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Helping Healing in War-Torn Uganda

View a photo gallery of the Smith team's Uganda trip

Josh Miller (left) with IDP trainers in Uganda

Josh Miller, 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.

The Smith 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. 

Integrating Psychosocial Healing with Cultural Tradition in Uganda


By Josh Miller          

At 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.

While Adrienne 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. 

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