Thursday, August 7, 2014

World Vision

World Vision in Gulu is a rehabilitation center for child soldiers and LRA abductees. The Christian-based organization is present in 100 countries, working on child exploitation issues from child soldiers to prostitution to clean water and gender issues. The physical place in the Gulu site is a gated compound in town. We are greeted by staff members who give us an overview of the organization's mission, see some of the drawings done with children returned from captivity, and hear one woman's escape story.

An abducted child's drawing of the arduous jungle passage
Angela was abducted when she was a teenager and escaped when she was in her early twenties. Though she didn't have children of her own (an extraordinary fact given that rape is the norm for abducted women), she escaped with two other children and a young mother, hysterical with the risk of getting away. The children were two girls, ages 3 and 9. The nine-year-old belonged to one of the wives of a top general who begged Angela to take her daughter with her when she is finally ready to leave.

Angela tells us she had a voice in her head telling her she needed to take advantage of the moment to get away. At what she felt with the right moment, she found herself near tall grasses that seemed impenetrable. She doubted the possibility of escape. She tells the story that something inside of her compelled her to reach into the grasses upon which discovered a passage. She carried the three year old and the nine year old followed close behind. Trailing them was the mother of the three-year-old threatening the whole time to turn them in, but still following behind.

Her story feels Biblical. Something about the passage that seems to appear in the grass leaves me feeling the weight of her story. I find myself listening as both a fellow human being and as a parent, imagining what surrendering my own daughter to the hope of her survival and freedom might feel like. Back in the states when stories of nearly 60,000 Central American migrant children crossing the borders without their parents makes headlines, I am reminded of Angela's story and the sacrifice the mothers sometimes make in giving their children hope for a better life. 
Angela and me at World Vision, Gulu

After a difficult passage through dense vegetation and across rivers, Angela and the others reached Juba, a nearby town, and found a military man who helped them to safety, and ultimately to World Vision.

Now Angela works in the World Vision rehabilitation center. Her job entails documenting stories and working to help recent returnees get resettled into mainstream life. One of the biggest challenges is helping the children find a sense of community and adapt to life away from the bush. To many people, the children represent not abducted victims, but the returning offspring of violent militia men.

While many of the recently returned are isolated from society, she tells of powerful reunions between children who discover they share the same fathers, LRA fighters who indiscriminately raped many abducted women. Ironically it's the shared connection to these villains that offers the children a sense of family and belonging. We talk about the great potential in establishing support groups for these families as they work to settle in.

Invisible Children's relationship with World Vision is based on this shared goal of rehabilitation. Lauren Manning, Invisible Children's US staffer in Gulu and our host for the trip, travels with World Vision to villages in advance of the reintegration of LRA victims. While many are overjoyed to reconnect with loved ones, other individuals find the years away have left them disconnected and afraid.

Lauren tells me of one man who contemplates returning to the LRA because reintegrating is proving to be so stressful. 

Ongoing work with returning soldiers will be an important part of rehabilitation in the region.

A Rescue Vehicle at the World Vision Compound

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Three Schools

Funded by Invisible Children
Incredible day today. We visit three schools that have been supported by Invisible Children. Each school has been the beneficiary of fundraising campaigns, most significantly one called Schools for Schools in 2009-2010 that matched US regions to specific schools in Northern Uganda.

The first school we visit is Keyo, a school that Carlie, one of the other teachers on our trip, had helped to fund. The campus is tidy with small signs around campus offering aphorisms for living like "Aspire to Inspire before you Expire."

The first full classroom of students has wide open windows; long narrow, wooden desks; chalkboards; and rows of kids in tidy uniforms. We stand at the front of the classroom as the head teacher explains that we are part of Invisible Children. Carlie is overcome with emotion as she introduces herself and her connection to Keyo.

Carlie Frye greets Keyo Secondary School
Though the students' faces are stoic as we smile from the front of the room, when we circulate and introduce ourselves personally with the three-step Ugandan handshake, their faces crack into wide grins. 

Greeting students at Keyo
Being in one of the Schools for Schools sites is as surreal as stepping into a favorite book. The names of all the US schools that helped raise money for classrooms are carved into beautiful signs that hang near the entrance to the new buildings.

