Tessa Laing

The Mayor Saga Continues

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“He has arrived; he is in office.”

Excellent. Against all odds, we have everybody in the same space. Media present? Tick. Religious leaders? Tick. Mayor in his office with no known escape routes? Tick. Ready for ambush.

Since the Mayor intervened and ruined the last sachet alcohol-impounding operation, he had affectively blocked all enforcement by refusing to let his enforcement officers take part in operations. Theres a lot riding on this ambush.

Our District’s former Anglican Bishop (still an influential figure) and Muslim Sheik lead the way with a gaggle of media swarming behind them. At first, I tactically remain outside. The last time I saw the Mayor, we both lost our tempers. I waited. Then my phone rang and I was summoned inside to join the discussion. Things weren’t going well. The Mayor dodged everything, weaving in lies and half truths. His attack was threefold-

He claimed enforcement was unfairly targeting certain businessmen in the town area, and that we should be going out to the villages. This is true but justified- the main suppliers of illegal alcohol are in town! He claimed that business owners had not been properly ‘sensitized’ to the ordinance, and there should be multiple meetings hosted for business owners to have ‘input’ into implementation of the ordinance. Firstly, the news about the ordinance had already saturated the media since its launch the previous year, and business owners had already had illegal product confiscated! The time for ‘sensitization’ had clearly passed. ‘Sensitization of business owners’ is at best a delay tactic to make sure nothing happens, and at worst, an opportunity for business owners to rebel and swing things to benefit their profit focus. Most bizarrely, he claimed that the first round of impounded sachets were never actually burned, and that the big public bonfire was ‘faked.’ How on earth he thought this ridiculous claim would even help his position, I’m still not sure. Afterwards I provided the video footage and photographs to the media of the sachets being burnt.

The Mayor completely dominated the discussion. The religious leaders (who I clearly had not prepped strongly enough), folded under his pompous display of authority and importance. Too gentle, too polite, their message demanding the Mayor release his enforcement officers for operations was lost. My own attempts to ‘up the anti’ were shushed. We left, I felt deflated.

Outside, we reshaped things with the media, and managed to rework the message to make it stronger!

Despite having essentially failed in our main mission of influencing the Mayor, our ambush had an unexpected positive result. Perhaps frustrated by failed ambush, the Muslim Sheik called the District Chairman and they went on radio and thoroughly dressed down the Mayor. The District Chairman then resolved to go above the Mayor’s head, and ensure enforcement would go on, with or without the town enforcement officers. Boom.

Most of the media coverage was on local radio, but a local reporter also wrote it up on their news blog. 

More than the worst thing we’ve done

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“You have to wash! Look at you! I’ll tell the school matron to beat you if you don’t wash!” Kenneth’s mum scolds him, inspecting his uniform and behind his ears. Its visiting day at Gulu Primary Boarding school.

Its true, Kenneth is looking a bit grubby. But he isn’t roaming the streets stealing and setting fire to grass-thatched huts. And in front of us sits a little report card full of top marks, indicating he is currently placed 4th out of over a hundred students in his class.

While his Mum is over-fixated on his messy appearance, she brought him a soda and his favorite meal: fish and rice. I brought a big box of biscuits and bananas. In the shade of a red flowering tree, he reads to us from an English story book, perfectly. As always, he is quiet. But he is smiling a lot. It’s a beautiful day, in lots of ways.

Backstory

For those who haven’t heard this story, about a year ago, we woke up to find our grass-thatched hut roof ablaze with fire. When I screamed, neighbours came sprinting with basins and jerrycans of water (no taps, no hoses!). Miraculously, Lacor fire truck arrived quickly to further douse the flames. Within an hour, it was all over and we were left amongst our sodden, ashy but intact home feeling shocked but grateful. Our initial suspicion turned out to be correct: this was the work of an 11-year-old neighbourhood kid, Kenneth.

Why? Kenneth’s mother and our close neighbor Lucy were caught up in a complicated family feud to which we were completely oblivious. Two weeks prior, we found smoke billowing out of Lucy’s window, and discovered her bed, piled with her possessions, blazing. At the time Lucy (who has sickle cell disease) was on oxygen in hospital. So it was us who confusedly marched the culprit, wee Kenneth, to the police. After this we were added to his enemy list. Two weeks later again, our roof was burning

By the day of his hearing in court, we’d made up our minds. Drop the charges, bring him back home. My friend Christo, a counsellor, agreed I could bring Kenneth once a week for sessions. He joined our after-school phonics class for neighbouring kids. Nick’s parents generously offered to sponsor Kenneth to go to boarding school, which served the double purpose of removing him from a chaotic, harmful home environment and getting him back in school. Kenneth slowly started to unfurl, the depth of his eyes slowly started to wake up.

