Friday, February 23, 2007

A Few Weeks Later

Once again, it's been a while. Sorry!!! The past weeks have been chaotic, and there hasn't been power for several days. The lack of power means that all internet cafes are running on generators and are even less reliable than usual...if that is possible! I have been both busy and relaxed in Gulu. Here, you "hurry up and wait" and then run around like crazy once things fall into place.

Can you believe that this is Joyce? These pictures were taken early last week, and things have changed even more since then. I promised to tell you what I have been doing and how I became involved in her care, and I haven't forgotten...

The first week that I was in Gulu I found myself taking Philomena, a one year old baby to the hospital for severe malnutrition. Her mother, living in one of the IDP camps, was severely depressed and had stopped caring for her child and producing breast milk. I was asked to accompany them to the hospital, in what would become an extended process of connecting mother and child to the appropriate long-term assistance. But this is a different story.

After several hours at the "best hospital in Gulu" (more on this later, too!) we sat outside waiting for multiple test results. Knowing that this could mean another few hours, I went to settle myself under the nearest tree when I saw a familiar face -- Jimmie Briggs!

Jimmie and I met when I was living in Cambridge. He came to Harvard for a brown bag lunch discussion of his book "Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War" and we hit it off immediately. We have been corresponding since. I knew that he would be in Gulu, but I didn't know why, and we hadn't yet connected. Yet here we both were, with small, sick girls in our arms, at the hospital. It is a very small world.

And so I met Joyce. She was accompanied by Ryan , Adam, and Jimmie, who were determined to help her to the best of their ability. They had met her earlier that day with her caregiver, Patrick. We spent the rest of the afternoon waiting for results, singing Acholi children's songs, and talking about the beauty and pain that is Gulu.

Over the next few days, Adam, Jimmie and Ryan committed themselves to Joyce's full and extended care. The problem was, they had to return to the US immediately. I, however, had just arrived. I was committed to working on Schools for Schools,and some personal research, but I didn't have a firm 9-5. I was flexible. I had just been in Arua working on family and community oriented, culturally appropriate psychosocial services. I was also quickly falling in love with Joyce.

So here we are, a couple weeks later. I work with Joyce's family, essentially as a liason to Jimmie, Ryan and Adam. I work with the doctors and nurses, meet with HIV/AIDS NGOs, ensure Joyce's care is up to par, navigate Ugandan culture and health care, and plan with her family for her extended needs (school, clean housing, food, medical services, etc). Oh, and I also play. A lot. Joyce has transformed in the past few weeks, and we color, drum, dress the African baby doll, and somehow communicate despite the fact that I don't speak 3-year old Luo and her English is limited to "baby" and "I am fine". She loves sharpening the colored pencils, playing clapping games, and putting her "baby" to sleep. She is a three year old girl. I hope that as soon as I am back home and have faster internet I can share video clips and pictures that show you this and really introduce you to Joyce. Tragedy does not preclude joy or possibility.

I am so grateful for support I have received from friends who have been here much longer than I -- friends who have known her family, friends who know Uganda. They make this possible. I will be leaving Uganda in less than one month. The thought moves me to tears, but my ultimate goal is to be unnecessary and unneeded. And to return. To visit Joyce.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Dear Friends,

I'm sorry that I have been silent for this past week, since I have been in Gulu. My life has been full and busy, challenging and changed, difficult and filled with immense beauty all in one breath. I struggle to be able to share this with you fully. I will try slowly, as I did before, by sharing small stories. Hopefully, these stories will, over time, paint for you a picture.

To begin, I would like to give to you a story of one child who has stepped into my life. It is my hope that you will hold her, with all the strength and gentleness that you can find within you. Long before I came, others were here, and others knew her. My friend James wrote on his blog last summer about Joyce. His words are eloquent, personal and true and so, to begin Joyce's story, I will quote him. His story is called "Joyce, a war in microcosm". Joyce is just over three years old now, but she should have died before her second birthday. Two years ago...

"the taxi van that she was riding in with her mother and aunt was attacked by LRA soldiers. She is the only survivor.

The van was traveling the rutted dirt road from Pader, where Joyce lives, to Kitgum, where her father is stationed as a soldier in the UPDF, the Ugandan government army. About two miles out of town the van was ambushed. Bullets pinged and thudded into its metal sides and broke through its windows. The driver swerved into the tall grass by the side of the road but the rebel soldiers were ready. They fired into the van mercilessly. Most everyone had been shot before they set flames to the vehicle and watched it burn.

Joyce was still alive inside, and unharmed. Her mother and aunt were not moving, could not save her. She wriggled free from their heavy bodies and escaped the burning taxi. I imagine she screamed as she ran toward the road – tears soaking her vision and terror pumping her small legs.