In each of the  classrooms we visit, the students are subdued under the eyes of their teachers, but when a few of us happen upon a roomful of kids waiting for their teacher, the teenagers are far more  playful, the kids enjoying laughing with us, shaking our hands, and giggling about questions we ask about being sneaky when teachers are out of the room. A couple of girls sitting outside another classroom are happy to have us come take pictures which they thrill to see.

After visiting the classrooms, the administrators invite us to a staff meeting room. They tell us about the impact of the "sponsorship" programs at the school then serve us a meal of yellow bread, hard boiled eggs, and bananas. For drinks they offer us water and chilled sugary sodas: orange crush, colas, and a strong ginger ale called Stoney that we have all grown to love.
Refreshments with Keyo faculty

We enjoy the refreshment and songs from a group of scholarship students who introduce themselves and sing for us. When we ask what they hope to study in University, they nearly all say medicine or education. The students ask some frank questions about IC "sponsorship" and want to know why IC isn't fully funding their schooling, paying only the tuition costs and not funding things like uniforms, as they have done in the past.

When we leave campus and get back on the bus, Lauren Manning, our American Invisible Children staffer who lives and works in Gulu, takes time to explain how IC has evolved in recent years, including being more mindful about sustainable development, something that's dogged the organization since the Kony 2012 fallout of the past year and a half.

This perpetual re-examination and mindfulness is one of the many things I admire about the organization. It has never be stagnant or unresponsive to the most progressive ideas of sustainable development and impact in the region.

We need the community and the families to be invested in these kids too, Manning explains. So IC pays tuition, but the remainder of the fundraising for other costs must come from elsewhere. Students are also expected to maintain a high level of performance to keep their scholarships from year to year. These are financial strategies for IC but also, more importantly, strategies that IC hopes will encourage more local engagement in change and development.
Jessica Goldman finds her school's name at Sacred Heart

The second school we visit is girls boarding school called Sacred Heart. The campus is immaculate and lovely. As at Keyo, aphorisms about living well dot campus. "Stave off Evil."

Students at this school arrive the first day and are sequestered on campus for the duration of the school year, a strategy to keep them both safe and focused. A young woman in a well-tailored skirt suit greets us. Prescovia is an Invisible Children scholarship graduate and former Roadie who is now Academic Assistant to the Head Teacher.

Each of Invisible Children's traveling Roadie campaigns included a Ugandan who was an important part of offering witness for the stories of the war and life in Northern Uganda under Kony's terror.  This interchange of people sharing stories and connecting personally has been a powerful component in IC's desire to cultivate the sense of global family.
Girls at Sacred Heart watch us arrive

Lilli Cairl, one of the girls on the trip, is thrilled to see Prescovia, the Roadie who visited her school in California when she was touring. These reunions continue throughout our trip as each of reconnect with Ugandans we'd met on Invisible Children tours.

Lili Cairl reunites with Prescovia
The students are dressed in pink schoolgirl dresses and line the balconies to watch us arrive, smiling and waving. Their hair is uniformly shaven quite short, something done for both simplicity and sanitation.

We visit a classroom where two of the girls demonstrate an Achioli dance. Three in our group, Carlie Frye, Kristin Pedley and Lisa Jayne, offer a few rounds of the Electric Slide in return.

Our final school visit is to the local Gulu high school, the largest of the three with over 1700 students. We are greeted by the Head Teacher, an older woman who will retire within the next year due to Uganda's retire by 60 rule. When I ask what she plans to do with her time after leaving the school and she tells me of a project to help rural kids become literate.

She leads us into a recently completed building that was funded by IC. The ground level is a room filled with new bookshelves and desks. Upstairs is an assembly hall with a stage that can seat 1000.

Outside in the courtyard hundreds of teenagers gather for announcements and a random assortment of broadcast music. I ask what percentage of kids in Gulu go to school. I am told the number is around 60%.

From that time on, every time I see a kid not in school, I think of that remaining 40%, left to sell cakes from street corners, if they are among the lucky few to get jobs. It's an important reminder of how much still needs to be done to help kids get to school.

