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Youth Action International is a non-governmental organization that uses grassroots techniques to develop and implement programs that help alleviate the suffering of children affected by war or living in difficult circumstances, empower them to reach their full potential, and break cycles of violence and poverty.

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Journey to Uganda – by Heehwa Choi

Heehwa

“Aren’t you nervous?” my dear friend carefully asked me when I told her that I’d be visiting Uganda. That’s how my parents reacted at first. I told myself it is not because Uganda is part of Africa that they are worried for my travel. Traveling to new places is always uncertain to some extent. However, I couldn’t deny that part of me was more worried than usual. What would I see? How would I feel? What should I expect? Am I mature enough? Above all, the question was ‘why would I want to go visit Africa’? I cannot tell Uganda story leaving out the influence of Kimmie and Youth Action International. I actually met Kimmie at Northfield Mount Hermon High School where Kimmie graduated from.  

During the January term I was staying at Smith College then Caroline Henderson, my dear friend asked me if I wanted to go attend Kimmie’s speech at her old High school. I found it a little bit weird to suddenly be sitting among the High school students. However, the stories Kimmie told were something that I’ve never heard about. I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to do something’. To be honest, it was my first time to hear about the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. I wanted to know more about the international efforts to combat the extreme poverties, mal-nutrition, disease, and civil conflicts. However, I started to wish that I could see with my own eyes what is happening on the other side of the globe.  

When I arrived at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda at around 11pm on Friday March 14th 2008, Memory (Regional director, East Africa), Agnes (Country representative), and their friend Junior warmly greeted me. The outside was almost completely dark without much of electricity. In Junior’s car on our way to Memory’s place, for a moment I felt surreal with my open eyes blinking in between my own imagination and the reality that was covered by darkness. Memory told me about the on going projects in Uganda and we also shared little bit of our stories about Northampton because Memory graduated from Mt. Holyoke. 

On the next day, Agnes took me to the Kampala town. I can still clearly recall how chaotic it was. The cars were crowded like puzzles. The left over spaced were filled by Boda Bodas (motorcycles). And it was solely up to your shrewd ability, courage, and luck to cross the roads. Agnes held my hand and led our way avoiding cars from all sides. She wondered what I thought of Africa before I went there. I couldn’t give her a satisfactory answer because I was so confused witnessing what I didn’t imagine. There were huge banners of Samsung cell phones and Coca-Cola. There was also a public campaign banner that said, “Have a small family that fits in a taxi” with a picture of children lined up to hope on to a taxi [a taxi in Uganda is a van that carries 14 people]. I was sitting in one of the taxis, and I had to count how many people would fit into a van-sized taxi.  

On Monday, Memory and I went to Munyonyo, a nice convention and resort center for the closing ceremony of Afro-Arab Youth Conference. Libya President Kadhafi gave a closing speech. It was interesting to see that although the conference was for the youths, many of the delegates were over 30 or even 40. At the conference, there was Youth Action International booth where they sold crafts made by youth in urban slum area where I went to visit the next day.  

Mengo Youth Development Youth was operating in urban slum area in Kisenyi with the close support from Uganda YAI partnership. I went to see a wooden classroom for children in slum area. It was good that the children at least had one classroom to go to learn. However, the little size of the class and the noise from outside as the construction of sort was going on worried me about the quality and effectiveness of the education. Then we went ahead to walk around the residential areas. First thing that hit me in the eyes were piles of the wastes on the ground in and near by the water sewage of sort and a little child climbing out from there. I had to smile even though I was looking at the worrisome environment where they were playing in because he greeted me with his cutest dancing movement. Although residential houses were built one next to another, most of the people lacked physical protections. This made me worried about their security and especially that of women and children. Before leaving, we visited one of the vocational training sights for girls and young women in the slum areas. This training was part of the income-generating project. They were learning how to make school uniforms which they would sell to schools, which I thought was a really good income-generating project. 

On the next morning, I woke up at 4am to prepare myself to leave for Gulu district in Northern Uganda. I almost fell asleep again when Agnes came to pick me up at around 7 with a biggest Avocado I have ever seen. It was also the best Avocado I have ever tasted. Agnes and I took a bus to Gulu at around 10am. On our way, we passed Wakiso, Luwero, Nakisongola, Masindi, and Lira district where Northern Uganda starts. The bus stopped several times in towns so that the passengers could get snacks from outside the window. There were people selling from smoked bananas, groundnuts, cassavas, smoked meat, sweet bananas, up to live chickens. Agnes generously bought me almost everything so that I could taste everything. Cost of the snacks ranged from 500 UGX (70 cents) to 1000 UGX ($1.42).  