We are not heroes.

The risk in this story is that we make ourselves the heroes. The white saviours who found the black miscreant child a sponsor to school and become his patrons.

Please allow me to dissolve the hero narrative for you:

Mercy and reconciliation was not our first response… remember, we were the ones who marched Kenneth to a police station after burning Lucy’s bed, where he spent two nights alone in a cell. It wasn’t even our second response. Post-igniting our hut, we took him straight back to police and followed up to ensure he was held in the youth remand home until his charges could be heard, which is a horrible place. Mercy is easier when you have resources. Spending time together and including him in our class reconciled us with Kenneth. But we also had the social capital to find him a sponsor for school. This guaranteed goodwill and a new start with Kenneth’s mum, who I believe was the embittered brains behind the arsons all along. Most people here can’t summon this kind of help. Long term, the forgiveness approach has a higher probability of turning out better for us as well as Kenneth. Our action was very pragmatic! Kenneth was clearly capable of revenge. Leaving him to Uganda’s criminal justice system for a year or so could keep us safe temporarily, but what could he do upon release?

Now that we’ve cleared that up, this story has two major points.

Point 1: Non-complementary behaviour (aka, ‘love your enemies’) actually works

A group of friends sat around on a lazy summer night, drinking wine and eating cheese. Out of the blue, a guy with a gun appears, highly agitated, demanding cash and threatening to shoot. Except no on had any money. What do you do? Well, it was a true story. And in that moment, one of the cheese-eaters offers the guy a glass of wine. And the script gets flipped. They humanize him, he takes the wine. They all drink, talk, eventually he leaves.

It’s a true story, check it out on Invisibilia podcast. Offering wine to your gun wielding assailant is an example of non-complementary behavior, which is essentially responding to hatred/violence with an opposite approach, such as kindness. Again and again, life shows us that non-complementary behavior can ‘flip the script,’ and transform relationships. I believe this concept was first coined by Jesus… ‘love your enemies.’

The most awesome story in this episode is about a small Danish town’s approach to terrorism prevention. Police noticed a pattern of missing young men – 34 guys who left for Syria, responding to a call by ISIS to come build the Islamic State. They didn’t close their borders, declare those who left ‘enemies of the state,’ or make arrests upon their return. Instead, when they came back they invited them to have tea. They help them to enrol in courses, find jobs, find accommodation, even get medical treatment for bullet wounds. Most importantly, they offered them a mentor, and made sure they felt like they belonged in Denmark. It worked. Incredibly, the returnees they invited came, as did over 300 other ‘potential radicals.’

Whether it’s in the realm of personal interactions or national policy, the Jesus-logic ‘love your enemies’ actually works on a deep-principle-of-the-universe level. Surprisingly often, the guy with the gun picks up the wine glass and the kid who lit your roof on fire becomes a regular visitor, and wannabe-terrorists decide they would rather be proud Danish citizens. Obviously it doesn’t always go that way. But respond with love and it becomes a possibility, and you will expose hatred for what it is and at least contain its spread. Match the antagonism and you step into the cycle of escalation, retaliation and alienation. The last couple of decades of American foreign policy makes that pretty clear.

Point 2: “Each of us are more than the worst thing we have ever done”

– Bryan Stevenson, death-row lawyer, author of ‘Just Mercy’

Stevenson describes a man in his last few hours before execution who came to him and said, ‘this has been such as strange day. All day, guards asked me how they could help me, what meals I would like, whether I needed stamps to send last letters.’ The man continued, “more people have said, ‘What can I do to help you?’ in the last 14 hours of my life than ever did in the first 19 years.” Bryan wrote, “All I could think was… Where were they when you were 3 years old being abused? … Where were they when you were a teenager and you were homeless and struggling with drug addiction?”

When I first met Kenneth, people told me he was bad news, a hopeless criminal. When I visited him in the remand home, I started to piece together his story. He was born in a time of war. After his father died, he was expelled from home whenever his mother’s mental health tipped over the edge. His brothers taught him to steal to survive. Slowly, the real Kenneth is emerging. He is super intelligent, inquisitive, shy, but warm.

Each of us are more than the worst thing we have ever done.

Jesus specialised in this. When a corrupt official, a tax collector for the Romans climbed a tree to get a better view of Jesus passing, he visited the man at his home. The man turned his life upside down to join Jesus’s movement and paid back all the people he had cheated double. When Jesus saw a group about to stone a woman for cheating on her husband, he challenged them, ‘let the one who has never done anything wrong throw the first stone.’ They left, and he stayed to talk to her. Jesus engaged with the people everyone else despised or ignored, he understood their full story, and reclaimed their humanity. Prostitutes, self-righteous religious leaders, the poorest of the poor, the sick, prisoners.

