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.

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