Monday, March 12, 2012


‘What’s all this Kony2012 stuff eh?’ I was on a snowboard in the French Alps last week enjoying a restorative break from emails and our social networked world. I have been asked for my thoughts and listened to others opinions and I have felt an impending sense of dread about watching the video. I have just watched it.

I really don’t want to be overly cynical and especially don’t wish to criticise anyone who, with the best intentions, has supported this campaign. I’m glad that people are talking and hope this conversation will continue to delve deeper, to explore, to broaden our minds and to move our hands and feet.

A bit about my background (skip this bit if you’ve heard it already!)
Overall the Kony 2012 campaign is entirely surreal to me. My major interest, research and passion over the past few years has been on raising awareness about children who have been affected by war and attempting to provide the best possible assistance to them. I have heard hundreds of stories from young people about killing, rape, mutilation, looting, beating and grief. Many evenings over pints with local friends in Uganda and the DRC I have asked questions about the political, spiritual and cultural forces that have caused this trauma.

It was meeting victims of the LRA in northern Uganda that helped me decide to quit teaching and study for a psychology doctorate. In 2010 we worked in Gulu, northern Uganda, with over 200 former child soldiers and other war-affected children. After that we spent a couple of years designing interventions that to the best of our ability were evidence-based, culturally-appropriate and effective in treat trauma and psychological distress in former child soldiers, sexually-exploited girls and other war affected children. Last year we spent 3 months in the Democratic Republic of Congo delivering and evaluating this intervention. It was the first group intervention to be developed for child soldiers and evaluated in a controlled trial. Since then we have published papers and spoken at conferences, universities, churches, radio and newspapers in an attempt to raise awareness and encourage others to do similar work. My friend and colleague Paul is currently working with former child soldiers and their families in Dungu, DRC.

I mention these things not to compare or draw attention but rather to show my amazement at the great power of a 30-minute video clip in getting people talking. Our own travels and work pale in comparison to the 30+ years of life that has been dedicated by other amazing people who have quietly lived for others through the worst years of the wars in Uganda and the DRC.

The Kony2012 clip is powerful, firstly because it is extremely well-made and secondly because it is simple, black+white and clear. One of the reasons that I have found it difficult to tell our stories at times is because there are so many nuances, intricacies and shades of grey. I will be clear on this one though. In my opinion the Kony2012 campaign is oversimplified, self-aggrandising, patronising, irrational and seeks to re-write history in a misguided attempt to shape the future. I could let all of this go if the greater good were to raise awareness and encourage young people around the world to stand against injustice. I can’t because I truly believe that this campaign has the potential to cause more harm than good. Here are the reasons why:

