Friday, December 31, 2010

Back in Uganda

My wife, son, and I arrived in Uganda last night exhausted from a long, delayed trip. Yes, snow on the U.S. East coast disrupts air travel nearly everywhere. We leave tomorrow to visit Betty and the six orphans (see Christmas story below) in Fort Portal. Then, it's off to wonderful Queen Elizabeth National Park for a couple of days of R and R. Our peace journalism schedule resumes in Tororo and Gulu the week of January 10th.

More random, seemingly unrelated thoughts from this part of the world

From the Parkville Luminary

TORORO, UGANDA—One of the journalists who attended my recent peace journalism seminar relayed a fascinating tale regarding two candidates for political office and their wacky wives. We’ll call them Candidate A, his wife Mrs. A, Candidate B, and Mrs. B. Candidate A is sick. Mrs. A believes that Mr. A’s illness has been caused by “bewitching” that was allegedly done by the wife of Candidate B. So, Mrs. A went to confront Mrs. B, and fisticuffs ensued. The upshot—Mrs. A told Mrs. B that if Mr. A dies, the bewitching will be to blame. As retribution for a dead husband, Mrs. A said that she would steal Mr. B from his wife. After relaying this murky tale, the storyteller then asked me, with a straight face, how I would cover such a story as a journalist. Bewildered, I gave some lame answer about trying to stick to the facts. How can you cover such a story and not sound like the “National Enquirer”?

American election cycles would definitely be enlivened by battling spouses, evil spells, and husband/wife-swapping. I’m thinking that this could be especially entertaining if it were to involve Sarah Palin, since it would set up a no-survivors smackdown between Todd Palin and Michelle Obama. The smart money’s on Michelle, by the way.

ON THE ROAD IN UGANDA—In 2010, we have made 20 car trips to all parts of Uganda, and have covered 4,993 miles. To put this in perspective, that’s more than the distance from Kansas City to London, England (4391 miles), and about the same as KC to Recife, Brazil (5034 miles). There are no rest stops anywhere, and answering the call of nature puts you in close contact with nature. Keep your eyes open for snakes.

Other than two horrible, cratered stretches between Kampala and Fort Portal and Kampala and Masaka, the roads haven’t been too bad. In fact, many have been worked on recently due to the fact that this is an election year and the ruling party wants to pave its path to victory with the claim that the roads have improved.

However, because they’re 99.5% two lane roads, and because Ugandans drive like bewitched demons, the roads are deadly dangerous. Not a week goes by without news of a grizzly, fiery smash up, often featuring packed mini vans and buses and involving multiple casualties. Passing on curves and hills is normal here, and near misses are as common as pimples on a teenager. As we ride along, always seconds away from oblivion, I employ an effective defense mechanism against this mayhem. I simply to stare off into the scenery, away from the road, fixing my gaze on a banana farm, some goats, or youngsters getting intro mischief. So far, this method has proven 100% effective in preventing injury, death, or accidental bowel release.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas 2010

Thanks everyone for your heart-felt comments about my Christmas column. (See previous post below from Dec. 19). Special thanks also to the Cibotaru-Anschutz family in Kansas City, whose generous donation will definitely help Betty and her mom stay afloat. My Christmas in Kansas City with my family (domestic and international) was wonderful. Tomorrow, it's back to Uganda. This time, my wife and son will go along. Wish me luck--not with the Ugandans, but with my wife and son. (Just kidding, honey bun).

Ugandans wish for peaceful 2011

From the Parkville Luminary

KAMPALA, UGANDA—Ugandans are looking forward to 2011 with a mixture of hope, anticipation, fear, and dread. At least, that was the reaction of those who were asked what their New Year’s wish was for Uganda in 2011. Not coincidentally, all of the wishes relate to the presidential election on Feb. 18, 2011.

“My wish is that a lot of Ugandans will go out there and vote in the coming elections. It's my understanding that many Ugandans have become apathetic about the system, so much so that they become silent enablers of an electoral system that is already corrupt. I also think that it's much harder for incumbents to rig elections when voter turnout is high, when people stay out there to watch the outcome of their efforts. They need to get out of their houses.” --Rodney Muhumuza, Ugandan journalist and graduate student, Columbia University, New York.

“My wish for Uganda this year is to have a good political climate during the coming elections and also vote good leaders that will fight to improve the welfare of the people rather than their own stomachs. This is very important because very many people are dying of poverty, starvation but the only thing we get from our leaders is corruption and embezzlement of funds aimed at meeting the needs of the dying Ugandans. So my wish is to see that we get good leaders that will transform the lives of the people and the country in general….I am so disappointed with our leaders today…” –Simon Senfuka, Park University student from Uganda.

“My New Year wish for Uganda is "Peaceful, Free and Fair Elections". This is mainly for two reasons. One is that Uganda never seem to get peaceful, not free and fair elections. The first elections under (Current President) Museveni in 1996 were characterized by violence. Before that, Museveni waged a bloody 5 year war because he contested elections. The last two elections (2001, 2006) have ended of in the Supreme Court with indictments about the process, institutions involved. Ugandans deserve better. Secondly, with all my young family back in Uganda and being almost physically removed from them, anything that seems to threaten them disturbs me terribly. I want them to live in an enabling environment, to feel at home in their country.” –JB Mayiga, former head, Uganda Media Development Foundation; current Canadian doctoral student.

“My New Year’s wish is: A new leader, a new beginning. I wish 2011 ushers in a new leader who will work on Uganda's problems starting from corruption, which I believe is responsible for the poor education system, poor road network, poor health system, poor housing, widening income inequality, sectarianism, nepotism, tribalism, unemployment and lack of respect for the constitution. Then Uganda will have a change that she so much deserves and desires.” –Caesar Kyebakola, business owner.

“My wish for New Year is peace during and after the general elections in 2011. This will prevent bloodshed which usually results from post election violence. May the Almighty God let it be, Amen.” –Grace Lekuru, radio journalist.

“My greatest new year’s wish for my country Uganda is peace and stability…Since 2006 neighboring countries like Kenya, Zimbabwe and Rwanda have also held elections. Countries like Kenya and Zimbabwe have had bad days of election violence just because the elections have not been free and fair which has been solved by forming power sharing deals. (During our election), if one side feels cheated they will resort to violence to make sure at least there is power sharing…I wish all Ugandans were seeing further than just being and having their leaders win , and set all eyes and efforts on peace and stability. I call upon all Ugandans to look further and keep in mind that when we have a peaceful nation, we shall enjoy all the fruits of peace which is my wish for all Ugandans come 2011.” --Betty Mujungu, radio journalist.

“I wish that the journalists cover stories in a balanced way and to say no to politician who move to use them to spread their propaganda and rumor. ..I wish we could have free and fair elections without and violence and above all, couples allowing their partners to freely vote for a candidate of their choice regardless of party differences. I also wish all my family and friends health.” --Gloria Laker, peace journalism project assistant.

My New Year’s wish is the same—peace for Uganda; not just for the sake of the wonderful people of Uganda, but for selfish reasons as well. After all, my wife and son will be with me in Uganda in 2011, and nothing is more important to me than their safety.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Angels make Christmas memorable for six orphans

From the Parkville Luminary

FORT PORTAL, UGANDA—Try as they might, Annet, Jannet, Peter, Violet, Patrick, and Adolf are having a hard time forgetting Christmas, 2009.

Newly orphaned, isolated, and alone, the six kids, ages 4-13 at the time, were more worried about surviving than they were about celebrating.

“Christmas (2009) was not good for me, I had no clothes and we did not go to church,” said Violet, 9. Peter, 11, said Christmas “was not different from other ordinary days because even then life did not change because we had no any meals (except for) a neighbor who offered lunch.” “There was nothing special about last Christmas because we did not have any new clothes, no special meals and no parents,” said Janet, 13.

The oldest orphan, Annet, vainly tried to hold back tears as she recalled the 2009 holidays. “Christmas day was worse because it was the first Christmas with out our beloved mother who would try to make sure we have special meals and sodas. In the night it rained heavily and we did not sleep as the rain got to us through the dilapidated roof. Actually, I hate even recalling that Christmas because that is when I realized we were typical parentless because there was no one for us,” she said.

The six were left alone last Christmas after their father abused their mother, eventually killing her. Then, the alcoholic father killed himself, leaving Annet and her five younger brothers and sisters orphaned. None of their relatives would, or could, look after them, so they were absolutely alone in the world.

Enter Betty Mujungu, a journalist at Life FM in Fort Portal. As I first reported last summer, Betty produced a story about the orphans’ plight, featuring the kids telling their pathetic tale. In the radio report, the children talked openly about how they were suffering and didn’t have enough to eat. Annet told Betty about how one of the younger girls injured her leg escaping from a would-be rapist. Upon hearing this tragic story, Life FM’s listeners sprung into action. Ten different donors generously gave food and clothing to the children. Another donor is paying for all the kids to attend school.

