The effects of conflict

This past June in Uganda, I had an opportunity to really see some of the effects of conflict firsthand, and it was really eye-opening. It’s not like Gulu is a war-town pile of rubble or anything, it’s been peaceful since 2006 and is a very safe place. But the people there are still recovering from the LRA conflict, and Northern Uganda is also affected by conflicts in the DRC and South Sudan. There were some things that I expected to see, and some that I just never would have understood or known about without seeing them. Those are the things I’ll talk about here- things that I just didn’t fully understand, or didn’t even know were problems.

Though it wasn’t immediately visible that Gulu had been through a war, the effects on individuals were clear once we started interacting with them. The OU education students were working in a women’s primary school at St. Monica’s, and the rest of us got to tutor some of the students and give exams while we were there. Most of the women in school had stopped going to school when they were very young due to conflict. The women’s education was interrupted at such a young age that they really didn’t have the basic skills you need just to get by. We were working on math skills that I remember learning in first or second grade, like addition and place value. I can’t imagine trying to live without those basic skills, even just for budgeting and keeping track of money. I guess I just take knowing how to do basic arithmetic for granted, and didn’t quite realize all the implications of not actually getting to learn that.

The conflicts in neighboring countries also had some visible effects on Northern Uganda. Early on in our study abroad, we went on a two day road trip around Northern Uganda to drop medical and nursing students off at various health centers. Our journey took a lot longer than we thought it would. I didn’t think much of it, but Sister Rosemary (the Sacred Heart Sister in charge of the compound we were staying on) said that it was due to the heavy traffic of UN trucks to and from Bidi bidi refugee camp near Moyo, Uganda. Bidi bidi currently hosts around 270,000 refugees, making it the largest refugee camp in the world. The massive amount of traffic to and from the camp, coupled with the fact that there is virtually no road maintenance in Northern Uganda, means that the roads around the camp are deteriorating rapidly. We saw the effects of this when our drive took three times as long as predicted. The effects of that on everyday life and development are huge, because it’s really difficult to get much done with almost impassable roads. I certainly never would have known that that would be such a big problem without actually seeing it.

Uganda is still recovering from it’s own conflict, and still has a long way to go toward repairing all the damage that was done, particularly to individuals lifestyles and education. Meanwhile, it’s still dealing with conflicts in neighboring countries. Uganda has a very compassionate refugee policy, and pretty much has open borders, so there are a lot of refugees in the country, particularly in the northern part. In fact, some of the women in the school at St. Monica’s are refugees from either South Sudan or the DRC. This puts additional strain on Northern Uganda to try and accommodate all those people. To add on to all that, people in the South of the country, where the government is, still have really negative opinions about the North due to the LRA conflict and former president Milton Obote’s use of Northern Ugandans as soldiers in his very violent army, so less governmental aid is afforded to the north than the south. Basically, the effects of conflict in Northern Uganda are widespread and complicated, making it difficult for them to continue to develop.

Impressions from Gulu, Uganda

This past June I had the opportunity to study abroad in Gulu, Uganda. I was taking an engineering class, and our main goal was to build a spring box to provide clean water for a planned compound about 2 hours from Gulu. Long story short, there wasn’t a spring, so that project did not go as planned. Instead, we struggled to come up with a useful project, and settled on hiring a contractor to drill a well, making a plan for the water distribution system at the site, and making a map of the site that was to scale. We only accomplished two of these three objectives, as the contractor did not make it out to the site before we had to go home. It turns out that’s just how things work in Uganda, you need to plan for everything to take a lot longer than you might think. I really wish we had been there for more than three weeks so that we could have made a little more progress.

Though the academic experience in Uganda was a little frustrating, the cultural experience was incredible. The one positive of not really having a project to do was that we had a lot of free time to explore Gulu and interact with the people on the compound where we were staying. In the afternoons, the girls in the tailoring school would have a break, and we would all play soccer or netball together, or just sit under a tree and talk. There were also some construction projects going on within the compound – a new library was just built and a new guest house is under construction. I spent a lot of time at these sites attempting to learn how to build things, and getting to know some of the people on the construction crew. Those guys are some of the most impressive people I have ever met, and some of the nicest. They were patient enough to teach me everything from laying tile to making bricks, and even let me attempt to help on their projects. I can’t imagine I was much help, but it was a really good learning experience.

Overall, my impression of Gulu was a positive one. The people we met there are still recovering from the LRA conflict, and many are affected by the current crises in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but they are incredibly resilient and positive people. Things may take a little longer to get done there, but that’s just something you have to deal with in developing areas. I actually wish we had been able to stay longer, because I was just starting to get settled in and build relationships when we had to leave. I definitely want to go back and take time to continue to build those relationships, because Gulu really was an incredible place.