Sunday, August 29, 2010

Meetings with journalists; peace club members

Just returned from beautiful Western Uganda. (click here for photo album). I met with journalists who took my seminar about a month ago (see photo), and got some great feedback. Also had productive meeting with peace club members--those interested in working with us to prevent violence before and after the election. They had some impressive plans, including reaching out to surrounding communities. I was impressed.

Finding some perspective

From the Parkville Luminary

JINJA, UGANDA—As I sat in the closet-sized, stuffy hotel room in Jinja feeling lonely and sorry for myself, and wondering if I would enjoy the “company” of my wife ever again, the understandable question, “what the hell am I doing here” kept reverberating in my mind.

The room was stuffy, incidentally, because it offered a proverbial no-win situation: either open the screen-less window and be carried off by mosquitoes the size of condors, or close the window, suffocate, and remain relatively bite-free. I chose door number two.

So, I sat up in my microscopic bed, flipped open my computer, and launched my wireless browser. At least it worked fine. Perching the computer between my knees and sweaty torso, I got online to discover an email that floored me. The message was from Betty, one of the participants of a peace journalism seminar I taught in Fort Portal, Uganda about six weeks ago. The email read:

“I still appreciate your lessons and work. I always read through your work and really find it important to me. I have adopted reportage (using the voices of everyday people to tell their stories) as one of the ways to let the community know some things that happen in the community but they have (previously) been given a deaf ear and blind eye. I have moved to different parts identifying and exposing some areas of need in society. I appreciate your efforts because if I had not got chance to be taught by you I would not be doing this. Attached is live example and report by me about domestic violence. When I aired this report on radio it touched many people who are now giving some simple aid to these young girls.”

The radio feature Betty attached is powerful. (Click here to access the piece through my podcasting site.) In the piece, a 14-year old girl describes how her father abused her mother, eventually killing her. Then, the father killed himself, leaving this girl and her five younger brothers and sisters orphaned. None of their relatives would, or could, look after them, so the 14 year old is in charge. One of her younger sisters is limping around on a leg that she broke escaping from a would-be rapist. At one point in the interview, one of the younger girls starts crying because is hungry. There is no money for any of the kids to go to school.

I replied to Betty (the young lady in the picture above). “I just listened to your piece, and was moved almost to tears by your report. It is wonderful that the community is helping these children, at least a bit. What journalists do can make a positive difference in people's lives. I encourage you to follow up with these kids--report on the support given by the community, on what's being done by authorities/others to assist them. Then, discuss this as an election issue-- what will the candidates do to help orphans, to help feed the poor? Great work, Betty. I am very proud of you.”

A few days later, Betty updated me that “this report has really touched people’s hearts... I personally was so much touched by these kids situation three weeks ago when I met them and because no one was willing to take them up, I found a way and took them to an old woman to stay with them as I solicit some help for them from good Samaritans through radio. They are getting some medical care and feeding because the young ones were a bit malnourished.”

After hearing the story of these six orphans, my trifling concerns about heat, mosquitoes, and loneliness seemed absurdly petty. I felt even guiltier about five minutes later when my assistant called me and told me that they had considerately arranged for me to stay in a much more spacious, comfortable room in a different hotel. I am typing this in that hotel, sitting on my room’s balcony that overlooks the picturesque source of the Nile River on a cloudy, windy day.

If all of the rest of my work here in Uganda these next eight months is a complete failure, I will always remember Betty, and these six kids who she helped, and the small part I played in giving Betty the tools she needed to tell their story. And, I may never feel sorry for myself ever again.

Coming soon: I journey to Western Uganda to meet up with Betty and the six orphans who were featured in her report. We might even see what we can do about getting the kids enrolled in school.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Back from Jinja

Just finished week long seminar in Jinja, about 2 hrs east of Kampala. This is source of the Nile, and it's a beautiful area. I went whitewater rafting, and did not die, although my mortality was in question at one point. (Don't tell my mom and wife). More details about this later. The photo on the right was taken by Keith Taylor, one of my students, during his visit to Jinja about a month ago.

Ugandan newspapers amuse, bemuse, confuse

From the Parkville Luminary

KAMPALA, UGANDA--With headlines like “Gulu Widows Get Goats”, it’s impossible to resist Uganda’s daily newspapers.

In fact, the dailies here are almost enough to make me forget my first newspaper love, the Kansas City Star. Yes, the Star takes lots of heat, but I’ve always maintained that it’s a good paper given our market size. With four people left in the Star’s newsroom (only a slight exaggeration), it’s amazing that they are able to publish such a quality product.

