north, concluded that the causes of the war are also political and economic. In addition, colonial rule left Christianity as one of its legacies making the old saying “the gun followed the Bible” that much more true as you begin to uncover the factors contributing to the conflict. The main point from the lectures, is that to understand any conflict in Africa today, one must abandon the rhetoric of ethnic strife and invest in a deeper understanding of the ordering and reordering of power during colonialism. Even further, one must also look at the interrelated histories of these conflicts across international borders like with the countries in the Great Lakes Region. It is here, that those invested can more effectively deconstruct the causes of these conflicts and create solutions for an end.

(originally written: July 21, 2011)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Wa Winye II: The Complexity of Forgiveness

Forgiveness: the process of concluding resentment, indignation or anger as a result of a perceived offence, difference or mistake or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution.

In northern Uganda, the idea of forgiveness has been put on a pedestal as the ultimate path to reconciliation. Since I started learning about this region in 2008, I’ve been told by various religious, political and community leaders that the community, seeing their children abducted to serve as fighters, porters and sex-slaves, wanted amnesty instead of punitive measures for crimes committed while in the bush. It was this popular sentiment that led to the Amnesty Act of 2000, which granted those who came forward and surrendered, a pardon for their role in the LRA insurgency. Because of its selective application, however, the Amnesty Act has been met with much controversy. Top level LRA commanders have received “amnesty certificates” alongside the very children they abducted.

What makes this problematic is that abducted children are placed in the same category of individuals as those that led the rebel movement. Victims thus are treated as perpetrators.

In a strange twist of events these young people (many now in their mid-twenties and older) literally sign a certificate that says they “denounce all rebellion against the government” … a rebellion that they did not start, but were forcibly recruited into. While some actors feel that amnesty is part of the Acholi culture and was initiated by the victims, others have contested this by saying that Amnesty is the government's forgiveness not the community’s and that is was first initiated by religious and political leaders. I have no official stance on this, but the concern that I want to express is at what stage does the government ask for forgiveness from abductees and survivors for failing to protect them?

I’m still working my way through this idea of forgiveness and how applicable it is to the northern Ugandan community in terms of what the community really wants and as a blanket method to resolve an issue that has many different players. The type of forgiveness that I believe the community wants to extend is one that will bring as many abductees back home as possible. However, dozens and dozens of communities have been destroyed by violence perpetrated by the LRA. Thousands of lives have been devastated in horrific physical and psychological ways, making peaceful co-existence that much more difficult or some would say impossible.

This is not to say that there are no punitive judicial methods being sought. There are numerous being pursued, not without their own criticisms though, by the International Criminal Court, the International Crimes Division and at the local level with traditional and transitional justice processes such as Mato Oput, Iluc or Ailuc, and Cayo Cuk.

It may be true that a significant portion of the Acholi community along with other groups such as the Langi and Teso do not regard abducted children as criminals, but it would be reductionist to assume that the whole does not. I have encountered many civil society organizers and workers who’ve suggested very strongly that the community is not ready to receive former soldiers. So if forgiveness and amnesty is not truly coming from the grassroots then the real benefits of its power cannot be harnessed by the public.

I’m a believer that forgiveness can create trust, restore broken human relationships and promote healing.But it is this very tough reality that needs to be confronted before real reconciliation and forgiveness can take place on the community level.

*Wa Winye is “let us agree” in Luo