Monday, June 15, 2009

Your Liberation is Bound Up in Mine

“When I go back to that area, I remember those things. I am the only one out of my friends who are left, the rest were killed. I think, why have I survived while the others have perished? God must have a purpose for me to have experienced all that suffering. I must do something with my life.” - Apollo

Apollo, a relative of Dr. Beatrice (the doctor who runs Kairos clinic), has been our companion/tour guide/translator for the time we’ve been here in Gulu so far. He is 20 years old and studying medical technology at the university. His demeanor seems a little serious at first, but he laughs a lot and his laughs are long and drawn out, which in turn cracks the rest of us up. His English is impeccable and extremely proper. We joke that his English is in fact better than ours! He is patient with our questions and speaks openly about his experience growing up during the war in northern Uganda. He tells us about his near escapes from either kidnapping or death at the hands of the LRA (rebel army), not once, not twice, but dozens of times. Once they came to his house, ordered him to sit and not move, but when they were distracted, he ran. They chased him for many miles. He tells us he had to run in a zig-zagged way, since they chased people in a V formation to surround and overtake them. When they capture people they ask them, “Do you want shorts or pants?” If you respond shorts, they will cut off your legs above the knees. If you respond pants, they will cut off your feet. Apollo has only known war for his entire life. It has only been 3 years since there has been peace in northern Uganda. Apollo’s faith in God, grounded in Christianity, has no doubt carried him through his experiences. His quiet conviction reflects his strong belief that he has survived to fulfill a greater purpose: to serve his people.

Two weeks I have been here in Gulu, Uganda. Two weeks, which have felt like an eternity – yes, time has a definite kairos quality to it. To back track a little bit, we arrived on June 1st and for the first 2 days, Apollo took us around town and introduced us to life in Gulu. The town is small and easily accessible. Like most developing countries I’ve been in, the streets are littered with bicycles, motor bikes, chickens, goats, and the occasional cow. But let me tell you about the market, oh the market! The market here is almost as fun as the wet markets in the Philippines. I love the markets! They’re a world in and of themselves! Rice, beans, meat, vegetables, clothes, soap, hammers… you name it, you can find it in the maze of sights, sounds, and smells. The markets are still my favorite places to be when I am in another country because here is the center of life for a community! Here is where people come to buy sustenance, to sell what they have grown in the fields, to haggle over prices, to come together to exchange goods and conversation.
After we got familiar with the center of town, Apollo took us through the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps close by. These camps were established during the war, when the LRA was terrorizing the people in the countryside. The government ordered the people to relocate and organize in these areas, which resulted in cramped living conditions. Disease, unemployment, and alcoholism run rampant in the camps. Now, the problem is that even though there has been 3 years of peace, people do not want to move back to the country. Not only have they grown accustomed to the camps and NGO handouts, the conditions are so dire that they have to start from scratch upon returning to the rural areas. There seems to be no way to escape poverty.

The poverty here in Africa is different than what I have witnessed in other countries. I dare not say it is any better or worse here than in other places, but it is of a different nature. This trip is reminiscent of my trip to the Philippines, where I saw poverty on a large scale in the city amongst the squatters and in the slums and out in the country amongst the farmers. Here, in Africa, the poverty situation is just as terrible, yet they are coming out of a 20 year long war and the physical, mental, and emotional trauma is fresh, if not, still just beneath the surface. The One World mission is to link minority communities abroad, so we are in Gulu to work with the minority Acholi community, who has been the primary targets of the LRA during the war. The Northern region of Uganda suffers from the highest incidence of poverty at an average of 66% over the past 10 years. This is higher than the national average of 46% or the average of other districts. Gulu district registered 11.9% of highest HIV prevalence among pregnant women in 2002, compared with 10.8% for the western region, 8.5% for central region and 6.3% for the east. And in the Northern region, there is an even greater disparity in education as 69% of men are literate compared to 24% of women.

During the first few days, Akeema (the other facilitator) and I conducted the 3 day workshop on leadership, human rights, and social justice (what we were being trained on in DC) for the other One World US participants and local community leaders here in Gulu. We had initially anticipated 6 young leaders from Gulu to attend, but instead 15 people showed up! It was an intense 3 days, but we had so much fun and learned a lot about the situation of the Acholis here on the ground.
Now that the training is over, my internship here has begun. I am working along with the 3 other One World USA young leaders to team up with Kairos Community Health Center and do community outreach in order to educate communities on HIV/AIDS, malaria, family and community health. The structure of our week is as follows:

- Tuesday and Wednesday: meet with community members from 1 parish (multiple villages make up 1 parish) to engage is dialogue and conduct an assessment regarding the community’s challenges. Talk about HIV/AIDS and malaria prevention and treatment.

- Thursday and Friday: venture out into the community to meet with a few families to discuss more about their challenges and assess their income generating projects (usually communal gardens or beekeeping).

- Following Monday: write up our findings in reports.

