Week Eight: A Week in the Field in Kitgum

        What a great week! This week, SAFE was running several trainings on land rights and mediation throughout various districts in Northern Uganda. They decided to send me to the trainings in Kitgum, so on Sunday I spent seven hours on the road, heading up to one of Uganda’s northern-most regions. There, I attended four days of training with traditional leaders and elders from the nearby villages. 
        Leading up to this week, I had undertaken a project to measure the impact of these trainings by collaborating with my colleagues to design pre and post-surveys that would measure the participants' knowledge of the material covered both before and after the training. Throughout the week, I attended two different two-day trainings in different parts of Kitgum. At the beginning of both trainings, I distributed the pre-training surveys, tallied their results, and let the facilitators know how they had performed, so that the facilitator would emphasize the areas which needed the most improvement throughout the training. At the end of the training, the participants were asked the same questions again, so that we could measure the impact of these trainings. I am still in the process of analyzing the results, but it was great to see the high level of participation from the traditional leaders. The group stayed late every day that week because there was so much discuss, and so much enthusiasm from the traditional leaders to continue the discussion. They were not just passively getting lectured at a for a few days; they were being very proactive about participating in and shaping the dialogue.
One group of tradiational leaders and village elders as they completed their post-training survey.
        I was also struck by the environment I found myself in in Kitgum. One of the buildings that we were in for the training was a fascinating, sobering place to be, as it was basically a museum dedicated to the victims of the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army. The walls were covered in newspaper clippings about the violence, the victims, and several communities' efforts to rebuild in the aftermath of the conflict. It was of course heartbreaking to read about these devastating stories, but also inspirational to learn just how far this community has come since then. This progress was apparent both in the museum itself, as well as in the training that brought together so many passionate, proactive local leaders.
Just a few of the newspaper clippings on display in the building where one of a trainings took place. The building serves as a museum in memory of the conflict with the LRA.
      Outside of the trainings, I was happy to have an opportunity to explore a new part of Uganda. Kitgum is a charming, small village with lots of lush greenery,  a lively market, great views of the mountains, and peaceful, wide-open dirt roads. This was a welcome change of pace after dealing with Kampala’s chaotic traffic all the time. As fate would have it, I managed to connect with a fellow alumna from Smith College, my alma mater, who is stationed in Kitgum with the Peace Corps, and she was a great resource for me while I was there. Through her help, I connected with many of the locals, met several fellow travelers, and learned new cooking techniques. 
      I was also in for a surprise at just how close I was to a closed border while in Kitgum. One night after having dinner with my friend from Smith, I took a boda back to my guest house and was happily chatting with my driver about his favorite places to go in the area, as he was clearly very fond of Kitgum. It was a gorgeous evening! As I was sailing along on the back of a boda, I was really enjoying watching all the lush greenery sway overhead, while we were bathed in lots of moonlight, and there was a epic lightning storm going on in the distance. I noticed the lightning illuminating a particularly striking mountain on the horizon, and I asked my boda driver if he had ever been there. In my mind, I was already excitedly picturing myself going to climb that mountain that weekend, if possible. However, my boda driver simply laughed at me and said, “No, no madam. That is not Uganda.” “That’s not Uganda?” I asked him. “Where is it then?” “That, madam, is South Sudan.” 
        Although I had of course realized that Kitgum bordered South Sudan before traveling there, until that moment I had not realized just how close I was to the border—close enough to be able to see part of a different country. It is hard to say how much of the current conflict in South Sudan is getting news coverage back in the United States, but violence has been erupting there recently. And although Uganda has historically taken many refugees, the border between Uganda and South Sudan is now closed. Looking at that mountain and thinking about the devastation going on just across the border, while I was  peacefully enjoying a relaxed evening, really impressed on me just how arbitrary the lines are that divide us. 
        After the trainings were complete, I piled back in the car with my colleagues on Friday and prepared to drive back to Kampala. However, because we were going through Gulu along the way, an area that I’ve heard a lot about, I spontaneously asked them to simply drop me off in Gulu so that I could spend the weekend exploring there. Gulu is well-known for being the sight of much of the war with the LRA, and today there are myriad NGOs and missionary groups that have established themselves there in an effort to help rebuild. Over the weekend, I got to spend time with a fellow SAFE employee who works in the Gulu office. She is originally from New York but has now gotten married to a Ugandan and established a real home in Gulu. We cooked together, traveled to a nearby waterfall together, she showed me the hostel she is opening with her husband, and she introduced me to her in-laws. Learning their stories has taught me so much about adapting to life in this area. Perhaps the highlight of the weekend was traveling to Aruu Falls, less than an hour away from Gulu, along with about eight Ugandan women who were traveling there for the first time. There were five waterfalls there, all of them stunning and with great swimming holes at their base. I especially enjoyed getting to see the locals' excitement as they visited this gorgeous part of their country, and really soaked up the experience of hiking and swimming there.
Aruu Falls. Truly stunning waterfalls!
     Overall, I am incredibly thankful to have had the opportunity to visit Kitgum and Gulu, and to be involved in SAFE’s trainings here. This is truly an amazing part of the world, and the people I have met here have really touched me.