Monday, February 27, 2012

The Boy Who Cried Wizard


Walking speed is common topic of conversation between the researchers I am helping to train and me. Two of them enjoy that I walk quickly, so when a researcher asked if I’d like to go walking after lunch, I was game. He said his cousin’s sister lived down one of the roads nearby, and we could go visit her. Given that it was Sunday, our only day off this week, I figured a brisk walk would do me good. 2.15 miles later I was hot but happy after the number of waves and shouts from kids far outnumbered the strange and questioning glances I got.

Henrietta, his cousin’s sister, came out to the road to greet us, with one baby on her back, and a young boy, about four and a half, running along beside her. We settled into her living room, for what might have been called a social call in the Old South. We simply took our seats and chatted about everything from the weather to local politics to U.S. politics (they’ve got their fingers crossed we re-elect Obama) to culture in Uganda and in America, with them asking if America has any culture. I explain some of the things that currently form part of the American culture, while emphasizing that many people also continue traditions from the culture of the place their families are from.

She then set out a meal for us, white rice, chopped greens, and meat in soup (unidentified... I’ve got my money on liver). While my colleague and I ate, she sat to the side, but continued the conversation. She is an assistant district attorney, and began to share some of the stories of what she had seen pass through the courtroom.

In one story, there was a boy who ‘hacked’ his grandfather to death, in front of his mother (the daughter-in-law of the man killed) and his grandmother (the wife of the man killed). This boy was immediately arrested and kept in jail for two years, pending his hearing. The evidence was overwhelming, but the testimony of the eyewitnesses was key to a conviction.  However, as the mother came up to testify, Henrietta could tell that the mother was having great difficulty testifying against her own son, who had killed his grandfather. The wife of the deceased was asked what she wanted the outcome of the trial to be. She responded that since the incident, her daughter-in-law and grandson had barely seen her, nor had they every apologized for the incident. She said that what she really wanted was an apology, and enough money to start a business, since the breadwinner of her household had been killed.  She asked for 300,000 Ugandan Shillings, or $136 USD. The parties left to try to mediate the case. They returned the next day, the mother of the boy who had killed his grandfather bringing the money, and the two parties reconciled, as the grandmother was glad to be able to start a business and the mother was glad her son would be released from jail. This is an interesting instance of pursuing reconciliation in the name of peace and harmony in a community, rather than pursuing punishment in the name of justice. What if you were one of the people in this scenario? What would you prefer? What would usually happen in a case like this where you live?

“And what caused this boy to ‘hack’ his grandfather to death?” was my first question at the end of the story. The boy’s father was sick and in the hospital, and had a very high fever. When the boy went to visit him in the hospital he heard his father crying out “My own father is killing me, he is doing this to me!” The boy interpreted this to mean that the grandfather was a wizard, or someone with special powers, often believed to be conferred by the devil, and had put a curse on the father in order to make him suffer and die. Following this line of reasoning, the boy encountered his grandfather with the intention of killing him, in order to release his own father from the spell, thinking he was saving his life.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Welcome to the new home of Reckoning with Wanderlust []

Please explore the new site, there are more updates to come as soon as I get back to the land of fast internet. For now here's another post!


People often ask me what I eat when I’m away. To be honest it depends upon what is available. When I am in the city I usually eat a mix of local and other foods, but when I am in areas outside the main city, and particularly if I am with a research team, I eat whatever they eat.
As a side, note, I called Arua rural in an earlier post, and I just want to be rephrase a bit. Arua is a densely populated urban area, with over 400,000 in the urban area, and over 800,000 in the district (also called Arua). If you look at a population density map of Uganda (because I know you all love demographics like I do) you’ll see that the most densely populated areas are around Kampala and Entebbe, and then there’s a bit of very dense population at the intersection of Uganda, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. That’s where I am, wave!
So back to important things like eating: I’m in a training now so there’s lots of more eating than normal, just think about when you attend a conference and they’re feeding you all the time. So here’s what I’ve had, basically the last two days, and I what it looks like I’ll be having daily for the next 9 days or so.