To sign off…

I’d like to share that Kenneth just finished reading his very first chapter book. It was Fantastic Mr. Fox. He devoured it in one day, and actually understood it. Here in Uganda, that’s a miracle. We are going to watch the movie together when school breaks for holidays next week. Imagine if he was still in Gulu’s youth prison and we all missed out on all this life.

The Show Down

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This article is a continuation of part 1 and part 2 of a series of posts by Tessa.

On Saturday morning my phone buzzed, early. “The Ministry of trade are coming on Monday.” Coming to make our councillors halt the alcohol ordinance. The snake show-down. I leapt out of bed with a rush of adrenaline. Good-bye sleep in, good-bye weekend.

“Real” Organizing

For the next 60 hours, I got to feel like a ‘real’ community organizer, constantly on the phone saying things like, “So Pastor, you are Councillor Simon’s friend? Think you can influence his vote on Monday?” and “how many people can you bring with you to the council hall?” The tactic was two fold. 1) Fill the the council hall with as many community members and prominent religious, cultural and political leaders as possible, and 2) create pressure on each of the councillors to use their vote to defend the ordinance. Those councillors got a lot of phone calls in the following 48 hours. Despite all the efforts, on Sunday night we were still nervous. There were still rumors of bribes floating around.

On Monday, Wakonye Kenwa members were the first ones there (pictured above).

By 10am on Monday morning, the council hall was absolutely packed. The mood was excited and defiant, as the clip on on national TV captured. Every time a prominent Acholi personality entered there were cheers and waving of placards. Our group had made our own signs, messages for the councillors like “Leaders, don’t back down” and messages targeted at NRM (the ruling party) based on their own slogans like”Wealth Creation” and “Productivity and Growth.” Others had written their own edgier ones. My favorite: “Ministry of Trouble, Indecency and Corruption” (instead of trade, industry and cooperatives).

The Debate

I was disappointed Amelia didn’t come in person. Her represent spoke at length, using as many long words as possible. His main point seemed to be “we are sailing in the same direction” but that Gulu needed to wait. He claimed Gulu was breaking Uganda’s agreement with the World Trade Organization (Technical Barriers to Trade, Articles 2 and 3), because Gulu was not giving ‘time’ for companies to adjust their packaging.

One after another, the councilors responded. They spoke about how important the ordinance was to Gulu District. They challenged the Ministry’s motivations for interfering, and why there was no need for Gulu to ‘wait,’ noting all the times the Ministry had blocked national efforts for alcohol law reform. My favorite response was a councilor smoking the Ministry’s WTO defense by pointing out that all of the sachet alcohol trade is within Uganda, not between countries (and therefore has nothing to do WTO agreements).

Acholi pride

A tipping point reached when Norbert Mao showed up, a much loved Acholi (regime opposition) politician of iconic-hero like proportions. Whose name makes him sound like some kind of epic Chinese dragon. A councillor moved a motion that a sample of sachet alcohol be presented to the Ministry’s representative ‘for tasting.’ The speaker emotionally declared that ‘normal procedures’ for a full council meeting would not be followed, and invited all the ‘VIPS’ to speak- Bishops, Shieks, traditional chiefs, and of course, Mao. They spoke about how Acholis had suffered for decades of war. Years of fear, violence and oppression led to heavy drinking patterns. Alcohol companies exploit this. The Ministry wants to protect these companies to maintain their profit at the expense of Acholi people. How dare these people from Kampala tell Gulu to get rid of their law? The debate took on new dimensions. This was a matter of Acholi pride, protection of Acholi people.

In the aftermath of that Monday, there was a collective sense of triumph and unity. While I’d questioned the Chairman (Owl’s) wisdom in allowing the meeting to take place, I believe it achieved something quite profound.

All the local media stations covered the story, and so did the national paper, The Daily Monitor. Norbert Mao wrote an opinion article featured in the Sunday monitor titled “Gulu trailblazing ordinance should be supported”One online media outlet even ran a piece about how the Speaker turned down millions of shillings of bribe money to protect the Ordinance. I took him a clipping and some photos. He was stoked. When a Ugandan politician is proud of turning down a bribe, that is something to celebrate.