After our tour, the Head Teacher invites us to see her office where we sign a guest book.

A picture of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni hangs crooked and off-center on the wall behind her desk.
A campus sign at Keyo Secondary School

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Road to Gulu

The road to Gulu: a roadside market

Riding on the road to Gulu is a constant game of chicken. The road is too narrow to easily accommodate all the traffic which includes shipping trucks, full size passenger buses, cars, motorcycles (called bodas), bicycles, people on foot with balanced packages on their heads, children walking with parents or friends, and travelers "footing" it to their destination. As the road continues north, it gets increasingly treacherous, in some places not even paved, in others the paving is in such disrepair that there are severe potholes and deep ruts in the road sometimes as much as ten inches off the edge of the road.

Drivers, including ours, drive in the middle of the road, the best part, until just before passing when each driver must decide who will yield. If you happen to be a boda or on foot, you must yield to the motor vehicles who toot warnings in the seconds before they pass. At several times in the ride, I am sure we will collide, a pedestrian or cyclist will be killed or the side of our bus will be ripped open like tin or we'll head-on collide and fly through the interior of the van like Penelope Cruz in the film Frida when the trolley Frida is riding on collides with a truck.

Commuting to work
Incredibly, we never crash. My travel mates quickly learn my road travel anxiety and begin to find it funny to gasp along with me when the passing looks especially risky. Leaning to the center of the bus or just covering my eyes and praying is all I can do. It's a lesson in letting go, for sure!

When we cross the Nile, bands of baboons and small monkeys, all well-segregated, gather at the edge of the road, hopeful for passers-by to toss leftovers from the road trip. They stick incredibly close to the main track of the road and several times pass so close in front of us in what seems casual saunters across the highway that I am sure we are going to hit one. Incredibly we never do.

We arrive in Gulu by 7:00 after nearly 10 hours of African Coaster. I make myself feel better by reminding myself that this leg is done, only once more will I have to travel this road, at the end of the week when we ride to Jinja to raft on the Nile.
Baboons on the roadside

Our guest house is a sweet house with the only other guests another group of activists who leave the next day. This group is working to raise scholarship funds for an organization called Unified for Uganda. They complain a bit about the food, a walk to Murchison Falls they describe as torturously long, and thin mattresses. They are excited to hear we are from Invisible Children; a couple of them are veterans of the 4th Estate and greet us like old friends.

After a dinner of local pizza, we get our first lecture about local life. David Occite was born in the year the LRA conflict began. "When you look at me," he tells us, "you can see what the length of the conflict looks like in the age of human being"-- a powerful reminder of this long-lasting turmoil.

He tells us of getting an opportunity to go to college while his friends, young neighbors whose parents had been killed by the LRA, were unable to attend. Occite had a scholarship. At college, Occite learned of Invisible Children and its work to raise scholarship money. He knew he had to work for IC at any cost. In danger of losing his scholarship, Occite composed a letter to the college dean explaining that he wanted nothing more than to go to the United States and travel around the US raising money with IC Roadies for peers who could not go to school. Incredibly, or maybe not once you meet Occite, the school made special arrangements to make it possible.
Jaclyn Licht and IC trip leader Jess Morris with David Occite

He is incredibly articulate, somehow almost like a Ben Keesey without quite the same ferocity. After hearing his story, he offers an orientation to culture in Gulu. We learn how people from Gulu speak with their eyebrows, will enjoy being greeting in Acholi, and a hilarious difference: will tell you that you look fat which means that you look healthy, a compliment.

By the end of the orientation, I feel so tired my eyelids are trembling. Tomorrow we'll visit some local schools. I turn in early, hoping to be up first for a decent shower before the house wakes.

Getting Rolling

Day 1 in Uganda
I wake refreshed and lift the mosquito netting like a bridal veil and crawl down to my suitcase to get things for my cold shower, a baptism to Uganda.

Steve Armitage, explorer
Outside, the air is cool. I see Ally, one of the three teachers on the trip, running the perimeter. She tells me about a guy cooking his breakfast in an open air hut in an open camping area, frying eggs with one hand and working on a Macbook with the other. I can't resist going to meet him.

