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Last weekend Lauren and I traveled to Atiak (about 90 minutes north of Gulu Town, 24km from the Sudanese border) to attend a memorial service commemorating the 14th anniversary of one of the deadliest massacres in the history of the war here. Robert Gersony describes the details of the massacre in his article “The Anguish of Northern Uganda”:

“Eyewitness interviewees report that the LRA attacked the trading village of Atiak in northern Gulu at about 5AM. Its first target was the local defense unit center, said to be manned by about 75 Acholi militia. In the one-hour engagement which followed, about 15 of the soldiers were killed, the center was overrun and the remaining soldiers fled. In the six hours which followed, the LRA maintained unchallenged military control of Atiak. During this period, in the absence of armed opposition, between 170 and 220 unarmed civilians were detained and killed, including the families of the local defense unit, students from Atiak (Secondary) Technical Institute and others. Although it is widely believed that the army had advance warning of the Atiak attack, the first army units arrived in the late afternoon, following the LRA’s departure.”

For me, the trip to Atiak was a fulfillment of a promise made to a friend three years ago. During my trip to Gulu in June, 2006 I was invited to visit Atiak by my host and good friend Richard Oneka. Richard grew up in Atiak and was displaced at age 7. His family fled to Southern Sudan for two years and then to neighboring Adjumani district for seven years. He settled in Gulu Town in 2000 where he has been working since with a group called GUSCO (Gulu Support the Children Organization) to reintegrate children abducted by the LRA into society. GUSCO was started by parents of abducted children and is one of the locally-led NGOs here doing great work.

Unfortunately, since the situation in 2006 was a bit more uncertain–and since we were traveling with funding and ostensible supervision by Northwestern University–we had to turn the invitation down. I promised Richard then that I would do my best to return and make the trip to see his home in Atiak, should the situation continue to improve.

Before the ceremony Lauren and I visited Richard’s family land about a kilometer outside of Atiak’s center. Most of the several-dozen-acre plot became overgrown during the 20 years of war and neglect. One of Richard’s uncles has moved his family back to the land and is slowly starting to rebuild. Richard walked us around the property and tried to describe what the area looked like as he remembers it…the primary school and health clinic across the road, the surplus of fruits and vegetables that fed the family and more, the peace…He also shared with us his plan to build a homestead here for himself and his soon-to-be wife Nancy in the coming year, if the situation remains good.

The ceremony began around midday as a crowd of at least 500 gathered around a monument standing in the middle of town that reads, “In loving memory of our sons and daughters massacred in Atiak on April 20, 1995. May their soul rest in eternal peace.” The crowd watched as representatives of various groups laid flowers while saying a word of blessing. Tears clouded the eyes of many as prayers were offered quietly–a Muslim blessing sung in Arabic, a word of regret from a UPDF commander, three school children dressed in uniforms reciting together from memory. Lauren and I were asked to come forward to represent “the visitors.” Reluctantly we stepped forward, silent and overwhelmed by our smallness in the depth of the moment.

After the last flower was laid, the crowd walked slowly back through town to tents and chairs set up in the courtyard of the local primary school. For the next five hours a program of speeches, survivor stories, music and dancing, and lunch ensued. Lauren and I were also able to catch up with a few friends that were in attendance–to our surprise. A highlight for Lauren and I was seeing Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe–the wonderful nun who runs a school (for which she was awarded a CNN Heroes award in 2008) for war-affected girls in Gulu. Sister Rosemary also hosted our Northwestern students last summer. She recently started a new school in Atiak (using the CNN award money) and has been getting more involved with the Atiak community lately. She looked brilliant and energetic, as usual.

Seeing Sister Rosemary at the memorial typified for me the place all of northern Uganda currently finds itself in…remembering a horrific past while forging courageously ahead into an unknown future.


Betty surrounded by baskets and artisans

Betty surrounded by baskets and artisans

Whenever I see Betty, usually seated outside Uganda Crafts with a line of visitors waiting to be seen by her, she greets me like this, “Banange, Nabukalu! Nsanuse okukulaba!” Which basically translates into “My goodness, Lauren! I’m so happy to see you!” I am the happy recipient of this warm greeting whether it has been a month since I’ve seen her, or just a few days.

Betty Kinene is a indeed a very warm and special person to me and to hundreds of other people.

Betty was born in the 1950s and contracted polio at the age of 3. As one of 35 children from her father (yes, THIRTY-FIVE), Betty struggled to pay for her schooling, but managed to get by, and was one of the top students in the country.

After schooling, she made a living as a shopkeeper in Kampala. She lost her husband during the Amin regime, but managed to continue working and caring for her children on her own.

