Sunrises in Uganda happen suddenly. Here on the equator, dawn is dark, turning pink at the eastern corners at the sky at 6:00, 6:30. Then morning wakes up in a flash of pink light at 6:45. With it comes Ugandan life. The monkeys climb trees back down the hill to campus and the campus cat meows and stretches at my window. The palm trees are a silhouette of morning promise, and one woman at a time, the campus fills with people.
Sometimes nothing else seems to happen in Uganda quickly. When I order smoothies and coffee with the students at the Uganda Studies Program, a study abroad branch of Uganda Christian University, it takes thirty minutes to get our drinks, no matter how busy the canteen. Ugandan students, plumed in pencil skirts and ties, might wander into class twenty minutes after it starts. Hellos and goodbyes, handshakes and bows extend to everyone in the room. We have to drive slowly in Mokono, the city where UCU is based, because so many potholes and ridges and gulleys fracture the road, and so many taxis, Kenyan fuel trucks and boda-boda’s (motorbikes) compete for space. Were I a Ugandan woman, I would navigate all this traffic as I walked from my house with no indoor plumbing to a well, carrying a yellow jug for water. Then I’d wash my clothes by hand, scrubbing one piece at time.
But I am not a Ugandan woman. I’m an American woman, learning how American college students experience Africa over a semester. What I learn is Uganda, and Ugandan people are beautiful, hospitable, and kind. What I learn is that terrible things can happen suddenly in Uganda, and take thirty years to fix. In the American students’ cross cultural practicum class, they debrief the trip they took to Gulu, northern Uganda, the previous weekend. Joseph Kony (remember Kony 2012, and Invisible Children?) warlord of the LRA and self-described messiah, abducted thousands of women and children in this region to be his sex slaves and soldiers. Now those women and children struggle to exist in communities that don’t really want “Kony’s children” or “Kony’s wives” living among them. Helping them exist are organizations like Amani, where women come in to sew Fairtrade products. As they sew, they tell their stories of being abducted at age eight or nine, enduring tortured lives as wives and concubines to to the soldiers, and eventually bearing giving birth to their captors’ children. As the women sew and the students listen, the women create an economic future, and release the demons.
The students also visited organizations like the Recreation Project, created by a Colorado man who had worked in a displacement camp as a psychologist. While there he found his American response and training–“just tell your story”–wasn’t helping the kids get better. So he created a program that would allow kids to experience childhood for the first time. They can ride a zip line, participate in a ropes course, and learn agricultural training. The last is something 80% of Ugandans need to financially survive, but a generation of children were living in the bush as LRA child soldiers when they should have been learning how to farm. The Recreation project tries to teach this to them. The organization also created a parent-child group, where mothers and their child soldiers can learn to talk to each other.
“What about the Women’s Advocacy Network?” the professor asks.
“I was afraid you were going to ask that,” one of the students says with a pained face.
“You mean it gets worse?” I say.
“Oh,” they sigh again.
The Women’s Advocacy Network advocates for women who have been victims of war crimes, and it is made up of some of the most prominent, abused women the LRA abducted and tortured since 1986. When they escape or are set free, their hard lives are not over. They struggle to find work and financial support, often leading them into bad relationships and further abuse. Most would agree with one woman who said, “I’ve endured the worst.” The students can barely speak of the torture these women shared with them.
“All explanations [of suffering] must proceed from a sense of failure,” Denise Ackermann, South African feminist theologian writes in After the Locusts: Letters from a Landscape of Faith. The American students cannot explain LRA violence in Gulu or the suffering they continue to witness in Mokono. One student visits her Compassion child, learning the little girl has sickle cell, and is always sick. Another writes about visiting a child with cerebral palsy, whose father abandoned the mother and three children after the disabled child was born. The boy lies alone on a blanket most of the day while the mother goes looking for food, and hard knot sits in his stomach where the food doesn’t digest. Another student works at an NGO designed to protect street kids. During the election, a local toddler is a victim of child sacrifice, allegedly for peace during the elections.
The students share these stories, perhaps remembering the American lives and supermarkets they are returning to at the end of April, perhaps thinking of their own suffering. “Do you feel more at peace or are your hearts heavier?” the professor asks the students towards the end of class. “Heavier,” one student says. “Kony is still alive, cutting off elephant tusks and selling them.”
“We must remember in order to redeem. Otherwise there will be no justice,” Ackerman writes of her childhood in apartheid South Africa. The American students remember the looks on women’s faces as they recall the terrorism on their bodies; they think of children abandoned by relatives or maimed by disease. I think of Joseph Kony slaughtering elephants to sell to smugglers, and remember photos of white CEOs posing with dead rhinos and lions. Destruction come for us all, but it can feel like it lingers in Africa.
That I traveled to Uganda during Holy Week, a week of so much promise mixed with horror, is not lost on me. I would always prefer to skim over the gospel descriptions of Jesus’ torture and look away from the women lugging their burdens of water and children. If I don’t look, I don’t have to imagine myself under those burdens, that whip, flail, cross, and I don’t have to struggle with the failure of words.
Looking away, however, is how I abandon redemption and justice.
Looking away, however, is how I miss the monkeys tumbling in a tree and the lizard scurrying across my TV cable. The cat’s invitation to scratch her ears. A stranger’s beautiful smile. The whole sky flashing a sudden resurrection pink.