Friday, August 03, 2012

Border town: Gulu, gateway to Darfur, is Uganda's NGO heaven!

Still in search of information on human trafficking and child soldiers in Uganda, I hit the road with two Global Exchange experts on the subject, driving up to Gulu, a rugged frontier town next to the South Sudan border. For years now, Gulu has possessed the dubious distinctions of being the gateway for sending aid to Darfur and also home of the notorious child-killing monster Joseph Kony.

"There are over 500 NGO operations located in Gulu," someone there told me. 500? Really?

The streets of Gulu were jam-packed with black SUVs driven by NGO personnel and white SUVs driven by UN observers -- and also with Ugandans selling "Welcome to Uganda" T-shirts. The whole combination was WEIRD.

The first thing we did once we got to Gulu was to go straight to the Coffee Hut -- for Greek salads and espresso. The place was packed with "Mzungas" -- white people. And why not? The Coffee Hut offered free wi-fi!

But not all NGOs in Gulu are run by white people, however. Au contraire. Most are staffed by caring educated passionate capable Ugandans -- NGOs such as Invisible Children, the RON bread project, the Undugu Family Band, GUSCO, Human Rights Focus, Not For Sale and MEND -- just to name a few NGOs that I visited while in Gulu.

This border town has served as a supply-line to Darfur and southern Sudan for years now. But Gulu itself has also had its own problems in that it used to be at the eye of the Joseph Kony hurricane for many years. So forget about Darfur for the moment and let's concentrate on Joseph Kony. That man is one sick puppy!

First off, I learned that Kony had been terrorizing East Africa for over 22 years. "You don't last that long in the war game unless someone major is backing you," said one NGO rep. And just who might be backing Kony? The same corporate slime-balls who usually back everything wrong in this world. The "extraction industry" hit men who thrive on chaos because it gives them the opportunity to step in and steal oil and minerals from the natives -- from West Virginia and Iraq to East Timor and Darfur, they are there. And these guys are a talented lot. They steal and pilfer globally with great panache and never seem to get caught.

So I learned a lot about Joseph Kony while I was in Gulu. And we even drove by his mother's house outside of town. Kony was a homeboy.

One missionary stationed near Gulu told me, "The mayor of our village came to ask us to help him bury the dead because Ugandans don't like to handle dead bodies. So we went out into the fields and collected approximately 87 skeletons, victims of Kony's 2007 battles near the village. Two of them wore the LRA uniforms. Many of them were children."

Someone else told me that, "You can always tell where Kony is operating these days because he leaves a harvest of havoc behind him. People start showing up dead and children go missing and villages are destroyed. He is currently operating the the Central African Republic. You can tell by their latest swath of dead bodies."

Another man told me about his experiences with having the LRA raid his all-boy prep school when he was a kid. "An old man on a bicycle rode up and warned us that Kony's army was coming so we all scattered to safety in time. But no one warned our sister school, Aboke, and the girls there, the cream of Uganda's most intelligent and high-charactered girls, were mostly kidnapped and raped."

Apparently one old nun followed the soldiers, threw herself in front of Kony's soldiers and said, "To take these girls, you will have to kill me first," and many of the girls got away as a result. But the rest of them were forced to become child soldiers and sex slaves to the LRA. Tragedy.

After hearing so many stories about Kony in Gulu, I began to realize why one of the leaders of the "Invisible Children" NGO recently went a bit crazy. Kony was driving me crazy too!

We then talked with some staff members of Invisible Children. "IC is trying to help as many children as possible in many various different ways -- but it is a daunting task. For every child that we are able to help, there are over 500 more waiting in line with major needs."

Invisible Children offers 700 high school scholarships a year and 300 scholarships to college, as well as help in constructing school infrastructure all over this area. Kony would be truly pissed off.

Then on the drive back to Kampala, I discovered two more things -- rhinoceroses and chapatis. At a huge new rhino reserve, I got to actually walk within 100 feet of a nursing rhino mother and her calf. It was magical. And all along the roadside, people were selling handmade chapatis. YUMMERS! Well worth the trip to Uganda alone.

PS: Next I went off to Jinja, the source of the Nile. Wow. And sat beside the shores of Lake Victoria and ate some of the best pizza I've ever had. Zachery's in Oakland? Eat your heart out!

Jane Stillwater, fearless African explorer. "Dr. Livingston I presume?"

No, just the waiter, asking me if I wanted mushrooms or anchovies on my pizza. Of course I wanted mushrooms. "Got any olives?"

PPS: Global Exchange is also currently staging a fact-finding trip to Kabul, Afghanistan, that will explore the role of women in current Afghan society -- and will also include a side-trip to the former site of the legendary Bamiyan buddhas This is totally exciting! When I was in Kabul back in 2007, the only way that an American lady like me could get there was to ride on the floor of the back seat of a car while wearing a burka.

Sign up for the Afghanistan trip here and be your own fact-finder:


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