Surprises and endings in Gulu (for now)

For the past weeks, I have been finishing up my field study, recovered from malaria, visited Kampala, and enjoyed my last time in Gulu (my home away from home). Last Friday, I even went further North to Kitgum and visited the Memory and Peace Documentation Centre. It is the only one of its kind and founded by the Refugee Law Project. It is very interesting to visit as it contains important information on the previous armed conflicts in Uganda as well as a library. I want to thank, Jerry Oyet, for showing us around, explaining everything, and answering all our questions. Most impressive exhibition to me was the one showing a copy of the letter written by Joseph Kony himself. On our way back to Gulu, we stopped at Aruu Falls. A gigantic and beautiful waterfall with a rainbow. It is definitely worth the visit although you must be very careful about when and how you hike down to the bottom of the falls.

Kitgum Memory and Peace Documentation Centre

Letter written by Joseph Kony, the LRA commander in chief

View from the top of Aruu Falls from where we hiked to the bottom.

Aruu Falls, wild and beautiful.

  

I am very satisfied with the results of my 9 weeks in Gulu. I have successfully conducted 30 interviews of 30-90 minutes each with both former abductees and community leaders, professionals from different NGOs, and a district official. I am looking forward to writing the thesis and sharing it with all my friends here, at home, and abroad.

I have a lot of mixed feelings leaving Gulu and all the warm-hearted people, I have been so fortunate to meet here. I cannot give enough thanks to those who welcomed me to their homes, shared their personal stories, hopes, and challenges with me, and to my friends who have made it so hard for me to leave this beautiful country. Lastly, none of this would have been possible without the support and encouragement of my local partners, in particular, Hope and Peace for Humanity as well as People’s Voices for Peace and War Affected Networking and Betty Children Foundation. You inspire me and gives me hope that, together, we can work for a better tomorrow. If anyone wishes to support Hope and Peace for Humanity’s upcoming project which will empower 150 female victims of violence, the Global Giving Platform will boost any contributions made on Wednesday the 20th of June.

Yesterday, my friends from Hope and Peace for Humanity also surprised me with lunch, kind words, a gift and a maize roasting at night. It left me speechless. You are truly the BEST, and I will miss each and every one of you. Now, I am heading off to bounty beaches, drinks, and 2.5 weeks of holidays in Tanzania before going home to Denmark/Sweden.

Roasting of maize on my last night in Gulu

Hope and Peace for Humanity (HPH) family

The End (for now, at least)

My thesis material is collected, all interviews are finished, my backpack is almost full again and my room needs an awful lot of cleaning. It is my last day here in Guwahati before I take the train to Darjeeling and a short vacation before returning home to finish the thesis.

Though I knew the day would come and 10 weeks of MFS seemed like a reasonable time frame, I am still surprised by how fast the time actually passed. As I am packing down my stuff piece by piece I cannot help but thinking “what just happened?!” and I am honestly a bit sad to leave. It has mainly to do with all the amazing people I have met here but it also feels weird to leave all the organizations and power women that have been so helpful to me. I know I cannot change the world but I kind of have this “so what happens now?” feeling about leaving. The organizations will continue their work and I will go home, unable to do much for them from the distance. It is a horribly annoying feeling. The world is full of good causes and organizations working for human rights but seeing the actual work, challenges and victories of the Assamese women’s organizations makes me feel even more attached to exactly these people.

But I am leaving tomorrow and that’s just how it is. After all, I am also looking forward to see friends and family at home again soon. I had a bit of money left from the MFS scholarship so they will now become donations to all the organizations that have helped me writing my thesis. I might be repeating myself but the teams from NEN, PBET, WeDo, FST, NEthing, Yuva and the Jorhat Boat Clinic are probably among the coolest I have met and they are doing a really good job here in Assam. Moreover, this state is just a nice place to be (though the summer heat is getting too much for me now) so I  am pretty sure I will find my way back to visit someday!

See you soon, Assam. Moi tumak bhal pau!

Restlessness, royal ruins and reunions

I did not spend many days in Guwahati after coming back from my last trip before I was on the road again. In fact, I spent much of the second half of May taking sightseeing breaks from my writing and analysis work.

