Great quote on Ugandan agency from a Ugandan stakeholder

“The Women of Kireka are the most resilient group of individuals that I know. Spend a day with them and you will wonder how they manage to so calmly describe to you watching their entire families burned alive, their husbands and children hacked to death, in front of them. They do it so calmly, methodically, with such articulate prose that it leaves your soul victimized for it’s privilege. Yet they don’t pause from rolling a perfectly crafted paper bead for a beautiful necklace. They don’t waste their time lamenting the lack of justice for the fallen or the abducted. Why? Because it doesn’t bring back the dead, it doesn’t dissolve the horrific images of their huts burning, or ease the scars borne of running scared into the night.

Instead, they want work and respect and business to be able to make decisions that move their lives along. They want desperately to forget and rebuild anew; thankful for their lives. They want radios and cell phones and grasp at any semblance of normalcy. They cuddle and nurse their newborns like delicate, cherished gifts. What they don’t talk about is justice. They talk about how to forgive and move on.

But I can’t tell you their story. Why? Someone else has taken over their part in this complex saga, simplified it, branded it, packaged it and is reselling it as an Action Kit. For as little as $30 and up to $500, you get your very own pimplicious t-shirt (that was made somewhere other than Uganda or Africa) and various assortments of SWEDOW you won’t care about in a month. But hey! At least you did something…

I am coherent enough to realize when someone is trying to genuinely do good. At the surface, there’s nothing wrong with that. There is something wrong with assuming that the people who you are trying to help 1) need help, 2) want your help, or 3) can’t help themselves. IC and this video assumes all the above. Before anyone says ‘why haven’t you done anything to stop Kony?’, may I point out that it took the world’s most sophisticated army over a decade and billions of dollars to catch Osama bin Laden. Kony has been on the run for 25+ years. On a continent 3 times the size of America. Catching & stopping him is not a priority of immediate concern. You know what is? Finding a bed net so that millions of kids don’t die every day from malaria. How many of you know that more Ugandans died in road accidents last year (2838) than have died in the past 3 years from LRA attacks in whole of central Africa(2400)? We’ve picked our battles and we chose to simply try to live. And the world should be helping us live on our own terms, by respecting our agency to choose which battles to put capacity towards.”

– TMS Ruge, “A Peace of My Mind: Respect My Agency 2012,”

It’s possible that lack of exposure to such trauma, suffering and persons from a different culture may lead one to assume their voice, rather than actually speaking for them. Let’s find ways to respect, partner, and work together with actual people.

I am only posting this short bit via my blog to encourage you to read the much longer article:

Selling Old Newspapers Shouldn’t Be Profitable: Invisible Children and Kony 2012

If someone on the street was selling you an old newspaper, would you buy it?  Okay, let’s move to the 21st century:  if your iPad was only downloading podcasts from six years ago, would you continue your subscription?

Invisible Children - Gulu Office

In 2006 Invisible Children began its campaigns to educate Western audiences via media and marketing about the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony and the LRA. What resulted is millions of dollars in advertising, action kits, and attention intended to benefit the children of northern Uganda. In their latest flick, Kony 2012, Invisible Children continues to sell the stories of night commuters and the overwhelming fear and agony of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as the “real story” of northern Uganda, invoking Western audiences (both rich and rich) to make an effective impact by tweeting the video to their friends, holding Gulu Walks, and raising awareness.

In 2008 I received a university research grant and, partnering with a local university research facility, I began gathering information and interviewing both primary sources as well as secondary sources in northern Uganda on the effects of long-term conflict and camp settlement on internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the north—persons who are forced to flee from their homes as a result of conflict. What resulted was a wakeup call in my research:  much of my intended research was outdated, the LRA threat has greatly diminished since 2006, and the real story that needs to be researched, quantized and talked about is growth and development in a post-conflict northern Uganda, particularly as the Ugandan Peace and Recovery Development Plan (PRDP) continues to fail on its promises of funding.  What does post-conflict economic recovery look like? How can international, national, and local nonprofits and social entrepreneurship be constructive during the transition from aid to development?

Despite my research, degree and opportunities to travel to Uganda, I definitely do not consider myself an expert; there are so many organizations and individuals I know who have been there from the beginning, who can actually speak Acholi and Luo, and who have a much better idea about what “the real story” in northern Uganda looks like today.

But Invisible Children continuing to sell the stories of night commuters and the overwhelming fear and agony of the LRA is the same as selling old newspapers to an ignorant public that may be too busy to realize that the date on their page (or their podcast) is from six years ago.

