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A year ago last week, we sat talking to Jolly Okot, the Ugandan country director of Invisible Children and the woman who convinced Invisible Children’s founders to make their original film about the war and suffering of northern Uganda.

The three of us were settled around a table in a restaurant-bar in Gulu, Uganda.   Jolly bought a round of pineapple Fanta and updated us on Invisible Children’s current programs in Gulu and other nearby districts, which were ravaged by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) from 1989 to 2007.  Jolly is warm, brusque, and full of energy, but you probably already know that: you’ve seen her in Invisible Children’s most recent video, which has 76,000,000 hits and rising: KONY2012.

You’ve probably also heard about the controversy surrounding Invisible Children: the low percentage of its budget that is actually spent on direct services, the high percentage spent on staff salaries and film production, its support of the Ugandan military.  We’re not going to take a stance on these issues.  What we can tell you is this: Invisible Children’s programs in northern Uganda primarily consist of educational support and scholarships for individual students.  It’s important work!  But Invisible Children is very well funded in comparison to local, Ugandan non-profit organizations working in the region.

Northern Uganda’s road to recovery is extraordinarily complex.  But these local organizations are successfully rehabilitating former LRA child soldiers and sex slaves, providing academic and vocational education, and rebuilding communities fragmented by murder and disease.

Watch KONY2012, if you’re one of the few who hasn’t yet.  Let us know if you want to talk about it.  Realize how much northern Uganda has been through.  If, like other friends and family who have spoken to us, you want to help but aren’t sure what you think of Invisible Children, consider supporting one of these local Ugandan programs.

PADER GIRLS ACADEMY

The Issue: Young girls captured by the LRA served as sex slaves and war trophies, given by Kony to his boy soldiers as prizes for successful raids and killings.  After years of slavery and rape, girls returned from rebel captivity with young children conceived in rape.  Many are HIV-positive.  Without education, vocational skills, or the support of their communities, they cannot earn a living for themselves or their children.

Pader Girls’ Academy provides a high school education or vocational training to child mothers and other formerly abducted young women.  They have a daycare system for students’ children and holistic programming that addresses the challenges that many of these students face (stigma as former LRA “wives,” HIV/AIDS, trauma from violence and slavery).  We like Pader Girls’ smart attitude about their vocational programs (researching the job market and teaching desired trades, arranging apprenticeships, and networking for their graduates).  Graduates from their secondary school have done astonishingly well, and Pader Girls’ pays for post-secondary schooling (such as teacher’s college or nursing school) if the students commit to working in the needy Pader area for two years after they finish college.  The Ugandan men and women who work and teach at Pader Girls’ are wonderful, dedicated individuals who could accomplish even more if they had more financial support and decent facilities (classes are often limited simply by the shortage of chairs, for example).  Read more here or donate here.

Students at Pader Girls Academy learn hospitality skills so that they can work in hotels and restaurants. PGA offers vocational training to child mothers and former LRA sex slaves.

WORUDET

The Issue: Over a decade of war and mass displacement broke down the family and social structure of northern Uganda’s villages.  Violence became the norm, and gender-based violence and abuse are pervasive problems today.  Villages must re-build their economies from scratch; for years, much of the population lived in internally displaced persons camps and survived off food aid.

WORUDET (Women and Rural Development Network) has an excellent grassroots reach that allows them foster economic development and fight against violence and abuse in “off the grid” villages.  They are so, so committed to their programs; WORUDET is getting absolutely incredible mileage out of its staff and program structures.   They also have a strong system for identifying beneficiaries and areas of greatest need.  Some examples of their programming: gender equality advocacy and educational campaigns; community dialogues, couples’ trainings, and school debates to fight against gender-based violence; and, a sophisticated system of lending circles and sustainable group income-generating projects.  We cannot speak highly enough of the Ugandan men and women of WORUDET and the difference they are making with the limited funds they have.  If you want to know more about WORUDET or support them financially, email chueschen@globalgrassroots.org.  (They’re a small, local organization with no online presence.)