Steve Armitage was in the midst of his goal of riding his BMW from his home in Devon, England to all continents. He started in the UK in July of 2013 and planned to continue "until his money runs out." I ask him about the most memorable moment on his adventures thus far. He talks about riding through Ghana and people standing on the road offering him fruits for his journey. They had nothing, he recalls, but offered me anything they had to sustain me.

When I return from Uganda, I email Steve the pictures I took and discover that soon after I met him, he had a traffic collision in Zambia and severely fractured his leg. After preliminary treatment, he returned home for surgery where he is recovering. Despite many images of pins and slings around his painful looking leg, Steve is smiling. I imagine he is counting the days until he can get back on the road.
Steve Armitage's African transport

Breakfast at the Hideaway that morning is eggs and French pressed coffee, not as yummy as coffee from home, but I am glad for coffee which many of us feared we might not be able to find. In fact for the remainder of the trip, we have only bitter coffee granules to melt in hot water.

After breakfast, we head out to exchange our money at Nukumatt Oasis, a posh shopping area behind a fenced area protected by armed guards. It's clearly been designed for Western visitors or wealthy locals. We spend a small allowance we've been given on snacks for the road. I follow Tony's lead and get some yogurt and chapatis, flat, thick, flour tortillas.

Charles and our "Coaster"

For the rest of the day, we ride in an overstuffed Toyota Coaster, a large passenger van with a lot of windows. We are beginning to bond with our driver, Charles, who becomes not only our transportation but also something of a father figure. Early in the trip, the girls re-write the lyrics to NONONO's "Pumpin' Blood" to include a refrain with Charles' name as the centerpiece that we sing joyfully many times on the trip.

Kampala is bustling even though it's Sunday. The roadsides are packed with humanity: many roadside markets with potatoes stacked into neat pyramids, piles of green bananas, pineapple, towering bags of charcoal, cassava roots, sinewy meat slung over the edges of wooden stands, live chickens crowded into crates awaiting slaughter. Some pockets of men gather around metal parts and bicycles welding, repairing, and rigging transportation and cook stoves. Goats on ropes munch in tall grasses. Women mend fabrics or sit with children on grass mats. Children play with tires or sticks or walk together in small groups. Caramel colored curs wait expectantly for leftovers around open fires.

Occasionally traffic stops and vendors crowd to the windows of the Coaster to sell us mangoes, sweet sodas, roasted corn, or meat on sticks. The corn is unlike any corn we've tried before. Almost like fresh corn nuts rather than the sweet milky kernals we're used to.
Emily Ip and Ana Kyriakos enjoy some roadside roasted corn

The roads are pot-holed and narrow. We are told not to take pictures, something that is somewhat agonizing as the scene is rich. I try to memorize the images I see.

We feel Africa folding us in.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Triage of Planes

Red Chili Hideaway, Kampala

As we cross the US, then the Atlantic and finally head South slicing through Europe to cross the Mediterranean to the North Africa desert and down to our sub Saharan destination, we are an amalgamation of enthusiasm and good humor, still bathing in our incredible fortune of the trip. We pass the time grazing on TV and movies, trying to sleep in awkward rubber-necked positions in our seats that seem to become more like little islands of existence for each flight package. We become increasingly vocal with row mates, telling people about the trip, about Invisible Children, our confidence and enthusiasm bolstered by Ben Keesey's parting words and the first hand experience we're rocketing towards.

At the end of the flight to Newark, a middle-aged man grumbles that his wife imagines they'd go out for dinner that night. He says how exhausted he is after the transcontinental flight we are concluding. I can't resist telling him we have two more flights even longer than the one we're on. He's aghast at our eagerness to literally go to the ends of the earth.

In Brussels, at the end of our Atlantic passage, we've acquired another traveler, a young woman who looks like she should have in fact been one of us. Jess introduces her and tells us she's going to Uganda on a mission with HEAL Africa. She seems eager to join us in our anticipation of finally getting to Africa during our layover. 

Ana, one of my fellow IC travelers, hears she's going to work with HEAL and gets out her book, Half the Sky, which has a chapter on their work. She quickly leafs to the chapters about HEAL that celebrates the organization's work with women in DR Congo repairing fistulae.