Towards Team-hood? (Issue 30)

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Here’s a little ad I just whipped up:

Cheap avocados. 50c bags of mangos. Hobbit-worthy grass-thatched dome housing. An orange flowering vine winding over the veranda. Living 100% off the grid. It’s the dream! The sun’s energy to charge your laptop and rain to provide water to hand-wash your clothes (which is very idyllic and not at all tedious). Whether you’re a teacher, a change-maker, a business person, a nurse, a mechanic or a theologian, there’s more at stake and more potential here than anything you’ve encountered before. God’s at work and there‘s plenty to do. So come join our little team!

Lately I’ve been thinking about what it would be like here in Gulu, Northern Uganda, if we were part of a mini-team with a shared purpose and common rhythms. My husband, Nick, and I have lived here now for over three years. Determined to connect locally, we dedicated our first five months to language learning and joined the closest Anglican church. We spent time sitting and listening. For our first year we stubbornly turned down invitations from other ‘non-nationals’ to socialize. After all, we came to befriend Ugandans, not Australians, right?

Around a year in, we found we deeply missed culturally-familiar conversations with similarly educated people and fellow Christians who were willing to pursue us, hold us accountable and challenge us. We sheepishly called the Australians back. Why couldn’t we find this amongst our many local friends, who we deeply love and respect? It’s a hard question to answer, but despite being surrounded by many caring local neighbours, we’ve often felt isolated, lonely and overwhelmed by the seemingly endless need around us and the challenges and frustrations of our work.

A month ago I sat in Gulu’s dusty, bustling bus park, carefully scanning the rows of passengers on each bus that swung in. Right on time, our friend emerged with his glorious kiwi-accent, wearing a marmite laden tramping pack. My sister arrived a week later, and another friend just in time for Christmas. Now, with five of us living in our little hut, we have a glimpse at what team-hood might be like here.

Since they’ve arrived I’ve been thinking even more about why doing life and mission as a team makes a lot of sense. Here’s my top five:

1. Becoming more available to neighbours

This Saturday morning our neighbour Lucy popped round to charge her phone with our solar and bring us a papaya from her tree. Our friend Opiyo dropped by to process some bad news: his carpentry teacher was killed in a car crash. After lunch a band of four kids arrived ready to read their story-books, answer a quiz on the content and exchange it for a new one. We want to be available to our neighbours, and we want to be part of our community. But with just the two of us, we can’t always handle so many visitors. Since our three friends arrived, if I have my hands full cooking dinner, or I’ve had a rough day, we don’t have to turn the kids away. There’s usually someone there with the energy to make someone welcome.

2. Life logistics

Without running water, washing machines, a stove top or a fridge, life takes a bit longer. Division of labour is not an overrated concept. We take turns cooking, and it’s just way more efficient. My sister and I wash the clothes, and the boys fetch the water from the borehole with a wheelbarrow. We all get to avoid our least favourite tasks!

3. Greater scope for creative re-charge time

Before we arrived in Uganda, Nick and I never, ever watched TV series. I’m too embarrassed to confess how many I’m now familiar with. As excellent as my personal favourites ‘the Wire’ and ‘the West Wing’ may be, we’ve definitely over-dosed. A combination of factors led to this trend. Often we’ve felt so exhausted by the work day, community interaction and domestic tasks to find the energy to do much else. Local friends don’t like to move around after dark so there are limited social opportunities. Since our visitors arrived, bringing with them new energy and creativity, we’ve spent more time singing, running, playing games and discussing life over long meals outside. Some forms of relaxing are just better for the soul.

4. Spiritual discipline

There’s this bit in Romans which reads: “I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another” (The Message, 7:15). I know I’m not healthy if I don’t regularly take time out to be quiet and listen to God. Yet I too frequently lack discipline to actually do it! I’d love to try group spiritual rhythms and times for prayer, whether it was something collective or an individual thing we all do at the same time. Other people can help us commit to ways of life that we’ve decided we want.

5. Common vision for a common location

A month ago I was part of a disastrous meeting. It felt like our community organizing group was irretrievably falling apart at the seams. I was low, confused. I came home to our temporary team. They were a sounding board, giving me perspective and hope. And sometimes, discussions lead to new ideas altogether. The other day my sister and I were thinking about what the early seeds of an organic woman’s rights movement would look like in Gulu, and we discussed the idea of starting a woman’s dance and discussion group. There’s something special about living with people with common visions for a common location. Frustrations get aired and discussed. Challenges collectively pondered. New creative ideas emerge.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking lately. It’s been a great, tumultuous, inspiring three years by ourselves. But there might be a whole other way of doing things round the bend. I’m sure it won’t be all rosy tinted, I’m sure living in a team would bring its own conflicts and challenges. But I’d love to try. And in case you’re wondering, I’m entirely serious about my opening ad. Get in touch.