First I headed out for the Green Hub Festival at Tezpur University that screens documentaries about biodiversity in India and short movies made by Green Hub’s film students but also hosts a number of panel debates on environment as well as women’s rights. I attended a seminar on women’s security, watched some amazing movies on biodiversity and nature and spent the night in Okum Guesthouse outside Tezpur. North East Network, one of the organizations I’ve worked with here, runs the guesthouse, which is based in a tribal Mising village among bamboo houses, palm trees and paddy fields. Their veranda is probably the best thesis-writing spot I have yet encountered – writing and drinking tea with a view to woods and wild orchids made me incredibly mindful and productive at the same time.

As for many tribal groups of North East India, the Mising women have a long tradition of weaving. NEN also runs a project in the village with 13 women making handloomed products for the organization and thereby earning a little extra money for their households. I talked to some of them about their work and what it has changed for them and tested my own handlooming skills (or lack of the same) with supervision from the professionals.

Just call this product placement but if you get the chance to visit the Okum Guesthouse (which you should if you’re in India anyway), do take home some beautiful hand-made cushion covers, wall hangings or bags and support a good cause!

The heat has arrived in Assam and I’m suffering. Luckily, my landlord’s driver was kind to take me on a one-day escape to the neighboring hill state of Meghalaya. Meghalaya means something like “the Land of Clouds” and the place perfectly suits this name with its fresh green hills, wet but really enjoyable climate and huge cotton-like clouds rolling down the hill sides and turning everything into a misty wonderland or “Scotland of the East” as the tourist agencies say. Even though the clouds blocked the view to Cheerapunjee’s waterfalls and the Bangladesh border, I still enjoyed a day in the highlands with stunning landscapes and really good company. Binoy, my landlord’s driver is one of the most cheerful people I have met and long-distance road trips are just better when you’re travelling with a good friend.

My lovely neighbor Avishka also took me to Sivasagar, the old capital of the Ahom kings who ruled Assam for hundreds of years untill the British arrived. Sivasagar is a small town but with some very pretty ruins of the old castles and temples. It was a nice little tour and even nicer to meet Avishka’s family.

Sivasagar is only one hour from Jorhat so on my way back to Guwahati, I simply had to pass by the town to meet the people from Purva Bharati Educational Trust and the boat clinic again. I did some follow-up interviews with my participants in my field study but also just enjoyed meeting these inspiring people and their friends and families again! I also took a detour to the Majuli island to visit my “family” there again. If you have read my last post, you will understand why I enjoyed being back so much and why I was very sad to leave them all again knowing that I will probably not go back before some time (what is for sure though is that I can never visit India again without passing by the North East!).

My field study in Assam is coming towards the end and I only have few follow-ups and visits to complete before heading out for some more travelling in India and then home to Denmark/Sweden!

Survivors and Safaris

The 19th of May 2004 was a horrifying day for the people of Lukodi (a village 17 kilometers North of Gulu town). On this day, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) raided the village and carried out a massacre, taking the lives of more than 60 people. 14 years later, Dominic Ongwen is being tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his role in the massacre while survivors request for the government’s assistance to reconstruct their village and rebuild their lives.

Apart from the massacre, Lukodi was one of the villages in Northern Uganda that suffered from persistent attacks by the LRA. Last week, I talked to some of the survivors who also stressed the responsibility of the government to remedy the human rights violations as it failed to protect them from abduction and other atrocities during the armed conflict. One was even abducted from the “protected” IDP camp (i.e. internally displaced persons) while others were abducted from their homes or the school. One thing is for sure, the survivors and their families continue to struggle psychologically, economically, and (at times) socially.

In the weekend, I enjoyed a leisure trip to Murchison National Park and Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. All of the following animals were encountered in their natural habitat and under their conditions: lionesses and lion cubs, hippos, buffalos, crocodiles, elephants, antelopes, a hyena, red monkeys, baboons, warthogs (Pumba), giraffes, vultures, rhinos and much more. It was also a real baby boom to the enjoyment of all of us! Lastly, most of the animals were seen up close at a distance of less than 30 meters. Going on a safari is one of the most expensive things to do in Uganda (as well as other tourist activities) but it is a once in a lifetime experience that is worth every shilling!

Baby Rhino, Madam, born the 26th of August 2017 in Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.

A young elephant (Murchison Falls National Park).

A family of lionesses and their cubs resting in Murchison Falls National Park.

A baby giraffe with its mother (Murchison Falls National Park).

 

 

Mountain Gorillas and Pygmies

Where to start? So much has happened in the past week.

