The airport is in Entebbe, a town about 25 miles south of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Both cities are nestled on Lake Victoria which appears like an ocean in the middle of the continent of Africa.
Stepping off the plane you know you have left the West. It is the Third World, but as you drive past tall buildings and Internet cafes, I was surprised to see the high level of advancement and sophistication often found around me. The step from one world into the other in many ways is not so big, but there is still much the West can offer the people of Uganda.
In Kampala, the home where I stayed came complete with Bonnie the cook/housekeeper, Joseph the driver and Moses the gardener. Moses smiled broadly every waking minute of his day. He is a fine man in this country of the friendliest people in the world. But Moses and I were at odds. The monkeys visited his garden, at 9 a.m. every morning, to review the delights Moses obviously planted just for them.
Monkeys populate the suburbs of Kampala like squirrels do in the United States. While Moses wanted to chase the monkeys away, I wanted to feed them bananas. He was quite amused at my fascination with these agile creatures that scurried to the roof when he walked near. Moses relented and helped me feed them bananas.
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In Uganda we saw the falls where the Nile River begins. Around the countryside we found elephants, hippos, a spotted hyena, chimps and lions. Occasionally baboons directed traffic. Such animals abound; next trip I am sworn to find the gorillas to the east. All these African animals wander freely wherever it is they want to go; it was us who gave them all the room they required. In Africa, we are not at the top of the food chain.
I found a beautiful site upon reaching a hilltop. Before me were several huge craters I thought left by planet-like asteroids. I was wrong. They were remnants of monster volcanoes which raged eons ago. It would take hours to drive around the crater’s rim. Perhaps a half a mile below, a gorgeous lake stood ready to cool the volcano’s center. The once unimaginable violence was now calmed and transformed into a land of green shrubs and plants; trees forest the area. The landscape, though scarred, healed. Only when I’m dead will I forget this view ... and maybe not even then.
Uganda is called the “Pearl of Africa.” It is. But two tyrants rest in the minds of people when they think of Uganda: Idi Amin of years ago, and now Joseph Kony.
The world awakened to Kony when a YouTube viral video, by Invisible Children, put a spotlight on the unimaginable cruelty of his attacks in the north. This Lord’s Resistance Army slaughtered thousands as it kidnapped children to fill the ranks of its armed forces.
The children were often forced to kill members of their family, and they were taught to kill others as they terrorized the countryside. Attempt to escape Kony’s army and you might have your eyelids removed with a knife or your lips cut off, or usually just shot. The violent cruelty gets worse, far beyond imagination. All total, 68,000 people, mostly children, were abducted. 11,000 were never heard from again.
I traveled to Gulu, once the heart of the LRA domain. I spoke with leaders of some of the organizations trying to heal the wounds Kony left behind. Gulu Support the Children Organization has a well researched and ambitious plan to offer vocational training to the victims of this war.
Caratas, an important partner of Catholic Relief Services, had an incredible history of working with children who escaped from the LRA. Often appearing with seriously damaged feet from trekking through the rough and thorny countryside, they told stories of escapes equal to any soldier’s tale from our worst wars. Families were often too afraid to welcome home their children for fear their “rebel” mentalities would threaten them and their village. Many of the children were abducted after killing family members and their neighbors. They did so, or they were tortured and killed by their captors.
After years of combat, the children had killed many, sometimes cutting their victims to pieces, even eating their brains raw. Fleeing the LRA, thousands of children found themselves living on the streets.
John Aludi was one of the saints; he was a very dedicated social worker who cared for these children. At Caritas’ Gulu rehab center, Aludi told me a story about his meeting with Kony’s No. 2 man to broker a peace settlement. Northern Uganda was desperate to end this nightmare, but the talks failed. Later he was rewarded with an LRA ambush outside his office. He was shot in the leg and the abdomen, but still, he works with the victims.
When the world learned what was happening in Uganda, it made me wonder how much our political leaders knew. How could there be so many years of silence until Invisible Children’s video?
But what the YouTube video didn’t make clear is that Kony, who once commanded an army of 20,000 stolen child warriors, left Uganda in 2006 with a flimsy brigade of 200 to 300. He and his remaining soldiers probably went to Southern Sudan and the Congo.
Many fundraisers will still use the word “children” in their pleas for help, as does the recent 2012 video from Invisible Children. The children left behind in Uganda are now in their 20s and 30s. The very few children remaining today were born in captivity. Some relief organizations prefer the phrase “formerly abducted persons” over “children;” desperate for help, if donors continue to think of them as children, it is easier to raise money.
Yes, at Caritas and at GUSCO, we spoke of “formally abducted persons.” But when it came to needs, they spoke of group counseling and teaching others how to counsel, vocational training, of people to teach carpentry and joinery, bricklaying, etc. These were not the needs of children. But how can it make a difference?
Our own adult soldiers returned from war with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and we reached out to them. Children, who were tortured and who keep memories of killing parents and others, what do they return with? Though 20 or 30 years old now, what do they carry with them today in their souls?
When Moses heard I was heading to Gulu, with that same wide smile he looked up from his plants and said to me, “Kony killed my wife.” It seems his eternal smile was a plastic mask covering the pain Joseph Kony left him with.
The volcanos were tamed by time and nature, and finally molded into something beautiful. Perhaps it is up to us if anything beautiful will bloom from the horror the LRA left behind. A profound need for help remains in Uganda. Time will work its magic again and perhaps there is something beautiful to see when a world reaches out to help the “formally abducted persons.”
Tom Scholl has served as pastor of churches in Ohio and New York, as well as holding positions in several ecumenical organizations. He lives in Macon.