Touched by the orphans’ story, Betty and her mother Edith Birungi decided to take in all six kids about four months ago. The orphans now call Betty “Dear Aunt” and Edith “Mum”.

Since they now have a home, Betty said the kids’ lives have “completely transformed into average standards of living with the children accessing both the basic and secondary requirements. Exposure to a new friendly environment of desirable dressing, schools, shelter as well as feeding makes the children hopeful of a life they never anticipated.”

The kids seem to be doing fine in school. “I didn`t know I would perform as good as this in class before, because in the previous days my studies were on and off as I would be frequently shut away from school due to failure to pay school fees,” noted Annet, who plans to be a doctor.

--Photo--The six orphans, looking "smart" in their school uniforms.--

The orphans have not only excelled at school, but they are also opening up to the community that embraced them. They participate in a weekly Saturday children’s radio program on Life FM. Betty observed that this show “has enhanced their communication capabilities because they can now talk with out fear… and teach their fellow children.”

Given their new life, it’s no surprise that the children have high hopes for Christmas 2010. This year, they want a celebration complete with new clothes, special meals, and a visit to church. Betty has assured the kids that she will “fulfill all of their demands.” Betty and Edith also plan to make a special Christmas cake to celebrate the holiday. “I am happy and believe we shall make it even when challenges come our way because it is not so easy to take good care of a big family like this…,” Betty said.

I have always loathed sappy sweet, corny holiday movies and TV shows, the kind that always make my wife cry. After learning about what Betty and Edith have done for these orphans, it’s hard for even a curmudgeon like me not to believe in angels and in Christmas miracles.

--To hear a radio report about Betty and the orphans, click here. Scroll down a bit. The story is called, Peace Journalist embraces orphans.--

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Crawling across the finish line

Our peace journalism seminars are done for 2010. We've taught 20 seminars for radio journalists and announcers throughout Uganda. Our message: that they can, through their reporting, create an atmosphere in their communities that encourages peace and reconciliation. I feel good about what we did, and how we did it. However, it's hard to provide much more analysis at this point without the benefit of some time and some perspective. Besides, I'm much too exhausted to do much analysis or thinking of any kind.

Random musings and indecipherable ramblings from the equatorial zone

WESTERN UGANDA—There is a morning radio announcer in a small town in this region who is quite popular despite a relatively small speech impediment. It seems that this young man is unable to pronounce his L’s, pronouncing them instead as R’s. (So, little would become rittle). This is especially noteworthy around this election time in Uganda. One source says his show has become more popular lately thanks to wiseacre listeners who are tuning in just to hear the announcer mispronounce the word election. I must confess myself to wanting to tune in to hear him discuss election malpractices, free and fair elections, and, of course, rigged elections.

KIBALE, UGANDA—Among our projects’ activities is bringing community leaders together to form Peace Clubs to support journalists practicing peace journalism and to lobby for non-violent elections. An outstanding example is a very active Peace Club in Kabale. They recently held a high profile launch ceremony, featuring 80 civic leaders, political leaders, media, academia, religious leaders and leaders of civil society. The day after the launch event, the Peace Club sponsored an elders' round-table forum aimed at conflict prevention for politicians in Kabale before, during, and after the 2011 elections. Facilitators included representatives from the Ugandan Electoral Commission and Human Rights Commission, Inter-religious council of Uganda, and the police. Impressive. If all Ugandans were this committed to peace, there is no doubt that 2011 will indeed be violence-free.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Rocks under foot, or rocks in my head?

Recently climbed halfway up the 977-foot Tororo Rock in eastern Uganda. (Click here for photos). I do not recommend doing this on an empty stomach, during the hottest part of the day, and without water. The path was very vertical—45 degrees in some spots. The trip down was just that—a semi-controlled stumble over loose dirt and gravel. I never fell, but did have to use my hand any number of times to keep from landing on my rear. There’s a cool cave on the side of the rock inside of which a local congregation holds church services.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Peace Journalism page updated; Big contest announced

The Peace Journalism Home Page has been updated with photos and our schedule for 2011. Check it out. Also, our project is unveiling a big electoral journalism contest for Ugandan radio reporters. Click here for details, and an entry form. Also, see newly posted photos of our outstanding seminar in Tororo.

Corruption Tarnishes Ugandan Journalists

From the Parkville Luminary

MASINDI, UGANDA—Is it wrong to steal bread to feed your starving family? Sadly, for many Ugandan journalists, this hypothetical conundrum is all too real. If you are not making enough as a radio reporter to feed yourself or your family, is it morally acceptable to receive a bribe from a greasy politician demanding favorable coverage?

Whether it’s morally correct or not, the practice of accepting bribes and taking brown envelopes stuffed with “facilitation” (transportation) money is commonplace among Uganda’s journalists.

I administered an unscientific survey in three different districts of Uganda during the last month, and asked 52 radio announcers and reporters who attended my peace journalism workshops about corruption in the journalism profession. When asked if they’d ever accepted a bribe, 56 percent said yes. The 28 “journalists” who took bribes said they had accepted them five times or less (18 respondents), 6-10 times (5), and more than 10 times (5). Who is bribing Uganda’s journalists? Not surprisingly, political candidates are by far the most common offenders. The survey indicated that businessmen, government officials, and political parties also regularly bribe reporters and announcers either for favorable coverage, or to kill an unflattering story.

Interestingly, the journalists’ response to a question about “facilitation” revealed a great deal about their mind set. “Facilitation” is a word used here to denote money given to journalists by newsmakers so that the journalists can pay to take a taxi or boda boda (motorbike) to cover an event. A disclaimer: radio stations here often don’t give reporters transportation money, leaving the journalists a difficult choice about whether to accept transport cash from news sources. 63% of journalists surveyed believe that facilitation is not bribery. This belief exists despite that fact that, during my workshops, we discuss the definition of bribery—giving/receiving something of value (transport money) in an attempt to curry influence (favorable press coverage).

The reporters and announcers were also asked to evaluate the overall level of corruption on a scale of 1-5 (1=least corrupt; 5=most corrupt) among journalists in their region. The average was in the middle, but the most frequently occurring responses were “not corrupt” (11) and, on the other end of the scale, “completely corrupt” (19). I would rate the corruption among journalists as a 4 or 5.

The survey results are buttressed by regular media reports of journalism corruption cases in Uganda. Two journalists are in jail after attempting to extort 40-million shillings ($17,777) in November from the head of the National Water and Sewerage Corporation. A few days before, officials foiled a 50-million shilling ($22,222) extortion scheme cooked up by two journalists and a lawyer that targeted the Public Works department. (Daily Monitor, 11-10-2010). At a political party meeting in September, brazen journalists “scribbled the names of 47 colleagues” who were demanding money and submitted them to the political party’s secretary. The secretary said the reporters “pursued me to my car, and I gave them 4-million shillings ($1,777) in an envelope because I knew the next thing they were going to do would be to start writing bad stories about me.” (Daily Monitor, 9-13-2010).

Not to make excuses for the journalists, but one could logically argue that rampant corruption among journalists merely reflects epidemic corruption in Ugandan society. Transparency International’s 2010 corruption index rates Uganda 127th out of 178 countries listed. (1 is best; 178th worst).

Regardless of the excuses, corruption among journalists corrodes the already low opinion the public here has of the profession, making it nearly impossible for reporters to be taken seriously. Corruption also complicates my job as a trainer in professional journalism. Can I seriously expect reporters to balance their stories and treat all political parties fairly if the reporters are receiving brown envelopes of money under the table from politicians in exchange for favorable coverage?

The headline of a recent newspaper op-ed piece here in Uganda says it all: “The brown envelope has bastardized journalism”. If Ugandan journalists are serious about professionalism and credibility, the brown envelopes must disappear.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Student sinks her teeth into her studies, among other things

KAMPALA, UGANDA—From the “now I’ve heard everything” department… At final exams last weekend at Ndejje University in Kampala, a teacher/lecturer caught one of his students, a young lady, cheating on the test. The lecturer moved in to confiscate the cheater’s crib notes. As he reached down to snatch them, the girl grabbed his wrist, and bit his hand. Rather than being horrified, the other students in the class broke out into spasms of laughter. Some even took advantage of the mayhem to exchange answers on the exam. One might say things got out of hand. Miss Jaws, by the way, was escorted out of the room. I have never witnessed a student biting a teacher. However, now that I know that this is possible, I will be taking some precautions the next time I proctor an exam, including wearing gloves and perhaps a helmet.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

2 peace journalism seminars left in 2010; Mediocre photos posted

Just finished fine 3-day seminar in Masindi. Very active group. Click here for photos. Also, click here for new scenic photos of Rukungiri in far Western Uganda. Very beautiful.

Thus far, we've traveled 7485 km/4641 miles. We're exhausted.

