Who am I to contradict that giant of Jewish legal experts and philosophers, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, or Maimonides of the 12th Century? Well, I think his eight levels of righteousness through giving has to be turned on its head for the 21st Century. Maimonides said that the penultimate act of giving is anonymously to a recipient who does not know the donor – and donor can mean money, food, services, an act of kindness, teaching a skill, etc. Well, this is what most of us do, at least some of the time. You pick a charity that fits your values, type in your credit card number, and hope that the Red Cross builds a shelter for someone deserving in Haiti, UNICEF provides 17.6 children suffering from famine in Chad with 22.8 meals, or Oxfam drills a water well in the Turkana.
Yesterday, returning to the airport in Entebbe, Resty of IsraAID (as well as the volunteer Chairman of the Board and one of the founders of Little Light), asked the driver to drop me off at the Little Light Children’s Center in the Numowongo slum in Kampala for a few hours. Numowongo is one of the two sister slums of Katwe (yes, as in the already critically acclaimed, just released Disney film “The Queen of Katwe”). Resty had arranged for Godfrey, the director, to escort me to the home of Elizabeth, a 7 year old slum dweller girl, whom our family supported last year in school. The cost of support is pathetically small, and I was certainly plenty pleased with myself to chalk one up for charity without having to walk across the slum or Elizabeth having to meet me. In fact, I was much more looking forward to having a cappuccino on one of the beaches near Entebbe, or doing a little gift shopping in the Oweino Market in Kampala, but I was too embarrassed to tell Resty that.
Suffice it to say that walking along the abandoned railroad track, across the mountain of refuse to Elizabeth’s home was infinitely more powerful than pressing return on the keyboard. People often ask me to recommend NGOs for donations. Generally, I say small is better than big, but beyond that I am always hesitant as I see it as completely a personal choice reflecting personal values and resources. Nevertheless, riding the wave of Phiona Mutesi and “the Queen of Katwe” (who unfortunately truly is one in a million), having met most of the staff (most or all of whom live in the Numowongo slum) and students and board members of Little Light, having been there twice, and having met a few of the beneficiaries at their homes….you certainly can be confident that any donation to Little Light Uganda http://www.littlelight.ngo/ is massively needed and will be well used.
Over the last few days I have learned to always carry a sharp knife with me in Acholi land. The students, one or two of the IsraAID staff, and myself have been traveling well outside Gulu town, from village to schools to small family compounds, siting wells. And wherever we go, especially the small family settlements, we are offered guava, oranges, jack fruit, papaya, or cassava. Thumbs up for the first four, but the uncooked cassava to me tastes like what it is, a woody root. And with typhoid especially common lately, I am always insistent on peeling and cutting my own fruit. If it was a couple months later, it would be mangoes galore on offer. I have only encountered generosity wherever we have traveled in the Gulu District.
Wednesday, we traveled through an area where several of the students indicated there had been a large number of camps. I pressed them a bit to get a better sense of what the Camps were like, as I still had scant idea of whether they were tents or barracks or Kakuma-like shoulder high mud brick walls with tin roofs. And where someone would point to an area of tall grass or maize and say that there, in 2005, were 10,000 people, I would see only vegetation.
The common narrative seems to be that when the NRM (National Resistance Movement, the ruling political party of Museveni since 1986…..and no, there being no real opposition here the name is not fitting) could not effectively defeat Joseph Kony and the LRA (generally understood to be a few hundred field commanders and a few thousand child soldiers), Museveni coerced 90+% of the Acholi population into the “Camps”. The UPDF (Ugandan People’s Defense Force) claimed the only way to effectively defend the people was to move them into centralized IDP camps where they could be protected, and in this way the countryside would be more conveniently transformed into a battlefield where Kony and his army could be starved out and quickly defeated. Most Acholi would say that Museveni used the LRA as an excuse to destroy their villages, culture, and economy.
Kony was never caught or defeated. Beginning in 1996, 1.7 million people were moved into the camps. The camps were poorly protected. The actual houses were hastily built versions of the typical circular, mud plastered, thatched Acholi houses….except, over an area where typically a village might have 50 houses widely spaced, in a Camp might stand 1000 houses spaced one next to the other. Food and water were scarce, and work even more so. Alcoholism, sexual violence, child abuse, and all the other problems that occur in IDP camps exploded. Not only was the UPDF of little use in protecting the IDPs, but UPDF soldiers returning from interventions in the Congo brought with them HIV and Ebola. Malaria, cholera, and other diseases were epidemic. The IDP Camps in the Gulu area had one of the highest mortality rates in the world. Beginning in 2005, people started to gradually return to their villages. As camps were vacated, the mud brick walls were toppled, and melted back into the African red clay landscape.
Being here in Uganda with IsraAID, I of course have to send my friends and family New Year's greetings full of health, happiness, and peace. I collided with the Holocaust/Uganda connection again a few nights ago. I had a Tusker (I prefer the Ugandan Nile Specials over the Kenyan beer, but the Tusker was colder) with a Ph.D. candidate from Warsaw, Camilla, who has been here in Acholi Land over the last 6 years. She is exploring the process of reconciliation here in Acholi Land following the 24 years of low grade war during the Joseph Kony and Lord's Resistance Army period. Interestingly, she is comparing the process of reconciliation here in Acholi Land to Poland under the Communists, if I understood correctly. It could have just as easily been a comparison of the Holocaust period had her research occurred 40 or 50 or 60 years earlier when there were more survivors, and I certainly do not yet know her conclusions. But the contrast is striking... in the West, we generally pursue reconciliation through justice and education. Here in Uganda, where there are no memorials to the Idi Amin or Joseph Kony victims, and where very few people will openly or even in confidence speak to me about their personal experiences, the path to reconciliation seems to be forgiveness, or at least forgetting.
Geophysics provides no answers to these complex questions. But what I do know, is that when I am out for a long run in the desert in Turkana or through the bush in Acholi Land, and I suddenly burst into a Turkana family compound or surprise Acholi farmers at work with machetes in their fields, and their immediate expression is that of suspicion, invariably a few words of greeting, Ejoka in Turkana or Itye maber in Acholi, will set off the widest grin imaginable. Of course my poor pronunciation may be part of the source of amusement. But I prefer to think that using a few words of the local language immediately demonstrates an effort to identify with the local community, and to show some respect for people that certainly deserve it. And what more could anyone want from a stranger.