Our last plane, the final flight to Entebbe is filled mostly with white faces wearing church tee shirts, a African boys' choir returning home after a tour of the UK, and a small scattering of what might be Rwandans and Ugandans returning from trips abroad. The mood is bright, like the brand new Brussels airplane itself, an immaculate vessel with "pursers" wearing thin lipped smiles, tailored uniforms, and thin ties.

We are spread all over the plane in clusters, mine near two medical missionaries heading to Kigali to help train Rwandan medical students in ACL surgery. One, a doctor, the other a prosthetics sales rep traveling to assess the market. I tell them about Paul Farmer, the physician hero whose work in Haiti was the topic of so many discussions in my colleague Ken Sommer's Community and Development course from last semester at school. Farmer's mission: Provide First World medical care in Third World countries.

Seated behind them is an international studies major with a full sleeve of tattoos, the dominant one, a large Chinese dragon. His tattoos are saturated in fresh, rich colors. He was traveling to Kigali as part of a trip for a course to explore post-genocide Rwanda, an economic model that Amadou Sy of the Brookings Institution's Africa Growth Initiative calls "a good example for the rest of Africa." This will be his first trip outside the US.

Our last flight is a a mix of excitement and building exhaustion from lack of sleep. The long flight is the bizarre semi-wakeful fitfulness of upright sleeping and service carts that appear randomly without any natural relationship to our sense of mealtime.

We prepare to land in Kigali in the darkness, a cruel veiling of the exotic world that we are entering. I soak in the place names on the screen in front of me: Lome, Lusaka, Nairobi, Bangui, Mbujui-Mayi, Zanzibar, Arusha, Bujumbura, Kisangani, Kongo, Musoma, Rwamagana, Gitarama, Kibungo--all rising up like vapors at the back of the man's head in front of me.

When we land, I say goodbye to the medical boys who disembark, incredibly having slept most of the flight. Once the people who are going to Kigali have disembarked, we hear rumors of ice cream cones and go in search of what we missed while we were sleeping, a reassurance of having gotten at least some sleep.

The plane fills up again with people leaving Rwanda. I move my seat to make room for a family to travel together and move to sit next to Johann, an IT guy from Stockholm University sent to help a sister university in Kigali set up their network. We talk ed tech as a get-to-know-you, then Johann bubbles over with trip stories. He asks me if we're going to see the gorillas while in Uganda, something I had dreamed might be part of our itinerary. It wasn't. He tells me, "I'll bring the gorillas to you." He then spends the rest of the flight showing me photos and videos of a gorilla family he went to see in area of forest that Dian Fossey had done her work. He is giddy.

He laughs about slippery trails and muddy shoes, a guide car on fire at the side of the road (his own), and most lovingly about the gorillas and the children who smile and wave at them wherever they go. I realize I am getting his stories first and they deliver like tree-ripened fruits, full of the flavor of the land they grew from. It's a delightful two-hour flight that passes like water.

Our night time arrival continues to conceal the landscape beneath us as we land. At the luggage terminal, we grab our bags and head towards the throngs gathered to meet passengers. Smiling and holding a sign that says "Invisible Children Loves You" is Tony Buzilo, one of the boys featured in the original IC film, Rough Cut, now an IC celebrity. We roll our bags out into the inky darkness to a rough surfaced parking lot where two opportunistic locals help us load our bags into our the bus. As we stand there, I barely catch the silouhette of a Ugandan military man holding a rifle who passes behind us like a shadow.

The road to the Red Chili Hideaway, about a 45 minute ride from the airport, is surprisingly busy, traffic a steady stream in the opposite direction. The roads have no painted lines. People drive in the middle of the road until other traffic forces them over. A driving style that brings this back seat driver to resign control to the fates of the road. On the side of the road, locals gather over open fires roasting meat and socializing or huddle in doorways watching World Cup. I am exhausted but eager to see it all with my eyes which somehow seem too small to capture it all.

Red Chili Hideaway is a welcomed sight. A group of Americans are gathered poolside, the voices rising enough only so we can detect that they are American. We sleep in bunk bed dorms draped in mosquito nets. I don't remember any of it.