The rebels saw her. They ran after her, catching the toddler easily and dragging her back to van. Perhaps the inferno was too hot, or maybe they wanted to try something new, but they didn't throw Joyce back into the van. Instead they laid her on the ground and covered her with the brown grass of Uganda's dry season. And they put a match to it.

Flames rose and burned down into the pile of grass, quickly turning the kindling to glowing red embers, and these sinking down to Joyce's smooth young skin. Once again she struggled free. Once again she ran for the road. And once again she was caught, dragged back, and thrown into a flaming pile of grass.

The government army was on its way and the next time Joyce got up to run away the rebels retreated instead of giving chase. Joyce was severely burned over 45% of her body. The muscles of her left arm were charred and useless and the skin of her face was falling away from the bone. The soldiers rushed her to the nearest hospital for first aid. Later she would be transferred to Gulu for a series of surgeries.

Left without her mother, Joyce is cared for by her sister and the women of her village. She looks small for her age, and though noticeably thin she does not seem malnourished. Her scars are thick and dark, swirling like flames up her arms and covering her hands. Her forehead is high and rough from burns, hair coming in small tufts over the top of her head. Scars create a mask of tissue on her face, out which she stares with serendipitous brown eyes. Her manner is quiet, reserved but not fearful, sadly thoughtful.

You might think, after spending some time with the two year old, that she is always contemplating something sad. Perhaps the depth of depravity to which man can fall. Or maybe that is what you contemplate while you watch her.

I asked her father why the rebels had done this, why they would attack a van full of civilians, and why, when a child who can pose no discernable threat to anyone breaks free, would they risk the extra time and effort to see her tortured and killed. His answer was, basically, that is the nature of this war.

Kony and his band of children are notorious for attacking innocent civilians. The victims are abducted or tortured or killed – sometimes all three. And the motivations behind such attacks, and the LRA's continued terrorism in general, are sorely enigmatic. Victims are left to ruminate on the senselessness of their ordeals and the government is stuck trying to fight or make peace with an army that has motivations beyond sane comprehension.

For this reason, among less forgivable ones, the UPDF is often late in heading off attacks like that on Joyce's taxi. When not met head on by the enemy, government forces arrive in time only to clean up the mess that the rebels assuredly leave behind. Joyce, in a somber but important way, is lucky. The army was there to save her life.

Much as Joyce's story is symbolic of this war, it is also predictive of what will continue if the world does not act to end this conflict. The Ugandan government is keenly aware of international attention, and you and your family and your friends and your elected officials can give them the attention necessary to spark decisive action. The wheels of peace are turning in Uganda. All they need is some grease. Be the grease."

Fast forward 8 months. Joyce's father is in a neighboring town with the army. She is cared for by her aunt and some extended family, and a man named Patrick who has vowed to watch over her. Patrick is a pillar of his community, with a story of his own that would shake you to your core. I met Joyce through happenstance or fate, or maybe God...however you choose to believe...when one day I was at the hospital with another sick child. She was accompanied by Patrick and three other gentlemen, to whom I will introduce you shortly. She tested positive for TB and HIV that day, as we all sat in the sun waiting for results and results and more results for these two small beings -- and yet again the world changed.

Joyce has been in the hospital for several days now, and she is getting stronger. I am working on her behalf, as an intermediary of sorts....but more on this soon. For now, love to you all, and (I hope) your love to Joyce.

Surveying the Scene

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

And How Are You?

If you ask the young children here, "How are you?" they will proudly answer "I--am--fine!"

Very often, if you say "Hello!" they will answer, "I--am--fine!"

This is a very fun game.

But friends, I'd like to are YOU????

Send an e-mail or drop a little something in the comment line. I would love it.

The Walk to Water

During my time at Ikafe, two words were repeated more than any others: welcome and water.

From the moment I arrived, it was made clear to me that water was the most pressing concern for all: those in the camp, those living in the surrounding communities, even the staff of the various aid agencies. The water was in short supply, the water was not enough, the water was too far....

In most rural African villages, as elsewhere in the world, it is perfectly normal for people (usually women) to walk to the borehole each day to collect and carry the water back home. Often, women do this twice in a day, as the water must be used for cooking, cleaning, drinking, bathing, growing, and, well, living for the entire family. The borehole is often a social spot, and walks to and from the borehole a time for chatting and catching up with neighbors. This is normal. This is Africa.

But sometimes the borehole is too far. It is generally thought that a walk of under 1 km is an acceptable, normal distance to walk for water. 2 km is just too far. And this is about what the women of Okubani walk each day to water: 2 km there, 2 km back. As you can imagine, this causes a myriad of problems.

