Thursday, November 09, 2006

Godfrey and I talk about Concerned Parents Assocation

Godfrey and I talk about Concerned Parents Association
Originally uploaded by tomgivemeaning.

I set out on a walk by myself early this morning and met with a few locals and one Italian NGO. I was conscious of the fact that breakfast was waiting for me and so came back to the place I have been staying at within about 20 minutes of starting my walk. After breakfast, I posted my first blog entry (written the night before) and then a small group of the men I'm traveling with (Kent, Mike, John and myself) set out on another walk. Within maybe 10 or 15 minutes, we walked by a place called Concerned Parents Association ("CPA"). As we walked by, I waved at one of the guards at the entrance and he waved back. I decided to walk over and strike up conversation with him.

I met CPA's project coordinator for their Kitgum Welcome Center. A welcome center is a place set up to receive the young men and women who escape from the Lord's Resistance Army (aka "the LRA") and want to reintegrate back into society. These young men and women were abducted from their communities as teenagers (and sometimes younger than 13) and forced into the Lord's Resistance Army. Some have managed to escape and/or have been captured. Now in their late teens or early twenties, they arrive at Welcome centers where they are provided counseling and care; are provided introductions to vocational training; and the centers work to help identify and locate these young people's family members. When family is found, the centers like Concerned Parents Association work with the families and the community to help facilitate the re-introduction of these young people back into their families and into the community.

The CPA was started by a group of parents at a nearby school called St. Mary's who had all 130 of their children abducted by the LRA one night. These parents banded together and started CPA on the hope and faith that their children would come back to them and would need a place where they could return and receive the support they needed before trying to re-integrate back into family and community life. The facilities then got international funding and there are now CPA Welcome centers in some of the key villages in Northern Uganda. Of the 130 children, close to or just over 100 of the children from St. Mary's have returned.

Godfrey's Story
Godfrey, the Kitgum project coordinator was about my age. He spent close to an hour with us and talked to us about the CPA program in Kitgum and in the other villages. Towards the end of our time together, I asked him why he worked here. This is what he told me: When he was a young boy in 1st grade, his father was abducted by the LRA. His father was a teacher and as I understand it, his father was abducted along with the whole class. A year and a half later, his father refused to follow the orders of his abductors so they beat him to what they thought was death. Left for dead, he crawled into the bush, badly beaten but managed to get to a nearby town. Godfrey then told us of being in third grade, two years after his father was abducted and getting pulled out of his classroom and told that his father was alive and that they would be reunited within the week.

Standing in CPA's housing unit (pictured in this blog entry) where five young boys are currently living after recently leaving the bush, and listening to Godfrey tell his own story about being reunited with his father was an amazing testimony to the work that these Welcome centers provide. There are so many other people here serving their communities with similar stories.

Seeing the need first-hand
I have now visited three Welcome centers, all established to serve the young men and women who had been kidnapped and forced to serve the LRA as both child soldiers and for the young girls, "wives" of the soldiers though calling them wives utterly demeans the word.

The Ugandan Government and the Lord's Resistance Army have been holding peace talks, following a cease fire that is now in effect and it is hoped/anticipated that within the next very short while, all the young men and women will be free to leave the bush and begin the process of returning to freedom.

This afternoon, I was in Pader at an "IDP" (Internally Displaced Persons) camp. I met with about 12 young children (the eldest being no older than 18), all of whom had been captured and had later managed to escape. These young people were at a facility run by Christian Counseling Fellowship ("CCF") and yet again, the staff I met were incredible. None of the young people spoke. They didn't need to speak in order to convey the trauma and sadness they carry with them. But one boy who throughout the time we were with him looked straight down at the ground, I caught his eye for a moment and smiled at him. He smiled a very shy smile back. Isaac, one of the coordinators at the camp, spoke about the progress in the children's rehabilitation. There is hope everywhere.

As I currently understand it, it's the job of the Welcome centers to provide often the first psycho-social counseling and services to children leaving the LRA. At all three camps that i have visited so far, they are all in start-up mode.

If the peace agreement is actually put into effect, all of these Welcome centers expect to be at full capacity. From my current understanding, these facilities will be an incredibly important part of ensuring the reintegration of these children back into their families and communities. By no means, a small task.

