Healing in War-Torn Uganda
a professor in the School for Social Work (SSW), Joanne
Corbin, an associate professor in the SSW, and Adrienne
Lee ’09, a STRIDE scholar, traveled
to Gulu, a commercial center in northern Uganda, for three
weeks in January to train counselors there who work with
children and families affected by the country’s long-running
civil war. Escaped child soldiers and other victims of
the war often travel to one of many IDPs (Internally Displaced
Persons) camps in Gulu, where workers and volunteers attempt
to provide psychological, medical and practical support.
team, together with their partners in Uganda, Stella
Ojera of Save the Children, and Father Remigio Obol of
the Archdiocese of Northern Uganda, collaborated on creating
training programs to assist with the healing from the
war, which is now in a cease-fire. Corbin and Lee, her
research assistant, have studied diverse aspects of child
soldiers, and Corbin spearheaded the Smith team’s
trip. Miller, who studies and assists with mental health
issues in disaster contexts, wrote the following account
of the team’s work in Uganda.
By Josh Miller
6:30 most mornings, to the sound of pealing church bells,
Adrienne Lee ’09 and I would meet in the dark inner
courtyard of the Archbishop of Gulu’s residence to
stretch. We would then unfasten the door to the outer
courtyard, talk and cajole our way past two fierce guard
dogs, and proceed to the large, bolted gate, where the
elderly gatekeeper would say “thank you” in
English, and let us out.
Large birds of prey called Black Kites typically wheeled
in the sky as we jogged down undulating, rutted, red-dirt
roads through the bush, past women carrying water and sticks
on their heads, men and women bicycling and children carrying
empty yellow jerry-cans on their way to find a working well.
Most people we passed would say “good morning” or
greet us in Luo, the language of the Acholi people. A few
children would giggle and point, some yelling “ciao” and “buon
giorno,” mistaking me for an Italian priest.
and I ran, Joanne Corbin would often go for a walk. During
one of her walks, she discovered in a nearby cemetery the
graves of nurses and doctors who died in the outbreak of
the Ebola virus in 2003.
The three of us were
in Gulu to work with Ugandan colleagues—whom
we later came to call our “brothers and sisters”—to
develop psychosocial capacity for the people of Northern
Uganda to rebuild and recover from a devastating 20-year
civil war. That war, primarily between the Ugandan government
and the Lord’s Resistance Army, a paramilitary group,
claimed many lives, damaged numerous bodies, and wounded
countless souls, including those of thousands of children
who were abducted to serve as soldiers.
Dr. Corbin, who
is an international expert on child soldiers, had been
to Gulu three times before while conducting her research.
She developed relationships with a local Acholi priest
and social worker, bringing both of them back to the Smith
College School for Social Work for two consecutive summers
to study and present to students. Together they mapped
out a psychosocial capacity building program in which I
was asked to participate, based on my experience of helping
families and communities recover from disasters.
We developed a trainer-of-trainers model. The four of us
(with a fifth Ugandan colleague) trained 20 Ugandan professionals
(social workers, teachers, youth workers, orphanage directors)
over three days. Teaching in English (which was spoken by
all participants), we integrated traditional Acholi healing
rituals and ceremonies with western notions of trauma, child
development, resiliency and healing. Rather than focus on
one-on-one counseling, we emphasized the use of drama, play,
music, dance, and storytelling, as well as working with families
and groups. We then divided the trainees into five groups,
with one of the five senior trainers as a team leader and
consultant. Each group went to a different Internally Displaced
Person’s (IDP) camp, where 20 camp leaders (health
workers, religious leaders, elders, youth workers, formerly
abducted soldiers, mothers) were offered a two-day version
of the original training, this time in Luo.
For all of the
trainings we provided food, pads, pencils and other materials.
When we needed a ball for an exercise, we fashioned one
out of paper and masking tape. The “students” in
both phases of the training were enthusiastic, receptive
and hungry for more. Many of the original group of
trainees invited us to visit their agencies (social service
agencies, schools, an orphanage, a night-commuter hostel
for children, an organization staffed by formerly abducted
soldiers) to consult with their staff and to map out future
training needs. We hope that this is just the beginning of
an ongoing partnership between Smith College and the people
of the Gulu district.
You might think it
would feel discouraging to witness the horrors of war, to
listen to these people’s stories
of violence and loss, and to witness thousands of people
living in IDP camps—undernourished children, child-headed
households, extreme poverty, debilitating illnesses (e.g.
HIV, TB, Malaria). On the contrary, all three of us left
Uganda feeling inspired and hopeful.
The rich Acholi
cultural traditions, the power of the community, the collectivity
and indomitable human spirit that shone through all of
our “students” and the many other
people we met was a strong reminder that while war, illness,
poverty and cultural upheavals cause tremendous damage and
inflict profound pain, we are all brothers and sisters and
together can muster the emotional, psychological and spiritual
resources to heal and recover. This belief and faith in human
resiliency infused us all: our trainees returned to their
jobs and clients at night after a full day of attending workshops
while Joanne, Adrienne and I returned in the dusk to the
Archbishop’s residence to process the day and plan
for tomorrow; talking about peace and hopes for the future
with priests and the Archbishop, and eating (among other
things) traditional Acholi black millet bread, grown in the
fields from where we had just run, walked, sweated and trained—infusing
us with nourishment, warmth and the passion to do more.