1. The Acholi people of northern Uganda that I have spoken to fear Kony rather than hate him.  Kony, like Alice Auma before him, is one of their own. He stood up against the government that were oppressing them. Since then he has become a madman/spirit/devil/psychopath (take your pick) and has committed many atrocities on his own people. However it is Ugandan government and the president of 26 years, Museveni, that is the real enemy of the people in northern Uganda. I wrote this on my blog from Gulu in 2010:
Living with the people here reveals a story which is so different than its portrayal in the media and the safety of other parts of the country. The situation is full of such deep spiritual, political and tribal complexities that it cannot be explained by the simple notion of the madman Joseph Kony and an army of child soldiers. The vitriol of most people is reserved not for Kony and the LRA but for Museveni and his government’s army who have persecuted these people, inflicted many of the same atrocities as the LRA and forced 1.8 million people to live in squalor and dependency in the disease and death-infested IDP camps.’
The aim of all of the posters, wristbands, videos etc of the Kony2012 seems to be to support Museveni the Ugandan president through American military support. Musevni has directly or indirectly caused many deaths in northern Uganda & the wider region. He recently spent $740 million on six fighter jets and other military equipment. This could have eradicated many of Uganda’s public health problems. Sending more money, arms or American advisors is likely to further destabilise not just Uganda but its neighbours.
2. Kony and the LRA are not in Uganda anyway. 10 years ago this campaign may have been effective, drawing global attention to both LRA and Ugandan government atrocities. But the LRA have not been there for 6 years. Gulu is thriving. You could go there now for a nice safe holiday. Ugandans no longer want to be defined by Joseph Kony or Idi Amin. Also, this video massively overstates the role of Invisible Children in Uganda’s past and its future. Hundreds of American and European students have been to Gulu over the past 6 years to do research. NGOs and local government in the north, are working on rehabilitation, education, sanitation, health, vocational training, resolving land conflicts etc. International campaigning beyond this is not useful. I understand eager tweeters wanting to help end a war in Uganda. They are unaware that this war is non-existent. Invisible Children are well aware of this and completely gloss over the facts before doing their money call.
        3. Kony and the LRA are reckoned to be in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The DRC has been the setting for the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II with local and international, government and rebel forces fighting over the DRC’s vast mineral wealth resulting in an estimated 5.4 million ‘excess deaths’ from 1998 to 2007 (Coghlan et al, 2007). This is the biggest death toll in any conflict since WWII. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is thought to have the largest concentration of child soldiers in the world, from as young as 7, fighting or living with at least nine separate armed groups (Bell, 2006; Wessells, 2006).  The LRA are just one of these groups and Kony is just one of these commanders. Out of thousands of child soldiers in the DRC maybe a few hundred are LRA. It is Western greed for mineral resources and the corruption of African leadership that is prolonging this conflict. This is the reason that children are being used as child soldiers. Why is no one talking about this?
4. Not all child soldiers are abducted. Many of those we worked with joined voluntarily or were recruited. Reasons for joining armed forces include: poverty, hunger, being orphaned, separation from parents, lack of education, a need for protection, revenge, power, excitement and political socialisation (Betancourt et al, 2008; Wessells, 2006). We need to consider and intervene with these underying issues. Children are makers of meaning who are often influential actors, not passive participants, in political conflicts.
5. In 2009 a significant oil deposit was discovered in Uganda near the border with the DRC. Past history has made me very suspicious about any US military involvement where oil is concerned. In any case there doesn’t seem to be any suggestion that the US are going to pull out their advisors, especially with elections looming. So why are we being asked to ‘make Kony famous’?
6. In their response to criticism, Invisible Children state that around a third of their profits go to work on the ground. Is this supposed to be good? The three main folk in IC pay themselves almost $90,000 per year. That’s before the sales of these ‘Action Kits’. Make of that what you will. I do know of some good work that Invisible Children are doing in the DRC. I’m not sure why don’t they promote this more.
7. Africans are not helpless, hopeless victims. They can find solutions to their own problems. We can support, as we would with any country, but we can’t do it for them. There is an incredible culture of forgiveness among the Acholi people. Almost everyone I spoke to in northern Uganda (the actual victims) wanted Kony and the LRA to come home, to go through traditional justice practices such as mato oput, rather than the ICC.
8. Introducing more violence to stop violence is not the answer. This blog by someone living close to where the LRA currently operates describes this really well-
9. [From my younger, wiser brother] I'm sceptical of a increasingly prevalent attitude amongst our generation that believes we can change the world without sacrifice and without prayer and without considering the facts deeply. There is much good in the world of social-media but our social activism cannot be armchair activism alone. Will my like, share or retweet actually solve that regions problems? Surely we need a bit more depth than this?
10.  [This point is more about personal annoyance than the danger of this campaign!] I realise the video was intended to be short and snappy to grab attention. Surely though a few more actual facts and footage from Africa would be preferable to bouncing American students, smug senators and family videos. 
Sorry for the length of this. I should have made a video instead! Like I said at the start I understand the reaction and support of the campaign and would never criticise anyone who tweeted or shared in it. I do believe that in the West we need to look at how we are causing and prolonging conflicts in other countries rather than trying to fix them. This new power of social media activism is scary but I’m choosing to believe it could be positive and powerful if the light is pointed in the right direction.
Further reading if you wish:
- You can read stories from northern Uganda and the DRC if you look back through this blog. Some of them are harrowing.
- I have written a literature review on children and war that I can email.
- We have written empirical papers from our trips for journal publication that I can also forward.
- If that’s not enough I would recommend Michael Wessell’s book ‘Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection

Monday, July 04, 2011

Final postcard from the DRC- 5

So after 9 weeks in the DRC the adventure comes to an end this week. It has been some experience. Everyday has been a fight. It feels like we have worked constantly at the extremes of frustration/stress and fulfilment/success…no in between. Life to the full I suppose.

I can’t imagine there are many places in the world at an earlier stage of development and infrastructure. Nothing here is easy. Every morning I pray for grace and patience for the complete incompetency that we will invariably encounter during any given day! Incompetency and corruption is pervasive through the government, international NGOs and local organisations. Almost all are out to make a name for themselves and line their pockets. Every level of society here is corrupted. From the top of the government who pocket billion dollar contracts from India and China for minerals none of which reaches the people; to the army who have endless supplies of guns, rocket launchers and ammunition but are not paid; to schools where to pass exams in university, secondary or primary you have to bribe the teachers or have sex with them; to the churches where the pastors get rich and the sick stay poor; to every person you meet who feels you owe them money. Everyone is out for themselves and their family. There is little community or loyalty to tribe or country.

In the past this country has been brought to its knees by European colonisation and slavery, then raped and pillaged by its African neighbours. Now the government and rebel groups are tearing the place apart from inside. All for the love of money. The source of all Congo’s problems is its mineral resources. Nowhere is it more evident that ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’

Despite all of this I still kinda love the place!!

At times it has felt like being in the Mourne mountains with my brothers. In the darkness trying to get a fire going. Blowing on the few embers that exist, trying to squeeze out some sparks of light. But when the embers spark into flames it makes all the all the effort worthwhile.

The project has been successful beyond what I had hoped, imagined or even asked for in prayer. Even working as a psychologist I had found myself cynical as to how much change CBT could have in such desperate situations. However the psychological, emotional and behavioural change in the children has been incredible. I have never seen lives totally changed like this. Overall our post-testing has shown a significant effect. Every child has had a reduction in symptoms of PTSD, depression and anxiety. More important and moving are their individual testimonies.