BOSCO UGANDA

The Issue: Conflict and mass displacement kept northern Uganda isolated from a rapidly globalizing world for twenty years.  A generation of northern Ugandans were deprived by war of a basic education and of an opportunity to prepare for a future in the twenty-first century.

BOSCO (Battery Operated Systems for Community Outreach) Uganda takes a brave, innovative approach.  BOSCO provides education and job training and fosters sustainable economic progress through a network of weatherproof, community-shared computer stations.  A diversity of educational programs are available to community members through BOSCO stations, including math games that the kids absolutely love and a full grade level curricula for those who lost their schooling years to war.  We love their clear and thorough ICT curriculum.  BOSCO has had great success providing ICT training to youth, who help staff the stations and train others but also gain an invaluable, marketable skill set.  BOSCO Uganda has a great, motivated staff, most comprised of bright young people.  Learn more here or donate (online or by check) here.

Credentials: Why do we have these opinions, and should you trust us?  Good question.  The two of us work with a non-governmental organization called Global Grassroots, which supports social entrepreneurship in Rwanda.  Our organization is currently expanding its work into northern Uganda, and a year ago we took an extensive trip to the region.  We met with dozens of Ugandan groups and individuals, talked with the staff of dozens of organizations, and visited project sites.  We wanted to fully comprehend the economic and social situation of post-conflict northern Uganda, to search for a potential partner organization, and to understand the programs and successes of other organizations working to foster recovery and participatory development.  In other words – we learned a whole lot.

Global Grassroots will soon launch its own programs in Pader District, northern Uganda.  We will partner with WORUDET to offer mind-body trauma healing, social venture development skills, leadership training, personal transformation practices, seed grants and high-engagement support to help disadvantaged women initiate their own civil society organizations – their own non-profits to serve vulnerable women and girls.  If you’re interested in learning more about Global Grassroots’ expansion, email cclements@globalgrassroots.org.  You can also donate to Global Grassroots here.

KONY2012: 101

Many people have been asking us about a video on Uganda that made headlines last week. Christina is going to post a higher-level response to all the commotion, so I’m posting some background about the incredible media campaign targeting Central Africa.

For anyone new to the blog, welcome! We met Jolly Okot, Country Director of Invisible Children, and the country directors of over a dozen other organizations in northern Uganda in February 2011. We were looking for a partner organization for Global Grassroots, the Rwanda-based organization with which we are associated, so we listened to mission statements and asked questions and went on site visits across the region. Christina wrote about our favorite northern Ugandan organizations.

Image


Northern Uganda, also called Acholi Land

The Story Behind the Movie
In case you haven’t seen the video KONY2012, here’s what has been going on. An organization called Invisible Children made a 30 minute video about the war in Northern Uganda to raise funds and awareness.  In one of the best media campaigns in recent history, it exploded and got 10 million views in the first few hours, and is currently at 76 million. Many people who had never heard of the war were very moved by the video and posted the link all over the internet to rally support. Then, the facts came out. Before we get to those facts, here is even more background…

In 2003, three young Americans, one of whom narrates the video, graduated college and started a journey to Darfur, Sudan to make a documentary about the genocide. Driving through Uganda on their way to Darfur, they met a woman named Jolly (who told us this story when we were in northern Uganda to learn about the organizations in the region). They told her what they were planning and she said, ‘No! Don’t go to Darfur- the story is HERE, in Gulu, northern Uganda. A crazy man named Joseph Kony has created an army of child soldiers called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and is raping and killing, saying that he has power from God. Look, make your movie here.” They did. It was an excellent, very moving film, called Rough Cut. When they got back to the US, they started a non-profit called Invisible Children to help children in northern Uganda. They showed the film at schools and colleges, and chapters of Invisible Children sprang up on campuses across the country.

Over the next few years, the organization grew and grew, raising money like a machine. Then, in 2007, the war in Uganda ended. Kony and the LRA lost considerable numbers and fled west to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, where they are today and number a few hundred.