In Uganda, there are three major English language daily newspapers, all published out of the capital, Kampala. All three newspapers offer up a daily dose of the interesting and bizarre. The New Vision is owned by the government, and features only thinly-disguised pro-government propaganda. Red Pepper is a tabloid, running cheesecake photos and rumors about who’s sleeping with whom, except they prefer the term “bonking” to the more polite “sleeping with”. For example, one hard-hitting piece details the arrest of a nursing student on allegations of sleeping with a married man, which must be illegal here. The piece said the motive for the “steamy romps” was that the cheater’s wife declined to let her husband “bonk” her (insert euphemism for a mysterious female anatomical part).

More reliable but still fascinating news can be found in Uganda’s best newspaper, the Daily Monitor, which offers a comprehensive, balanced look at the day’s news. In the aforementioned “Gulu Widows Get Goats” in a recent Daily Monitor, apparently the goats are meant to help war widows (there was a 20-year civil war here) become self-sustainable. In another story out of Gulu, where I recently taught, local leaders are worried that the “escalation” in the number of witch doctors could have “disastrous” effects if not monitored closely. “Immediate action should be taken to rid the healers from the district before they turn dangerous,” noted one worried official. I’m thinking we could welcome these witch doctors to Parkville, where they could be deployed to rid the downtown region of some of its less desirable elements.

In a story reminiscent of California cults and their loony followers, police here arrested a “prophet” and her followers who were found praying under “a make shift structure”. The “prophet” claims mystical healing powers. Alarmingly, she was arrested and charged with “conducting an illegal religious assembly”. Give me our first amendment, and its tolerance for religious hucksters and imposters, any time rather than governments deciding what is and isn’t a legal religious assembly.

Some of the articles are sad, pathetic, or just awful. For example, “Maid Remanded over Neglect”, the maid is accused of feeding a three year old child with dog droppings and other harmful substances. In “Man Electrocuted”, a man met his maker while trying to steal electricity. “In the process of cutting off the (electrical) cable with pliers (!), he was electrocuted,” the story says. In an even sadder electrocution story, a student in Hoima, where I am going in September, was electrocuted on the school’s grounds, leaving the school “in shock”. (Their words, not mine. I wonder if the tasteless pun is intended?) The worst part—the utility pole fell in the school compound seven days before the student was electrocuted. One area leader said, “Several residents called (officials) warning that this could be a disaster but there was no response until now when our child has been killed.”

And finally, in the “make me ashamed to be a male” category, we present a tale from the Daily Monitor. The first features a misogynist local official from Busheyni. In a statement that would have every women’s group in the U.S. burning him in effigy, the official said, “Schools should produce ladies who can go home and help in the chores. It is embarrassing to find a secondary school student who does not know how to peel.”

I know that these sorts of pathetic and weird things happen in America, too. (Battle over a hog dog vendor, anyone?) However, the highly unusual just seems to occur more frequently here, and often generates more disturbing consequences. I’m attempting to take all this bizarre, depressing news with a big grain of salt as I try to keep an open mind about Uganda and its people, whom I genuinely like. Of course, I haven’t met any witch doctors yet.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

An email from a Ugandan journalist

Below is an email I just received from Betty, a journalist in Fort Portal who attended my first workshop.

"I still appreciate your lessons and work. I always read through your work and really find it important to me. I have adopted reportage as one of the ways to let the community know some things that happen in the community but they have been given a deaf ear and blind eye. I have moved to different parts identifying and exposing some areas of need in society. I appreciate your efforts because if I had not got chance to be taught by you I would not be doing this. (Linked here) is an example and report by me about domestic violence. When I aired this report on radio it touched many people who are now giving some simple aid to these young girls."

I wrote Betty back and told her how proud I was of her. I will follow up more later in this space about this report and these orphans.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Student Peace Journalists rock KCUR!!

Last week, Park University students Andi Enns and Keith Taylor discussed their experiences teaching peace journalism in Uganda on KCUR-FM, Kansas City's NPR station. Keith and Andi were bright, energetic, and articulate. I'm very proud of both of them. A podcast of their appearance is linked in the box above. Enjoy!

