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.

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