Over a year ago I made my first trip to Uganda. I had just received a research grant from Notre Dame to spend a couple weeks during Christmas break studying the effects of globalization on the spirituality of the Ugandan people. While on my flight to Uganda, I was waiting in line for the restroom when a man in front of me asked me where I was from—he must have noticed that I was wearing a Notre Dame shirt. I went on to tell him that I was a student at Notre Dame and then he introduced himself as Gus Zuelhke, also a Notre Dame graduate doing work in Uganda.
In those next few minutes, Gus explained to me that he had started a project in northern Uganda, collaborating with the Archdiocese of Gulu. Initially, Gus’ idea was to use a technology that we take for granted in the U.S. as a method for saving lives in the Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps of northern Uganda. The poorly protected camps were often raided in the past by LRA rebels, leading to the abduction of children to use as child soldiers in their war against the Ugandan government. Gus’ idea was to use wireless internet, solar powered computers and VOIP technology (similar to Skype)—cheap internet phone service—to connect the isolated camps which were often without electricity or effective modes of communication. This, in turn, would allow the camps to alert and warn each other of rebel movements in the region and would act as a deterrent to the rebels by providing immediate documentation and witnesses to the violence committed in the camps. At the end of our conversation, Gus and I promised to meet again back in South Bend to discuss shared experiences in Uganda.
A few months later, I returned to Uganda through Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns International Summer Service Learning Program to teach at a Holy Cross secondary school near Jinja, Uganda. Before I left, Gus told me that he would put me in contact with leaders from the Archdiocese of Gulu so that I could spend a few days in their hospitality. At the time I didn’t think that I would have time to get up to the north because I was only spending nine weeks in the country and eight of them were spent teaching. However, I became convinced that there was another side of Uganda—a forgotten side—that was not apparent to me while I was in Jinja.
Yet, it wasn’t until my second month of teaching that the conflict in the north would really enter my consciousness. Next to the schools, there was a novitiate for the Sisters of the Holy Cross and we would occasionally go over to eat with them. After lunch on this particular day, we had an extra hour so the sisters asked us if we wanted to see a new documentary that they had just received on DVD. It was called “Uganda Rising” and was a chilling and poignant description of the events that had occurred just 200 miles north of us over the past twenty years. Watching this documentary deeply affected me; the documentary showed how the policies from both within and outside of Uganda had affected the life of the conflict and the continuing neglect in seeking a peaceful solution. It showed pictures of human atrocities (a photo of a brain hacked out of someone’s head was shown), killings, and of many acts of absolute human terror. To say the least, I was touched, terrified, moved, speechless, and upset all at the same time.
After watching it I was emotionally exhausted and had no words left in me. It was a surreal experience, one in which you realize only silence remains—there was so much evil seen, so much gratuitous suffering that all that remains in the silence of God. At the time, I could think of nothing else to do except to pray in the sister’s chapel, so I did just that. I asked God for peace, for love, for the softening of hardened hearts. And I thanked Him for the gift of hope.
It was at this point that I started to contemplate going to the north to learn about the conflict first hand—to see if I could discover the forgotten side of the Ugandan story. I thought to myself: how can I continue to neglect this conflict and the Acholi people who had been left behind?
I did eventually make it up to northern Uganda at the end of my time in southern Uganda. I had the chance to be hosted by key leaders in the Archdiocese of Gulu and to visit the IDP camps to see with my own eyes what had been shown so poignantly by the “Uganda Rising” documentary and what had been spoken so passionately about by Gus and others during their work in and around Gulu.
As my senior year at Notre Dame began, I remained abreast of news coming out of northern Uganda and kept in touch with Gus, learning more about how communication could lend itself to peacebuilding and development in the region. Sometime during Christmas break I decided that I needed to return to Uganda after graduation. I wasn’t sure how I would be able to do this as I learned that there was not room for any more volunteers at the Holy Cross secondary school I had taught at the previous summer. Northern Uganda was on my mind, yet I didn’t know how I would be able to contribute. I talked to Gus about possibly returning to northern Uganda to work with the BOSCO project and the Archdiocese of Gulu. He agreed that there was plenty of work to be done and that I would be able to make a substantial contribution. So we outlined a basic proposal about what I might work on over the course of the year in northern Uganda. It all sounded good and exciting until I realized that BOSCO had never had a full-time volunteer from the U.S. before. It is an organization run full-time by committed board members who do a fantastic job of contributing to the growth of the project from within their other professional commitments as lay catechists, IT specialists, and physics teachers, among others.
In short, I came to the realization that to make this possible, I would need to raise all of the money in order to support myself for the year. So I sat down, did some research, and figured out that with the cost of airfare, health insurance, room and board, transportation, etc, I would need to raise almost $23,000 dollars to support my work with BOSCO. It seemed like an impossible task at the time and I was not convinced that I wanted to go forward with it. After all, I was busy trying to keep up in my classes and enjoy the last couple of months of my senior year, while also applying to other service programs as a safety net in case returning to northern Uganda would not be an option.
Gradually, however, the donations started rolling in from family, friends, and supporters at Notre Dame. By March I had raised half of the money necessary to support myself for my work with BOSCO. And within a few weeks after that I was able to finish my fundraising efforts—It seemed that as I followed my heart and sought something that I find great value in, all the world conspired to help me achieve it. I have been blessed and humbled by all of those who have made my upcoming journey possible through their selfless generosity.
Finally, as I arrive in northern Uganda I will be living at the Archdiocese of Gulu’s Catechist Training Center, where they often host visitors. My role will be similar to that of a “community organizer.” I will be visiting the IDP camps frequently to assess how the BOSCO systems are being used and to try and facilitate greater and more effective use of the technology so that leaders in the camps can communicate with each other and with the Archdiocese. This will help the Acholi people to become self-advocates for peace, by relieving some of the isolation they currently experience with the lack of communication resources in the camps and with the outside world.
I ask for your prayers and continued support as I undertake this endeavor. I have been blessed with this opportunity and I intend to take full advantage of it. Really, all I am trying to do is follow my heart, follow what I’m most passionate about, and to seek to live fully and learn from those I encounter.