Meredith Hoffman holding the sign that Tony held at the airport.

Friday, July 25, 2014

San Diego Initiation

Our group in San Diego
I woke early in the little boutique hotel, Hotel Vyvant, at the top of the hill, nearly under the expressway-- a sweet little place with thick, scarred bannistered stairs leading to lettered rooms. I got "R," which I decided to privately call the Rob Room in honor of my husband left home with our two, young children.

Still on East Coast time, I woke around 5:00 a.m., then decided I should walk as much as possible in the time leading up to the jet packaging we'd be subject in our journey to the Pearl of Africa. I discover that the hotel is located truly at the perimeter of Little Italy, which is mostly quiet at this time, about 6:00 a.m.

I walk down to the seaboard and admire an impossibly complicated array of lines festooned on an antique tall ship that has a golden Athena holding a torch at the bow. See the tops of two submarines trimmed with seaweed fringes waving just below the water's surface, the exposed part of the vessel, a thick patina of black paint and small windows. I see the world's oldest steel hulled ship that's plowed big sea crossings since the 1800s. The paint is thick. The exterior reminding me of the thick edges of feet uncomfortable wearing shoes.

Walking back through the streets of the village, a homeless woman carrying dozens of stuffed bags shouts to the second story of a single story building to a lover only she can see: "You never loved me."

Back at the hotel, a couple of hours still to spare, I take a hot shower, shave my legs, floss my teeth, and sit in a bleach scented terrycloth robe and watch an episode of Dexter on Netflix.

In the lobby, a bright, cheerful place, two women older than me and a family from Hawaii sit enjoying locally made granola, Greek yogurt, and coffee that indeed tastes as good as it smells. The two women, Mary and Lisa, are traveling friends, both teachers. The couple from Hawaii traveling with their aloof teenage boy are both docs, one a geriatric specialist from a VA hospital. We talk about the current media attention on VA, young people inspired to global activism, and the challenges of managing middle school students. Mary talks of her husband Steve who used to work in judicial justice probation program who always reminded people that kids are all really "just kids."

Though I have a cool taxi app that I want to experiment with, I decide instead to get the front desk clerk, a bright faced, flower-shirted 20-something, to print me a Google walking map so I can try to prepare for the many hours of sitting on planes.

The walk is just over two miles, through downtown San Diego, past a law library with the tagline, "making law public." I imagine the Righteous consulting with busy librarians to find precedent for an array of injustices that need resolution. I picture Invisible Children inner circle member Jedidiah Jenkins studying at a long table inside for his bar exam.

The New Children's Museum, San Diego
I admire a painting garden at a children's museum, a place where children can paint a small windmill and a tractor. So many small hands have stroked brushes across the rubber and metal that the equipment seems melting, a hot farm-themed mess, thickly frosted cakes dripping slowly into the rubberized surface beneath them.

I pass a convention center, quiet except for a large group of camp kids who crowd the sidewalk on their way to some landmark, I imagine the seaweed laced submarine or perhaps the tall ship receiving their little sneakered feet. I pass Padre Park into an area of town bustling with shelter residents and street people, starting the day, waking, greeting each other on sidewalks that smell undeniably like urine.

My suitcase tires are visibly wearing away as I roll them on the rough walk from the hotel. By this point they are now only the much smaller interior part of the wheel which I hope is much stronger and can endure the long trip. I imagine myself as an animated figure walking to the IC office, bits of my tire falling apart along the way, my suitcase tipping over to one tire as I drag it across trolley tracks and curbs. I am minutes away from the office, the beehive of what has been such an iconic organization for me since 2005.

I feel giddy, like someone surely made a mistake by inviting me, a feeling that comes like cookie-stealing imp into my psyche at intervals along the trip. A broad shouldered, somewhat disheveled man on the sidewalk watches me coming and asks "where you going?" To which I proudly proclaim "I am going to Africa." The words sound fake coming out of my mouth, an opening to an annoying song from a musical about a misguided girl in an urban landscape out imagining adventures for herself.

The IC office is an unassuming brick building a couple of blocks away. I go in the front door unsure if this is where I am to be. I head up a flight of stairs and see a large African mask leaning against a landing. This must be the place.