Trapped in hotel purgatory

From the Parkville Luminary

ANYWHERE IN RURAL UGANDA—As I lather up, I reflexively reach for my razor, and look up to the bathroom mirror to begin shaving. Except, there is no mirror.

Welcome to hotel purgatory, Ugandan style.

Now, before you stop planning that dream safari to Uganda, let me note for the record that there are a number of outstanding, four and five star properties throughout the country—hotels that meet every Western standard. For example, I’ve stayed at the excellent Sheraton in Kampala and the Jacana Lodge in Queen Elizabeth National Park, and both offer modern, comfortable accommodations, and in the case of the Jacana, some of the best gourmet food I’ve ever tasted. So, book that vacation today.

However, on the 20 trips we’ve taken around the country to teach peace journalism seminars, we’re not staying in the Jacana or Sheraton. We’re not even staying in the Motel 6 or Super 8. With only a few nice exceptions (Cepha’s Inn/Kabale; Acacia Hotel/Mbarara), if you were to give stars to our hotels, they might earn one star. The reason they earn any stars at all is because at least they are uniformly clean, which is obviously important. We’re staying in these half-star properties because they’re cheap. At a typical seminar, we have 20 participants, plus three staff. Multiply that by five nights lodging, plus all meals, and before long, you have an enormous bill. We can afford $25-30 per room per night that we are paying for these dives; sadly, we can’t afford $120 at the Sheraton or $180 at the Serena (a luxury hotel chain). Not that there’s a Sheraton or Serena in Rukungiri or Masindi.

So, this budget crunch leaves us stuck in hotel purgatory at these mediocre hotels. What makes them mediocre? Take the bathrooms, please. Okay, most do have mirrors, but some don’t, making shaving a dangerous mission that I skip all too often. I’m usually bleeding when I shave with a mirror; without one, I fear the need for a transfusion.

Then there’s the “shower”. The “shower” is seldom mounted—it’s a spray dealie hooked to the faucet, meaning that you have to spray with one hand and soap with the other. Then there’s the water pressure, or lack thereof. In a “good” hotel (for us), there is enough pressure to wet ones’ hair in, say, one minute. However, often there isn’t enough water pressure to douse a match, meaning that showers become long endurance contests, testing ones’ ability to wet-soap-rinse using just a trickle.

Of course, about half the time, this “shower” is being taken with cold water. The same way the Eskimos supposedly have dozens of words for snow, I have developed a sophisticated scale to evaluate the relative coldness of water. The chilly water in Mbale, for example, is “Spring Shower Cold”, while the icy water in Kasese is “Glacier Cold”. The coldness disparity can be scientifically measured based on the physical reaction of various body parts to the chilly water. I’ll spare you the details. I will say this for the cold “showers”—they certainly wake you up.

Moving out of the bathroom, the typical bedroom is rather large, a function I believe of the fact that hoteliers here don’t have to heat or cool them. The average room has one bare, dim light bulb dangling from the ceiling—usually insufficient for reading. In contrast, the lights in the hallway are usually so bright that I suspect that they were pilfered from airport runways. Many hotel rooms have a small glass window atop the door, and this searchlight luminosity glares through this window at night, lighting up the room and rendering sleep difficult. (I snuck out into the hallway once to turn out the light, but some blind sadist turned it right back on.) This doesn’t really matter anyway since the noise makes sleep nearly impossible. In Fort Portal, I stayed in a room that overlooked a music shop across the street. Rap, hip hop, and reggae blasted from this shop 20 hours a day. There was a glass bottle recycler next door to another hotel, and the bottlers started their deafening work at a brisk 5:30 a.m. Also, in rural areas, I’ve discovered that roosters are pretty damn loud, and equally persistent.

Given these travails, I practically kiss the ground when I return from up-country to my lovely, modern apartment in Kampala, where the hot shower is so powerful it could be used to disperse rioters. Problem is, I’m on the road 70-percent of the time.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving in Uganda?

Although many Ugandans seem to have heard of Thanksgiving (probably from American movies and TV), not many seem to know what it is really all about. So no, there is no Thanksgiving here. I have seen 2-3 turkeys running around the last five months, but none were on a menu or a platter. Since Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, I am especially homesick this week. We had 30 guests at our home last year, including family and many international students from Park University. It's always fun to experience a "first Thanksgiving" through the eyes of these young people. As for my 2010 Thanksgiving, I will teach most of the day, and return back to Kampala in the evening to "celebrate" with 29 fewer people and 97% less food than last year. On the bright side, that second or third piece of pie wouldn't have been good for me anyway.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

17 down, 3 to go in 2010

It's been a long, frenetic journey teaching peace journalism in Uganda in 2010. Fortunately, we're on the home stretch--only three more seminars to go this year. We just finished in Rukungiri (pictured). For more on our journey, click here to see embarrassing video of yours truly. The video is worthwhile because of the scenery, however.

Belief in witchcraft is a powerful force in Uganda

From the Parkville Luminary

NOTE--This the second of two parts on witchcraft. See part 1 below.

KAMPALA, UGANDA—The belief in witch doctors and evil spirits is a powerful force in many Ugandans’ daily lives. Just ask 2,000 Ugandan middle school students.

”About 2,000 pupils of Nakasongola Junior Academy were yesterday sent home indefinitely after what the school administration described as ‘escalated incidences of evil spirit attacks’…The attacks have since been attributed to witchcraft. The school administration took the decision over the weekend after numerous consultative meetings with directors. At least 26 pupils are reportedly admitted to Nakasongola Health Centre IV with injuries they say were sustained after being physically attacked by evil spirits. When contacted yesterday, Mr. Francis Ssebitosi, the school headmaster, said…,’Our school, like many others in this area, has been affected by evil spirit(s) for very many years but in the last month these attacks have escalated and we felt it would be best to send the children to their parents.’” (Daily Monitor, Oct. 27, 2010).

The reason given for closing this school—evil spirits—is easy to ridicule. I will not pass judgment on the validity of these beliefs, except to wonder if African spiritual concepts are so completely dissimilar to ours (Is there a substantive difference between a Ugandan “evil spirit” and Christianity’s “Satan”?) However, what seems beyond dispute is the corrosive impact that the belief in witchcraft, witch doctors, and evil spirits has on Ugandan (and African) society.

In his new book “The Masque of Africa”, Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul examines spiritual and metaphysical beliefs throughout Africa. One conclusion he reaches is that beliefs in witchcraft and evil spirits sow fear in the population. “In a corner of Uganda, a young woman explains to Naipaul: ‘My grandmother produced twins who died. They had to be buried in a special way, in hollow pots, and a shed had to be built over the grave, to protect and shade them…When she became a Pentecostal, she had to stop that, as it is not allowed. She had to remove the shed, and she was so afraid that the twins would come and kill her and her living children.’” (Slate, Oct. 27, 2010)

In addition to producing fear, Naipaul finds that traditional beliefs “license charlatanry. Soothsayers demand money for their ‘powers,’ like the one who tells Naipaul that there are curses preventing his daughter from getting married and if he wants them lifted he'll have to pay. It licenses bigotry. A community can announce that a malaria outbreak is due to the old women of the village waging witchcraft, and slaughter them. It licenses some deranged delusions.” (Slate, Oct. 27, 2010).

Some Ugandans agree with Naipaul’s conclusions. Ugandan and Park University student Simon Senfuka writes, “I personally don't believe witchcrafts exists…I think that is the primitive backward culture people used to practice and so it’s still practiced in villages where a huge number of people are uneducated. I don't think (witchcraft) should be respected at all because actually there is no right information as to where those things come from, in other words their route of origin. You know always people in my country will always want to find an excuse to their misfortune or to get out of something, but I am 100% against those things and I think the believers should be reeducated.”

Generally, others’ beliefs should be respected. The dilemma occurs when one sees the practices that result from some beliefs. For example, people of good conscience must stand up and speak out against customs like female genital mutilation, even if that makes one disrespectful of the beliefs that underlie this abhorrent tradition. The same applies to rape, child marriage, denying girls an education, slavery, and so on. It’s not up to me or anyone else to sanction cultural beliefs. Believe what you like. Actions, however, are different. We have a responsibility to speak out when those actions injure innocents or cripple societies, and if we step on the toes of some believers in the process, so be it.

So, I’m not passing judgment on whether the belief in witchcraft is valid. But I am saying that the actions taken because of these beliefs are damaging Ugandan society. Is Nakasongola a better community because the school is shut down? Can we justify this rash decision that denies youngsters an education?

I don’t know if evil spirits (or Satan for that matter) exist. But I do know that the parents of those 26 injured students deserve a systematic, scientific, logical investigation into what really happened to their kids at the Nakasongola school.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The candy man can

RUKUNGIRI, UGANDA--Here in remote far western Uganda, they don't see many (any?) muzungus--white people. Thus, my walk around the village yesterday attracted quite a bit of attention. About 10 kids saw me, waved, and followed me around while they practiced the few English phrases that they knew. ("How are you" seems very popular). After a few minutes, one of the kids asked if he could have a treat. Lacking cupcakes or cookies, I said that I had no treats. However, the persistent youngster pointed to my backpack, and sure enough, there were about 15 pieces of hard candy peering through the mesh. The kids were delighted as I passed out the candy--almost as delighted as I was in seeing their excitement. I'll visit the store and stock up on treats before I take my walk today.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bewitched in Uganda?

