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July 18, 2012

Gulu, Uganda: a world not so far away-Andreas Nicholas, GlobeMed

by Andreas Nicholas

“Jill & Andreas in their natural habitats” – Photo by Kristina Lai

The last time my project partner Jill and I spoke with our host Pamela Angwech via Skype before leaving the United States, it was surreal to see two visually different backdrops next to each other on screen. We were settled in my architect father’s Danish inspired walnut kitchen in Chicago, and Pam was seated in front of the curtain at the back window of her dining room. Ours was built with design and composition heavily considered and hers was intentionally fluorescently lit to conserve electricity. Despite the contrast, our effortless conversation transcended any feelings of distance or disconnect.

A few days later, we were seated at Pam’s dining table, sharing an incredible meal occupying the “backdrop” that we had originally seen over Skype. To tell you the truth, the adjustment felt almost immediate. It was a homecoming of sorts, and this surprised me. Dinner table discussions and stories that I would normally think of as being worlds away from me felt commonplace and comfortable here.

Despite the sense of comfort in my new home, I’m keenly aware of being in a post-conflict setting for the first time. The closest that I have come to hearing firsthand accounts like this are my grandfather’s World War II stories of escaping from his then Communist-ruled home country, Slovakia. Daily conversation topics range from the current Ugandan political situation and the atrocities that the Lord’s Resistance Army committed to how Pamela knows seven different ways to execute an ambush. Everything is fair game.

I thought this policy to be specific to Pam’s house and to a certain degree, it is.  By and large, however, the people of northern Uganda want to share their stories, even if it is difficult for them. War atrocities are physically, emotionally, and temporally close to these individuals. I think it’s a sense of acceptance and willingness to move forward that makes their stories raw, real, and articulated with a different kind of hope than I encounter in the U.S. The ownership they demonstrate over life circumstances – and their generosity in sharing their stories – is inspiring to say the least.

We have spent the past week interviewing various individuals – some who were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA); others who have been subjected to losing ancestral homes after returning from IDP camps; still others who have suffered abuse from their loved ones.

But the stories never simply stop there. The people that we’ve spoken to who were affected by the LRA speak of their new families and better lives, the land grab victims speak of how community leaders are helping to resolve their conflicts, and the women speak of how their husbands have been changed by women’s rights programs. If people are unhappy with a policy or an issue, more often than not, there is a tendency to take action locally.

I must acknowledge that the people that we have spoken to have all been beneficiaries of Gulu Women’s Economic Development and Globalization (GWED-G) programs and are only a small cross-section of the people living in this region. However, these stories and solutions can be replicated – they represent the power of grassroots change and hope for the future direction of this country.

What the coming years hold for northern Uganda will prove to be very interesting. I am honored to uncover and document this movement of recovery.

Photos and first impressions can be viewed here.

Read more from RISD Maharam Fellows

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