A messy pile of suitcases rests at the top of the stairs. I am welcomed by smiling face behind a desk who seems to already know who I am. This could be the Matrix, I conclude. I am dreaming or they think I someone else.

In a small fishbowl meeting room, young people gather in small huddles talking excitedly. Inside, I discover the mix is both ZeroLRA trip winners, IC staffers, and interns happily getting acquainted.

One of the first people I talk to is Julian, who works as a "Central Africa" intern. Julian, whose nationality is French-American, came to Invisible via Washington, DC where he worked as a lobbyist. He learned of IC when a large group of activists came for an event called Move DC, a rally designed to bring legislative attention to the LRA crisis held in 2009. Over time, the rally resulted in several key pieces of legislation that provide US support for Ugandan forces working to eradicate the LRA. More details about the legislative impact of IC's lobbying efforts are detailed on the group's website here.

Julian's job now is monitoring the LRA's movement north of Uganda to the border lands of Sudan, the Central African Republic, and DR Congo where the group has retreated. Some speculate that the Sudanese government may be providing support or at least coverage from capture. A 2012 BBC report offers more details in this article, "Ugandan army says Sudanese backing Joseph Kony's army."

Because communications are often made in French, Julian's fluency has been invaluable. He tells me they have a pretty good idea of exactly where Kony is now, a region right above the "R" on a map that CEO Ben Keesey shows us later in a debriefing. 

Another intern, Evan, talks about his work as an engagement intern for IC, working to connect student groups and individual supporters in unified approaches to fundraising. His enthusiasm for meeting the group is palpable. Later that night, he stays up late in the IC staff house playing improv games with some of the members of our group, unable to sleep.

We get a tour of the office, an exposed-beam, brick-walled great room, painted white adorned with enlarged images of Africans in bright clothing, grinning widely or working on various IC initiatives such as Mend, a women's work co-op that makes sturdy, drab colored messenger bags and clutches, adorned with leather patches that tell the story of each bag maker.

As one might imagine, there are large Apple monitors and cool tchotchke-laden mantels and desktops in every partitioned space. Some outer edged offices have large, modern couches, well-worn from any of what must be dozens of daily gatherings of interns and employees. In one office an old golden retriever passively accepts ear rubs and doggie coos.

We have a thick day, fully scheduled after the bagel meet and greet. Once basic introductions are concluded, we head out to a local waterside park where we gather in a circle for a game of Two Truths and a Lie where each player must offer two interesting truths about personal life experiences and one fictional "lie." We share a smattering of odd facts with each other about senior pranks gone bad, unusual living situations, and embarrassing moments.

After this fun get-to-know-you, we pile back into the red vans to return to the office where Jason Russell will greet us and offer some advice for our trip. I am sitting next to Raychel, a just-graduated high school student from Ohio who looks at me wide-eyed when Jason enters the room. I am sympathetic. Inside I feel like a groupie backstage at a rock concert. It's hard to stay cool. I tell her I am feeling the same way, not quite nauseated, but blood jumping like it does when the dinosaur gets close in Jurassic Park and the water begins to ripple. But everyone else looks so calm, Raychel observes.

I recall a quote I read in a piece by Rob Lowe about sending his eldest son off to college, a piece of advice he offers his nervous son as he drops him off. "Don't compare your insides to other people's outsides." In fact, I find out later we were all regulating our responses, containing what could have easily been a scene like something from the Ed Sullivan show when the Beatles were introduced.

Russell works his way around the room greeting everyone personally, shaking our hands, and embracing us. In his hands are rolled up printouts of bios we were asked to submit prior to our trip. When he comes to me he hugs me and asks of all the interesting life experiences I have had, what's the most memorable.

"This is the moment. Right now," I tell him. 

After Russell's warm greeting and a sneak preview of video in progress, we meet Ben Keesey, Invisible Children's CEO, another person whose life has taken form in the context of this global imperative. Ben is red-eyed and placid, fresh off a plane from the East Coast where he's been in what he terms a "high security" meeting with government advisors and military officials about the LRA and the work of Invisible Children. "Don't post this on Facebook," he admonishes.