When water is too far, basic hygeine often gets ignored. Health drops. Wounds fester.
When water is too far, work does not get done. The walk and wait takes up a significan portion of the day, and other critical tasks aren't completed. This can lead to family stress, and bigger problems at home.
When water is too far, conflict often errupts at the borehole. People fight over limited resources.

And the problem repeated to me over and over and over again by women and men alike?
When water is too far, girls are raped and sexually assaulted.

This one was a shock to me.

It seems that in order to address the serious problems caused by the long walk to water, families started sending their daughters to the well at night, where they could sleep. The young girls would wake at dawn, be among the first to gather water, and be home in time for the day's work to get done (by their mothers), and (usually) to get to school themselves. However, recently, there has been a series of "defilements" at the borehole.

It is probable that a very small percentage of these girls were actually meeting "boyfriends", but in many cases (and I was unable to determine how many there had been) I was told, girls were being raped.

And why? A long walk to water led them to vulnerability and compromised safety.

This has disturbed me for weeks now. I think about it constantly. I have been told that another borehole is not really an is just too dry. It is true: in Okubani, dry, sealed boreholes lay like tombs in plain sight.

A series of community discussions took place in an effort to get families to think of alternative means of collecting water. Perhaps even (!!!) sending men. No longer in Okubani, I can only hope that they find a solution. I am sure that they will. In a place that does not need more pain or problems, rape has deep, long lasting personal and social consequences. One need only speak to a group of child-mothers to get a profound sense of what this means...but that is another post.

I'm in Gulu now, and will probably stay here for some time. There is a lot going on, and a lot to learn here. Still figuring it all out...more soon.

Until then, wishing you all fresh and steady streams of water,


Monday, February 05, 2007


An old friend came back to visit yesterday. Out of nowhere, a poem I heard often as a child started swirling through my mind. I've been thinking of it so much over the past 24 hours that I wanted to share it with you, too.

When I was very young, my rabbi in San Diego would frequently read this during the service. I loved the rhythm and the sound of the words, I remember getting lost in their cadance and song, and somewhere along the way, it embedded itself in my memory and my self. Being here, it has come to mind again. I don't know the name of the poem...I can't remember. And there is a possibility that I have not rewritten it exactly, perfectly correctly. I apologize to Judy Chicago for this in advance.

For today, it is my meditation in northern Uganda. Love to you all, and more soon as I get settled in Gulu.

And the all that has divided us will merge.
And then compassion will be wedded to power.
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind.

And then both men and women will be gentle.
And then both women and men will be strong.

And then no person will be subject to another's will.
And then all will be rich and free and varied.
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many.

And then all will share equally in the earth's abundance.
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old.
And then all will nourish the young.

And then all will cherish life's creatures.
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the earth.
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

-- Judy Chicago

Saturday, February 03, 2007

A Happy Pair

Recipients of TPO's goat project

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Little Humor

Over the past 36 hours, the local mosquitos have been well fed. My forehead looks like a midnight buffet, with no fewer than 23 bites dotted across, from temple to temple. It's super cute.

In real news, I'm hoping to wrap things up here in Kampala, and head north again by Sunday or Monday. I can't wait to get out of the city and back into the towns and villages again. I will keep you posted.

Love to all!


A List

A few days into our training, we broke up into country groups. Those of us fortunate enough to come from stable, peaceful countries sat with classmates from other places: Uganda, Burundi, Egypt, Vietnam, DRC. The nationals of those countries then listed the problems of their home, as associated with current or past conflict and/or catastrophe. I sat with the Ugandans and took their notes. Their list has since become very real to me, as I've seen and heard of most of these problems now myself. The list, the words themselves, though, are seared in my mind. I'd like to share with you what they shared with me. The friends who shared these work in the field, mostly up north, every day. I'm warning you, these are not easy to digest. They are painful, real day-to-day problems. The first set was determined to be the most prevelant and severe, and then after that tehy are no particular order -- and in their words.

Problems of Conflict Areas - Uganda
Ongoing insecurity
Depression and psychological stress
Change of behavior: drugs, alcohol,prostitution, defilement, abuse

Increased school dropout
Loss of traditional values
Early marriage
Early pregnancy
Rejection of many by the community (esp.returned combatants, child mothers)
Lack of activity, despondence

Family disintegration

Loss of life in crossfire
Moral decay

Loss of hope
Loss of property/land

Continued abduction
Interruption of economy, no way to earn a living

What to do?
Try not to get overwhelmed.
Take a deep breath.
One step at a time.
Makes you feel pretty fortunate, doesn't it?