Tessa & Nick are NZCMS Mission Partners in Uganda. Tessa heads up a Community Organising group that tackles various social issues in the broader community. For more from the Laings visit ugandapanda.com

For discussion

In what ways do you feel lonely, isolated and overwhelmed?

How could Tessa’s top five apply to your context? What points would you add to your list?

 

Exploring today’s missional issues from a variety of angles, each edition of the Intermission magazine will equip you and your group to engage with God in your community and beyond. To signup to receive the Intermission in the post, email office@nzcms.org.nz. Intermission articles can also be found online at nzcms.org.nz/intermission.

The enforcement begins

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I woke up, wired, my head buzzing with questions. Would the police go ahead with the plan? Will the District send a big truck like they promised? Will we find the sachets of alcohol or have retailers hidden them too well? How will the shopkeepers react? If we do find sachets, will the District come through on their promise to give us somewhere to put them? In Gulu, no matter how much you try, a ‘plan’ is never really more than a series of vague uncoordinated questions. Fred, a key ally is already waiting at the police station at 7am, coolly sipping a mug of millet porridge. We are soon joined by Anthony, Boniface and Cristo, all revving to go.

After an hour and a half of milling around we spot the District Police Commander. “There’s an emergency, the operation will be delayed until its dealt with.” We watch as officers are loaded into an open-topped vehicle and speed off. The Police Commander, standing near us, demands updates on his cell phone “Is he dead? Where are the suspects?” A mob were lynching two suspected motorcycle thieves. By the time the police arrived (an hour late), they had been burnt to death. Officers returned and joined our circle, cheerfully one-upping one another on the most horrific lynchings they had seen, the details of which I shall spare you. I politely declined viewing a cell phone snap of this mornings victims. More time passed. 10am came and went. With plenty of phone calls from our team, we managed to get the District truck sent with a driver to wait on standby, and made sure the police vehicles had fuel.

Then suddenly, my mouth still full of chapatti, we were all go. Officers piled into police vans, last second confusion and changes of targets. My convoy hit up the wholesale street in the centre of town. While I’m used to seeing police operations on my teenage favourite “The Bill’ or more recently the infinitely superior “The Wire,” this operation resembled toddlers playing tag in the dark. The District Police Commander soon became completely redundant as operation commander when he got into what turned out to be an hour long dispute with a shopkeeper.

Most of the police considered themselves above lifting boxes and loading them into the truck. They had no plan for how the loading should take place. We lifted boxes ourselves, and hired some young guys on the spot.

While most of the shop keepers responded calmly, one retailer was furious. He had 30 boxes of sachets confiscated, worth millions of Ugandan shillings. He leapt on the truck and tried to throw his boxes back. The drama attracted a crowd.

By 2:30pm, the mission was complete. Between the two sites targeted, 307 boxes of sachets were impounded. That’s around 44000 sachets. Despite our hassling, a storeroom had still not been identified. I had to check several major hotels to find the District Chairperson at one of two meetings he was supposedly attending, accompany him back to the District Headquarters, find the storekeeper, accompany the storekeeper to find an appropriate store, and ring the truck to come. An hour of lifting heavy smelly boxes in the sun later.

Boom. First operation, done.

It was reported in the national papers…even if they got the numbers wrong:

Daily monitor report “police confiscate 150 cartons of sachet waragi”

Gulu’s alcohol law. Launched!

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Last Tuesday was a milestone in our ‘Wakonye Kenwa’ group’s long struggle to bring alcohol regulation to Gulu town, and ban sachet alcohol. Over a year ago we coordinated a march to deliver over 10000 signatures to the local District Government to ensure they completed the law: we marched from a church to the District. This time, the march started at the District where our law was passed, and ended at Gulu Main Market, the District’s commercial hub where enforcement will start.

Check out our highlights video, including some of my favourite moments:

“Don’t drink sachets, drink…. porridge!” (Confused? Here you definitely ‘drink’ porridge, not eat it. Preferably with added peanut butter and lemon juice, mmmm). One of Gulu’s beloved ‘street personalities’ dancing to two 11 year-old gangsta’s Acholi rap about the harms of alcohol consumption. Our Resident District Commissioner (a top position in the District) drilling the crowd on the enforcement start date, 6th December, 2016. And of course, everybody’s highlight, Wakonye Kenwa Group’s drama featuring Otim Isaac as ‘Okech,’ the drunkard. I should probably add a preface that there is a somewhat black sense of humor here in Gulu. Perhaps decades of war and trauma have resulted in turning dark things into melodrama and comedy in order to cope. So to warn you, yes, there is a suicide scene, and I’m afraid yes, the crowd is in hysterics. Remember many things included in western plays/films/songs seem inappropriate to people here! Feeling the unity and ownership. There weren’t any half-hearted speeches from disinterested politicians or other leaders. There is a shared feeling in Gulu that the time is ripe for this. Throughout this whole process we are yet to encounter much serious resistance. Maybe it will come when enforcement begins.