On Friday we had a ‘graduation ceremony’ where the kids stood in front of the town, mayor, local dignitaries, UN officials, NGO directors etc and testified to the change in their lives. From being constantly tortured by flashbacks, guilt and shame…to being able to control their thoughts; from never being able to sleep because of nightmares…to a full peaceful nights sleep; from having no hope and a plan to kill themselves…to having hopes and dreams for the future; from constantly fighting and avoiding others…to being able to form friendships again. There were even stories of recovery from physical (psychosomatic) pain! I could write forever about the individual stories. All credit and goes to the young people for trying so hard to recover from their trauma, and to the Almighty for answering the prayers of all those who I know were remembering this work.

It was not just the result of 7 weeks of group therapy. As well as psychological help the young people simply needed people to listen to what they had done without judgement, to hope for them, to affirm that their future can be better than their past, and to believe that God has a plan for their lives.

Working with the parents and caregivers has had a great impact. With the help of World Vision and local organisations we were able to get all of the girls out of the brothels and living with someone in their extended families. We have identified host families for the remaining street boys and the child soldiers who have no family and hope to bring these together this week.

We have employed 10 local people over the course of the intervention and have trained the World Vision staff to continue the psychosocial work. WV are also keen to extend this training to their other projects in the DRC. In Beni, the organisational relationships are now built and contracts signed so any future work with underage girls working in brothels or ‘street boys’ should involve these children being placed with a family before the trauma work ends.

All of this has been dependant on the money that many of you folk donated to the project the night before we left! We have also invested around $3000 in buying equipment to get the vocational training classes up and running. Carpentry and mechanics tools for the boys, sewing machines and material for the girls. The goal, as the old cliché goes, is teaching them how to fish rather than just giving them a fish.

The money you gave has also been used to start microfinance projects (book selling and bead making), and to buy hygiene kits for the girls, mosquito nets, clothes, food etc.

This week will be mad trying to get all finished. After 9 weeks without a full day off I am definitely looking forward to a break! Am hoping to meet up with good friends in Uganda on Thursday for a few days, then homeward bound.

When I sit down again in 5 Lewis Park it’ll probably hit me that this has been both the hardest and the best thing I have done with my life so far.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Postcard from the DRC 4 - Born Survivors

It’s been a pretty intense week in Beni. After eight sessions of teaching the techniques of CBT we’ve begun the trauma narratives. Since most of the young people can’t write they’ve been drawing the traumatic events that they have suffered and talking about these in individual sessions. The goal is basically to bring these into the open, practice controlling their thoughts and hence find healing from nightmares, flashbacks and other symptoms of PTSD.

You could not make up or imagine what many of them have been through. I’ll spare you the grotesque details of the mass killing, rape and mutilation that many of them have witnessed and been ordered to inflict on others. Some of the rebel groups mix violence with spirituality and witchcraft which has left those children especially psychologically damaged. For instance everyone here believes that the ‘Mai Mai’ rebels are invincible and impenetrable to bullets after being covered in sacred water. They believe that they gain extra strength for battle through rape and eating the flesh of their enemies.

These young people are the world’s true survivors. On listening to the stories of some of the lads yesterday it struck me that if any of them were to go to the US or UK and tell their stories they would become celebrities. They’d be speaking at every Christian conference going. There would be a movie made about their lives. The stories are of abduction, battling enemies, finding food, escape, trekking hundreds of miles, hiding in rivers and forests….stories of survival. I’ll find it hard to be impressed by Bear Grylls again after being with these people!

While it tears you apart to listen to their stories we have found great encouragement in hearing almost all state how this intervention is helping them. Two boys said yesterday that they previously had no hope and were daily considering suicide. They said that through the techniques we had taught them and the fact people cared had given them hope and a desire to live and make a better life for themselves.

It is not as easy for all. The current situation our friends is the most moving part. Some of the kids still sleep on the street or in brothels and no one seems to be in a great rush to do anything about it despite our efforts. This results in great frustration with the NGOs and UN who talk a lot about their work with ‘enfants de la rue’, ‘enfant soldieres’ and ‘victimes de violences sexuelles’ but don’t seem to be doing much to help as yet. An example is my wee mate ‘Simon’ (can’t put real names online), a 13-year-old living on the street. He has never known his mum or dad and has never had a family. The process of finding him a host family is infuriatingly slow. Another example of incompetency is a former child soldier who seems to be the natural leader of the boys. ‘Jean’ is an amazingly resilient 17-year-old who just wants to live a normal life. He has been taken 3 times from the CTO back to his family by the Red Cross. Each time he has been reabducted by the rebels, beaten almost to death, escaped and ended up back in the CTO. The powers that be are now in the process of sending him back again and he is terrified that this time he will be killed. He just wants to start anew somewhere else.

There are so many similar stories I could write all day.

Jonas our interpreter and self-appointed project manager keeps us sane with his antics and constant chatter of mostly nonsense. He is an African del boy, who knows everyone in town and could sell you a virus. In NI we’d say he has the gift of the gab and he would be very successful! He knows lots of pieces of information about history, religion, culture, psychology etc. but makes up what he doesn’t know. Hence in his stories, random Africans end up in the bible, people fly on magic carpets, Galileo gets crucified and we are doctors from Iceland. He has also started to imitate my Norn Iron accent when interpreting which cracks me up.