Why the video is controversial
So now for some of the facts (and some morphed into opinions) that were discussed by political scientists, aid workers and other people in the development world in comments and blogs in response to KONY2012:

  • The video describes a war in Uganda, but the war ended in 2007.
  • Only 37% of the money donated to Invisible Children goes to direct services in Africa.
  • Invisible Children has low accountability because of their board of directors is small- 4 people.
  • Encouraging people to wear bracelets and buy a ‘Kony2012 Action Kit’ will not stop Kony.
  • In the name of promoting a simple (and very effective) advocacy message, Invisible Children oversimplified an incredibly complex issue.

The mission of Invisible Children is to “stop the LRA violence” by 1) raising awareness, 2) advocating, 3) operating programs in areas affected by the LRA. These programs focus on education in northern Uganda, providing direct scholarships to the children who returned to school when the LRA & Kony moved on and the war ended. There are many approaches to aid, and although I might choose a more local and sustainable investment, their scholarship program seems to be filling a niche.

Like any non-profit, Invisible Children fundraises to support itself, often using movies like their original Rough Cut film. They are very good at it. This film kicks off their KONY2012 campaign. The goal of their campaign is to get the LRA leader Joseph Kony arrested for his war crimes so he can be tried by the International Criminal Tribunal, the court that tries big war criminals like the masterminds of past genocides.

The video is now considered controversial.  I started this post with the intention of summarizing the facts and ended up including a sprinkling of opinions. If you would like to discuss or want more information, leave a comment or email me.  If you are interested in the conflict but not sure about buying an Action Kit from Invisible Children, Christina is posting alternate organizations. I enjoy thinking about these issues and would be happy to update or fill you in a bit more, in case keeping track of the hundreds of thousands of tweets flying through cyberspace was not your priority last weekend! (It’s not usually mine, either.)

If you want to be able to really knock their socks off at the cocktail party this weekend, skim through these:
General analysis of the video controversy
History of the conflict (but please ignore the last few paragraphs)
The US Military’s Role
Invisible Children’s written defense and video defense
Another reading list! This from a snarky Yale professor whose blog is on my favorites.

In June 2010, Caitlin and I flew into Washington, DC after a short initial trip to Rwanda.  Our friend Laura picked us up and took us to breakfast at her favorite coffeeshop-bar, Tryst, where we experienced our first bit of reverse Rwanda culture shock.  We gave her our impressions of the country that would become our home.  We talked about our expectations of the year to come.

That year turned out to be a very full one – full of adventures and experiences you helped us to witness.  The dowry presentations we attended; Caitie the swimming instructor; our maggot infestation; visits to Lake Kibuye; the April genocide commemoration; our big trip to Uganda; daily work with Global Grassroots.

I’m writing, now, at a back table in that same bustling DC coffeeshop.  I happen to live around the corner.  I work a metro ride away at the National Institutes of Health, doing cell biology research.  I live in a very different world than I did five months ago.  Sometimes I return to old blog posts, notes, and stories, and the contrast is shocking.  Was it really me, right there, in that life?

Many of the short stories and profiles I wrote in Rwanda have been collected in an eMagazine just published by Global Grassroots.  The magazine means a lot to me; it is the product of countless hours of riding buses over the Rwandan hills, interviewing, filming, transcribing, translating, writing, and editing.  But it is also a reminder of lessons I hope never to forget.  Sometimes that’s hard, in this new DC life full of friends who didn’t spend last year with me.  Maybe sharing my writing will help.

www.globalgrassroots.org/annualmagazine  (hint: zoom by double clicking)

Read a few stories, or send them to a friend.  Learn more about Global Grassroots.  If you fall in love with them, as Caitlin and I did, you can even look up their projects at globalgiving.org and get your last holiday gifts by donating in someone’s name to one of our teams’ programs.  That donation goes straight to the Rwandan team leaders; Caitlin and I delivered globalgiving-raised funds a couple times last year.  Check out here and here in particular.  Caitlin and I helped Innocent and Charlotte write their own profiles and updates.

