Friday, March 16, 2012

Rhino Camp

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Here is a conversation I had the other day that just boggled my mind.

Researcher 1: I like the name of Rhino Camp [a small city/large town] in Uganda. It is easy for both Ugandas and foreigners to say.

Me: Very true, they would not say it wrongly. Are there rhinos in Rhino Camp?

Researcher 2: There used to be, it was a game preserve. But then Idi Amin's soldiers ate them all.

Me: What? They ate all the rhinos?

Researcher 2: Yes, the government was cutting off their food, so many of the soldiers ran there and they ate all the white rhinos, so there are none there.

Me: All like [researcher 3] said he likes to eat hippo? I wonder if rhino is delicious...

                                            (a hippo in a swampy place next to the Nile)

Researcher 2: I'm not sure, I've never tried.

Researcher 1: But they call it camp, because after they turned it into a refugee camp.

Researcher 2: yes, yes, for people from South Sudan

Researcher 1: And Congo [DRC] too.

Me: So it was a game preserve, but then the rhinos got eaten by soldiers, then they turned it into a refugee camp, but now it is just a town?

Researcher 2: Yes, now they love love to eat cassava there, they love to eat cassava too much [very much]!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Child Sacrifice and Organ Trafficking in Uganda

As always, I often related things I hear to you. This does not mean they are necessarily true, although they may be, but by simply telling the story I think part of the thinking and state of current affairs in a particular place can be demonstrated.

Until a couple of days ago (read Kony Is Not in Uganda (and other complicated things) before you get all #Kony2012 on me) when you googles Uganda, you were likely to come across articles about LBGT rights infringement, probably followed by articles on child sacrifice. It's a juicy topic, no wonder it's getting international attention. If you look at the comments below some of these articles you'll read things like "I thought this was a Christian country, how could this happen?!" or some disparaging comments about Africa that I don't care to reprint. To summarize: children have been identified as either kidnapped or sold, and then end up in the hands of 'witchdoctors', or practitioners of traditional religion here. Those children are then ritually sacrificed, most often in order for the person who pays for the sacrifice to gain wealth or prosperity, or to counteract some bad luck they have experienced.

The idea that this ever happens in this day and age is appalling, I agree, all children have the right to live in safety and child sacrifice flies in the face of every international convention guaranteeing that right. However, let's not jump to conclusions here. First we must consider that the practice of traditional religion was banned in Uganda, and so 'witchdoctors' make awfully convenient scapegoats, given they they are already associated with ideas about backwards traditions, despite what has been described to be as relatively wide practice and worship, often in conjunction with participation in major religions like Christianity or Islam.

So next let's think about what the proliferation of child sacrifice means. The question is whether we are just discovering how prevalent child sacrifice is, or whether its practice is on the rise. This is not a practice that one would expect to expand, given that it is connected to particular traditional religious practices, which don't spread easily, and are not uniform across Uganda. It is unlikely, although not impossible, that people would adopt child sacrifice easily and without giving it some thought. One explanation I've heard is that there are movies coming from Nigeria where child sacrifice is portrayed as a way to access wealth and power, and some people think that this may be influencing the practice. However, I'm disinclined to believe that people will start selling or sacrificing their children simply because they see it in a film, but the influence of films and tv is definitely a commonly expressed concern in it's relation to the 'destruction of culture', so both are viewed as powerful and capable of changing behavior.

So let's think outside the box for a minute, is there any other explanation for the bodies of children that have been found with evidence of traditional sacrifice? Maybe. Most of this information comes from a friend of mine here who used to work with an NGO, working to raise awareness about child sacrifice. However, as he started to work with 'witchdoctors' to gain their participation in the campaign, they told him that child sacrifice isn't part of their religious beliefs. That they do not practice it and that those who do are misinterpreting the religion. They additionally told him about all the times they've been blamed for things they weren't responsible for. So what is a plausible alternative explanation? Unfortunately, it's no less tragic or horrendous than child sacrifice; these children could have been kidnapped, and their organs trafficked to other places for transplant. Transplants for children are notoriously hard to find and draw and extremely high price, and some parents are willing to do anything to save the life of a child, simply paying an extraordinary price without considering (or caring) where the donor organ originates. So a child is kidnapped, his or her valuable organs are removed, and then the perpetrators disguise their involvement by the leaving the child with marks indicating child sacrifice, which seem to be relatively common knowledge among people I spoke to. This theory is supported by the fact that some children are found with organs missing, sometimes those not related to traditional sacrifice. The anti-human trafficking task force in the Uganda Government and the US State Department have also identified this link.

