During his secondment in northern Uganda in April 2017, Early Stage Researcher Lukas Schretter worked with the recently established NGO "Empowerment Action for Community Health" (EACH Uganda). Lukas had the opportunity to interview the team of EACH Uganda and participated in their programs and activities, such as a community meeting in the Barlonyo village near Lira town. He also met former abductees of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and visited students at the Nancy School for the Deaf in Ireda in the district of Lira.
About EACH Uganda
EACH Uganda is a NGO operating in post-conflict northern Uganda. Promoting participatory development, good governance and human rights, its vision is "a healthy community living with hope and dignity". The objectives and measures proposed under the program of EACH Uganda fall under four main areas: Community health improvement, construction of a crisis rehabilitation centre, capacity building in agriculture, and research.
EACH Uganda addresses the consequences of the conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government, which has spanned from 1987 to 2006 and has been one of Africa’s longest. The LRA has been accused of widespread human rights violations in northern Uganda, including murder, abduction, mutilation, child-sex slavery and forcing children to participate in hostilities. The conflict furthermore exacted severe economic losses, leading to mass displacement of people, a breakdown of infrastructure and severely weakened governance and social structures. After a cessation of hostilities agreement was signed between the LRA and government forces in 2006, the Ugandan government and its international development partners launched the Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP), which aimed at rebuilding the north and promoting reconstruction, transitional justice and reconciliation. Peace and development prospects have improved in recent years and communities regained optimism to embark on the long process of recovery. The majority of the 1.8 million people living in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps at the height of the conflict have returned to their homes or to transit sites in nearby parishes.
According to EACH Uganda, government measures have focused more on infrastructure rehabilitation and resettlement of people rather than on psychological care and wellbeing. "We started addressing the issue as individuals", EACH Uganda Executive Director Daniel Gossy Omara stated. "But in 2014 we said: Why don’t we come together and address this problem as a group? It was not until October 2014 that we had a formal structure. Since then we have been trying every day to build our organization and to reach out to more and more people." For more than two years, Daniel Gossy Omara, Polly Alyek, Francis Aguma and Victoria Awori – the core team of EACH Uganda – have been active to fulfil their mission to "improve community health and livelihood through sustainable and integrated community lead skills and knowledge".
"Since there was no money for getting paid, I started as a volunteer. I have been working with the community and I have been doing so to the best of my knowledge", Polly, who holds a degree in accounting, stated when asked her about her motivation to join EACH Uganda. "Today I have the position of a Community Development Officer. It is a lot that I learned already while working here. In accounting, it was all in the books but here I am so much exposed to the communities. I really feel that the EACH Uganda staff has the vision and the heart to work with the people living in the area. Sometimes we feel that our hands are tied, but we always try to reach out to them."
EACH Uganda’s largest project is the establishment of a crisis rehabilitation centre, which is planned to be built outside Lira in two years. EACH Uganda acquired real estate in a developed area but still is collecting money for the construction of the building, gaining access to the water supply network and establishing a connection to the electricity grid. The centre will be the first of its kind in the region, with experienced doctors and therapists providing psychological treatment and medical care to former LRA abductees and to victims of domestic violence, former convicts, pregnant female prisoners and homeless children, among others.
EACH Uganda staff members Daniel Gossy Omara, Polly Alyek, Francis Aguma in front of a signpost to the Barlonyo memorial site. Not in the picture: EACH Uganda staff member Victoria Awori
In 2014, EACH Uganda started its activities in Barlonyo: Twenty-six kilometres north of Lira, the village is the location of one of the largest single massacres committed by the LRA and therefore has become a symbol of the horrors of the conflict. On 21 February 2004, between 200 and 500 people living in the Barlonyo IDP camp were murdered by LRA rebels and an unknown number were abducted. The IDP camp has since been disbanded by the Ugandan government. Today, there is a memorial site displaying an array of mass graves.
Lukas witnessed and participated in the interventions that EACH Uganda implemented within a smaller community in Barlonyo. He listened to accounts of men and women who survived the attack in 2004 or were abducted and kept by the LRA rebels for differing periods of time.