It never felt right to ask for financial support for GG on this blog, but now that I’m so distant from our programs – unhelpful in any direct way – I have to hope that my writings from last year will result in tangible support for the projects whose leaders and beneficiaries I interviewed.  These men and women gave me their time and their trust.  They shared their stories because they believed that in doing so, they could represent Rwanda abroad and bring more development to their country.  For their sake, I ask you to read.

Caitlin works with Innocent on his GlobalGiving.org profile.

I interview Perpetue of Team of Love. See her lovely story in the eMagazine.

As of today, we’ve been back in America for exactly one month.  I know we said we’d write, but I guess things got busy! We flew into DC and headed straight for McDonalds with two friends from college, Brede and Sam, who met us for our layover; a 10am Oreo McFlurry never tasted so good. Then we spent some time with family; I went sailing with my dad and Tyler, helped my brother move back to college, watched a soccer game and hung out with my mom and grandma.

Then I met Christina in New Hampshire for a two-week intensive training course led by the Global Grassroots president. The organization wants to expand, so after we’re certified trainers we hope to be spending a few weeks a year in a developing country teaching women how to start a small non-profit. At the training we learned how to teach lessons on writing a mission statement, making a budget, and developing an impoverished woman’s leadership skills. Although I went to Rwanda mostly for the adventure with Christina, and planned to come back to the States and pick up with my psychology plans, in Rwanda I think we both developed a taste for aid work. So with the chance of returning still out there, today Christina started a job at the NIH and I signed a lease for an apartment in Boston.  We’ll both dive back into academic research for at least a year and continue the training course online, and we’ll see where we are August 31, 2012!

Before officially closing this Rwandan chapter, I wanted to include a huge murakoze cyane (thank you) to my parents and Tyler for supporting me. They edited my grant applications, supported my decision to leave, were patient through all the cut-off phone calls, and picked me up from the airport with balloons and flowers. Being away from them, as well as my brothers, grandma and friends, was probably the hardest part of life in Rwanda, and I’m so happy to be home.

Our goodbye party where all the women we worked with came to wish us well. We danced and fumbled our speeches in Kinyarwanda and received beautiful gifts and said sad goodbyes.

Saying goodbye to Turwubake, a team I worked with a lot. In the time we were there, Jeanine got pregnant and gave birth to her child, nicknamed Kazungu because it looks so white!

Christina invited us all over for a goodbye dinner with our friend Gyslaine and her family.

Many people came to the airport to wish us well! It was really, really nice. From left: me, Charlotte (a beneficiary), Joseph (co-worker), Danielle (Yale '10), Christina, Regine (our old housekeeper's daughter), Wendy & Philip (a couple working with another NGO), and out of the picture but it was still really nice they came were our two close friends & co-workers, Josiane & Gyslaine

Boarding the plane in Kigali. Touch down in Uganda then layover in Addis, Ethiopia. Re-fuel in Italy then layover in DC (McFlurry time!). Then home to OH/CA! 26 hours total for me, even more for Christina.

McDonalds at 10am during our DC layover with Brede and Sam. Oreo McFlurries and fruit smoothies! it was so great to see them.

Making up for lost time by setting out on a sailing trip... with no wind. At the Vermillion lighthouse.

My grandma, mom and I went to visit my brother Will in Columbus where he worked for the Columbus Clippers, a AAA baseball team.

In Between

Heading for Kanombe International Airport. Like, right this second. Cait and I are on the same flight back to the US, and it’ll be a long and thought-filled trip — sometimes I love being in that in between place. We’ll see many of you soon. I’ll write more later, but for now — goodbye, Rwanda. Thank you for everything.

My last avocado

Christina and I are flying out Saturday, and for the last month we’ve been finishing up our projects and saying lots of goodbyes. Hence the lack of blogging. Once we get back to the States we’ll probably use this tricky little feature of post-dating to fill in the blanks.