Breakfast: 8:30 am
-          A bit of omelet (less than 1 egg) , yolks here aren’t very yellow, so in my mind I’m eating egg whites.
-          White bread with Blue Band (fake margarine that doesn’t melt at room temperature) and very sugary jelly from a tin
-           Chapati – similar to the Indian Chapati, it’s very popular in Uganda and is sort of like and dense, savory, chewy pancake.
-          Tea or coffee (Nescafe)

Tea Break 11 am
-          Boiled eggs and peanuts
-          Chapati with a bit of omelet and white bread with Blue Band and jelly
-          Tea or coffee

Lunch – 1 pm
-          Goat or beef or chicken
-          Posho (cornmeal mash I think?), calo (millet and sorgum mash) matoke (steamed and mashed plantains), white rice. All of the ‘mash’ is sticky and thick and needs to be cut with a knife to be served, kind of like the polenta you get in a tube, but stickier.
-          Greens – chopped with onions and oil
-          Soda (maybe)
-          Bananas or watermelon for dessert
Tea Break – 3:30 pm
-          Peanuts
-          White bread with Blue Band and Jelly
-          Tea or coffee

Dinner – this is on my own, and can be eaten with other team members at the hotel or outside, but it’s a bit of a walk. Let me give you tonight’s scenario:
Me (8:00 pm): Hello, do you have anything for eating?
Staff: What are you liking to eat?
Me: What do you have to eat? (This is crucial, the likelihood they have more than 2 or 3 things is low, so listing what you want is a futile exercise)
Staff: We have snacks. Some goat meat? Some chicken?
Me: Okay, how about chicken. Do you have some chapatti?
Staff: It is possible.
Me: Okay, one chapatti please. I’ll be up on the deck.
Staff: [Raises eyebrows, looks confused]
Me: Up there, [Pointing to an outdoor deck with a large screen on it. I watch ‘Whip It’ with the girl from Juno, shown via projector which is attached to a television sitting on the floor. The channel is later changed to a dubbed soap opera, and then to the news.]
15 minutes later
Waitress: You will take some chicken? Steeooo?
Me: Pardon? Chicken? Yes chicken, and chapatti?
Waitress: You will take steeoo?
Me: (No idea what she’s saying) Okay, yes yes with chicken
Researcher who joins me: You want the chicken in stew?
Me: Ah yes, okay, chicken stew
15 minutes later
Waitress: You still want chicken?
Me: Yes please, with chapatti
Waitress: Okay I will bring in 5 minutes
The food comes, she asks if she should bring water to wash so I can eat with my hands, or if I will use ‘that’ (fork and knife). I go with the fork and knife to avoid her making the extra trip with water.
The researcher eats a chapatti and tea for dinner.
I’ve got a chapatti and a bowl with a quarter chicken in it, skin, cartilage and other unidentifiables included. The chicken is in an oily broth, which I dip my chapatti in, as I fight, with what must have been a small chicken, to get anything to eat off of it. Also, I’m doing this in the dark, so I pull items off the bones and pop them in my mouth, fingers crossed I get more than fat and cartilage, which I try to spit out onto my fork subtlety.  I eventually give up on the chicken and just go with the chapatti dipped in soup. Not exactly what I’d eat for dinner at home, but when the options are goat or chicken with chapatti or chips (French fries, ahem freedom fries) , you’ve got a pretty good chance it’s going to tasty, if not totally healthy.

Friday, February 17, 2012

LGBT Rights (or lack thereof) in Uganda

(Just a little note: every time you see a word underlined or in blue on this blog, there is a link to a related article, if you'd like more background information)

Uganda has been in the news lately. Granted, if you don't follow East African news, perhaps it hasn't crossed your desk or screen yet. Uganda currently has a bill in Parliament which proscribes the death penalty for anyone convicted of 'aggravated homosexuality'. Alternatively, if one is convicted of 'the offense of homosexuality', you are merely sentenced to life in prison. So what falls under 'aggravated homosexuality' that merits the death penalty? To summarize: if: the person is HIV positive, is a parent or authority figure, administers intoxicating substances, or engages with a minor or someone with disabilities, or is a repeat offender of 'the offense of homosexuality'. But wait, there's more. Ugandans can be extradited back to the country for engaging in homosexual acts outside of the country, and the bill includes punishment for individuals, companies, media organizations or non-governmental organizations who know gay people, or support them.