I went to a party at UN HQ the other night with some locals and the Nepalese ‘peacekeepers’. They have a curfew at 10pm so not exactly an Irish party. I did however meet a guy from East Timor whose brother works in Moy Park, Portadown! It feels like we’re in another world here but our world is getting smaller. With the Congolese elections coming up, I hope the world wakes up to the suffering of their brothers and sisters in the DRC sometime soon.

So pleased to have become Uncle John again this week. Am counting down the last 3 weeks until I get to meet wee Hanna Joy McMullen!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Postcard from the DRC 3

Just a short update so ye all know we haven’t been eaten by rebels.

Actually Beni feels less and less like a war zone and more like a quiet but strange African town. It is completely safe for us to walk around and I haven’t felt in danger here at all. There is a UN curfew at night, so combined with a lack of electricity I’m usually in bed before 11pm. It feels like being a kid again.

I’m just back from a long French/Swahili church service. After 3 hours of not understanding anything and being entirely zoned out I decided to make a subtle exit. The entire congregation of about 400 locals all turned to stare at the churches only white person leaving early!

The work is intense but overall it’s going really well. The actual stuff we came to do is progressing beyond my expectations. I’m really loving working with the group of lads. It feels like teaching again which is class! Already we can see great progress, though so much of their psychological well-being is still affected by their daily circumstances. We have our first session with parents, care-givers, teachers and NGOs tomorrow which we hope will be significant.

The girls project is going great also. Most of the girls are around 15-16 and many have their own kids as a result of their work. African women have no qualms about public breast-feeding. It must be the only group-based intervention in the world where there are boobs hanging out everywhere as you try to talk!

We have also begun the microfinance projects for boys and girls, which we have high hopes for. The rest of our days and evenings are spent training our local staff, in meetings and trying to push forward our partner NGO to get the girls we are working with out of the brothels and the boys off the streets.

Dealing with local people and NGOs is the most frustrating part of the trip. The fact we are trying to do so much in a short space of time, combined with how hard it is to make things happen, is frustrating. Being 2 out of maybe 5 white people in the entire town results in everyone asking for money, from the young child to the educated adult. In saying that we have been totally blessed by those that are working with us. Jonas, our interpreter, is a wee legend. He is a great storyteller, often confusing fact and fiction, and gives me a great laugh. He is basically my sidekick for 8 weeks who I would be totally lost without.

While the details are stressful, when I step back and look at the bigger picture it’s amazing how it has worked out. Divine planning not ours I believe. However, it is easy to develop cabin fever in this small town and we're in need of a day off and an adventure. Trying to plan a trip into the jungle next Sunday to see some gorillas (people say there are gorillas but I think they may just mean monkeys) and maybe meet the rebels.

My main source of entertainment so far has been a couple of evenings having a beer and playing pool with some locals. I’m playing the best pool of my life and am the current champion in 2 different venues! It helps that the locals aren’t very good. Though I think perhaps God has improved my abilities in order for me to gain respect, as I have no other way of communicating with people! Some locals don’t like to lose. One night this guy was punching the table, calling me a witch doctor and continually threatening to cut my throat. His mates were telling him to wind his neck in (or whatever they say in Swahili). I beat him, then made a swift exit home. It felt good!

Thinking a lot about home especially the imminent arrival of my new nephew/niece!

Love and peace,


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Postcard from the DRC 2

So we’ve survived 3 weeks in the DRC and one week here in Beni. The flight from Goma was a brilliant, bumpy journey over jungle and little villages without a road in sight. Goma is a grey town. The roads are rocks and volcanic ash. The UN, NGOs and the profiteers of Congo’s mineral wealth live behind huge walls in big compounds guarded by full security teams. The place is awash with military carrying AK-47s, machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades etc. I asked Barady if I could take a picture of these guys. He said ‘Yes, but they will shoot you’. So sorry for lack of interesting pictures. You’ll have to take my word for it! Overall the scene is of massive contradictions between the haves and have-nots.

From the beginning Beni seemed more like Africa. The surroundings are green, the pot-holed roads are a dusty red colour and the women are colourfully dressed. It could be a small town anywhere in Africa. Reminds me of Jandira! Unfortunately some people have experienced suffering more intense than you could imagine.

Beni is a UN ‘red zone’. Western nationals aren’t supposed to be here.. However, for us it feels completely safe, not like a war zone at all. We walk around feely during the day to the great entertainment of the locals who stare, laugh and shout ‘Mzungu’ often accompanied by ‘give me money’ (the only English they know). I haven’t seen any other white people walking around which is a shame. The people we have got to know are incredibly welcoming, friendly and helpful. The fact that Paul speaks Swahili as well as the locals impresses them greatly and always attracts a crowd. I just stand there like his mute friend.

There are some funny encounters. The other morning a little boy was jabbering away in Swahili about me having a big nose. He was pretty well endowed in that department himself and I was about to ask him if he’d ever looked in a mirror…then realised that he probably hadn’t. When I went for a run the locals were in complete stiches laughing at this white man running. At one point I had 15 kids running after me shouting and laughing.

There is no running water here but I’m becoming an expert at washing from a bucket. Electricity comes on at 6pm and ends at 11pm so no late night partying. Daily schedule is work, dinner, work, beer, bed. Our accommodation is basic but safe and comfortable. This is in stark contrast to the living conditions of the young people we are helping.

