Gulu: World Vision

World Vision is probably one of the most heart-wrenching, yet awesome places we visited in Gulu. It is pretty much just because of God that Tricia was able to get us in to see it and hear about their work in Gulu.

World Vision is and has been committed to the reception, rehabilitation, and reintegration of formerly abducted children in northern Uganda. What that means is that as child soldiers are rescued or escape from the LRA, World Vision helps them recover and return to life. It was established in 1995 to help formerly abducted persons from captivity by the LRA. Since that time, over 19,000 people have gone through their program.

We sat in a room together that had a mural around the top of the walls. The first painting showed a happy family living life typical to the Acholi people. The next painting shows the LRA coming in and kidnapping, murdering, and burning building. Next, a line of children who are tied together with ropes are showed walking through the bush. Sometimes the children were able to escape; other times they were rescued by the military. The children (or adults, depending how long they had been in captivity for) are brought to World Vision. They are first assessed for physical needs. Most are treated at the hospital for bullet wounds, other injuries, or disease. Many of the girls who are discovered to be pregnant from rape. After the hospital, the children return to the World Vision center where they receive help for psychological trauma, and the World Vision team works to reunite them with their family. World Vision works to document their stories, and provide food, clothing, and medical care. As you can imagine, there is a lot for these former child soldiers to deal with, including but not limited to: depression, PTSD, poverty and stigma at home.

Psychological support includes individual and group counseling. As parents are traced and found, the parents are also counseled on how to accept their child back as well as how to react, respond, and handle their children. World Vision is a Christian organization and also provides spiritual counseling. Art therapy is used to help the children process through their experiences and open up about their fears and memories. We were able to look at some of the drawings the children did during their art therapy sessions. Some pictures were of what life was like before the war or what they hope their life to be like after. Other drawings completely broke my heart: a child should not be able to draw a machine gun with such accuracy. Soldiers, helicopters, guns, prisoners, and blood were the reality of so many children for so long.

When a child was mentally and physically ready, they were reunited with their family. Sometimes families and communities would not want to accept the person back. Others were welcomed home.

Even though the war has moved out of Uganda, there are still returnees from the DR Congo, Central Africa, and South Sudan continue to get support from World Vision.

Shortly before our visit, several former child soldiers had escaped the LRA and had arrived at World Vision. These formerly abducted persons were all in their 20s and 30s – they had been kidnapped between ages 8 and 12 and were held captive in the LRA for 10-18 years.

Funding for World Vision Uganda is dwindling, as there are not many returnees anymore – they may not be keeping their doors open for much longer. As we left, I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the work that World Vision has done, and also considered how life might be today for those who escaped the LRA. How do you recover from trauma that intense and long lasting? I feel like by our own human strength we cannot move beyond it. I’m glad we have a big God who can redeem lives.

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Acholi Quarter

I have started this post multiple times, but nothing I can say seems to adequately describe my afternoon at the Acholi Quarter. 

Maybe I will start with a little back story.

I’m guessing that most of you are at least somewhat familiar with the war that went on in Northern Uganda with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – Joseph Kony and his child soldiers.

What you may not know is that the tribe that lives in the province of Gulu is the Acholi tribe, and so so many of these beautiful people were displaced by the war. 

Over 11,000 people now live in the Acholi Quarter – a slum that was a place of refuge for the Acholi people during 20 years of war in their homeland.  What began as temporary housing for refugees has slowly transformed into a settled place to live (I don’t want to use the word home, because there is nothing comfortable, cozy, or nice about the living conditions here).  One women I met summed it up simply by reiterating that life here is hard.  A simple sentence with a depth that I cannot fathom. 

Houses are made of mud or tin or scrapwood or brick.  There are open latrines, a lack of running water, and poor sanitation.  Main sources of income include making jewelry of paper beads, and working at the rock quarry.  We had a chance to see the rock quarry.  Men walk down into this steep ravine and carry up giant rocks and boulders.  Women and children then do the work of breaking it up into smaller rocks.  The work is extremely dangerous and slow.  Worst of all, the pay is ridiculously minimal.  We met many many children, many of whom do not receive education because their families cannot afford school fees. 

We went to the Acholi Quarter to meet Sara’s friend Tricia, who’s ministry in the Acholi Quarter is called Africa Arise.  Tricia doesn’t want her ministry to be about the West coming in and “fixing” things, but rather she wants to empower and enable Ugandans to help Ugandans.  Africa Arise employs Ugandans to carry out the work of the ministry, which I think is really cool.  The ministry works with both Non-Government Organizations and governmental organizations to advocate for the Acholi people.  They don’t want to recreate the wheel, but rather to help mobilize the systems and structures that are already in place in Uganda. 

Tricia and her team took some time to share with us about what they do.  She said that she considered having some people who have gone through their program speak with us about how God has transformed their lives.  But ultimately they want to protect the Acholi people and not put them on display.  Every single one of these people have been affected by the war – whether they were displaced, raped, or forced to be child soldiers.  We don’t need to know people’s specific pasts.  I really respected that a lot. 

The ministry works in a few different ways.  Counseling is one Africa Arise’s main focuses.  Since these people have suffered immensely during the war, seen horrendous things, and likely been forced to do unthinkable acts, trauma counseling is an incredible need.  Tricia shared that the people were so grateful, as they are the first group to offer counseling not only to women and children, but also to men.  One of the guys who does counseling said that one focus they work through is the issue of forgiveness.  How do you help someone say, “I forgive you, Joseph Kony”?  I cannot imagine how hard it would be to forgive, but forgiveness is necessary to find healing and new life.

Africa Arise also has a discipleship program, as well as a resettlement program to help the Acholi people move home again.  Moving home to Gulu isn’t just a matter of packing up and moving.  There are a lot of factors that make it difficult.  Some people moved away so long ago, they don’t know if they still have their land, others suffered such horrible trauma, the thought of going back to the site of these horrors is unthinkable. Some children have sponsorship for their education in Kampala, and families don’t want to move their children back to Northern Uganda where schools are just being reestablished and sponsorship isn’t as readily available.  For others, they have lived in this urban slum for so long that they don’t have the agricultural skills or job skills needed for their former way of life.  Regardless of specific roadblocks, starting over is hard.

Africa Arise wants to help people dream again.  To dream of a brighter future.

Despite the hardship, traumatic pasts, and extreme poverty that mar life in the Acholi Quarter, there is also healing and hope.  There is new life being found.  Jesus is transforming people.

We walked through the Acholi Quarter and slowly picked up a band of followers.  Kids are kids regardless of life circumstances.  We looked past the rags on their bodies and the ringworm on their heads and we loved them.  We held their hands.  We danced and sang and played and laughed. 

It whispers of a reflection of how Jesus looks past the rags and disease of sin in our lives and he chooses to love us, regardless of our past. 

We visited the quarry and our hearts broke for these people’s hard way of life that they did not choose.

We visited homes and ooohed and aaahed over the cutest newborn twins you will ever see.

We prayed for families.

I so wish we’d had more than an afternoon at the Acholi Quarter.

These people stole my heart.  I don’t know how to adequately describe the Acholi Quarter to you.  For sure there is heartbreak.  But just as surely there is also hope.

And that is a beautiful thing. 

Visit www.africaarise.ca to learn more about the work that the Lord is doing through Tricia and her team.  For as much as I just saw a glimpse into these people’s lives and they touched my heart, the Lord knows them intimately and loves them deeply, and is redeeming them from the hardship and despair they have experienced.