Unfortunately for Godfrey and the CPA in Kitgum, they have currently lost their funding and most of their staff hasn't been paid in two months. When I came into Godfrey's office, he was working on a funding proposal for being able to accommodate up to 200 people at the Welcome centre, based on the assumption that the peace agreement goes into effect. This could happen within the next 30 to 60 days, and at present time he doesn't have the funding to accommodate this influx, not even the interim operating capital to sustain operations.

A Surprise Phone Call
After an incredibly long day of driving, we got to the local hotel back in Kitgum (which I'm told is occupied almost 100% by visiting NGO staff hang-out). We were having a beer and talking about the day when my Uganda cell phone rang. It was Chris Blattman (one of the two fundraisers raising money for calling from Berkley, California.

I have never met Chris nor Jeannie but I feel like we're old friends. I have talked with them many times in the last few several months as they continue to fundraise at GiveMeaning to help the community of Kitgum. He was calling to introduce me to the local workers here in Kitgum that oversee their project.

It was great to hear from Chris and I want to get both his and Jeannie's opinion about the role of Welcome centers in the psycho-social counseling and rehabilitation process. If you check out their project and their founder profile at GiveMeaning, you will see why I trust their opinion.

I will certainly share more about the Welcome centers as a I learn more about them. One thing that no one's opinion or information will change: My impression of the people working as counselors and coordinators in these centers. They are so totally wonderful, intelligent and dedicated.

On the lighter side
Looking at the comments people have left, I realize that my family has now tuned in to my blog so I want to share some personal stories about the trip: I am sharing a small room with three other men. There are two bunk beds and I am sleeping on one of the top bunks. It's important to keep a mosquito net draped over you when you sleep so the nets run from the ceiling down to the floor. The nets on the top bunks essentially act like our sheets though Kent (on the other top bunk) seems to have more slack with his. So I'm sleeping like a fish caught in a net. Despite this, I had a very comfortable sleep.

Breakfast was great! We had coffee that was grown and picked in Uganda and it was such a good cup of coffee! Toast, beef sausages and fresh eggs all hit the spot. We did A LOT of driving today. To drive from Kitgum to Pader took at least 2 hours each way. There were seven of us packed into one Land Cruiser, driving on totally unpaved roads with massive pot-holes throughout. Driving is the incorrect term to describe the experience. More accurate would be "slaloming" the road. The entire time, we were swerving across the width of the road avoiding as many of the big pot-holes as we could.

When we got to Pader, we were very hungry and decided to eat in town. The restaurant was a tiny room about the size of my office (no not the whole GiveMeaning office, just my little office) and our party of seven filled up the restaurant to capacity. The food was beans and a white "playdo" like substance. It's basically corn flour and water. We had a big chunk of the stuff and a plate of beans and sauce. I was so hungry that I just started ripping off the pieces of corn flour and dipped them in the beans and sauce. None of us finished the corn flour we received (I wish I could remember the name of this stuff ) but I ate about half of that and all my beans.

After lunch in Pader, we drove to a town called Lira Palwo where we visited another IDP camp which was at least 40 minutes maybe even an hour drive from Pader. So today there was A LOT of driving.

It's now 12:32 in the morning here (1:32pm back in Vancouver). Everyone went to bed about an hour ago and if my internal clock wakes me up at around the same time this morning, it means I'll be getting up at around 6am. I do not have regular access to email so please leave comments here on the blog as the best way to get in touch with me. I'll now save this to my word processor and then post it when I get internet access tomorrow morning my time.

There is SO much that happened today that I have not written about that happened today. I want to write it all here but I also realize how long this entry already is. I guess I will start writing separate blog entries about individual parts of my day.

I should end in saying how truly grateful I am to be here. The people I have met have inspired me more than some of my greatest heros and mentors. I get pretty emotional just thinking about visiting Chris & Jeannie's project tomorrow.

This will be the first ever project funded at GiveMeaning that I have actually visited in person. A trend that I want to become a habit, if there is an appetite amongst the GiveMeaning community for the blogs, and media that I'm sharing on the trip.

Chris & Jeannie's project has always been one that I have said is an example of exactly how GiveMeaning works. That I am here in Kitgum and will be seeing their project with my own eyes is just so exciting for me!!!!


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