The bill has, expectedly, drawn a lot of criticism from the West as well as from human and civil rights organizations. I won't begin to get into why killing people for their sexual preference or HIV status is wrong. Granted, you get 'merely' life in prison for your first offense. But punishing people for those qualities isn't in line with any sort of respect for people's rights either. So we're clear that I am not in support of this bill in anyway, and am hopeful that it either won't make it through Parliament, or will be amended before it does. However, the proposal on the table at the moment for amending it is to remove the death penalty, but leave the rest.

But. Let me show you a headline from BBC online: 'Uganda Man Jailed for Killing Gay Activist David Kato'. If you read the article you will find that a Ugandan newspaper published a list of homosexuals, with the headline, 'Hang Them' above it. Mr. Kato's name was on this list. You will also find that apparently the man defended himself in court by saying that Mr. Kato made sexual advances towards him, which made him outraged, and so be bludgeoned him to death with a hammer. The perpetrator received 30 years in prison for the murder, following what was called 'an usually speedy trial'. Seems like a hate crime from this story, no doubt.

But then, let's talk to someone Ugandan who lives in Kampala, where the crime took place. Now we hear a different story. We hear that while most of the above is true, some of it is not. Yes, Mr. Kato was gay, yes he was a gay teacher (which some people in Uganda take to mean he was 'recruiting' children' or abusing them). But apparently, the West took the story that Mr. Kato was a gay rights activist and ran with it. According to the man I talked to, Mr. Kato was gay, but so was his killer. They were long term partners. This was a case of domestic violence between two gay men. The man who was convicted simply used Mr. Kato's 'sexual advances' as a defense because he thought it would garner sympathy from the jury, and to avoid the consequences of being openly gay and serving time in prison. Additionally, the police issued a statement saying that Kato's death was in no way connected to his role as an LGBT advocate, and in fact called the murder a consequence of an attempted robbery.

Reading this summary of the summaries, I have an initial urge to believe one over the other, I am inclined to believe that Uganda wanted to cover up a hate crime. But why? Why would the state cover up a crime that they themselves are trying to essentially turn into law, that someone who is openly gay deserves to be killed. They might cover it up to avoid international criticism. Or alternatively, the Western media might hear that a gay rights activist had been murdered, and assume that it was a hate crime, because it demonstrates the intolerance of the country, that they have seen examples of in the past. This death occurred during the time when the bill to increase penalties for being convicted of homosexuality was already in Parliament, so perhaps we should ask ourselves, who could stand to benefit from Mr. Kato's death. It brought international attention to the harsh persecution of members of the LGBT community in the country, but alternatively justifies such killing, as the man who murdered Mr. Kato was convicted of second degree murder rather than first, as he had 'had no choice but to act in self defense' to protect himself from the advances of a gay man. Either way the LGBT rights movement in Uganda lost a vocal advocate. Whether he was targeted because of his activism, because of his sexual identity and forwardness, or was a victim of domestic violence cannot be known with absolute certainty. Unless of course evidence exists as to the motive or premeditation of the murder that has not yet come to light. For now we rely on the statement of the man who murdered Mr. Kato, and a legal system in a country where homosexuality is condemned.

What do you think? What was the real motivation behind the murder, the defense, and the sentencing? What should and will happen with the bill currently being reviewed in the Parliament?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Humanitarian Assistance and Religion

(I’ve arrived in Kampala and am safe and sound!)
I am currently en route to Uganda and contemplating where tostart this new round of blog entries. First let me tell you that I’ll be inUganda through mid-March and then will travel to Liberia until the end ofApril. More details to come on the work and all sorts of other exciting things.But, given that I’m on an airplane, let’s talk about one ofthe things that often occur to me when traveling, which is that it seems likeI’m surrounded by people on missions or church trips on every flight. It’sreally incredible how many people go to and from these countries regularly,whether to provide aid and development assistance, or to spread the gospel andassist local churches. There are also school and volunteer trips and the like,generally short term things working with particular communities.