I have continued conducting interviews. This week with three formerly abducted persons, each lasting from 55 to 90 minutes. While the research is going well, and I am setting up more interviews with returnees themselves, what I wish to share today is not related to my research.

In the weekend, I went full-on tourist with Matilda (do you remember her from my last post?). On Friday, we went to the Equator and drove through Lake Mburo National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park on our way to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The highlight of the trip was the tracking of the mountain gorillas which can take up to 8 hours! We were very lucky as:

  1. The weather was amazing (no rain in the rainforest).
  2. It took us just 1,5 hours to find the gorillas, thanks to the amazing guides!
  3. The whole family of 13 gorillas was resting at the same spot.
  4. We found them in open terrain which means that the gorillas sometimes move very close to us when passing.

Within the first five minutes, I was within reachable distance of a young mountain gorilla who felt like passing me and another woman. Of course, you do not touch the animals due to transferrable diseases and safety. The gorillas did not seem to mind us at all! They were resting, eating, playing around, building their nests etc. It was such a breathtaking experience to observe these animals that share 98% of our DNA. After an hour, the silverback rose up and they all left.

After returning to the hotel, we went on a community walk to visit the pygmies of the Batwa community. We danced with them, observed how they traditionally lived, made fire, and hunted. We asked how they felt about being forced to leave their home in the forest in 1991. The elders explained that it was very hard but that they have now managed to adjust to the new way of life and settled in the community. We also visited the nearby school and orphanage for pygmy children. At night, we stayed near Lake Bunyonyi, the second deepest lake in Africa.

On Sunday, we drove back to Kampala and made a small detour at Lake Mburo National Park where we spotted different animals including zebras, gazelles, and warthogs (aka. Pumba!).

Standing on both hemispheres at the Equator.

Zebra at Lake Mburo National Park

Elephant at Queen Elizabeth National Park

Tracking the mountain gorillas in the beautiful rainforest of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

A mother and her baby at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

A young mountain gorilla swinging in the trees of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

The silverback resting (Bwindi Impenetrable Forest)

A pygmy and elder of the Batwa community (Bwindi Impenetrable National Park) in front of their traditional house. The pygmies were forced out of the forest in 1991 as hunting became illegal. They had to find new means of survival and adjust to the life outside the forest. Today, some of their kids have intermarried but the elders still remember the life in the forest where they grew up.

The beauty of Western Uganda cannot be underestimated. It was breathtaking.

The view from our balcony in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Our accommodation at Lake Bunyonyi where we went canoeing in the morning. The lake is the second deepest in Africa with its 900 meters. Still, it is located in the mountains 1962 meters above the sea level.

Follow this link for more pictures and videos of the mountain gorillas.

Where to begin? Covering three weeks in one post

I know, I know, I have been quiet recently. Actually, it is not because I am lazy – believe it or not – or because nothing happened. On the contrary, a lot happened and the past weeks have included lots of interesting and inspiring interviews, the classic traveller’s stomach problems, six-hours train rides and bum-hurting tuktuk rides on a muddy river island.

So, how do I cover all this in one single blog post? The easy solution: I don’t 😉 After the bihu festivities, the rest of April mainly went with conducting interviews and transcribing so these days I will just mention quickly. The women activists I have met here are all very informative and willing to talk and I have found a very diverse group of participants spanning from the well-educated middle class lady to the village woman who has seen too much violence and torture during the past decades’ insurgencies in Assam. They have all been incredibly open to talk to me so the past weeks have been busy but effective.

But now, after conducting my interviews and half of the transcriptions, it is time for the fun stuff! The past days I have spent outside my safe base in Guwahati more specifically, in Jorhat in Upper Assam, where I first was introduced to one of the coolest ladies I have met and her organization Purva Bharati Educational Trust (PBET) and later, visited a tea garden and got to meet the strong activists of the local adivasi women’s association. Besides interesting stories, the tea garden visit also included stunning views over green fields and a long-awaited tranquility after one month in bustling Guwahati.

Meeting with adivasi women’s activists in a tea garden

Momos (dumblings) with some of the PBET people

In the weekend, I went to Majuli – a small, but nevertheless Asia’s biggest, river island in the mighty Brahmaputra. The island is famous for its satras (monasteries for monks following the Vaishnavite branch of Hindu religion). One of my participants told me about this form of Hinduism in the interview so I was very excited for experiencing the culture that, according to her, created a more liberal caste system and better living conditions for women in Assam (I have my thoughts about the caste system, including the Assamese, but I will leave that discussion out of the blog).