Let me let you in on a little secret (shhhhh…) I’m not really that into big events, and definitely not into organizing them. To pull this event off, we coordinated multiple NGOs to join the effort…think tents, chairs, brass bands, radio announcements, police escorts, banners, water bottle distribution, sound system, organizing the VIP speakers, getting tons of people to the same place at the same time…. So whats the point of all this faffing? After all, the law is already passed, right? Isn’t it a waste of time and money?

The reality is that in Uganda, laws often don’t mean all that much. Even if a law is officially passed by council, approved by the Attorney General, published in the national gazette, it can still result in absolutely no practical change. A whole lot of people have to know about the law, understand the law, and feel like it is their law. They have to believe their leaders think its important, and believe authorities are serious enough to make arrests, press charges, burn big piles of confiscated sachets. They have to feel like its worth it to kick up a massive fuss if they don’t see police enforcing the new law.

So that’s why we did the launch. And… it worked! There is big buzz about the new alcohol law and the sachet ban on the streets in Gulu and almost constantly on the radio. We are all holding our breath to see what will happen on the 6th December. Enforcement day.

Sachet ban: Where are we at?

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(This update was written in July this year.)

Anyone remember these? The 40% spirits packaged in a convenient little 100ml plastic sachet available in every single local shop for only 25 NZ cents?

Unfortunately, they are still everywhere. I biked to a meeting yesterday and the road was littered with them. I spied a 10 year-old sucking on one in her school uniform at 9:30am.

We began our fight to ban them at the beginning of last year. Our community organizing group, Wakonye Kenwa, campaigned on the radio. We presented our research to Gulu District Council. We lobbied Councilors and found them NGO funding from 8 different groups to fund their law making process. We found them a pro-bono lawyer to draft the law. We helped organize and pushed through all 6 law making meetings. When progressed stalled we collected over 10 000 signatures in support of the move to ban sachets, and organized our religious leaders to lead a public march to present the petition to Gulu District Council as a public statement of support for the process (and a wee nudge – kindly get on with it!).

In January this year, Gulu District Council voted to pass the Alcohol Ordinance. It not only bans sachet alcohol, but introduces a whole host of alcohol restrictions. It will restrict drinking hours in bars, so as a friend puts it, ‘men actually go and do some work before they start sitting around drinking.’ It will restrict alcohol sale licenses to reduce the number of places that sell alcohol, stop under-age drinking, restrict marketing and advertising and much much more. In March, our law was sent to Kampala for the last step: the approval of the Attorney General:

But over three months later, still nothing. Our law is stuck in his office. Why?  We are still trying to find out if its sitting forgotten about at the bottom of a large pile of papers, or if its provocative content means they’d rather just forget about it. Central Government sees alcohol sales as a lucrative tax collecting method. So right now we are asking some questions…

Why is our law being delayed? Who do we know with the right influence to find out? Who can advocate on our behalf in this Kampala office? How can we influence the right advocates to take action? 

There is still a long road ahead… watch this space!

Fire, Forgiveness and Family 

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Then Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me. Seven?”Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.”

We sat around a beautiful pile of pikelets, sliced mango and bananas with our friends and their two wee kids. A relaxing Sunday afternoon after a stressful week. Our neighbour Lucy was in hospital, very ill, and needed a lot of practical support. Finally, she was recovering. I took another pikelet, glanced out the window, then did a double take. Smoke. Billowing out of Lucy’s door. We sprinted over and found her bed ablaze with thick choking black fumes from the mattress filling the room. With the help our friends, a neighbour, our small fire extinguisher and many jerrycans of water we managed to put it out. Lucy’s return from hospital was not as joyful as we hoped.

The fire did not remain a mystery for long. The culprit was a small boy called Aken, only 11 years old. He’d managed to steal Lucy’s key. His mother had a long-standing family feud with Lucy, now apparently fuelled by jealousy at Lucy’s fortune in finding a new home moving in with us. With Lucy still in hospital, we were the ones to take our wee arsonist into the police. The police shrugged it off saying he was young, and sent him home with zero follow up. His mother sent him to stay with relatives in the village, but he was chased away after stealing and selling their chickens.