So far the problems have been the same across the board: people are too poor for mosquito nets to prevent malaria, they do not have access to condoms, water and sanitation create poor health, they need fertilizer for crops and a more accessible water supply, people are too poor to go to the clinic, etc. The goal is for Kairos to use the data we collect to get the resources that the community needs.
In essence, we are attempting to assist these communities in developing. However, in reference to what I wrote about in my previous blog, the vision is to empower communities so that they can subsist on their own without charity. The people suffer from dependency now, since they have been so accustomed to hand-outs from NGOs and non-profits from the time during the war. Now, the NGOs have left since the war is over and the people are left disempowered, unmotivated, and waiting around for help. After assessing the state of these impoverished communities, the real question, first and foremost becomes: How do you empower people to help themselves when they have absolutely nothing to work from??

I will expound on that question in another blog, but currently, I am confronting some fundamental issues on the structure of our work here. Although we are from impacted community ourselves, we (us folks from the US) still come from privilege being from America. Being of color does not, by any means, put us on the same playing field as the people here. We are all very aware that our 1st world status gives us economic and educational privilege. Yet, we are unique in that, for example, both Nadia and Jon, who are both African Americans from the South can claim that black southerners experience poverty and neglect that resembles the discrepancy between the Acholis and the rest of Uganda. I feel a strong connection to this work through my connection to my roots, the struggles of my father’s family, my experience being bi-racial and the daughter of an immigrant, and my previous traveling experiences. I connect the experience of my father’s family growing up in the Philippines, the struggles of Filipinos in the Philippines and in other countries (discrimination, marginalization, domestic violence.. etc), the struggles I’ve witnessed amongst the peoples in other developing communities to my work here. Therefore, this work becomes personal, and as I have travelled and made connections with people living in the Ukraine, Thailand, Nepal, Egypt, and Ecuador – the urgent need to transcend race, ethnicity, religion, nationality to unite on a global front to work for social justice becomes even more pressing. My identity is no longer limited to my family, friends, ethnicity, or nationality – it transcends and includes all those I have connected with in all those places. I am no longer just obligated to care for people in my immediate community, city, or country – I am obligated to work for change that includes all whom I have met along the way and all those whom I have yet to meet and those whom I will never meet. Their struggles are bound up in mine and my liberation can only be found through theirs.
Anyhow, I am feeling highly sensitive to how we are going out our work educating the communities considering our privilege. Basically, our work feels hierarchical. While we emphasize from the beginning One World’s mission to connect minority communities across the globe in order to exchange experiences and empower from the ground up, our job for Kairos is to educate (which I realize naturally is hierarchical in structure to begin with). At first, I felt that, wow, what we are doing, we could just be some random white people from some random NGO doing this work. But we’ve tried to incorporate more community dialogue and emphasize the need for the community to have these meetings on their own in order to brainstorm ways in which they can work together to get the resources they need, instead of waiting around for western NGOs to come and save them.

Basically, what has become problematic for me is that we are telling the communities what they need to do. It is still reminiscent of a top-down process. However, we are aware this is the first time Kairos and the community are doing this type of community outreach and organizing. With that in mind, I know this is going to be a learning process not only for us from the US (since we will need to continuously be aware and sensitive to our own privilege and try to do what we can to NOT reinforce the hierarchy of 1st world “helping” 3rd world paradigm), but also for the community leaders here in Gulu. Although we are only into our first week of work, I am already coming to the conclusion that what is needed is for us to engage in more dialogue with the young leaders in Gulu (who were involved in the training and represent the community), instead of directly with the community themselves. I think that if we can bring in officials to educate the community leaders in micro-credit opportunities, agriculture techniques, community health, etc., then they can disperse that information out to the people.

Although I am feeling that there will be a hierarchy nevertheless and no matter how hard we try, I feel certain that when people come together with genuine selfless intention and a common vision that is grounded in the well-being of everyone, then the hierarchy can be transcended. When the hierarchy is transcended, then all that exists in people is an undeniable and overwhelming feeling that I am not separate from others. And when I am not separate from others then their fate is bound up in mine, not only by the decisions that I make, but by the values that govern my actions and how I choose to use my life.

As Lila Watson said, “If you have come to help me you are wasting my time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us struggle together.”


  1. Thank you for your post Kristen. It was beautifully written and really eye-opening. As i prepare to head off to Haiti in two weeks to teach i am reminded that the key is not to go in and give hand-outs, but rather to work to get to know the community from the inside out and to unite with them in order to guide them to becoming self-sufficient. To 'bind our liberation in theirs' and work as one to see change occur. We will struggle together...and we will succeed...TOGETHER.
    Thank you for what you are doing! You are making a difference in many lives!
    Shannon :)

  2. your insight and reflection shows deep inner growth. i like it! continue to nurture it, for then, your path can be revealed.


  3. "If we can convince ourselves that the poor are poor because of their own shortcomings, particularly moral shortcomings like incontinence and indolence, then we need acknowledge no such responsibility to the poor. Indeed, we can go further and pat ourselves on the back for our generosity in handing out the little that we do, and, of course, we can make our recipients go through all the indignities that mark them as the undeserving objects of our own benevolence."

    --Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 1995.

  4. wow, so well said. i am in an ethics class discussing these exact issues, and i randomly came across your blog. thanks for sharing, i appreciate it!