Park student reflects on life-changing experience

From the Parkviille Luminary

Note: Today, I am turning this space over to Andria Enns, a Park University student who just completed a peace journalism study abroad program in Uganda. This is her reflection on the trip, which was her first outside the U.S. Enjoy.
–Steven Youngblood, Kampala, Uganda.

Some people go the movies or read novels to discover a different world. I used to be one of those people, staring in wide-eyed wonder through 3D glasses and longing to experience something new. Then I discovered something so much better: travel.

Zoom over a few bumpy dirt streets in Kampala. Uganda and you’ll find an urban neighborhood made of sheet metal lean-tos and plywood shacks. Kids run everywhere, and women prepare meals in groups. Religious messages are scratched into the side of every structure. And while perhaps the most striking thing at first for a na├»ve American is the grime and the poverty, that’s not the image that stays.

After visiting a family in a Ugandan slum, the torn ill-fitting clothing almost seems like an afterthought to the vibrancy of the smiles. The people had so much hope and faith. They trusted that tomorrow would be just a little bit better than today.

They stay smiling day after day, even when they eat the same boiled mashed matoke (like plantains) day in and day out.

It made me painfully cognizant of American arrogance. In a land of extreme luxury, we still act ungrateful. I am ashamed to admit that I’m the same way. How dare any public place be without wi-fi? What excuse is there for a lack of hot water? Why does service take so dang long?

I was always conscious of what I was “doing without”. I took provisions to ensure I lived the same padded American life I have always lived – snacks, travel-sized beauty products, video games on my iPod to stave off boredom. I may have taken a cold shower, but I dried off to go use my shiny new laptop while watching CNN on television and munching fancy trail mix.

It really made me question the American way of life, and I began to really consciously compare the differences. The best way to compare is how Americans and Ugandans answer their doors. A Ugandan warmly welcomes you and invites you into their home for tea even if they’ve never see you before in their life. An American stands blocking the entrance and asks what you want, with the implication that you should go away. Suddenly, the American way seemed barbaric and isolated.

At one point, bouncing along a rutted dirt road with a team of local journalists, on our way to report about the water crisis in the area, one woman leaned over to me and whispered, “Welcome to Africa.”

In the moment, I thought she was just being friendly. I didn’t know it was a warning.

Our trip into a village of mud-huts inhabited by peanut farmers started out decently enough. We reporters got our quotes and we were packing up. I noticed a muddy preschool-aged boy watching us, so I squatted down to say hello. His belly protruded far beyond his toes – a sign that his family doesn’t have enough to eat. As I looked at him, I came to a sudden idiotic realization – Africa is real.

I had been in country for nearly two weeks. I had seen poverty-stricken neighborhoods and people injured in the recent war. But as I looked into the deep brown eyes of this child, it was actualized for me. When my grandmother told me to eat my dreaded carrots because there are starving children in Africa, she meant this little boy. It really touched me in a way that is hard to describe. I felt like something clicked into place at the same as being jarred violently.

Even as different as everything seemed, one thing apparently crosses all cultures and country boundaries. As a man bicycled by, blaring shrill electronic tunes from a boom box as he passed, the kids’ eyes lit up. In every part of the world, ice cream men are the most annoying people in the neighborhood. --Andria Enns, Park Univ.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Work by Ugandan journalists produced during workshops finally posted!

Radio features, public service announcements, and sound bite montages about the upcoming election produced by Ugandan journalists are posted on my Podbean site.

Journalist arrested for sedition

During the last week, a Ugandan Internet journalist, Timothy Kalygira (below), was arrested (and later released) and charged with sedition. His crime? Publishing outlandish conspiracy theories on his website about the July bombings in Kampala that killed 80 innocent people.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, among others, has protested the arrest. Clearly, any charge of sedition is a direct affront to free speech, and worse still, has a chilling effect on the media, breeding passivity and self-censorship. Let's hope authorities here and elsewhere learn that attacking journalists brings them and their message more notoriety than they would have otherwise had if they had been left alone and free to speak their minds.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Warrior learns peace journalism

Returned to Kampala from Soroti. Good seminar with fine group of young journalists. The last day, we did a 40 min live radio program in which we shared the journalists' produced stories and discussed peace journalism and the upcoming elections. A very professional program, I think.
The young lady at the left is from Karomoja, a troubled area near Soroti in NE Uganda. On the last day of the seminar, she wore a traditional Karomojong outfit--specifically, the clothes of a female warrior.

For more photos of Soroti, including the Soroti Rock, click here.