Two weeks later we woke to find our hut roof on fire. I will never forget the fierce red glow and crackle of the grass thatch as I rushed outside. Neighbours came sprinting to our rescue from all directions with jerry-cans and basins, throwing water on the fire and dragging our furniture and things outside. Unbelievably, Lacor hospital fire truck showed up and doused our hut in water inside and out, extinguishing every last ember. It was over. But my mind was ticking over. Physically we’d escaped extraordinarily well: no-one harmed, property soggy but not burnt, roof damaged, but still liveable. But I knew we weren’t going to get much sleep that night. Or the next night. Aken, of course, had fled and was no where to be found.

The next month gave us the tiniest taste of the worried nights everyone here in Northern Uganda suffered for two decades of civil war. Except we feared a poor, downtrodden child with a box of matches, not grenade wielding rebels and government soldiers with AK47s. The emotional aftermath wasn’t all negative. I had a heightened awareness that community was our security, and a grateful warmth to our immediate neighbours who came running. I felt pleasantly detached from material ‘stuff’, and tried to pass on anything useful we weren’t utilising to local friends. But the question of what to do about Aken still loomed.

After several weeks, Aken was finally found, charged with arson and taken to the children’s remand home till the court hearing. I visited Aken again before we headed off to collect family at the airport. The remand home is depressing, but not horrible. There’s no razor wire or harsh discipline, just kids sitting around looking bored and dejected. Determined to understand him a bit better, I’d brought some string for him to make a timeline of his life, pebbles to represent the bad things that had happened, and flowers to represent good times he remembered. The guard squinted and said it looked like witchcraft. “Just talking, no flowers” he warned me. I handed Aken a bag of snacks and wondered nervously where to begin. So far I know that his dad died when he was small. He likes school, but has only finished 2 years of primary. His older brothers steal things. His mum had a mental break down two years ago and attempted suicide. He is convinced she doesn’t want him. We decided to drop the charges and find a way to get him to school.

While I’ve yet to get a smile out of Aken on my visits to the remand home, he certainly associates me with food. He is coming home in a week. He can join our after-school reading classes for neighbourhood kids. Then, he will go to boarding school, his first year paid for by our own family back home. If you are the praying type, our big request is that you pray with us that his life is turned around, and that the brokenness can be healed.

So, all in all it hasn’t been an easy return to Uganda. We’ve also had a bad run of illness: between us 8 skin infections, 3 bouts of malaria (all Nick) and numerous tummy bugs. And yet when I look back on the last 5 months there is so much to be thankful to God for. We have some great new relationships with young neighbours. Lucy recovered when we thought she might not make it. We’ve grown enough basil to make a jar of peanut-pesto every week. My community organising group has launched 3 new water-access campaigns and strong leaders are emerging. Next week we are running a preaching-training at our church. Nick’s health centres are flourishing better than he ever could have imagined last year. And right now, we’re sleeping well at night again.

All this might seem extreme, but is part of the deal here; stuff happens. We’re not singled out, or different from other people. This chain of events is perhaps an induction to the everyday struggles of many of our friends. Pray for complete forgiveness from all ends, pray for Aken and his future, pray for redemption.

Farming Fail turns fiasco: attempt 3

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After our first attempt belly-flopped, Paul (a member farmer) invited me to chew it over in his carpentry workshop. I listened, ankle deep in wood shavings.

“The farmers from our church are not serious farmers. They have other work, like me! Their farms are all far away from each other, so they struggle to think collectively. In my home village, I have over 60 farmers who want to join us. They are so poor. Farming is their ONLY livelihood, and their farms are all side-by-side, they can see when each other plants, weeds, harvests. They need this. They will work together.”

A week later I found myself cycling behind Paul and our chairman Ocen along Juba Road, passing scattered huts, spiky tuku trees, the odd sunflower field, under Gulu’s glorious domed sky. An hour and a half later, we arrived in Jimo village. My eyes opened wide – within half an hour 66 people materialized under the designated mango tree. Paul nodded happily. Ocen lead a brief bible study on forgiveness, which bizarrely prompted a public reconciliation between two ladies who had been fighting over a goat-crop eating incident.

We explained the seed loan system, then fielded the usual flood of questions. So the seeds aren’t free? Why? What about free Cows? Hoes? Tarpaulins? We explained this is a cooperative, not an NGO. 59 farmers signed up, appointed some key leaders, and promised to bring their membership fees when we convened in 2 months to prepare for the planting season.

And so, we found ourselves starting a new group in Jimo (attempt 3) at the same time we launched attempt 2 with our church farmers. Proper rural, full-time farmers, larger scale, one location…I had a good feeling about it. Take note: feelings are misleading.

 Drum roll……..what happened?