For the next hour, he tells us about the changes in Kony's strategies, how he's taken to lying low, advised his army not to launch any large-scale atrocities because of the danger of attracting attention in the face of an active international search for the LRA. "He's not stupid," Keesey tells us. "He's not a madman."

Quite recently, a top-level official was caught when the group he was traveling with decided to split into two, a large and a small group in an attempt to thwart the trackers on their trail. Knowing the ruse, the trackers made the decision to follow the smaller group which turned out to be the magic door. The officer was caught easily when his small group of five was out-numbered by the larger group of missionaries on his trail.

He was caught without incident of violence.

Perhaps the work Keesey seems most proud of, however, is the work to embolden soldiers to defect and return to their communities where often their families wait eagerly for their return. He shows us pictures a recent defector, a floppy hatted, young man with a lovely lop-sided smile. Video clips show him being embraced by what looks like a long-lost sibling who races to greet him as he returns home after nearly ten years in captivity as a child solider.

"He works for us now," Ben smiles. This newly returned former soldier is one of the weekly voices broadcast through radio towers to captive fighters ensconced in the jungle. It turns out that one of the most powerful catalysts for young soldiers is being convinced that they won't face prosecution for the crimes they were forced to commit under Joseph Kony.

A Invisible Children strategy to encourage defection is the printing and distribution via airdrop of flyers depicting former soldiers who have successfully defected. The hope is that seeing familiar faces on flyers might counteract some of the lies the LRA tells its soldiers about defectors being executed. Since the initiative began, nearly 1.5 million flyers have been dropped. Keesey tells us that they've recently learned that their flyers need to be smaller, more easily concealed by defector hopefuls from their violent commanders. The organization uses feedback like this regularly in its redesigns.

Another recent defection victory is a man who once held a middle management position in Kony's army. Since the war began, the man had fathered five children, offspring he hoped would not have to grow up in the army, on the run, perpetrators of war crimes. When interviewed about his defection, a process that helps to gather intelligence and insight about IC strategy effectiveness, the man told his interviewers that he thought he might not himself escape prosecution but that he had decided the lives of his children were worth the risk.

"He works for us now too," Keesey literally giggles as he tells us.

This strategy of fighting war with peace and compassion is not a new concept. Ghandi preached peaceful non-violence as a means of affecting change. Martin Luther King also talked about peaceful and intelligent resolution to conflict. Invisible Children has likewise taken this position: the belief that good can prevail, that hard work pays off, and that ultimately perseverance, grit, and yes, love can trump terror.

Keesey concludes with his advice about our trip. Be nice to each other, he reminds us. Be ready to roll with changes in the schedule. If you are told it's time to go, get on the bus quickly. Journal. Find time to process. You will be deeply impacted by this experience. It will be emotional. You'll come home from this experience and you'll want to punch anyone who doubts you. Don't do that, he grins. And finally, drink it in. Even you are not inclined to participate in a tribal dance with a bunch of strangers, get over yourself and just do it. You will thank yourself. You need to do it all.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Flowers at Baker's Fort

Reactions to News of My Trip to Uganda

My Husband
Me: I won a trip to Uganda!
Husband: You don't even have life insurance. 

Two Doctor Friends
Get shots. Bring antibiotics. Do you have antibiotics?

Admissions Director at my school to prospective parent
Camela is one of our teachers. She works at the Upper Campus. She's going to Uganda with a group called Invisible Children.
Yes, it's one of the programs we support with our students here.

Woman in Health Food Store
First weeps. Then tells me I have Margaret Mead to thank for the privilege I am about to enjoy. I think about the NPR interview I just heard with Sally Ride's biographer who says how Ride truly believed that she was the beneficiary of many years of the women's right movement.

I think: am I like Sally Ride? In my little world, ever expanding with awareness, I feel like yes, I kind of am like Sally Ride. Thanks, Margaret Mead. Thanks, health food store clerk.

TSA Security
"Where you headed?"
Yes. Uganda.
Wow. That's surprising. I guess not surprising to you though. You've been saving for this trip for years, right?
I smile.
It was a gift.
What? You are a gift?
No, the trip was a gift. I am traveling with a group of peace activists who invited me to come along.