We are working with a local organisation called CERAO who are partners of World Vision. We are completing two group interventions, one with around 50 former boy soldiers and the other with around 50 girls who have been working as prostitutes in the ‘Quartier Generales’ (brothels). With each we will complete 15+ sessions of group-based trauma-focused Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. The CBT has been ‘africanised’ and so includes lots of culturally relevant activities.

We have developed this intervention over the past year and will be evaluating it in a Randomised Controlled Trial. This is too boring to explain but basically we measure levels of PTSD, depression, anxiety, conduct etc before and after the intervention, compare with a control group who don’t get intervention, determine if there is a significant change, then give to control group. Most of the time in Goma was spent translating measures into Swahili and French and validating to make them as culturally relevant as possible.

Everything is completed through local people so children will be more open. We employed 5 locals for a week to do post-intervention individual interviews. We then started our groups yesterday with a local counsellor, social worker and interpreter who we hope will continue on the intervention after we leave. They have been amazing and worked so hard. There is no way the project would be happening without them.

We are working with the girls on Mon, Wed and Fri mornings and the boys on Tues, Thurs and Sat mornings. In the afternoons we will work with the local partner to try and encourage them to get the girls out of the brothels and the boys off the street. This may involve providing incentives (mattresses, food, hygiene kits etc) to host families to encourage them to take these children in. We are also hoping to start an income-generating project to encourage girls to leave brothels. Many of the girls have their own babies as a result of their work. They have no-where else to go. If they left the brothels they would be on the street and could not feed their child. Would love it if Joy and Laura could come out and teach bead making!!

The past events and current situations of the young people are more desperate than I had ever imagined. The descriptions below are disturbing but this is the reality and hopefully will help people to pray specifically. I’d love to show you pictures of the young people so you have a face for the stories but obviously I can’t post online for security and confidentiality reasons.


All of the girls have worked in the ‘Quartier Generales’ (brothels), some from the age of 10. Many of them are still working in the brothels. Most of them have lost or been rejected by their parents or caregivers and have no-where else to go. They rely on brothel owners to feed them and their child. The girls may be made to sleep with up to 20 men each night, often with more than one at a time. Sometimes a group of men will just turn up and take turns.

Some of the girls are paid a small amount while others only receive a little food. They are traumatised by their war experiences, parent’s deaths, rape and sexual violence, forced abortions and many other events


The boys are the roughest, toughest bunch of lads you could ever imagine. If the wee lads in East Belfast think they’re hard they should meet this crew! Due to their experiences they’re more men than boys really, mostly aged around 16-17.

The majority are former child soldiers who have only recently been released or escaped from the rebels. Some of them are living in a CTO while the UN tries to locate their parents. The CTO basically consists of 3 dirty mud huts where boys from different armed groups and of different ranks are left. Most of the other boys are living on the street.

They have spent anywhere from 6 months to 7 years with the armed groups. In the rebel armies the rule was kill or be killed. The same boys that I kicked a football around with today have have witnessed and carried out many rapes, murders, beatings and mutilations. Some have been involved in grotesque ceremonies such as cutting up and cooking bodies and drinking the blood of the person they killed. They are tormented by nightmares and haunted by guilt for the innocent lives they have taken.

A significant number of both boys and girls have expressed suicidal intent. Many have lost hope and say it would be better that they were dead. I’m not sure there is anything more sad in life than the loss of hope.

I pray that we can help to provide some hope through the intervention and through bringing a spiritual dimension to the psychology work that is much more accepted in Africa than in the UK. Thankfully this project is bigger than just our psychosocial work. It is a privilege and a pressure to be here at the very start. We also hope to assist in finding host families, setting up vocational training, providing incentives and, as mentioned, starting some kind of micro-finance co-operative.

Some nights I look up at the unreal African stars and wonder how the Creator of the universe could allow the pinnacle of his creation to suffer in the this way. At the same time I cry out to the same Creator to rescue them. If you are the praying kind please pray for the young people that we are working with- that they can find physical, emotional and spiritual freedom. That in the situations that appear so hopeless, they will find hope.


We met the president of CERAO today who is also pastor of the local church. The ‘Big Man’ culture pervades every aspect of society here so this man is revered by folks in the area. He arrived with his following to meet the two Mzungus. The conversation went something like this:

Assistant: John, c’est la president!

Me: Ah..bonjour monsieur, je m’appelle John, comment ca va?

Pastor: Ca va bien, enchante. Mon nom est Pinis

Me and Paul together: PENIS!??

Pastor: Oui, Pastor Pinis

Me: Nice to meet you Pastor Penis….

Then descended into uncontrollable laughter that reminded me of being back in school with Gav and Procs. One of those where you’re crying and can’t string enough words together to make a respectful sentence. Thankfully no-one speaks English but don’t think Pastor Pinis and his entourage were too impressed with their first experience of these white men!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Postcard from the DRC 1

I don’t really know where to start writing about a week in which I’ve travelled through 3 countries into a place unlike anywhere I’ve been before. Electricity is intermittent here so will be difficult to keep in touch by internet. We’re planning on travelling even more remote so not sure if there will be connection. Will try to write weekly updates though if possible. Sorry for lack of pictures but we've been told it's not a good idea to take photos around town. I'll try and get a few sneaky pics this week.