From the Parkville Luminary

NOTE: This is the first of two columns on witchcraft in Uganda. The second part will appear in this space next Saturday.

KAMPALA, UGANDA—When allegations surfaced that former U.S. Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell was a witch, many Americans snickered.

However, when reports of witch doctors and witchcraft occur in Uganda, it’s no laughing matter. Not a week goes by without at least a couple of stories in the media about evil spells and witch doctors. Examples abound.

“Students of St. Mark Naminya High School in Nieru, Mokono district engaged police in running battles and destroyed property worth millions (of Ugandan shillings)… after management kicked out witch doctors hired to perform rituals at the institution. Two witch doctors, called in to cleanse the school of demons which are alleged to have been sexually assaulting students, had been hired by some school administrators following consultations with the sub county leadership.” (Daily Monitor, March 31, 2010)

“…Local leaders in Nabiswera sub county…had hired an exorcist to cleanse a government health unit which had been haunted by mayembe (evil spirits).” (New Vision, Sept. 5, 2007).

It is common in Uganda, and elsewhere in Africa, to blame illness on witches, spells, and evil spirits.

“Rev. Paul Ssemwogerere (Kasana-Luweero’s Catholic Bishop) said because of the ungodly beliefs, many Nakasongola residents attribute all ailments, including malaria, to witchcraft. ‘Even when a person gets malaria, the people will point out that the mosquitoes which inflected him were sent by someone,’ he said.” (New Vision, Oct. 7, 2010).

Physical and mental handicaps are also frequently blamed on witches or evil spirits. “Disability is often associated with witchcraft. In some instances, families break up if a child is either born crippled or deformed.” (New Vision, Oct. 4, 2010).

In fact, almost any misfortune can be blamed on witchcraft and evil spells.

“A mysterious fire has burned 30 houses in Kapchorwa District. Residents have attributed the fire to spirits which they allege were brought by a witch doctor. However, police have ruled out this possibility.” (Daily Monitor, Oct. 26). The article did not mention which investigative and forensic tools police used to determine that witch doctors and evil spirits were not involved. Can police dogs be trained to sniff out evil?

Belief in witchcraft and evil spirits is commonplace in Uganda, though I was unable to find any reliable statistics on the matter. Not only are these beliefs commonly found among rural, illiterate Ugandans, but they also seem to be embraced by a number of more sophisticated, educated Ugandans as well. My friend, artist and peace activist Fred Mutebi, noted. “You will be amazed that it is the most educated who mainly flock the shrines of witch doctors, purportedly to protect their jobs.” James Onen, a “freethinker” and social commentator in Uganda, agrees. He wrote, “My conversations with many Ugandan scientists and doctors have revealed that a large number of them actually believe that witchcraft ‘works’ (though they insist they would never partake in it). When I asked them, being scientists, about what empirical evidence they had encountered that justified this belief, they all said there was none.” (Daily Monitor, March 3, 2010)

I discussed witchcraft with four educated, worldly Ugandan friends. One said she absolutely believes in spirits and witchcraft. A second friend, while not exactly admitting this belief, did that say that witchcraft may explain unusual occurrences. A third friend noted that she doesn’t believe in witchcraft, but then said that if one thinks that an evil spell will work, if often does. My fourth friend said he believes in spirits, but wondered how they can be managed, and how (or if) they are consistent with Christianity.

So, how does this widespread belief in witchcraft and evil spirits, even among the educated, impact Ugandan society? We’ll examine that question in the second part of our look at witchcraft in Uganda.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mbarara photo album inspires, delights multiple generations
OK, it's probably not that good, but I hope these photos provide a somewhat interesting look at Uganda's second biggest city. (Click here for photo album) Right along the main highway, there are three demolished, wrecked cars splayed along the side of the road. Inexplicable. While I was shooting the wrecks, a man in a suit came up and scolded me that I should not be taking such pictures. I shrugged, and left quickly.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Excellent seminar; scalding hot water in Mbarara

Great five day seminar in Mbarara--definitely an active group of attendees. (Click here for photo album). When it was over, the attendees (radio journalists) didn't want to leave. In fact, the journalists were meeting, forming their own peace journalism club, as we drove off into the sunset. Hotel Acacia was very nice--one of the best we've stayed in. One small problem--two straight mornings, we had only scalding hot water. And to think I'm usually whining about having no hot water. Guess I'll be careful what I wish for...

Hoping not to damage fragile young minds

From the Parkville Luminary

LAKEVIEW MIDDLE SCHOOL, KANSAS CITY—In Ms. Leah Panther’s publications class, seventh graders are taking their first step into the world of journalism.

As part of their journey, the publications students are studying my blogs/columns filed from Uganda. I’m guessing these are a rich resource for Ms. Panther, who can use my columns as examples of things to avoid when writing, or as grist to analyze poor syntax and trite vocabulary.

Ms. Panther even assigned one unfortunate young lady to interview me (via email) and produce an article about my experiences in Uganda. The young writer is shy and humble (rare traits for a journalist), and doesn’t want her real name used. So, I’ll call her Mary. The questions that Mary emailed me were direct and thorough, and thus I was not surprised when I read the professional story she produced for the Lakeview school newspaper, “Lakeview Lately”. Here is that piece:

"Mr. Youngblood replied, ―I am not having a good day…there is no electricity tonight in my apartment so it’s dark…once my computer battery runs out, I’m not sure what I’ll do, sit in the dark, I suppose. Last week I had the opportunity to speak through email with Steve Youngblood, a peace journalist working on assignment in Kampala, Uganda. He works for Park University and is the father to Lakeview student Alex Youngblood. He describes his work as, ―teach[ing] peace and electoral journalism to radio announcers and journalists. He continues that the best part is, ―meeting new people…over two hundred and fifty so far. He advises future journalists that it’s about, ―self discovery…finding out about yourself. Mr. Youngblood continues, ―there is no more interesting and rewarding job than journalism. Yes, the pay is bad, and the job security not much better. But [you’re] in a unique position to make a positive difference for your community. He tells the story of one journalist in Uganda who did a report about six orphans that had nothing. Dozens of people, touched by the story, donated food, clothes, and other items to the kids.

“Mr. Youngblood will be a guest columnist in this year’s volume of “Lakeview Lately”. Through his articles, the students of Lakeview will have the chance to hear about everything from the day to day life of a journalist, to stories about attacking rhinos. Stay tuned for more stories from our new roving reporter, Mr. Youngblood.”

Excellent work, though there is one little correction: the rhino didn’t actually attack, it just acted like it was going to attack. Of course, just the threat of being stomped into sawdust by a rhino was enough to age me several decades. But that’s another story. (Click here for rhino photo album)

Although I could never match Mary’s eloquence, Ms. Panther asked me to write my own short piece as well for “Lakeview Lately.” My first reaction to this offer was to ask how much they pay. When I discovered that “Lakeview Lately” pays approximately the same as the Luminary, I jumped at the chance. (In fact, now that I write columns for two newspapers, I probably need to hire an agent). My second reaction was to lament the fact that I didn’t have my own newspaper column when I was in middle school, since that might have impressed Carrie Young or one of the other 3,000 girls I had a crush on. The awful truth is, it would’ve done any good anyway since I was (am?) Mr. Geeky McNerd.

Here is my Lakeview newspaper column. Remember, this is aimed at seventh and eighth graders.

“You know how your parents are always telling you how lucky you are, and how you roll your eyes and put your hands in your pockets when you hear these lectures? I’m sorry to report that your parents are right.

I’ve spent the last five months in Uganda. I’ve talked to six orphans who survived on their own in a tiny shack for 13 months without any reliable source of food or medical care. A 14-year old girl was the kids’ “mother”, and took care of the others. Eighth graders—can you imagine being responsible for five little kids?

“Youngsters lucky enough to go to school here (many can’t afford school fees or uniforms) usually attend schools without anything modern—no electricity or running water, no computers or Internet. They’re lucky if they have a chalkboard, let alone a qualified teacher. Kids here are sick more often—malaria is a common childhood illness, and diarrhea from dirty drinking water is widespread. Of course, you may have to walk miles for medical care, and even then, there may not be a doctor, or the medicine you need to get better.

“So, the next time you hear that annoying lecture from your parents, don’t roll your eyes. Instead, think of the children in Uganda.”