We biked out again 2 months later with 59 maize seed loan forms. We waited for hours under the mango tree. No one. Just the odd goat. I went back to Paul, trying to find out what happened. Turned out a lot of people lost interest after finding out there weren’t any freebies involved. But Paul insisted we should give it another shot, there are some who are keen. The next week, after waiting over an hour, 6 farmers came with their membership fees, and filled out seed forms, and discussed our game plan. Fine. Lets start smaller. Training day went well. But when I went back to measure the spacing between rows and plants I found all the advice had been ignored. The spacing was huge and irregular. Why? The seed had been given to their children to plant. Go figure. I had to leave for NZ just before storage time. We located a small store in Jimo, and I left the group’s leader with group money to pay the rent and the ‘permethrin dust’ to protect the maize from weevils. I returned from NZ, and called our Jimo leader, who called a group meeting. I biked out…and yet again, just me and the goats. I wandered around, and eventually found a young guy who offered to jump on my bike and round up the members of the group. He located everyone but the leader, who was nowhere to be found. The leader had not told the other farmers about the meeting…. In fact he hadn’t communicated anything to them in a long time. No one had brought any maize to the store. Yet again, they sold the maize early. None of the farmers from Jimo have repaid their seed loan. They’ve told me they will pay it in August when their next crops are ready. I visited our treasurer from the original church group to check our account balance. She told me she had ‘borrowed’ the money to complete construction of her house.

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. We have entered into the realm of a fiasco.

Why the fiasco?

If we try again, we would plant chili or ginger. Lucrative crops that are not eaten in bulk and have an external market. Would that make all the difference? Perhaps.

But there is a deeper problem. Ultimately, most farmers here believe ‘farming groups’ are primarily about accessing free stuff, rather than working together to increase profits. Our group must have been viewed as a fairly lame- nothing free, just a loan. There was very little interest in improving planting methods, little interest in collective storage and sale.

I’m aware there are plenty of farming projects in Gulu, run by NGOs, not by farmers themselves. The farmers receive free seeds, free fertilizer. Often, the NGO itself collects the crop, stores and sells it. If they leave or end the project (which, at some point, they will), will those farmers be able to run the show by themselves? I’m dubious, but oh so very eager to be proved wrong.

That, my friends, is an abbreviated but true account of my fumblings in farming to date. Will there be an attempt 4? To be honest, I’m not sure. If there is, it will look radically different. I’ll keep you posted.

Farming Fails: Attempt 2

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I crawled out of the fetal position, shook off my frustration, drank some jasmine tea, prayed a little prayer of perseverance, and dived into mission farming cooperative, take two. Early 2015. The group chose to stick with the familiar and plant maize again, rather than embark on a new crop.

What did we do differently this time? Essentially, 3 things:

We got brutal. Remember, in attempt 1, farmers with far flung farms failed to bring their produce to the central store- transport was too costly and tricky. This time, we set a boundary of 5km. Any farmers with land beyond the boundary had to rent land close by, or leave the group. Rough, I know. We whittled down to just 7 farmers. Secure good seeds. This time round, we approached a big company ourselves. I got seed samples early, planted them in little boxes and tested the germination rate. I made the company sign an agreement to compensate us if their seeds failed to germinate as well as their sample. Simple training No need to sit looking at diagrams on a blackboard. We just got some rope, some hoes, some seeds and went out and practiced measuring spacing between seeds, between rows, and seed depth. Easy. We emphasized the main thing was working together- planting together, committing to bring the crop for collective storage and sale.

 The results? 

Well, we got a brilliant seed deal, that’s for sure. The correct hybrid variety seeds arrived on time, they germinated perfectly. We bargained a great price. No complaints there. But when it came to the crunch, would our farmers bring their produce for collective sale?

*failed computer game sound effect*

Nick faithfully brought his maize- and brought a lot of it, having decided to experiment with upscaling his farming hobby. He brought 20 sacks. Another member, Margaret brought one plump sack. What about the others? It was hard to get a clear answer. Transporting produce was no longer a factor. But ultimately, farmers were still tempted by short term benefits- immediate food, and immediate sale in small amounts to go towards household needs, school fees. Its understandable. But the farmers who sold it immediately got 400 Shillings (20 NZ cents) per Kg. We stored Nick and Margaret’s maize for four months, and sold it for 800 Shillings per Kg. Thats a huge difference in profit margin!

The ultimate sinking realization from attempt 2:

If the goal is making better profits for farmers don’t farm something that can be eaten, or sold easily on the local market like beans, maize, or millet. Its just too tempting to sell it early, even if it compromises the groups whole plan. Go for something that is not eaten in bulk locally. Something a bit pricier, sold elsewhere in bulk to other parts of Uganda, Kenya, or beyond. Such as:  chili peppers, ginger, onions.

Next installment: attempt 3.