Thanks again to all who came to the fundraiser last Friday and to all those who made it happen. We were blown away by how much people wanted to get behind this project and promise to be accountable for every penny and to give it where the need is greatest.

So…the day after fundraiser we flew from Dublin to Entebbe, Uganda. Slept the night there then got up early to catch bus to Kigali, Rwanda. We missed the bus so spent a day in Kampala, randomly banging into Joseph, a former teacher at Source of Light and great friend to all Emmanuelites! Was so good to hang out with him.

Apres ça we caught the overnight bus to Kigali. This was a bumpy 11-hour trip with Ugandan dance music blaring through speakers the whole way. The lowlight was reaching the border at 4am. Basically at this lovely place you get turfed off the bus and have to fill in leaving card. In the meantime the bus, with all your bags, money, passport etc, drives off into the darkness. No-one tells you what to do but you begin to walk across ‘no-mans land’ in pitch darkness from Uganda to Rwanda while being set upon by dodgy characters trying to sell dodgy money. Luckily when we emerged from no-mans land our bus was waiting and bags were intact.

We spent 1 night in Kigali as we attempted to get a visa for the DRC from the crooks in the embassy. Anyone who has watched Hotel Rwanda or Shooting Dogs could not fail to see the recovery in Rwanda as truly miraculous. It is known as the ‘country of a thousand hills’ and is truly beautiful. Everything in inner city Kigali is perfectly clean and the roads are more akin to Europe than Africa. The bus journey to the DRC traverses the unreal Rwenzori mountains. Seriously have to go camping here with the lads some day! Development is occurring everywhere here in Africa’s success story. For Rwandans, the price for residing in such relative prosperity is living under a dictatorship that rules with an iron fist. A price worth paying? It’s a big question but there’s no doubt that, while the Rwandans are a quiet people, it is obvious they proud of how their country looks in comparison to their African neighbours.

I could have stayed in Rwanda for 2 months but time is of the essence so the DRC adventure began. I ended up having to pay $275 for the privilege of entering a country that seems entirely decrepit and forsaken at first glance. When we got to the border the smiling emigration folk locked Paul into a room and tried to make him give all his money to them. We were both carrying over $1000 in cash. Thank God they took him and not me as he managed to sweet talk (and lie) in his best Swahili and got us both away without losing a single dollar!

We were met at the border by the only contact we had made in the DRC, Barady Benda. He is a wee legend who we’d be completely lost without. In fact we have employed him as our Project Manager with responsibility for interpretation, being our guide, translating questionnaires, finding NGOs and stopping the locals from taking our money through scam or force!

Almost no-one here speaks English. My French est tres mauvais and my Swahili consists of ‘Jambo’. I’d be completely screwed without Barady and Paul to communicate.

Goma, where we are currently shacked up, is unlike anywhere I have seen before. A Google search should give you more information about the war that has raged around here. In Eastern DRC, 5 million people have died in the past 20 years as a result of the war…almost the entire population of Ireland. It has been much more stable over the past 2 years but is still the centre of the largest UN operation anywhere in the world. Rebel groups and government soldiers are still raping and pillaging rural areas around here. The town itself is safe but evidence of the surrounding conflict is everywhere. Almost every vehicle that is not a ‘boda boda’ is a UN or NGO machine or a military vehicle full of armed soldiers. Every half hour a plane or helicopter flies overhead carrying people, food, aid, weapons or minerals.

As if the people here hadn’t suffered enough from being raped and pillaged, half the town of Goma was destroyed by a volcano ? years ago. The basalt and ashes from the lava are everywhere. The roads (a generous term) consist of large rocks and stones from this eruption. They are difficult to walk over never mind drive on. Boda Boda journeys are great craic!

We stayed for a few days in the middle of the town, in first dodgy hotel we came across. After 3 nights of feeling insecure, no water or electricity and being kept awake until 5.30am by the neighbouring nightclub we have moved a few minutes out of town to a nice wee place on the shores of Lake Kivu. Will be based here for a few days arranging more meetings and finishing the translation of our questionnaires and interviews with Barady and Jacqui (the only English speaking girl we could find in Goma!)

The past few days have been spent meeting with various NGOs and local initiatives who are working with war-affected children. These include UNICEF, Caritas, Don Bosco, World Vision, Human Rights Watch, the Red Cross and others. Don Bosco was incredible. In one compound they run a massive school, feed 3000 local people, have a reception centre for war-affected children, have an orphanage for babies abandoned on the street and much more. It seems really run-down and under-funded which angered me and moved me in equal measure. In one room there were over 30 babies lying side by side on the floor like sardines. Mattresses in the dorms were worn down to the yellow cushion and were torn and soiled. It is a place I would love to donate some of the funds from last Friday if you are all ok with this?