I know this is awfully preachy, and parental, but I can’t help myself since my 13-year old son Alex is a student in Ms. Panther’s class. Alex, incidentally, will be the Lakeview newspaper’s first foreign correspondent next spring when he joins me in Uganda. He’ll have his work cut out for him because of Mary, whose excellent reporting has set the bar impossibly high for Alex and Lakeview’s other budding correspondents.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Monitoring the mid-terms, Ugandan style

MBARARA, UGANDA--Got up at 7 this morning to watch live election coverage on CNN (I was very lucky--the hotels we stay in very seldom have CNN). Kampala is 7 hrs ahead of the east coast, so I was watching Wolf, Anderson and the "world's most unwieldy political team" live at midnight EST. A few hours later, we discussed the mid-term results in my peace journalism seminar. I pontificated about the cyclical nature of U.S. politics, and I gave the seminar attendees, all radio journalists, my very biased opinion that Obama and the Democrats were unjustly blamed for the economic mess that they inherited from George W. Bush.

Only a handful of the attendees seemed to be informed about the mid-terms. Why? Because President Obama was not on the ballot. Ugandans love Mr. Obama, whom they see as one of their own. (Obama's father is from the Luo tribe, whose members can be found in both Uganda and Kenya). However, it's a given that in 2012, these journalists--and all of Uganda--will be closely following Mr. Obama's race for re-election.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Managers engaged in Jinja

Taught a one-day workshop in Jinja (90 minutes east of Kampala) on Friday for radio station managers. They were a very interesting group, and seemed to really embrace my message--that they can use their radio stations as tools for peace this election season. They promised to follow through and train their staffs on peace journalism and responsible electoral reporting. After the seminar, managers from several stations even offered us free time on the air to spread our message.

Feast or famine in Uganda; or, For God's Sake, no more matooke

From the Parkville Luminary

Note: Please do not share this column with my wife or mother. Thank you.

KAMPALA, UGANDA—The phrase “feast or famine” was clearly written to describe my stay in Uganda. When I’m in Kampala, I feast, and when I’m on the road, which is about half the time, I starve.

Thus far, it looks like famine is winning the battle. I’ve lost 20-25 pounds since late June. However, I had gained 15 pounds of “going-away-party-blubber” at numerous parties in Parkville and environs the last month before my departure for Uganda. Many of these parties featured barbeque, so it’s no wonder I packed on the pounds. Thus, some of the weight loss was welcome.

The fat has all come off when I am teaching seminars away from my home in Kampala. For my Ugandan friends and colleagues: it’s not that anything is wrong with Ugandan food. Honestly, it’s all pretty good. The typical buffet spread at the hotels where we stay always features matooke, a plantain cousin steamed in its own leaves. (Photo left--Kids--indeed, all Ugandans--adore matooke. Photo courtesy some guy on the web.) The hotel buffets also always include cassava (a starchy potato-like vegetable), plain rice, beans, and two or three meat dishes, and stews mostly made with chicken, beef, or goat. I don’t eat the meat because I don’t like meat much anyway, and also because, particularly outside Kampala, meat storage and refrigeration can be problematic. Sometimes they’ll cook greens, and these are quite tasty. There is never any bread, rolls, or butter. Bananas are usually served, and pineapple if you’re lucky. (Uganda is to pineapple what Kansas City is to barbeque or the Champagne region of France is to sparkling wine). There is never dessert, except for fruit, which my 13-year old son would tell you emphatically is most certainly not dessert.

The problem isn’t really what is served but is instead the lack of variety. The same, exact, identical, carbon-copy, duplicate, interchangeable, matching, spitting-image, redundant meal is offered up for lunch and dinner on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday. Do the math—10 meals, 10 identical menus. Not only this, but the same buffet meal is served at all hotels in all locations throughout Uganda, or at least every place I’ve been thus far. Thus, Monday dinner in Mbale is interchangeable with Thursday’s lunch in Soroti.

Trust me, by Tuesday’s dinner, you’re begging for mercy, dramatically crawling on the ground and groveling for anything that isn’t matooke or greens or white rice. In fact, I’ve stopped eating the dinner buffet altogether, opting instead to order off of the “menu”. I use the quotation marks because these aren’t menus in any real sense. They are instead wish lists of food that they might have had in 1987 or would like to offer at some point in the future. The cold reality is that up-country restaurants seldom have anything that isn’t on the buffet. At our hotel in Gulu, for example, I pleaded for some simple sliced avocados, which are delicious here. No luck. Although one hour before dinner I saw 43,472,098 avocados two miles away in Gulu’s market, this hotel was an avocado-free zone. I tried the next night and got the same result.

At our hotel in Soroti, I begged for pizza, which was on the menu. One night, I was told that the guy who makes the pizzas wasn’t working that day. Two days later, I tried again, only to be told that although the pizza guy was in the house, the kitchen had no cheese. Another recurring problem is the glacially slow service. On four different occasions, I have ordered food, waited in vain for over an hour for its arrival, then, overtaken by fatigue and impatience, given up and left. The result—when I’m on the road, I skip lots of meals.

At home in Kampala, I feast. Kampala sports some excellent restaurants, and not just “excellent for Uganda” eateries. There are a couple of great pizza places, one of which has killer homemade brownies. There’s a world class Thai restaurant which features the best tom yum soup on the planet. Kampala has multiple places to get good, fresh fish, usually tilapia. One of my favorite places has delicious pancakes and waffles for brunch, and great Thai and Indian dishes for dinner. In fact, this same place, Café Javas, serves a great burrito with homemade, authentic guacamole and terrific refried beans.

Despite the gorging in Kampala, the pounds continue to drop off. I’m doing my best to compensate by consuming chocolate, potato chips, and beer, and taking those delicious brownies with me on the road. It’s quite a chore, I know, but I’ll manage somehow.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Uganda launches 2011 presidential campaigns

The 2011 Ugandan presidential campaign officially kicked off on Monday as aspirants (as they’re called here) presented themselves for nomination—a process by which their candidacy is given an official stamp of approval. The leading candidates are the incumbent Yoweri Museveni and key challengers Kizza Besigye and Norbert Mao. Following the nomination ceremony, President Museveni’s party, NRM, held a loud, eight hour (!) rally featuring thousands of boisterous supporters at the Kololo Air Strip. I can testify to the loud part, since the rally site is one block from my apartment. I strolled around the perimeter of the celebration, and enjoyed the spectacle—throngs of yellow-shirted NRM enthusiasts, animated (often, shouting) speakers, presidential promises of fighting corruption, lots of music, and vendors selling sweet bananas from baskets perched upon their heads. The presidential/parliamentary elections are Feb. 18, 2011. (Photo: Guardian, UK).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Outstanding seminar in Lira

Just finished an excellent week in Lira, in north-central Uganda. The 20 seminar participants, radio journalists and announcers, worked hard, and really took to heart the lessons that we were teaching. One intriguing exercise I had them do was "man on the street" interviews. Residents were asked to say something positive about the candidate they're not voting for. (Like asking Republicans to say something nice about Obama, or Dems to praise McCain). The soundbites they brought back were very interesting. (Click here to see photo album from the Lira seminar.)

Feeding a culture of dependency?

From the Parkville Luminary

KAMPALA, UGANDA—In every city we travel to teach peace journalism, we convene a meeting of citizens interested in working for peaceful elections in Uganda in 2011. As our organizer Gloria reports, upon being asked to attend the peace meeting, the invitees’ first question is invariably, “How much will I be paid?”

This infuriates Gloria who, like me, believes that one shouldn’t have to pay people to make their community a better, more peaceful place. Yet, the culture of donor dependency is so ingrained here that asking for payments or handouts from non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) has become second nature for many sub-Saharan Africans.

In Uganda, it is not at all unusual for NGO’s to hold professional seminars and pay the attendees a “sitting allowance” to show up at the workshop. This is not a typo: NGO’s conduct the seminars and pay Ugandans to attend. Many reporters have told me that they have been paid to sit in on other journalism seminars, and that making sitting allowance payments is a common practice, though there were no obtainable statistics on this phenomenon.

I find this practice abhorrent, and refuse to pay even one shilling ($1=2259 shillings) to those attending my workshops. I feel like the attendees are already getting a university-quality course for free at the expense of the American taxpayer. (My program here is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy-Kampala and the U.S. Agency for International Development). We do reimburse our attendees for legitimate transportation expenses, but nothing in excess of those actual expenses.

Indeed, this constant badgering for sitting allowances and “facilitation” (cash payments that usually far exceed actual transportation expenses) is part of what academics call a culture of dependency here in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a culture that many argue is debilitating.

About $50 billion in international assistance goes to Africa each year. However, “over the past 60 years at least $1 trillion of development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Yet real per-capita income today is lower than it was in the 1970s, and more than 50% of the population -- over 350 million people -- live on less than a dollar a day, a figure that has nearly doubled in two decades.” (Wall Street Journal, 3-21-09).

Countries like Uganda are alarmingly dependent on international aid as part of their federal budgets. In fact, 27% of Uganda’s current budget comes from international donors—down slightly from the previous year. (New Vision-Uganda, 6-9-10).