We finally arrived in Gulu after almost 7 hours of long and bumpy ride. Under the blinding sunlight, Robert who was with IYEP greeted us. After unpacking our bags at the hotel, we went to IYEP center and met and interviewed few formerly abducted child mothers and child soldiers.  

The next morning, Robert, Agnes, and I visited Pakwelo primary school. This was a public school with 2026 students but only 25 teachers with 7 classrooms. The classroom buildings were of course better than nothing but poorly equipped with crowded student population. Is it okay or fair for these children to have no desks, no shoes, no backpacks, and to skip breakfast and lunch not because they felt like it but because they don’t have any choice? And especially when the civil war created such hardship. They needed so many basic things that I was overwhelmed. What went wrong? How could a civil war be going on for more than 20 years?  

When we went to Attiack that afternoon, we met formerly abducted child soldiers who were operating little businesses such as selling fish and tomatoes. One of them was a carpenter. I wanted to go see their businesses and I became speechless. The fish were covered with flies and the tomatoes that a child mother was selling were as many as to only fill a small basket. Agnes was worried about girls as young as 15 years old getting married. So she talked to the chief of Attiak. He was fine with that. He even said, “What else can they do? There is nothing to do!” I was offended by the fact that the chief would think that it is okay for a young girl to get married at age 15. However, after looking around the market, I’ve realized that there really needs a significant developmental process, hopefully not solely aid based but industrial based one to empower youth. The lack of sufficient infrastructure, energy, and security were depriving many of the basic human rights from these people. But then that night we visited a friend of Agnes. Her baby had a hole in her heart and was missing the anus. When it comes down to the reality, it is a matter of life and death. What could I do for this crying baby? Why was her husband telling her that she couldn’t go to Kampala because his father said no? This looked like a patriarchy to me. On our way back to our hotel, the husband dropped by to see his other wife.  

On the next day, Agnes and I went back to IYEP center to interview more formerly abducted child mothers and youth. Many of the people I have interviewed were abducted in 1996 and escaped in 2001 or 2002 thus missing out their normal childhood as students. Not only that, once they returned to their hometown, they had to deal with the stigma that was put on to them because of what they were forced to do during the abduction. Maybe because of that, many of them were reluctant to share what they were forced to do during the abduction. While Agnes was still interviewing, I was asked to go to a house of another formerly abducted child mother who just gave a birth to her baby to interview her. After taking group photo, I hoped on to the Boda Boda accompanied by Henry, one of the IYEP leaders. We arrived in the middle of the IDP camps [camps for internally displaced people] and visited Rose. She and her baby were living in one of the residential huts. Being curious, I asked her how the housing works for her and she told me that she pays 30,000 UGX (USD 18) rent per month. Then when I asked her how much she usually earn every month from selling used clothes, it was only about 10,000 ~ 20,000 UGX (USD 6 ~ 12). Her oldest child is 7 years old and goes to primary school. She told me that she has a husband but he is not around much. She also commented, “In [northern] Uganda it is women who are supporting the men.” After we finished the last interview, I felt this diminished pressured by the inability to make a gesture that would have given them a little hope. Under these conditions, discussing a long-term development program probably sounded rubbish. Still, feeling a bit of self-contradiction, I went on to express how I felt about the need for energies and industrial development.  

As our last stop we went to meet Rubanga Konya Group, a women’s group started in 2002 to combat the economic challenges from the civil war. Kony Paco means care takers. When there was a lot of instability in the region because of civil war, parents lost their kids to the [Lord Resistance Army Rebels (LRA)] rebels. Some died, some came back but traumatized or injured. So the women came up with this group to provide help to conflict in Northern Uganda by counseling one another and by implementing financial empowerment programs with IYEP. Their biggest challenge was to support education of the children and the place to market their goods such as paper jewelries and fish from their community fishponds. I bought some jewelry from a woman and hoped to find a market in U.S. for these women. The woman gave me a blue necklace and told me it’s a gift for my mother. I thanked her for her kindness.  

Heading back to Kampala the next day, I thought about the past days and became entangled in my feelings of friendship towards wonderful people I’ve met in Northern Uganda, frustration and anger towards their difficult circumstances, and anxiety and needs for a decisive action. I was quite exhausted both physically and mentally so I was really happy to finally reach to Kampala and see Memory again. That night Memory again cooked me a delicious dinner and we cheered over our strawberry juice that tasted a little bit artificial. Before I knew it was time for me to go back to Smith. Despite the rain, on our way to the airport, we managed to buy a big avocado, two boxes of Tammy’s [cereal with fruit chunks], pina colada, and yellow banana for me to bring back to U.S. to preserve my memory in Uganda for a bit longer. At the airport, looking at the photos and videos that I took in the last 9 days, I realized how much I had experienced. As much as I was glad that I started this journey, I now have a greater responsibility to let other people know about what I experienced and to take continuous and effective actions towards the change.