After arriving on the island, I soon discovered that exploring Majuli and the satras is just easier with your own vehicle and a local guide as both public transport and English-speakers are scarce. However, I tried to make the most of it by hitching a ride on all possible vehicles – scooters, cars and tractors – to make it to the first satra (I also accidently paid 200 rupees for a ride but luckily most people were too nice to take advantage of a confused tourist, who did not do her research before going).

Majuli landscapes

Satra prayer house

My whole trip changed completely when I was on my way back from visiting the first satra, out of the five I planned to, and a car stopped right by my side. The door was opened and a father, mother and two children gestured at me to make me get in. Few minutes later I found myself drinking tea in the family’s home and desperately trying to understand Assamese chit-chat from the cutest 4-year-old boy, who did not seem to care about my limited vocabulary and confused sign language.

I spent the rest of the weekend with Prasanta and Banalata and their children. After knowing me for approximately one hour, they offered me to stay in their house and show me around the island. Prasanta took me to three more satras and a tribal Mishing village, where one of his friends invited for spicy but delicious lunch and home-made rice beer. I also had the pleasure of meeting Prasanta and Banalata’s neighbors and drinking endless amounts of tea. I was really sad to leave Majuli after just two days but back in Jorhat, the reunion with Smita, Arup and Sinumoni from the awesome PBET crew (and some more rice beer) cheered me up.

Beautiful wetlands on Majuli

My sweet sweet Majuli hosts

Tribal bamboo houses

Masks for paunas (religious Hindu dramas)

I think it is safe to say that the hospitality and helpfulness of Assamese people is the most overwhelming and heart-warming I have experienced yet. Everybody has welcomed me like a member of their own family and shared their home, their food and lots of smiles with me. I am already planning another trip to Jorhat and Majuli just to meet these treasures again and I STRONGLY recommend everyone travelling to India to make a trip to the North East! I simply don’t have enough words for expressing how good the Assamese people have been to me.

Cheers in home-made rice beer!

Reunion in Jinja!

In the past week, I have worked on transcribing my interviews and met with YOLRED (Youth Leaders for Restoration and Development – an initiative founded by former abductees and others who were affected by the war to support youth).

I went to Jinja last Friday. The journey started with a canceled bus at 8 AM and a one-hour delayed post bus from Gulu to Kampala. The trip was quite long (7 hours) as the bus stops several times on route. In Kampala, I changed to a matatu (the shared taxis) to Jinja with the help of the brother of my contact. The drive was … interesting. There are at least 15-20 persons in the car with all their luggage (be it bags of corn, rice, weekend bags). After dark, much rain, and delays due to queues, our driver decided to drive off-road – against traffic! After 3.5 hours, I finally arrived in Jinja where Matilda picked me up. Matilda and I met at the MFS preparation course in Hӓrnӧsand. It was so much fun to reunite in Uganda. On Saturday, we went river rafting, sightseeing in town, and had a delicious dinner right next to the Nile. Unfortunately, I had to go back already on Sunday morning to reach the last afternoon bus to Gulu which leaves at 1 PM. After the experience with the matatu on Friday, I decided to go with a safer, more comfortable, and expensive option: The Pineapple Express. I can only recommend it. We arrived in just 2.5 hours and that included a stop at the bank. The service is a hire car and driver, which takes you from point A to B with whatever stops you desire (hence, the higher cost).

This time, I will be back in Gulu for just three days as Matilda and I are going to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to track the gorillas. I am so excited!

The first rapid aka. a four-meter waterfall

The boat actually did not flip but 50 % of the crew went for a swim

On our way to the rafting site in an open truck

Monkey on one of the main roads in Jinja

Local artist in Jinja

The Nile (Jinja)

African Time….

This past week has been very busy and productive thanks to my local contact. It is just the second week of my field study, but I have already managed to conduct several interviews with both community leaders, professionals working in psycho-social care, and state officials. Last week one of the interviewees included a bishop from the district who is seen as a hero around here. He is one of the religious leaders that have taken a very active role in promoting reconciliation and aiding the reintegration process. I have even interviewed three formerly abducted persons about their experiences of return. While I am quite happy with the results, some challenges remain. First, African time is both a blessing and a challenge. I love not scheduling my whole day which makes me feel less stressed than usual. At the same time, calling interviewees at the time of our meeting to find that they cannot make it or are several hours late is not my favorite way to spend my time. Secondly, the day I was interviewing former abductees, my interpreter got sick (he is feeling better now!). Thus, I had to make use of another guy from one of our partner’s office. It was my first time doing interviews with the use of an interpreter and I am not sure whether I am fully satisfied with the translation. I, at least, felt like some details might be missing. The solution is that my interpreter will go through the recordings and transcription this week.