Let’s focus on religiously based groups that engage in thissort of work. Everywhere I have worked I have encountered members of religiousorganizations. There were Mormon missionaries on my daily bus in Ecuador,Seventh Day Adventist missionaries on bicycles in the Dominican Republic,people who left Liberia during the conflict and returned to work with localchurches, and religious groups from the Middle East supporting work inIndonesia.

I think it’s easy to make a snap judgment about whether ornot development work should be tied to religion, but as with much of this sortof work, it usually depends on the organization. On the positive side, religionhas the potential to unite groups of people who might otherwise not interact.People are often willing to work for groups associated with their religion, asthey view it as a way to give back as well as a way to support and spread theirfaith. Alternatively, religion can be divisive; for example if two religionsco-exist in a particular area and an outside organization only providesservices to the members of one group this can lead to everything from angerfrom those not receiving support, ostracization among groups that may have beenfriendly in the past. Which of these outcomes occurs has much to do with theorganization and its goals, both explicit and implicit, and their inclusivityor marginalization of those with different backgrounds.

I believe it is important to look at ethical guidelines whenevaluating any emergency response or development program, and those sponsoredor led by religious organizations should be no different. The first element ofsuch work is “Do No Harm”; all programs must be considered for both theirpotential positive and negative outcomes, and must be evaluated to ensure thatparticipants do not experienced unanticipated negative consequences from theirparticipation. In addition to this, the issue of coercion must be addressed,because how coercion is defined is context specific. For example: if I tell youthat I’ll give you a flu shot for free in return for answering myquestionnaire, and you have health insurance, so you can access the flushot without me, then that is not a coercive incentive for participation in anygiven program. However, if you’re uninsured and your only means for protectionagainst the flu is to participate in my research or program, then the practicemay be coercive, as there are potential negative consequences for you notparticipating, ie you get the flu.
Let’s translate this to Uganda for example: if a religiousorganization offers free education to all children at a local school, withoutdemanding that they worship at this school or adhere to those beliefs, thenthey are simply supplementing the public education system. However, if thisreligious school is of superior quality to the public school, and the only wayto enroll is to subscribe to adhere to a particular belief system, bothchildren and parents may be coerced into subverting their own personal beliefsfor their children’s education.

An actual example is where I was in an island country andwhile there were public schools (one public high school in the country) thehigh school that was widely regarded as the best was private and Mormon run (mymemory might be failing me, it could be Seventh Day Adventist). If you attendedthe church associated with the school, your children attended school for free,however if you were a member of a different church (regardless if it was alsoChristian) your children had to pay fees to enroll. So, for access to qualityeducation for their children, parents changed (or pretended to change) theirreligious beliefs. In my book this is coercion, worship my god or pay money youdon’t have to educate your children?

And so, as you may have noticed with my blog entries, therereally is no clear cut answer here. I think what is important is that we holdall development organizations, religious or not, to the same ethical standards.Religious organizations should not be allowed to discriminate based on race,creed, ethnicity, ability, religion, or anything else. Religious organizationsdo not get a pass on equal promotion of human rights simply because they aretargeting a particular population. 
There have been a variety of instances where theintervention of religious organizations in conflict zones, South Sudan duringthe conflict for instance, has actually fueled the conflict itself. In aneffort to assist South Sudan (viewed as the ‘Christian’ side of the North/Southwar, but that’s a little simplistic in truth), foreign Christian organizationsprovided funding to the SPLA, or Southern Sudanese liberation group, which isnow officially in power in the country. Without the funding (and access to weaponsaccording to some sources) provided by these external sources, the war mighthave ended long before it did.

There are religious groups that do great work, and there arethose that miss the mark, as can be said about humanitarian and developmentgroups in general. But let’s hold everyone to the same standard, because nomatter whether you’re doing the work for your God or your conscience, thepotential for unintended negative consequences for those you want to help hasthe potential to be equally devastating.

What do you think about intertwining religion and humanitarian assistance? Is it a good way to tap into commitment to a cause and funding, or is it similar to government and religion (according to my Western background) and the two should be separated lest they corrupt one another?