This dependency upon donors has a corrosive effect on African governments and societies, leaving them corrupt, debt-laden and thus less attractive to investors. Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya writes that “disempowerment…is perhaps the most unrecognized problem in Africa today… To the disempowered, it seems much easier or even more acceptable to leave one's life in the hands of third parties (governments, aid agencies, and even God) than to try to alleviate one's circumstances through one's own effort.…I have found it to be as substantial a bottleneck to development in Africa as inadequate infrastructure or bad governance, and it has added an extra weight to the work of those who want to enable individuals and communities to better their circumstances. The corruption and graft that have tainted so much of Africa's leadership in the post-independence period are well-known; the misappropriation of funds, outright theft, incompetence, and cronyism that have characterized too many African governments for decades have been often catalogued. What perhaps is less well understood is how, because of a failure of leadership at the top of the social tree, the culture of corruption - and dependency - has too often eaten its way down to the roots.” ( , May, 2009).

I have seen and experienced the disempowerment that Maathai discusses both in individuals and in institutions. I can only hope that the work that we are doing, well-intentioned though it may be, isn’t contributing to this cycle of dependency.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Party poopers in Lira

I'm staying at the Gracious Palace hotel in Lira. I am not making up this name. Posted on the wall here is a list of contraband. Specifically, the sign says that it is prohibited to house "primate babies" in your room. I wonder if that includes humans? Also prohibited are, and I quote, "all power tools, eg. generators, drills, vibrators, etc." So much for the wild party I had planned...

Great seminar here--one of the best--thanks to the engaged, inquisitive journalists who are attending.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Famine predicted for Uganda in 2011

More than half of Uganda’s 31 million people face severe food shortages by February 2011 because of an expected drought, Parliament said in a statement on Friday, citing the minister for disaster preparedness, Tarsis Kabwegyere. The current rains, the statement said, will be followed by an “unusual period of drought and severe water shortage” that will spread famine and kill livestock in many parts of East Africa. --New York Times, 10-16-2010.

Rhino sanctuary frightens (briefly), fascinates

From the Parkville Luminary

ZIWA RHINO SANCTUARY, CENTRAL UGANDA—The terror lasted only a few seconds. I clumsily stepped onto a twig or perhaps on a dry bush, and made just enough noise to startle a two-ton rhino lounging about 20 yards from where we stood. The rhino sprang to its feet in what seemed like a millisecond, and took one menacing step towards us. I somehow managed to maintain control of my bodily fluids.

The safety rules they give you here at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary (click here for photo album) say that the best thing to do if charged is to “move near a tree and climb”. This is undoubtedly good advice. Nonetheless, at that moment, my mind was hijacked by my most basic instincts, something like “fight or flight”. Fighting was never an option. If that rhino had taken one more step towards us, I would have high-tailed it out of there so fast that, cartoon-style, I would have laid down skid marks (the kind left by tires) and ran out of my clothes.

Fortunately, our guide/ranger kept cool, and said some soothing words to the rhino. It worked, and you could literally see the rhino relax. We took somewhat longer to cool down as we laughed nervously about the incident, which had taken no more than 10 seconds.

The rest of the hour that we spent tracking the nine rhinos who live here at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary was great, and fortunately, non skid mark (the other kind) inducing. These rhinos are semi-habituated, and you can get within about 20 yards of them provided you move slowly, talk softly, and don’t startle them (oops).

Rhinos used to be abundant in Uganda, but were unfortunately victimized by hunting, poaching, and habitat loss. By the 1960’s, there were just 400 black rhinos and 300 white rhinos left in Uganda. Civil unrest in the 1970’s during the Idi Amin regime made poaching much easier, and thus rhinos here were decimated. The last wild rhino in Uganda was spotted in 1983.

The 70-square kilometer Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary was established in 2004, and was populated with rhinos from Kenya and from Disney Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida. There are nine white rhinos here now, including three babies, one of which is named Obama. The dominant male here weighs 2.5 tons, and can run 25 m.p.h. Once a viable population of 30 rhinos has been bred, plans call for the animals to be released into their original habitat, probably nearby Murchison Falls National Park.

Interestingly, an armed ranger tracks each rhino 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, noting their behavior patterns and providing a deterrent to would-be poachers seeking rhino horn, which is prized in some cultures as a supposed aphrodisiac. Imagine what it would be like to be one of these rhino tracking rangers, and basically spend your life with these animals. While a rhino’s company is undoubtedly preferable to the company of some people, nonetheless the monotony would have to eat away at you.

The Ziwa Sanctuary is doing some excellent conservation work, and is deserving of not only a visit (it really is fun), but your support. To learn more, go to: .

Friday, October 15, 2010

Straddling the equator

Just returned from Kasese in western Uganda.
(Click here for photo album of scenery). On the way, we passed over the equator--an irresistable photo opportunity. I am pictured with friends and project assistants Gloria (left) and Jackie.
Seminars in Kasese for journalists and in Mbarara for radio station managers went well. Next week: five day seminar in Lira.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

My visit to Parkville, Missouri USA

I was honored to be guest speaker (via Skype) at the Friday, Oct. 8 meeting of the Parkville Rotary Club. I discussed my work here in Uganda, and the Rotary's support of a school lunch project in northwestern Uganda. It was great fun, and made me a bit homesick. Much more on this next week.

Northern Ugandans tightly embrace peace

From the Parkville Luminary

GULU, NORTHERN UGANDA—Here in Gulu, they’re very serious about peace. Of course, this is understandable since a bloody, 20-year long civil war centered here in northern Uganda ended just a couple of years ago.

It’s hard to see much war damage these days to infrastructure in Gulu (pictured), but sadly, it’s easier to notice the human damage—people walking on crutches, or scooting around in make-shift wheelchairs. Some are land mine victims, while others were wounded in combat. In casual conversations, it’s not uncommon to hear Northern Ugandans pine for their loved ones lost in the war.

This peace hungry area is indeed fertile ground for anti-violence messages. Capitalizing on this, our peace journalism project planted some seeds last July when we called together community leaders in Gulu to form what we call a peace club. These clubs are meant to complement our effort to train radio announcers and journalists about peace and electoral journalism. In each city where we’ve trained journalists (10 so far), we’ve convened a late afternoon peace club organizational meeting with about 20 invitees—church people, Rotary Club members, the leaders of youth and women’s organizations, etc. At the meetings, these civic activists learn about our peace journalism project while they organize themselves to support and encourage radio stations and journalists to practice peaceful election coverage.

Around election time, the Uganda peace clubs will also monitor radio stations in their area, using a rubric developed by my peace journalism class that met last spring at Park University. Data collected, some of it using SMS messaging, will be used to confront and correct “hate radio” purveyors, those who incite violence in their communities. The info the peace clubs collect will also be used to gauge the efficacy of the peace journalism project.

At the Peace Club organizational meeting in Gulu in July, the enthusiasm for the concept, and the citizens’ desire to work against election violence, was palpable. We could tell we had a great group.

Between July and October, the club created a motto (“Peaceful Elections for a Peaceful Uganda”) and a lengthy, detailed constitution. They also elected leaders, and planned the launch ceremony held last week.

About 35 people gathered for the club’s launch ceremony at the Diamond Hotel in Gulu on Oct. 5. (For photo album of the launch ceremony, click here.)The attendees were young and old, and included politicians and religions leaders. When a local Imam (Muslim religious leader) recited a prayer quoting Jesus (“Those who promote peace are the children of God”), I knew we would have an eventful few hours.

The most colorful and inspirational speaker was Gulu Peace Club Chairman A.K. Banya (pictured), a retired civil servant. (“I was a chief accountant, not a thief account,” he joked, mocking the rampant corruption in Uganda).

Banya said that the new peace club is “a baby born in our midst, and we embrace it wholeheartedly.” He continued, “Peace is an important asset in our community. Forming this peace club will help ensure that there will be no violence. We must sensitize the community and ourselves. We should continue to enjoy the peace now prevailing…We need a vibrant organization to sensitize the community, so that the peace that we’ve been craving for two decades (during the civil war) won’t be lost.”

Banya didn’t mince any words about the need to advocate for peace. “Formation of the peace club is imperative,” he observed. “Violence and danger is imminent unless we act. I ordain you as apostles of peace. Let’s spread the message.” He said spreading peace is like sending ripples through a pond. “We will stop only when the entirety of Uganda is peaceful,” Banya promised.