So now you've got parents piercing children's ears or making sure to circumcise boys, as the rumor is that those children are not pure, and therefore the 'witchdoctors' cannot use them for sacrifice. The government has a committee to address child sacrifice and many NGOs are working to address it. When I was up-country a girl was kidnapped and the driver was heading towards the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the girl made such a commotion that she was able to escape. When people heard this, they guessed that she was going to be taken for sacrifice. Or there are many different reasons that girls are kidnapped, especially on the border of the DRC, but, as I have seen in a number of places where abuse and exploitation of children abound, it is always easiest to point outside your community and look for a perpetrator who is different than you, a role that 'witchdoctors' fill easily. However, if this is, in fact, human trafficking rather than ritual sacrifice, traditional religion is again the subject of unwarranted persecution, and traffickers will continue to operate with impunity if the actual issue is not identified, acknowledged, and addressed.

Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures

This year I am participating in Blog for International Women’s Day.

One of the questions that bloggers have been asked to address is:

How can we, as a culture and as members of the global community, involve, educate, and inspire girls in a positive way?

For those of you who follow my blog regularly, you may have noticed by now that rather than coming straight to the point, I prefer to walk my way around it with a story...

I was in up-country Uganda for about two weeks recently, working with local researchers to help train them in ethnographic and qualitative data collection. Many of you know that when I travel for work I have almost a completely different wardrobe from what I wear at home. For one it’s super hot generally speaking, so loosely flowly things are key. And secondly, in most of the places I travel there’s more of a dress code, whether explicit or implicit, than in the United States. For instance, the other day a Ugandan friend of mine asked me if it really happened that in the US, like in Europe where he had visited, that when it gets even a little hot people are next to naked almost instantly. I laughed. The idea that when it’s hot you need to be wearing as little as possible would seem strange if you come from a hot place where that doesn’t happen.

So here I am in Uganda, so most of my outfits consist of loose pants and a short or long sleeve shirt, or a skirt that is at least past my knees. So essentially no shoulders and no knees, which is a lot like the dress code in a lot of offices in the US. I feel professional but also appropriate, I throw on some local flipflops when I walk into town and think I’m doing a pretty good job, considering how totally impossible it is to blend. But then I come to breakfast one morning and one of the researchers says “You’ve chosen your outfit well today”. When I ask him what he means, he explains that we’re going to a school today, and neither women nor girls are allowed to wear pants at school. He then says “Yes, I would give your outfit an A-.” Ever competitive, I ask why I don’t receive an A. He tells me that I would have to close the cardigan I am wearing over my (very modest) short sleeve shirt. Awesome.

Something I’ve realized through my travels is that while in America, I perceive wearing pants to be more casual, and wearing skirts I connect to ‘dressing up’, which probably comes from childhood I imagine, that isn’t the case around the world. In fact when you talk to members of communities about how we can prevent abuse and exploitation of girls, one of the answers is often that they should stop wearing short skirts or pants and tempting men. Yes, ladies, little did you know that wearing pants means you were asking for it.

So how do we, as a culture and members of a global community, involve, educate and inspire girls in a positive way? Let’s start in our own and others' communities by treating girls like people who deserve to be involved and educated and inspired. Let’s show girls (and women) that boys and men who think they are too appealing to resist in pants are in the wrong, that, in fact, they have the right to be safe in their own communities, without the fear that they are tempting or corrupting someone. Let’s help girls grow up to be proud of being female and understand that they can be strong and smart and powerful if they choose to be. Let’s raise them to demand and expect inclusion and education and inspiration, and stop telling them that they are the cause of their own problems, simply for being born female.