Saturday, November 11, 2006


Written 9:30pm, November 10th, 2006

My own editors note: This blog starts off as rather depressing / disheartening. Please don't stop reading until you get to the part where I see hope.

I'm thoroughly confused. This is not because I imbibed a lot (though easy to do with beer that costs less than a dollar Canadian per bottle) but because the conversations that I have had tonight reveal a different reality on the ground than I have heard described in the last few days.

What I have been hearing about in the last few days is that it is anticipated that the current peace discussions will soon result in a definitive peace agreement that will see a substantial number of LRA rebels allowed to leave and return to their homes. The peace talks are still very fragile and nothing is definitive.

Furthermore, even despite a broad peace plan between the LRA and the Ugandan Government, many expect that factions of former or current LRA fighters will create their own bandit militias. I worry that if this Peace Agreement is signed, that the perception in the West is that "all is good in Northern Uganda" and donor interest in the area will fade away.

Annexing of Camps
I had the privilege of meeting with and discussing the situation of the IDP camps with some of the larger organizations working on protection in the IDP camps and the stories are disheartening. Earlier in the week, I had been told that it was expected that many people would be leaving the IDP camps to return home to the places where they had left before moving to the camps. In speaking with some of the representatives of the larger aid groups on the ground, I realize that this is only partly true. Yes, some families are being invited/asked to leave the IDP camps but where many of them are returning to are essentially new "annex" camps, meant to simply make room for more people. But these new camps are not actually their homes (ancestrally) and worse yet, there is little to no infrastructure in these new camps. No schools, no latrines, no security, etc. So in fact, the IDP situation might be getting a whole lot worse.

Women's security in the camps
One of the biggest issues in the camps is rape and women's security. Because often the husbands and fathers are leaving sometimes weeks at a time to try and set up their new location, women in these IDP camps are vulnerable to rape. Worse yet, there remains little to no protection against sexual and domestic violence in the camps and the counseling and after-rape "care" often adds more psychologically destructive trauma to the woman. According to the NGO representatives I met with, MSF (Doctors Without Borders) is leading the way in terms of Gender Violence Prevention programs in the camps. They are getting a lot of respect from other NGO representatives that I speak to which is great to hear. As most of you know, we share our offices in Vancouver with MSF and I have a lot of respect for their organization.

Big agencies are leading the way
So where does it get positive? Well, the first bit of good news is that the big name agencies are leading the way. Unicef and IRC are all doing really wonderful work in building usable assessments of each IDP camp and what resources they are missing. If all goes according to plan, this should help all NGO's in the camps better invest aid dollars more efficiently. There seems to be great disparity in the resources available in each camp. For example, one of the camps that I was at today (where I met the young boy in the photo in this blog entry) was swarming with NGO's and yet most of the children under 10 that I met were all not enrolled in school because simply there was no primary school in this particular camp! Then, moving on to Padibe later that day, that camp seemed so much more resourced than the other camp.

So being able to accurately map what's missing from each camp should focus the efforts of the big aid organizations.

And now for something completely different...
The second observation that I must share (and what has become a theme of my blogging on this trip) is the resilience and strength of the human spirit despite tremendous adversity. This is exemplified in the children that I met at the camp where they have no education. They are frustrated and saddened by their inability to receive an education, and yet they hold out hope and do as much as they can to prepare for the day that they return to school.

And I can't talk about the strength of the spirit without talking about religion in Africa. First, a preamble so you know where I am coming from. I know I am not the most powerful person in the world. I know that when two people get together, their collective power is stronger than that of their individual power. This understanding formed my first belief in a "higher power." Today, I have a more spiritual concept of a "power greater than myself" but I do not belong to any religion nor do I pray to a specific god. I do pray and pray often but not in a dogmatic way. It is impossible to be in my position and not feel the need to call upon some higher power to help the people I serve.

In the work that I do as CEO of GiveMeaning, I serve the passions of many faith-based communities. For the people that I serve, their faith in their God drives them to do good. From what I have seen and experienced, their desire to serve has not been rooted in some ulterior political or religious motive. It has purely been to honor their God by serving to the best of their abilities. This isn't to say that such ulterior motives exist in some religious organizations and people. It's just that I haven't seen this in the projects funded through GiveMeaning.

Here in Africa, there is so much faith and worship in a Christian God. Whether an organization is purposefully "faith-based" or not, most every organization will be serving clients who are for the most part themselves Christian. At the beginning of this blog entry, I had promised to share good news after starting with bad news. As uncomfortable as this may be to hear for some of my readers, one of the best things to happen here is the amount of people who believe that their God has a plan and purpose for them.

What creates this hope and happiness?
As controversial as it is for me to say this, I believe a large part of the happiness and hope that I have written about in the past few days comes from the deep faith that many of the people I have visited here have. While on a purely intellectual basis, the statement that faith should cause someone to be happy, should be relatively easy to accept as logical, the very mention of "faith" and religion brings even the most otherwise open-minded people to a complete mental shut-down.

But the purpose of this blog is to share openly share my observations without prejudice and so I share these observations with you.

An understandable proposition
Putting myself in the shoes of many of the people that I have met, I look at it this way: Accepting God believing that by doing so, I will be shown a new life; That god has a plan for me and my future is incredibly desirable. Switching now to my own view of this proposition, I see tremendous concern with this promise.

Want to move a mountain? Pick-up your shovel
On this trip, I was with a young woman (now 18 years old) who had just told a small group of us about her experiences being kidnapped and forced into slave labor in the LRA, including being impregnated with her now 1 year old boy. One of the men in the circle asked to pray for her. As she is Christian, she welcomed this prayer. But in his prayer, his response to her was but to pray for her and for her situation to be improved. This rang hollow and empty for me.

There is that story about a man praying to move a mountain and waking up to find a shovel next to his bed. My point is that prayer itself is not enough to help this woman, to give her the funds she needs to fund vocational training or to buy her drugs to relieve the constant pain she feels from the torture that the LRA inflicted upon her.

And so here's the connecting point:
The Christians from the West that are coming here on mission trips are often humbled by the strength of the faith here in Africa. Many Christians that I have spoken to have said that they came here thinking they were "bringing God to Africa" and left realizing that they were "bringing God back to Canada" or the US or wherever they're from.

So my concern about the promise being made to the people here is in great part addressed by the sheer number of people coming here out of their own desire to serve their God who do their best to live up to this massive promise/expectation implicit in the faith of the people by returning home and raising funds and awareness and support for the communities that they have recently returned from. They are not just praying but feel as though they are being called upon by their God to serve the Christian people in Africa. In Uganda alone, more than 85% of the population is Christian. Eighty-five percent! That so many Westerners are coming here on Mission trips and coming back to their churches and broader communities and taking it upon themselves to raise funds, awareness and resources for their Christian brothers and sisters, how can this be wrong?

What we are talking about
We're not talking about colonial approaches to religion or political persuasian. What we're talking about is people whose suffering is eased by their faith and about people who are humbled by this devotion and are then inspired to help by whatever means they can. We're talking about everything that humanity should be about which in this case happens to be connected by a shared set of beliefs. Nothing more. This is not a blanket endorsement of all faith-based initiatives but a suggestion that those of us who bristle at the very mention of "faith-based" reconsider our prejudices.

For many people I know back home, faith has lost its meaning or been co-opted to describe what is often a political agenda. Here faith is powerful, radiant, calming and beautiful. And this faith - so far - has been everywhere I have been.

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