We drove 40 minutes over bumps and holes, through clouds of red dust, deep into Palema. Eventually we turned onto a tiny path through the bushes, but after about 50 feet, the car could go no further and we had to continue on foot. We filed out of the car and were met by 4 smiling young men who shook our hands and instructed us to follow them. After a few minutes we saw what we were headed towards: an acre of beautifully aligned beans nestled between tall grasses and trees.
But this wasn’t the first time these men had met GROW interns. The GROW team from last year had visited these same men and, as a team, decided to set aside funds raised throughout the year to provide this youth group with seeds – the same seeds that will now soon provide them with food and revenue to help sustain their families and continue the work that they do in their group. We spoke with them, standing at the edge of their expansive field and asked them about their lives and their involvement in the group, starting with the over two-decade war that had consumed their lands until just over five years ago.
Here was part of our discussion:
Would you mind speaking of your experience with the war?
Okello David: I was abducted and was in captivity for a period of a year. Unfortunately, when I was there, I didn’t know what was going on back home, so when I returned I found that both of my parents had been killed. So I had to go live with my grandmother and my uncle. Which meant, unfortunately, I couldn’t continue being in school.
Olweny Bosco: When we were young, there was a big camp here where all of us lived. Most of my older brothers were abducted and I lost my parents too. Few of my siblings were able to sneak away from captivity and return. But many of them were disabled – some had arms cut off, some had lower legs cut off. Generally, it was not easy for us to adapt. We had to start thinking as adults when people started coming back home. We had to figure out where to go, because so many people forgot land boundaries – 20 years of being in camps, as children, you don’t remember where your ancestors’ homes are. It’s not very easy. Now we have to be the heads of the households – making sure the younger children are going to school, making sure that they have books, and that they have food. We are children ourselves, but we have to take care of other children as adults.
Mutesa Nelson: I was abducted and was in captivity for 2-3 years. When I came back it was not easy because of the kind of things I had been doing in the bush. It took me a long time to settle with the community again. I would be in the community and see another human being and think, this one would be very good to kill. Because this is how you are trained in the bush – to just go and kill. The LRA abducted all six of my siblings. I am the only one who returned. I don’t think the others are alive, they may be in the Congo, but most people have come back already, and they haven’t. I strongly believe they all are dead. When I came back from the bush, I went into the camp, got married and now I have children that I am taking care of. But there is no stable income to help facilitate the children going to school – this is the biggest challenge I am facing now.
Atybe Nelson: I was born in 1986, and I was born in captivity. But it is too difficult for me to talk about.
Why did you join the group?
Mutesa Nelson: All of us have similar issues. I feel that when we’re in the group, it is the only forum where we can talk about out personal feelings, from the bush, from the family, from the home. This group acts like a counseling session for us. When we’re together we can talk about our past. A friend gives you good advice and at the end you feel relieved. In the community you feel like no one wants to listen. In Northern Uganda, almost everyone went through the same thing, so if I go and tell a community member, “I went through this,” they say, “What are you talking about, we all went through this.” So no one is interested to listening to anyone’s story. So when we come together in this group, we feel very close because we are interested in listening to each others’ stories, even though we all went through difficult things. This group helps us, but we also try to use ourselves to educate the younger children about what happened in the past.
Olweny Bosco: I primarily wanted to come in to help other youth. But I also wanted help myself, because I was living alone and there were issues that I wanted to talk about. I wanted to come together with people in the group and see how we could talk about our problems and how to overcome them. I feel that we have grown from this group and have gotten knowledge from this group – we see the changes in ourselves, our families and the other members of the community who listen to us when we talk to them. We see so many of the youths in our community who are HIV positive and living in denial of their statuses – living recklessly in the community, drinking, dancing, and getting married early. So we try to talk to them and get them to join the group and show them that this is the way we should cope, that we can help each other. Our group has been eye-opening for some of these youths. Beyond support, this group has financial benefits as well; we incorporate agriculture and VSLA in our group, so that when we save our money, at the end of the year, we gather together, open the savings, and see the benefit of being in the group and the ways it has changed our lives.
Okello David: When we were in the bush, we were only trained how to kill. So in our group we have a peace building component. Sometimes we drum and dance and sing, which acts like therapy and relief. Now, in the community, people see us as an example because our lives have changed and we are living differently. Parents will tell their children, don’t you see the son of so-and-so, how he is acting, how he is living? People see us as role models in our community. When there is someone old and needy in our community, we go and dig and plant for him. The people appreciate us. They tell us that we must continue with our work, and that we can’t let it die.
These men have been through unimaginable trauma alongside most of their community members and most Northern Ugandans. But these men are using their experiences to come together and strengthen each other. They are using their collective strength to reach out to their fellow youth, to counsel each other and educate each other and build their communities up from the physical and psychosocial damage done by the war.
The four men were grateful for the education and seeds GWED-G had provided them with GlobeMed’s support. And as we speak, we are discussing how best to continue supporting these amazing men and the work they are doing. In our last question to them – what suggestions would you make to GWED-G to help strengthen your group – Bosco replied that it could be great set up a penpal system between their youth group and the members of GlobeMed so that the bridges made between our two disparate communities can be strengthened. I think this could benefit both the members of the youth group on the ground – to know that there is a group of people across the world interested in their lives and in their work. But it would also benefit our GlobeMed chapter, for every member of GlobeMed should feel a personal connection to the communities we are reaching in Uganda, not just the GROW interns. I hope that our blog posts have been able to give a rough picture of life here and the people we have encountered, but in order to even begin to truly understand the problems faced by these community members affected by a debilitating war and the inspiring ways in which they are recovering, you have to listen to the people themselves.