One blogger made a pretty good analogy to what this looks like in American terms:

I’m going to compare what IC is doing to an analogy that I thought of this past summer when I was Uganda thinking about this issue. Imagine that today you heard about what happened in NYC and Washington DC on September 11, 2001 for the first time. You were shown a video of footage from that day. You saw the planes hit the towers, you heard President Bush’s address, you saw the Pentagon wreckage, you watch in horror as you see people plunge to their death, jumping from the burning towers. Now imagine that you are inspired by this disaster. You want to something to help. What if you went to NYC today, expecting to see piles of rubble to clean up? What if you went, expecting that there would be thousands of people in the streets crying, looking for loved ones? But what would happen when you arrived and discovered that there was none of this, but a whole host of other problems? (

Similar examples can also be found in the delayed timing and results of campaigns against Darfur.

So, why are we getting old newspapers? 

Western audiences know the “African” story already and don’t bother to look at the dates.  We know that in “Africa,” people are poor and helpless and unable to do anything for themselves.  We know that “Africans” are uneducated and trapped in a sea of corruption, unable to escape without the help of foreign rescuers.  These are all assumptions in Western audiences (for more on the source of these assumptions and further illustrations, I would point you to Erik Ritskes’s post: Therefore, watching Invisible Children reminds us of what we already “know,” ignites our guilt and armtwists us into at least doing something, even if it’s just spreading a video across social media (Notes on video specifics found here on How-Matters:

The people who sell the newspapers are likely passionate and well-intentioned, but their good intentions don’t make good results.  As many bloggers criticize Invisible Children, they often welcome in their own criticisms towards young people, the American public, Western civilization, the power of social media, technology, people who don’t like “Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like,” and everyone who does not have a degree or certificate in African Studies. Many essentially criticize that most people (excluding themselves) are just not as well informed as they are. I commend Invisible Children for their efforts to rally young people toward things bigger than themselves. But I’m sure that even those who work for Invisible Children – anyone who has visited Gulu – would be able to attest that the story being sold in Kony 2012 is an old one.  I’m sure that it was someone’s idea to push for the story, thinking that people would give more and then, as they get inspired, they would learn about more of the facts.

However, from a legal and ethical perspective, should selling old newspapers be profitable—particularly for 501(c)3 nonprofits like Invisible Children?  Sure, if celebrities do it, it’s on their dime (note how “successful” Oprah’s African school and other celebrity experimental examples have been) but unfortunately at the expense of beneficiaries. Is it okay that people are induced to funnel money via manipulative marketing and media? I’m pretty sure the answer is a resounding “no.”

As we now move from one Invisible Children movie to the next, the question remains:  when or how will Invisible Children catch people up on what is actually going on?

Do they intend to?

As my newsfeeds have and will continue to flood with Kony 2012, I, for one, am definitely not renewing my subscription.

Do you want a resolution?

I started 2012 just like everyone else – plans failed to go and “do something,” and I found myself in front of my 2-channel TV watching the “year in review.”

My resolution this year is to actually blog. Sure, I thought blogging was being phased out by Twitter and Facebook comments on shared articles. But it seems like blogging is still the only way to express long thoughts and/or rants on what I just read on my Twitter feed.

So there you go, and I’m only a week late.

Happy 2012!

Quick summary:  I am currently in Windhoek, Namibia volunteering with an orphan rehabilitation community center (Family of Hope Services,  In four months, I have gone from teaching a small group of students to now both running the remedial education program for the center and its ambitious birth certificate allocation project.  It’s been such a privilege to get to know so many young people here and learn about what they want, what they hope for, and what drives them; I hope that whatever path I decide to go down in 2012, I will remember their voices, perspectives and stories.

It’s also been a significant personal experience for me as I live as a concealed black American in Katutura, the former black township which means in Oshiherero, “the place where we do not want to stay.” This is where all black people in Windhoek were forcibly moved during the brutal years of apartheid, and where most black people continue to live. Most assume that I am a really educated Namibian and don’t believe I’m American, and through this unintended “disguise” I’ve really been able to learn a lot about the lives that people live here.

After a quick vacation to Botswana, Johannesburg, and Cape Town, I’m back in Windhoek until May 2012.  All the best and more to come!

All the way from Silicon Valley to Southern Africa for this?

Only two teachers were in the office when I walked into the community center this morning. The same two teachers who are always there on time – an older Angolan woman who is certainly the only one here really qualified to teach the kind of children who come to the center, and a young, 20-something Namibian woman hoping that working at the center will be her “big break” for her teaching career.

This morning I walked quickly from the taxi to the office—no stops. I did not stop to see the eyes of all the people at the nearby community health clinic, waiting since daybreak for medicine. I did not stop as I turned the corner near the clinic towards the courtyard of the center, swiftly crossing through the trash and broken bottles of the dusty soccer field where the boys often played football and beat each other. Today, even though two of the children came to greet me, I did not stop to pick up Soneta or give Lazarus a high-five—two of my daily rituals.