I just ate my last avocado for lunch, and since it’s the end, I’ll confess that avocados in Kigali actually cost 18 cents (100 Rwandan francs). It’s only out in the villages where we work that you can get 3 for 100, which comes out to 5.5 cents, and then we took some artistic liberty and rounded. But this last one we picked off a tree at our favorite Saturday morning ‘cafe’, so it was free!

After visiting the Global Grassroots President Gretchen Wallace in New Hampshire for a two-week training program on social entreprenuership in August (so that we can train other women in developing countries in the future, because we’ve liked it just that much- we’ll post from there, too), Christina will move to DC and I’m off to Boston. I’m really going to miss her.

We’re running around buying the lasts of our favorite foods, selling our American stuff, buying more Rwandan souvenirs, and seeing friends and neighbors one last time. Christina is cooking dinner for our co-worker and tomorrow we’ll all go out to celebrate our last night in Rwanda.  Saturday we’ll have a tearful departure at security and commence the 30-something hour plane trip back to Amerika, the land of peanut butter, friends and family.

Tuzabonana! (See you soon!)

We ran the Kigali Marathon for Peace in May. Technically we ran the four-person relay marathon, which is why there's only one medal, but I like to say we ran a marathon together.

 

Emmanuel, Lamonte and their team Invincible Vision 2020 founded a literacy project in rural Rwanda where they knew their beneficiaries would be the neediest— but also the poorest. The program faces costs for chalk, books, transportation, cleaning supplies and teacher salaries. To make ends meet, students and teachers collected stray sticks and stones on their way to class. Once the piles grew big enough, Emmanuel sold them to a construction company to finance school supplies.

When the stream of scrap material dried up, the school founders brainstormed new strategies and bought a few pigs and rabbits. They bred them and gave some of the litters to the poorest students. The students could improve their standard of living by raising the animals and selling the offspring, and even eating meat themselves occasionally. They now give half of each litter back to Invincible Vision to continue the program. Each month a portion are sold to restaurants*, and some community members who support the school decide to pay to join the program. As of now, the growing system generates $80-$100 each month.

Some people raise an eyebrow when I explain that we encourage our change agents to raise local support for their project. “But the villages are too poor,” they argue. In our experience, the team leaders find creative ways for the villagers to contribute, and both the donation and its spirit make the project more sustainable than a stream of American dollars. A team fighting gender-based violence sells homemade lunch at construction sites. While serving the hungry workers, they explain their project and delicately describe the benefits of equal relationships. Other teams host theater performances or community talent shows, or use one of the village’s few television sets to screen a movie; ticket sales are quite profitable. Even so, team leaders often choose to forgo compensation, despite the fact that being a change agent prevents pursuit of full-time and more lucrative jobs. They insist on devoting the money to their project and may continue to live on less than two dollars per day. Similarly, the teachers at the literacy program have often gone months without salary, content that school supplies be given first priority until the full budget is raised. Patiently arranging their own schedules around the pace of social change, these leaders dedicate themselves to sustainable development.

*This is an example of what Christina and I do. We met with Invincible Vision 2020 and reviewed their financial records and fundraising strategies. We helped them think about their resources and skills, then brainstormed new ideas. After our meeting, they began the local talent shows and selling pigs and rabbits directly to restaurants, which fetches a higher price than the market.

At our training program, we teach team leaders how to use whatever you have- a wheelbarrow, a ball, a rock, or just yourself- to fundraise. To practice, we give them an assortment of dollar-store items and an hour to raise money on the streets outside the classroom. The winner's earning are matched by Global Grassroots. Here, one woman prepares to do some sort of trick with a bouncy-ball for a small crowd after explaining her project and purpose. The winning team used the props to do a sort of comedy-music-dance routine and raised almost $10 performing in small bars.

I was digging for a picture for this post and came up with this. Pretty embarrassing, and no idea why it's floating in my photo library. Or why I'm publicly acknowledging that. One of the team leaders organized his poor, illiterate students to colects rocks and bits of brick from the dirt road on their way to literacy class each night. Eventually they had a large pile, which they sold to a construction ocmpany. The revenue paid for books and pens.

 

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