It was deeply gratifying to see the seeds we planted in July blossom so boldly in October. I’m not sure if the peace club concept will catch on in other places like it has in Gulu, but if it does, and if journalists do their part by practicing responsible, peaceful reporting, Uganda can’t help but have violence-free elections.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Verbose in Gulu; Amazed at Ziwa Sanctuary

Just returned from outstanding trip to Gulu, one of my favorite Ugandan towns. Got to preach peace journalism on Mega-FM. Third parties reported that I was actually coherent. Also got to help launch the Gulu Peace Club--a group of citizens dedicated to preventing election violence. More on this later. Finally, visited the fascinating Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in north-central Uganda. Click here for video. I was surprised how close we could get--about 20 yards. Really, really cool.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Lake Bunyonyi: As spectacular as it is deserted

Recently returned from Lake Bunyonyi in southwestern Uganda. (Click here for photo album). I wasn't surprised at its beauty, but I was surprised at how isloated and deserted it seemed. A lake this beautiful anywhere in America would be swarming with vacationers.

On Independence Day, Assassinated Goats, Religion, and Potholes

From the Parkville Luminary

Time to tie up some loose ends, clean out the attic, and, apparently, trot out the clichés as we open up the “I want to mention it but it’s not enough for a full, long column” file.

UGANDAN INDEPENDENCE DAY—Ugandans are celebrating the country’s 48th birthday on Oct. 9 with the usual speeches, parties, and so on. Not to rain on their parade (another cliché!), but given Uganda’s intractable problems, there must be many mixed feelings this Independence Day. Life expectancy here is 53 years, and the fertility rate (7 children per woman) is the world’s second highest. (CIA World Factbook). Corruption is rampant, and the health and education systems are crippled. Uganda is in the cross hairs of Somali terrorists, who killed 80 in July bombings in Kampala. Despite the misery, I believe Uganda has a world of potential, beginning with a cadre of educated, motivated young people. Maybe this potential is reason enough to celebrate on October 9th.

PEACE JOURNALISM SEMINARS BY THE NUMBERS—Through Oct. 8, I have taught nine peace and electoral journalism seminars in Uganda. So far, 150 radio journalists and announcers and 22 radio owners/managers have been trained on how to report in a way that discourages violence and encourages reconciliation and cooperation. We have traveled 2,455 miles going to and from these first nine seminars.

BLOGGING BY THE NUMBERS—One of the most interesting facets of my tour in Uganda has been working on and monitoring this blog about my experiences. What’s most fascinating is who is reading the blog (822 total last month). More than half of you are from the U.S. and Uganda. However, the rest live in (in order) Russia, the Netherlands, Finland, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Australia, Switzerland, and Spain. Why would a Finn or Saudi or Korean visit my site? How did they even find this blog? (If you're from one of these countries, please email me and share how you discovered this site). Maybe this modest blog is just further evidence that the Internet is bringing the world together in ways that we could never anticipate—like Thomas Friedman’s flat world.

GOAT ASSASSINATION—Police in Kabale, Uganda recently arrested a man who allegedly killed his neighbor’s goat. The reason for the goat-icide? His neighbor defeated the suspect’s wife in a political party primary. (Daily Monitor, Oct. 1). I’m recommending a Warren Commission-style investigation. I doubt there’s any video of the assassination, which is too baaaaad. (Sorry--I couldn't resist).

RELIGION IN U.S. AND UGANDA—The most fascinating news story of the last two weeks was undoubtedly the Pew survey that showed how ignorant many Americans are about religion. An interesting tidbit coming out of the survey was the fact that atheists and agnostics scored the highest on the survey of religious knowledge. You have to admire this gloating, inflammatory quote from an atheist leader about the survey. “I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” said Dan Silverman, president of American Atheists. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.” (NY Times, Sept. 28) Talk about throwing a buzzing hornet’s nest into a crowded church!

Here in Uganda, I haven’t been able to find the results of any survey on religious knowledge, but I’d bet that there are similar gaps. Uganda is a deeply religious country. Only 1% of Ugandans (according to the 2002 census) answered “none” when asked to name their religion. I have yet to meet a Ugandan atheist or agnostic, or at least someone who would admit it. 85% of Ugandans identify themselves as Christians, while 12% are Muslims. In a 2002 Pew survey, 85% of Ugandans said that religion plays a very important role in their lives, about the same number as in Kenya and South Africa.

UGANDAN JOKE—First, the set up: Kampala’s roads are awful, and filled with wide, deep potholes (craters?). Unless you want to destroy your car, you have to constantly zigzag around these obstacles. Observing the traffic weave all around the road is like watching a slalom race in skiing. Now, the joke--Q: How can you tell if a Kampala driver is drunk? A: If he is driving in a straight line.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Peace Journalism talk show enthralls, delights

OK, that's probably an exaggeration... Still, the program posted here (in two parts) is pretty interesting. It first aired on OPG-FM in Mbale, in eastern Uganda. The show features yours truly and some of my students talking about the Mbale workshop, as well as radio pieces produced by the workshop participants.

International Right to Know Day Resonates in Uganda

Today is International Right to Know Day—an event that spotlights the importance of citizen access to government information. In Uganda, a good Access to Information Act (AIA) was passed five years ago.
However, the AIA clashes with the Official Secrets Act, which the Ugandan government often uses to shield information from public disclosure. Journalists here say that getting information from government agencies is difficult if not impossible. Access to government information is an important characteristic of free speech and press. Until they get access, Ugandan citizens can’t fulfill their role as fully informed participants in a democratic state.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Back from beautiful southwestern Uganda

Great seminar in Kabale, which is perhaps the most beautiful spot in Uganda. I'll post a complete photo album soon. Of course, all this travel is tough and tiring--just ask my assistant Gloria, who is attempting (below) to get a little rest in the car.

FYI, the Kabale I visited last week (south west) and the Kibale Park described below (west central) are two separate places. Yes, I'm confused, too.

Pick a cliche headline: Tree House of Horror; Terror Tree House; Going Batty

Note: If this sounds familiar, I wrote a paragraph about this a few weeks back, and promised a more detailed report would follow. Here is that report.

From the Parkville Luminary

KIBALE NATIONAL PARK, UGANDA—I cowered under my blanked when I heard the flapping sound inside my room. When the racket ceased, I grabbed my flashlight, and shined it toward the high ceiling in my tree house.

Yes, in my zest for adventure, or as part of a quest to prove my stupidity, I booked a night in one of the most unusual lodgings anywhere—a tree house. My night in the tree house, however, was just the epilogue to a day filled with adventure/stupidity.

As I arrived at Kibale National Park, I was struck by its awesome beauty—rolling hills, lush jungles, and abundant primate life. (Click here for Kibale photo album)

Seeking commune with some cousins, I booked a chimpanzee tracking tour led by a park ranger. The minute we left the ranger station, it started raining, light at first and then more heavily. Seven of the eight people on the chimp tracking tour had rain gear. The eighth hiker stupidly came without rain gear, and was drenched from the top of his curly hair to the bottoms of his flat feet. At least I brought along some plastic bags to protect my camera and wallet.

We plodded through the now slippery jungle for about an hour during the downpour, seeing nothing except one another—the only primates obtuse enough to be out in a monsoon. As the rain let up, the two of us bringing up the rear were attacked by about a dozen aggressive, small bees. The poor guy in front of my got the brunt of the blitzkrieg, and was stung 4-5 times. I only got one sting. For small bees, these babies packed a pretty good punch. I also figured out, as I was swatting and running, that insect repellent washes off in the rain.

Despite the bad weather, our chimp tracking expedition was not a wash. Once the rain subsided, we saw probably 50 chimps, including many babies. They were moving all around us, both on the ground and up in the trees. These chimps are habituated, meaning that you can get to within 10-15 feet of them, which we did on several occasions.

Not having enough of the jungle during the day, I had booked a tree house, instead of a comfortable hotel room, that night at the Primate Lodge in the park. I should have chickened out when I learned that the tree house was 1 ¼ miles away from the main lodge, literally in the middle of the jungle. The allure of the tree house is that it overlooks a clearing frequented by elephants, and also that it’s cheap--only $20 a night.

I arrived at the tree house, perched 15 feet in the sky, to watch the sun set, which was beautiful. Unfortunately, no elephants came the night I was there, even though you could see their tracks all around my elevated lodging, a small room supported by a tree and some beams and reached by a long staircase. There were no screens, only ill-fitting flaps that just semi-covered the windows.

Of course, any insect smaller than a Buick could have found its way into my room. As it turns out, although the buzzing and droning of millions of insects was disconcerting, they weren’t my problem. As I lay in bed, under a mosquito net, I heard the flapping noise, shined my flashlight, and discovered, to my abject horror, a bat hanging from my ceiling. Mr. Bat helped himself to my room, on and off, all night. He unabashedly announced his arrival each time with a couple of swoops around my room, followed by a few squeaks. I buried myself under the covers, wondering what to do if Mr. Bat got caught in my mosquito net. I could have left my room to Mr. Bat, but that would have meant a 20 minute hike alone in the dark through the jungle. No thanks.

As I lay there worrying about bats, my mind started thinking about other critters, like snakes, which could easily shimmer up to the tree house.