Sorry for long update, so much more I could write. We have to decide in the next few days where, and with who, to carry out our intervention. UNICEF and Don Bosco have expressed a keen interest but the one we are currently considering is a World Vision project that is about to begin for former child soldiers and girls forced into prostitution. This is north of here, in Beni, A flight with the UN or private plane would be required to reach here, as there are practically no roads in the DRC. It would be a trip into the wild, bringing us much closer to rebel territory. It would also bring us much closer to young people who have massive needs but are unreached by the international community. Would appreciate prayers as we make a decision on this one.

Au Revoir pour maintenant


Sunday, June 20, 2010


Gulu has gone nuts for the World Cup. The colour and sounds of football in South Africa have made their way here, including the vuvuzelas that are blasted in front of tiny tv screens and by people walking down the street. Strangely when you ask anyone which team are supporting they will say England, Spain or Argentina, yet when the games are being played they are shouting and dancing for their continental brothers in Ghana, Ivory Coast and SA.

The joy, unity and community of football stands in stark contrast to the brutal violence that tore this place apart and the trauma that still bubbles under the surface. We could never have imagined the breadth and depth of trauma that we would find in the children in the school we are working at. It is the combination of this normality with the depravity of their past that is difficult to process in our own thoughts. These children, in their neat uniforms, banter and laugh as they kick around a football or rugby ball like children in every playground in the world. Yet their stories reveal a previous life of such wicked violence that cannot be easily conveyed. Inhumane, evil, demonic, sadistic are words that are not powerful enough to describe the actions of the LRA and the suffering of these kids.

I have been torn over whether to document the children’s stories on this blog. The details are extremely disturbing and macabre. While the children want their stories to be heard the sheer scale of the conflict and the horrific details have often meant that they have been simply told to forget the past and move on. However this is often not possible. The suppression of these memories has resulted in nightmares, flashbacks and the other symptoms associated w
ith PTSD. This war, like so many in Africa, was ignored by the world. The illusion of a prosperous and peaceful Uganda was conveniently conveyed in order to allow the aid to continue flowing into the hands of a corrupt government. The stories of 30,000 child soldiers were ignored.

So below I have pasted Paul's writing about some of the kids he has met this week. Their words were spoken directly to him and translated by a local counsellor who is assisting. They are disturbing so you may not wish to read any further. However these experiences have been the reality of life for thousands of people in Northern Uganda.


I pray that this new generation of Acholi will never have to live the lives of their older brothers and sisters

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Children of War

Laroo Boarding School for War Affected Children is home to some of the most traumatised children in the world. We are screening all of the children in P5,6,7 and vocational with a view to determining how best to help these children. This numbers around 300 children all of whom were abducted by the LRA or in other ways directly affected by them.

The children have witnessed
killing, rape, dead bodies and body parts, beatings and assaults, looting, houses being torched, ambushes, abductions, severe hunger and mutilation of ears, eyes, noses and breasts. Some of the children have stated that they experienced every one of these atrocities. Many have had these directly inflicted on them. Others have been forced to to inflict these on others.

Almost every child we have asked so far has seen a family member or close friend killed. The LRA abducted children from the age of 7. Often they would force these children to kill their own father and mother. They did so to ensure that the children wo
uld not try to escape home. From this early age young boys were brainwashed and beaten until they became desensitised to killing. The favourite words of rebel leaders were 'kill or be killed'. Often this involved killing their own best friends. The young girls were served out as rewards to LRA commanders and became their porters and sex slaves.

When the school opened in 2006, 14 girls fell pregnant in the first year. Many of the former boy soldiers that had been born in with the rebels knew nothing else than simply taking whatever girl they wanted. We were told about one of the girls that had been born in captivity to a rebel father and abducted mother. Every night the girl would run away from the boarding school to sleep under the stars in a bush or under a pile of gathered firewood. Sleeping indoors in a school dormitory with other girls her age was just too scary for a child born in the bush and accustomed to life on the run with the rebels.

These children ha
ve seen more death and brutality in their early years with the rebels than most soldiers witness in a life-time in the army. Although we still have many children to measure it is becoming clear that many (perhaps the majority) are suffering from clinically significant levels of PTSD, anxiety and depression. Even four years after the war has ended many children state that they are still suffering constant flashbacks and nightmares. Many state that they do not have a future and do not care whether they live or die.

In the evening
s we put are putting all of the data into our computers. This is long and tedious process. The children's symptoms become numbers and thoughts and feelings become statistics. This is toughest part of the project. The sheer scale of pain is difficult to comprehend and truly feel. When we are in the school it can seem so normal. The uniforms, desks and sound of infectious laughter from the playground. But the physical and psychological scars of war are evident. While some of the children's eyes glisten with hope, many are empty and lifeless. I try to look into their eyes and fully understand their pain. I try to travel vicariously with them to the life that they have lived, the atrocities that they have seen, the guilt and shame that they carry. But I can't.

The saddest part is that these are only 300 of the estimated 30,000 children that were abducted in Northern Uganda. Most of the other Acholi people (1.8 million) were forced by the government at gunpoint into IDP death camps. At the time the world did not know it was happening, or simply ignored it. UN High Commissioner Jan Egland called the situation 'the world's most forgotten humanitarian disaster'. But the war is over here for now. The
NGOs have arrived. Joseph Kony and his LRA have moved into Congo and Sudan and the whole mess is repeating itself there.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


While there is resilience there is pain and trauma everywhere. At times I wish that I had just come to document the stories that people share with us over a meal or a drink. Stories of abduction, escape, injury or lost family and friends. It is difficult to imagine what many of these people have seen and experienced. As a local doctor stated today the aftermath of war is tougher than the war itself. Trauma paralyses as does years of being forced to live in the IDP camps totally reliant on western aid.