No one was in the courtyard this morning, which was somewhat of a surprise to me, but I could hear the noise raging inside the center and the doors hung ominously on the recently broken door frame.

This morning I did not stop as I walked into the midst of the noise of screaming voices, racial/tribal slurs, morning prayers, tattling, and worst of all, the raging teenage drama that waited for me on stage—my morning class of fifteen year old girls who waited to see what would happen today after yesterday’s power battles among each other and mostly with me. Tuyeni, the ringleader of the remedial student girls, was punished yesterday, and today, the girls would either relent in fear of further punishment or band together in the face of discipline—my face.

I did not stop today because I had finally hit a wall.  What was I doing here, teaching students who frankly did not seem to grasp the severity of their circumstances: if they do not pass my exams in November, help us find their birth parents and obtain their birth certificate, and be admitted into formal schools at the beginning of the next term in January, the government will never let them get an education because of their age? What was I doing here, working for an organization that sometimes reminds me of the kind of local organization I once only knew in books, reports and some short stints working at different nonprofits – slow moving, unsustainable, director-driven, volunteer-dependent, and complex in its authority structures, organization and rules on starting school and meetings on time?

I finally left my hideout in the office, just as a few more teachers (the ones who are typically late) finally walked in. What kind of day would it be today? There are three options—Option one:  a day of war with my morning remedial students as we fight for that one ring of power through four and a half hours of natural science, math, English, social studies and more.  Option two: a day of somewhat pity and forgiveness from my students and a slight amount of attention paid to the lessons.  Or Option 3: a day of battling sleeping students, especially one of the orphans whose guardian runs a bar shack (in Oshiwambo, a shabeen) where she lives and most likely did not sleep the night before—particularly if it was the end of the month pay period when the Windhoek Lager flows on every street in both downtown Windhoek and the tin-covered houses of the former black (but still black) township of Katutura.

On the stage sat my students, sitting in their chairs with their books on broken table tops. It was a little colder this morning—most of the students were wearing even more clothes on top of the heaps of clothing they typically wear to hide the smell of infrequent washing.

Tuyeni was sleeping, Johanna was ready, and Tuyenikelao was lost in her own world.  These are Namibia’s “post-millennials”—that generation of teenage-somethings in our country whose leader is Bieber, whose bildungsroman is Twilight, and who came of age with Terrorism, Facebook and Apple with no memory of “that woman, Ms. Lewinsky”  or life before dialup; their Namibian counterparts, however, are ecstatic over Polaroid pictures, Nokia phones, and monthly trips to town to get sweets; who came of age with no memory of the genocide, apartheid, or forced migration to Katutura-“that place where we do not want to stay,” and only saw white foreigners as rich and better only because of the Nalgene bottles and wads of cash they typically carried rather than their skin.

The romantic days of “helping people in Africa” have finally ended, and reality has set in: helping and training young people—particularly the young people who come to our community center—is frustrating, draining, messy and necessary.  It is not glamorous, it is not prestigious, and it is not often high-yielding. It requires sacrifice, demands perseverance, expects humility, involves walking through the mud and dust, and needs a Hope to look towards and live in.

I believe in a God who takes broken people and lifts them up, who makes people new and whole, who carries His children while giving them the strength to carry on, and who defines Love as his own sacrifice and continued mercy for those who never owned boots and could thus never pull themselves up by any sort of straps.  For me this is the foundation of hope that spurs my perseverance, pushing me along in these moments of weakness, and humbling me to serve others while trudging through mud and dust. Call me crazy, but in a world full of hopes, my hope is built on nothing less.

I was five minutes late today.  Time to start today’s lesson.

With love from Lira

Lira is my favorite place in Uganda.  Maybe because I’ve biked up and down every path/road in the town, or maybe it’s because it’s a lot quieter (and less stressful) than Kampala.

The trip took about 4.5 hours from Kampala (which is amazing to me, because it normally takes 7-8 hours).  Why does it take so long? See roadblocks in photo below. I’m sitting in Sankofa Cafe (a new internet cafe started by my friend Brian Davis, in an effort  to employ formerly displaced persons, get to know the community, and provide a space for people to hangout and interact). Finally, a place in Lira with somewhat stable internet.

I’ve interviewed some government officials and have been collecting some survey data. Christmas is a hard time to catch NGO workers who head home for the holidays, but I’ve managed to get what I needed.  After a conversation with IOM, I’m planning on heading up to Gulu for context and also to get whatever data I can.

Things change in the field, and it can be a little frustrating to rethink through my project over and over.  However, it’s great that I am able to understand my research within its context and not just theoretically from Stanford; I hope that this trip will make my research a lot more honest and more accurate.

Time to go back to downloading and reading more pdfs.  More pictures soon.