As the sun rose, my ceiling was bat free. I’m sure Mr. Bat had re-joined his friends, and told them all about how he scared some stupid tourist to death in the tree house. If bats could laugh, I’m sure they did. If nothing else, they probably squeaked with delight as Mr. Bat demonstrated how he swooped around my mosquito net while I hunkered down.

I told my wife this story, and she said she actually wants to stay in the tree house when she comes to Uganda. Honey, it’s all yours.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Managing radio station managers in Kampala

We held our first seminar today for radio station owners/managers in Kampala. The central messages: 1. Peace, and peace journalism, is good for business; 2. Professional, responsible electoral reporting is not only good for the community, but enhances a station's profile and reputation; 3. Professional reporters need to be treated like professionals, which means they need to be trained, paid decently, and their transportation expenses must be paid by the stations (this rarely happens here). A perceptive, receptive, reflective group of 22 owners/managers made teaching today a delight.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fresh photos posted will no doubt thrill, delight (in theory...)

I've posted pictures of my recently completed peace/electoral journalism seminar in Mbale. Great group, great work, great experience being there, despite some hiccups. See also new pictures of a hike my friend Caesar and I took at Sipi Falls, near Mount Elgon National Park. The short trek, after lots of rain, was slippery, but definitely worth the effort. Spectacular.

Doing some hard thinking about my goals, expectations

From the Parkville Luminary

MBALE, UGANDA—I lie awake at nights wondering if I’m engaged in an exercise in futility.

The goal of the Peace, Development, and Electoral Journalism project I’m leading here in Uganda is the prevention of violence, especially media induced violence, before, during, and after the 2011 Ugandan presidential elections. However, recent events here have left me questioning whether the whole effort isn’t destined to fail.

During the last month, the ruling party here, the NRM, has held its primary elections. These “elections” have been a disaster. Ballots have been lost, voter registrations have gone missing or been suspiciously altered, ballots have come to polling sites with candidates’ names pre-selected, ballots have been hours late being delivered to polling sites, ballots have been burned, and local primary elections have been postponed repeatedly. This might all be marginally comical if this NRM chaos hadn’t led to mayhem—injuries, beatings, tear-gassings, etc. as partisan supporters of candidates, and sometimes even the candidates themselves, exchanged blows. For example, in Kibale, a member of parliament’s car was stoned, while in Butaleja, NRM elections were cancelled after a testy mob attacked election organizers, injuring 12. In West Budama, a government minister drew a gun on his opponent’s supporters. ( ). Many have been arrested. These ugly scenes have been repeated nationwide.

Remember, these are just the primaries.

One small silver lining is that everyone from the president on down has sharply condemned the violence. The NRM and the opposition both vow that the general elections will not end in violence, and that a lesson will be learned from the NRM primary debacle. Given this backdrop, it’s easy to understand why I feel like I’m paddling upstream.

Still, I am working hard to try to cling to at least a little optimism. There are a number of efforts here by non-governmental organizations to combat violence during this election cycle, and I am hopeful that these will make a difference.

I have taught Peace and Electoral Journalism to about 140 Ugandan radio journalists and announcers thus far. Our seminars are scheduled to reach about 260 more journalists by election time next year, for a total of 400. Now, if even half of these journalists/announcers take our lessons to heart, this means Uganda will have about 200 radio professionals covering the election in a way that reduces inflammatory rhetoric, empowers voters, discourages violence and promotes cooperation and reconciliation.

I am encouraged by the reception our seminars have received thus far. The participants have been interested, active, and engaged, with the exception of just one seminar. Generally, the journalists/announcers have left the seminars promising to concentrate their efforts to prevent violence. In follow-up meetings and emails, it’s clear that the principles of peace and electoral journalism have taken root in some places. In Gulu, one journalist wrote that she is concentrating on holding candidates accountable for what they say, which is a pretty good lesson for American journalists, too. Radio stations are also broadcasting anti-violence radio spots (PSA’s) in Gulu. In Fort Portal, one journalist told me that his station is working harder to balance election coverage, and is focusing now on issues of community concern. Another said his station is looking beyond campaign rhetoric, and forcing candidates to take positions on vital issues. Several participants said they have shared election coverage and peace journalism tips with colleagues at their radio stations, which is definitely encouraging.

So, there is some small reason for optimism, though this is clearly overshadowed by the NRM primary mess, which has forced me to reassess my goals. Perhaps the prevention of all election violence is too tall an order here in Uganda, at least for right now. Maybe the most that peace and electoral journalists can do is reduce the number of violent incidents, and keep the violence from spreading when it does occur. As I tell my seminar students, the very least they can do is to not pour gasoline on the fire.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Short-circuit in Mbale

In Mbale, in Eastern Uganda, for five day peace/electoral journalism seminar. Rough going--no electricity in hotel most of the time means depending on battery power for my seminar; no electricity also means no hot water, which is no big deal since the water pressure is too low to power a shower at any rate. Don't get me started on the food. Still, my spirits have been lifted by the seminar participants, who are interested, engaged, and energetic. They're out reporting on peace/electoral radio stories this afternoon. I look forward to hearing their completed pieces, if the power holds out long enough to finish editing. I also look forward to my merciful return to Kampala Friday night.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

News and multimedia updates

Just returned from Hoima and seminar #6 (of a total of 24). Photos of the Hoima workshop, and some of the others, are now posted at a new site dedicated to shots taken at the seminars.

Also, I continue to receive positive feedback about the radio story I did (posted here) about how one radio journalist changed the lives of six orphans. If you haven't heard it yet, try it. Two columns about the journalist and her orphans are also posted below.

Death on the Nile (well, not really...)

From the Parkville Luminary

ON THE NILE RIVER, UGANDA--When I flew into the water, the power of the rapids dragged me under, and smashed me so hard it tore the helmet off my head and snapped the string holding my glasses in place. It was like being repeatedly and rapidly punched. I felt the tremendous pressure against my face, which must have looked like the contorted, smushed faces of the pilots who do those g-force tests.

I thought I was going to die.

Since I am not writing this posthumously, I obviously survived my encounter with some major-league rapids on the Nile River in Uganda, near the source of the Nile just north of Lake Victoria near Jinja. Whitewater rafting is big business here, so I decided that since I was in the neighborhood that I’d have to give it a try.

(Photo--NY Times)

When I entered the staging area, I immediately noticed that I was twice as old as everyone else there. I quickly discovered that my rafting mates were all Peace Corps volunteers on an outing, and were all fresh out of college. I was fresh out of college in 1984. A smarter person would have abandoned ship at this point, realizing that this activity is for the young, and that young-at-heart just won’t cut it when you’re thrashing about in some rapids trying not to drown.

Being equally stubborn and obtuse, I found myself stepping onto a big rubber raft and into possible oblivion. I had rafted before in Colorado, so I figured this would be a breeze. Of course, my rafting in Colorado was 20 years ago, and consisted of grade 2 and 3 rapids. These were 3’s, 4’s, and 5’s. (Experts grade rapids on a 1 to 6 scale, with 6 being so intense that rafts can not go over them, only kayaks, according to our rafting guide Eric).

My raft-mates were five enthusiastic, energetic 20-something ladies ready for adventure. As we began, I wondered if I was stuck with them for the day, or vice-versa. As it turned out, I think we made a great team.

The first rapids weren’t too frightening, a little like an intense log ride at an amusement park. This wouldn’t be so bad after all, I thought. Eric said the second rapids were grade 3, sort of medium-harrowing. As we slid into this maelstrom, I wasn’t worried—the trough didn’t seem that low, nor the waves that high. I was wrong. As we hit the trough, all five ladies and I (but not Eric) were jettisoned from the raft, which never did tip over. I don’t mean that we just plopped over the sides. No, this was much more like the unequivocal ejection one might receive from a burly barroom bouncer.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when I hit the water, nor should it have come as a shock that the current was so powerful. Still, no mental preparation can steel you for this terrifying experience. I was probably under water only five seconds or so, but of course it seemed like an eternity. I tried to swim up to the surface, but was held underwater and pushed downstream. As I finally bobbed up, I noticed my glasses and helmet were gone, but damn, I was alive. I had floated maybe 50 yards away from the raft. One of the kayaks buzzing around (a safety precaution) picked me up and ferried me back to the raft. I was stunned, frightened, and exhilarated.

Fortunately, this was the only traumatic experience during the six hour trip. We successfully navigated grade 4 and 5 rapids for the rest of the day without capsizing or being ejected, and it was a blast. There was one little incident, however. During one nasty rapid, the six of us were crouched in the raft, hanging on for dear life to a rope on the side. As we were sliding about, the young lady behind me, Amy, lost control, and her foot slid underneath me. I teased her afterwards about our new-found intimacy. Without intending to be funny, in referring to what she felt with her foot, she said, “I thought it was a rock.” All six of us cracked up, and I told Amy that yes indeed it was a rock.

It was comforting to me, after a day of feeling old and out of place, to confirm that I can still can still rock with the youngsters.