In Barlonyo, he also met Hellen (not real name), who was abducted in 1996 and spent more than ten years with the LRA rebels. During that time, she was raped, married off to a rebel, and forced to kill. In captivity, she contracted HIV and gave birth to two boys. Since returning home in 2006, she and her sons have been exposed to poverty and stigmatisation. The boys, who are referred to as "little Konys" by their neighbours because of their biological background, currently attend a boarding school outside Barlonyo. It is not the past in the LRA that haunts her, Hellen said. Her efforts coming to terms with the past have been dragged down by her daily struggle to provide for her children and to maintain a livelihood in the community.
A follow-up visit to Agnes
EACH Uganda supports individuals and families with seeds and saplings to reduce their capital expenditure. It furthermore trains recently established communities in farming methods and helps them in marketing their products. For example, EACH Uganda has assisted families in the rural communities to sell peanut butter in the city of Lira and in the surrounding villages.
Agnes, a former LRA abductee, was not able to reintegrate into her community after returning from the bush and therefore had to relocate to another district. Agnes not only faced discrimination and stigmatization because of her past in the LRA, she has also been infected with HIV. Starting a new life far away from home would not have been possible without the support of EACH Uganda, Agnes said. The organization supports her to maintain a livelihood and, whenever necessary, takes her to hospital to seek medical treatment. Today, Agnes and her family harvest chilis and various other fruits and sell them at markets.
Agnes’ health has deteriorated since ESR Sophie Roupetz met her in December 2016 - article. Her greatest concern is whether her children will be taken care of once she won’t be able to provide for them. Agnes’ youngest son is still a toddler. Two of her children attend a boarding school, one of them is also infected with HIV. Agnes' oldest son supports her and her husband to feed the family. He hopes to be able to attend university but it remains uncertain whether the family will be able to pay for his education.
Nancy School for the Deaf
Lukas attended a visit of EACH Uganda to the Nancy School for the Deaf, a primary and secondary combined school for special needs children located outside Lira. After meeting with the headmaster of the school, Lukas learned about the challenges that the teachers face in their work and, with the help of a translator, talked to some of the students about their everyday school life.
Fighting for the rights of deaf children is a huge task in Uganda: Deaf and hearing-impaired children tend to be isolated from society and often are seen as burdensome for their families. Nancy School for the Deaf, which is one of thirty established schools for deaf children in Uganda according to Uganda’s National Association for the Deaf, is a boarding school. As many of the pupils have been rejected by their parents, some stay through the holidays, relying on grants and the kindness of the school administration. Qualified teachers work hard to improve opportunities and facilitate vocational training for their pupils. Also, EACH Uganda visits the school regularly, providing necessities and toys.
What are the challenges facing EACH Uganda working at a grassroots level in the region? "We realized that the big international organizations hesitate to cooperate with small and community-based initiatives. And yet EACH Uganda is highly valued at a community level“, Daniel stated.
Also, mobility is a problem for EACH Uganda: „We have to rely on only two motorcycles. When it rains, we cannot reach out to the communities“, Daniel said. „There are communities that are easy to reach, whatever means of transport we use“, Francis pointed out. „But some of them are far away. Going there we definitely need a car.“ Reaching Barlonyo and the Nancy School for the Deaf, EACH Uganda and Lukas borrowed cars from partners and friends.
„In fact, we all are volunteers. Volunteering means that you are willing to do your work even without any payment. And that is where we are right now. Which is also our concern, you know, because somewhere along the way we may break down or fall sick. We need some sort of backup. So, I hope that in the future there will be financial security that will help us to continue along this path and get stronger.“ (Francis)
Lukas Schretter is an Early Stage Researcher within the European-Union funded research network „Children Born of War. Past, Present, Future“ and is currently writing his dissertation at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Research on Consequences of War in Graz, Austria.
Lukas remains thankful to the staff members of EACH Uganda for their support during his stay in Lira. Contact between Lukas and EACH Uganda has been made through Sophie Roupetz. After her secondment in Uganda in 2016, Sophie started a fundraising campaign for the establishment of EACH Uganda’s crisis rehabilitation centre outside Lira. You can support Sophie’s initiative here.