Uncomfortable Park students blossom in Uganda

From the Parkville Luminary

Note--This piece was adapted from a blog I wrote for NAFSA, an organization of international educators. So, if this seems familiar, it probably is...

KAMPALA, UGANDA--One of my goals as a professor is to make my students uncomfortable. Using that criterion, I’d say the study abroad trip taken in July by two Park University students was a rousing success.

Two communications students, Andria (Andi) Enns and Keith Taylor, recently journeyed to Uganda on a 17-day study abroad program. They shadowed me as I taught peace journalism seminars for radio journalists in Fort Portal and Gulu. The goal of these two seminars, and 22 more that will follow, is to prevent media-induced violence before, during, and after the 2011 Ugandan presidential election.

We got off to a great start, uncomfortable-wise, on the students’ very first day as they toured Kampala. Rather than head first for the nicest part of the city, my genial driver Tabu went straight to what might be charitably called a working class neighborhood. Tabu said bluntly “this is where poor people live”. Crowded neighborhoods like these house a majority of Kampala’s one million or so residents, many of whom eek out a living selling vegetables or trinkets in small stands or on the streets.

The dirt roads winding into the first neighborhood we visited were rutted, cratered, and virtually impassable by any vehicle other than an SUV, and foreshadowed what lay ahead.

As we lurched into the poor neighborhood, Keith and Andi were uncharacteristically quiet. Tiny, broken down shacks and small kiosks lined the main road, which branched off into seemingly endless small paths that would lead to more small shacks, most roofed with rusty tin. Abruptly, Tabu asked if we’d like to stop and to see where his sister lives.

Walking into Tabu’s sister’s tiny house, we were greeted by a smiling, pretty young woman orbited by a number of cute, happy-looking kids. She invited us into her house—just one small room with a couple of curtained, glass-less windows. Conspicuously absent were a kitchen and bathroom. There was no running water, either for her or for her neighbors. As we chatted, Andi and Keith seemed uncomfortable, although their nerves were calmed a bit by the curious children who came over to visit and hold hands.

Our second stop was Tabu’s house. We met his lovely wife and some of his eight (!) children. His house was bigger and in a slightly better neighborhood, but still unadorned by Western standards. We were introduced to his son, who is studying to be a doctor. As we toured his neighborhood, two of Tabu’s smallest kids tagged along, holding hands with Keith and Andi as we took in the sites—small shacks, dilapidated huts and tiny rooms for rent, and an open, putrid garbage dump guarded by a grazing longhorn cow.

As we chatted afterwards, both students said that, despite the poverty, they were not depressed by what they had seen, since both correctly sensed some hope from this place and from these people, who were unfailingly smiling and curiously happy given their circumstances.

Of course, there was a great deal of learning, and some uncomfortable feelings, in the two weeks that followed day one. For example, I made the students eat lunch every day with the Ugandan radio journalists who attended the workshops. It was wonderful to hear Andi and Keith comparing notes with Ugandans about journalism and about life.

The students were also understandably uncomfortable when I sent them off (with Ugandan journalist escorts) to report. I did this kind of reporting last year, and I know how difficult it is trying to piece together a good story under unfamiliar, unusual, difficult, and often intimidating circumstances. Both students excelled. Keith bravely interviewed a loony mayor who ranted on about how Uganda wasn’t ready for free, fair elections, while Andi looked on as a pitiful orphan girl asked a lady journalist if she would be her mommy. For Andi and Keith, having now conquered reporting under the most uncomfortable and difficult circumstances, returning to Parkville and filing stories on the student senate or board of aldermen will be a breeze.

I wish everyone who has ever questioned the validity of the study abroad experience was along with us as we strolled through the “real” Kampala, or when Andi and Keith were out there reporting, or even when we attended a traditional Bugandan wedding. Transformational experiences like these can’t be replicated even in the best classrooms. My hope is that Andi and Keith are just the first of many Park students to test themselves in Uganda.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The road to Soroti

All well in Soroti. The trip here was pleasant--very nice scenery featuring sugar cane plantations, huge round mango trees, interesting wetlands, and enormous neon green tea plantations blanketing gently rolling hills and valleys. You can even smell the tea as you drive by. Very beautiful indeed. The five hours here from Kampala passed quickly.

Soroti itself is charming, and a beehive of business activity of all kinds. The most interesting feature here is Soroti Rock--a giant rock, really a huge rocky hill, right on the outskirts of the town's center. I'll post photos soon of the rock and of Soroti town.