Belief in the role of spirits in this conflict is espoused by everyone who gives their version of events. From village pastors, teachers, highly educated psychotherapists and researchers, everyone believes that Kony is guided by spirits and that the fields of the land are haunted by the spirits of the bones that were unburied. We

have asked many if whether it was a religious or political war but the two seem so intimately entwined it is impossible to separate the strands. The brutal role of the government and the army in the persecution of the Acholi is whispered in every conversat

ion. There is a willingness but a nervousness in talking openly indicating that these people still feel under threat.

It is storm season here. The storms are beautiful. Distant skys all around are lit up with lightening like a war zone. The air becomes heavy with static before unleashing torrential rain and turning streets into rivers. Paul’s room was flooded with 2 inches of water which enabled us to get upgraded rooms at half the price! Electricity and water (in spite of floods) are sporadic which adds to the interest of academic work in Africa.

We are working late on our questionnaires before starting work with the children. We've meeting with people to decide on culturally appropriate issues to look at. Questions have been formed from our research combined with discussions with local professionals and lay people. These then need to be translated to Luo (numerous times), back-translated, validated in a focus group and piloted with a few children before we start working with the school. The language here is Luo but there are so many variations it seems everyone speaks their own language. This is making the translation process long and tedious. Its important though as we want to measure the things that are an issue for the people here not people in the West, and therefore can plan appropriate interventions.

I’m conscious that it’s easy to romanticise working in a place when we've only been here a couple of weeks but it feels like life to the full.

ps I washed my own clothes for the first time and they came out smelling worse that they went in. Any suggestions??

Thursday, June 03, 2010


Not sure if the blogging idea is going to work out due lack of internet and the business of the life here that I want to experience every minute of. Anyway our first week has involved 2 nights in Kampala, 3 in Gulu and 1 in Lira. We’re back in Gulu now to stay, which is great. Feel more alive here than I have in a long time.

This is my 6th trip to Africa but the first to work. I had always dreamed that the first time I came here to work it would be with a my beautiful wife that would be admired by all the africans....Instead I'm with this red-headed lad from Dublin! He's great craic and smarter than me so all good.

We're staying at Jojo’s palace which is far from a palace but is cheap. I'm becoming an expert at showering from a jerry can. We’re right in the middle of the town and hence the people here which is amazing. Living close, traveling, eating and shopping like the locals has already resulted in conversations and relationships both with the Acholi and the plethora of NGOs that are based here.

Pastor Felix (proudly sporting his norn iron top) has joined forces with us and is determined to be our guide/spokesman/story-teller/pastor/friend. This week has involved meetings and conversations with people in schools, lecturer at the university, UNICEF, the district officer and others.

We have decided on the place (Laroo Boarding School for war-affected children) and the aspects of our research. This week will be spent building relationships in the school as well as forming focus groups to discuss and translate our questionnaires and gain cultural validity and reliability. This involves a great deal of ‘psychobabble’ which is not of much interest to anyone reading this but will hopefully be of help to the children and the school.

It isn’t difficult to find people here that have been affected by the war….everyone has. These people have seen, been afflicted by and at times become the worst of humanity. Murder, rape, mutilation, slavery, sacrifice and child abuse were once daily threats. However the best of the human spirit can be found here also. Everyone here who has not been war-affected seems to be working with the war-affected. There are so many charities and NGOs doing great work at great cost but there seems to be frustration at the lack of cohesion and the fact that things are not really improving.

In a month you could write a book of stories about the situation here that would be stranger and more graphic that the imagination of any fiction writer. As with Palestine, living with the people reveals a story which is so different than its portrayal in the media and the safety of other parts of the country. The situation is full of such deep spiritual, political and tribal complexities that it cannot be explained by the simple notion of the madman Joseph Kony and an army of child soldiers. The vitriol of most people is reserved not for Kony and the LRA but for Museveni and his government’s army who have persecuted these people, inflicted many of the same atrocities as the LRA and forced 1.8 million people to live in squalor and dependency in the disease and death-infested IDP camps.

The spiritual pervades every aspect of life here. A curious blend of Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Islam and traditional beliefs pervade every aspect of life. Spirits ('jok') are lie underneath the surface of every story. Kony isn't seen as mad or bad by many but simply being involuntarily controlled by spirits. Pastor Felix speaks of bones and trees talking to people as normally as talking about his family or church. He is amused by our surprise.

No war is simple but this one is particularly complex with roots stretching back from British colonialism, through the brutality of Idi Amin, Museveni and Kony, to the current status quo. The very fabric of this society has been torn to shreds and stitched back together so many times it is hard to determine how any clothes can ever fit. But the people are tired of war and suffering. There is no frame of reference in the western world for the resilience of the people here. They are the survivors. While we came to look for trauma, depression, anxiety our early observations and conversations have been infused with perseverance, resiliance and hope.