In the evenings, I had dinner with the founders of Gulu War Affected Training Center and Backup Uganda. Both were a very pleasant experience that must be repeated soon. On Saturday, I went out with my roomies and some friends to the restaurant O’ café for the Open Mic Night. We had Rolex (a wrap with eggs), some drinks, and enjoyed the dances, music, and spoken word performance. It is a biweekly event that is also used as a venue for raising funds to cover the medical bills of some local beneficiaries.

Now, I am looking much forward to tomorrow’s Labor Day celebrations and to visit my friend from the preparation course in Hӓrnӧsand, Matilda, who is doing her field study in Jinja. I am keeping my fingers crossed for good weather, so we can go river rafting and cruise the Nile.

Traditional huts and preparation of sim sim and millet (among others)

Delicious Ethiopian food at Abyssinia (highly recommendable!)

Laundry day in Uganda

Open Mic Night at O’ Café

 

Forgiveness after the Atiak Massacre

“When there is peace, anything is possible” – Godfrey Canwat, Hope and Peace for Humanity, Uganda.

Thursday the 20th of April 1995, the senior LRA-commander Vincent Otti and his troops claimed the lives of over 300 people in the Atiak Massacre. Among those killed were 48 students and two teachers from the Atiak Technical School. Atiak is a village 71 kilometers North of Gulu town. It is situated in Kilak County (Amuru District). After the brutal killings, several young boys and girls were abducted. Some are yet to return, 23 years after the Massacre. A monument bearing the names of some of the deceased was raised in 1996 at the Atiak Trading Centre. Notably, several of the perpetrators live in the community alongside the victims and their families. Forgiveness is highly valued in the Acholi cultural region. It is believed that some things (e.g. murder) cannot be changed through retributive justice (as it cannot bring back the dead). Hence, the Acholi uses other procedures such as the mato oput ritual (the cleansing of the spirit) which seeks to reconcile the community, perpetrator, and victims.

Today, we participated in the 23rd commemoration of the Massacre and the inter-faith memorial prayer. Prayers and blessings were officiated by heads of the Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim faiths. The need for forgiveness was stressed throughout the prayers. Forgiveness for all engaged in the war and for “the brothers and sisters” that committed the crimes in Atiak.

After my first (and quite late) interview, I will spend the rest of my Friday night with my roomies and lots of music.

Happy Bihu!

Bihu, or the Assamese new years celebrations, recently ended and after four days of watching butterfly-like dances and eating waaaaaay too many Indian sweets, I am back by the work table. So far, I have managed to conduct three interviews but in between transcriptions it is nice to look back at the Bihu holiday and some more colorful memories.

There are three annual Bihu festivals in Assam and the April Bihu marks the beginning of spring, which in the Assamese calendar also is the beginning of the new year (thinking about it, it makes quite a lot of sense to start the new year in the spring, when everything is blooming again and waking up from the winter sleep). The new year is said to be the most colorful of the Bihus and all over Guwahati, I found open fields full of families, women in beautiful mekhala chadors (the Assamese version of a sari), food stalls and scenes with traditional dances and music.
I went out with my neighbors all four nights to watch the dance shows. Some nights it was easier to find a place than others due to Indian time planning but I had a lot of fun anyway listening to catchy drum beats, wearing a mekhala chador (all attempts to blend in failed, though) and trying to copy the dancers’ graceful moves. Bihu dancing might appear simple but doing it without looking like a chicken just learning to walk is an art!

The day after the first Bihu night (last Sunday) it is tradition to visit the older family members and show your respect by giving them a gamosa (a pretty red and white fabric that somehow resembles a fancy towel and guess what – people actually use it as a towel). In return, one receives an overdose of sweets, tea and fruits. My landlords took me to their relatives to let me experience “the real Bihu”. For some reason, they did not care much for the dance shows at night but I enjoyed both family visits to hospitable cousins and the drumming and dancing, and I am so happy that I arrived here in time to experience Assamese festivities with my sweet neighbors and landlords!