In 1983, the president of Uganda, Milton Obote, allowed Indians who had been expelled from the country under Amin to return to the shops they had lost. Betty turned up to her shop one day, and found it locked and all of her merchandise seized. It had been an Indian shop before and was being reclaimed now. Shocked by her loss of employment and merchandise, Betty sat down on the steps to cry. A woman named Marilyn Dodge, who had been a faithful customer of the shop, happened by, and saw Betty crying. Marilyn, who was an American working with UNICEF, had an idea for Betty: start a new shop which employs disabled people through crafts. Betty and Marilyn began planning, and Uganda Crafts was born.

Uganda Crafts began as a small non-profit shop, which sold a variety of handicrafts to tourists in Kampala. Dozens of men and women, some disabled, some widowed, and some simply poor, began to sell their work to Uganda Crafts for money. The non-profit grew and grew, and in the 1990s, Uganda Crafts began selling baskets to Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade shop in the United States and Canada. It was then that Betty learned about the concept of fair trade and started incorporating it directly into her work with Uganda Crafts.

Today, Betty continues leading Uganda Crafts as the managing director. Uganda Crafts became a for-profit business in 2000, in an attempt to “stand on our own” as Betty puts it, and become self-reliant, not depending on donations or charity. It turns out that Betty was ahead of the curve as some of the current trends in the development world include social entrepreneurism and a backlash against dependence on aid. Uganda Crafts now exports crafts to numerous fair trade retailers in the US, Japan, Sweden, Austria, Canada, and beyond.

In addition to running Uganda Crafts, Betty is a counselor in her home district of Mpigi. She helps settle disputes between community members and even within families. She’s involved with many different organizations which work with people with disabilities. She also started Papula Paper in 2006, a community based organization which I’ve written about recently. Always an entrepreneur, she recently opened a hostel near her home for students attending a new art university.

In person, Betty is warm and funny. She loves teaching me about Buganda culture, and was quick to adopt me into the family by naming me Nabukalu (meaning either clever woman or difficult woman, depending on who you talk to). This name signifies that I am a member of a particular clan, the clan of Betty’s husband, making me a sister to her children.

Betty is one of the people I will miss the most when I am gone. She’s an inspiration to me and to so many women and people with disabilities working in Kampala today. I’m proud to call her a friend.

Betty, the founder of Uganda Crafts, and me

Betty, the founder of Uganda Crafts, and me

I have been thinking a lot lately of the incredible people I have met here, people I will be saying goodbye to very soon.  Many of these people have fascinating stories and have done downright heroic things in their lives.  I want this blog to be a place where I can celebrate these people who are both heroes and friends to me.  In that spirit, both Jon and I hope to write short bios and stories of these inspirational people.  We hope this little series can continue, as we continue on from Uganda, and meet interesting people in the US and Ireland (and beyond) that are also working to make the world a little better.


Were currently in Gulu–our last trip here. The purpose of the visit is a combination of saying goodbyes and having a few meetings related to our work for

Yesterday we had dinner with a Catholic priest who has become a friend and host for us on several visits here. During the meal he recounted a recent visit to his home village in Pader District. He was asked to moderate a dispute between a new widow and extended family over how to handle her late husband’s estate (apparently this problem is global).

Father also told us another thing that was on everyone’s mind in his home village–the recent influx of iron sheets, farm implements and other “resettlement packages” that the government is currently handing out to local communities in the conflict-affected areas. At first I was happy to hear that government is doing some of this. But, then Father explained how the process is unfolding. According to the people Father spoke with, government officials were handing out the items to selected people with the clear quid pro quo that their “support” was expected in upcoming elections. When Father suggested that maybe the people should be pragmatic and accept the much-needed items but then refuse to support the government at the ballot box, he was told that the gifts were being given with a “clear understanding” that government would be following up to see which recipients had “followed through on support” and which had not.

It is this sophisticated use of patronage and fear that keeps the government here going strong. Slowly but surely, they strategically distribute development gifts (usually paid for with aid money) that people desperately need. Logically weighing short-term need over long-term principles, people accept them with open arms. Then, once people are bought, government strong arms them into maintaing the regime while making threats of a return to past violence or new forms of future retribution.

I suppose this form of government functioning is not altogether unique…sounds quite like many governments in the world and is not so different from the way Chicago worked for decades, albeit to a lesser degree. But, that still makes it unfortunate and, ultimately, unsustainable.

Fifteen years ago, Rwanda was a week in to its now-infamous genocide, which lasted a remarkably short amount of time.

To my knowledge, this fact hasn’t been too widely written about in the US. But there are two articles that came out recently which are very much worth reading, both which capture Rwanda fifteen years later.

One is a beautiful piece, written by a blogger/journalist I really admire. It tells the story of a genocide survivor making peace with her attacker. At times it is hard to read, but the story comes directly from the mouths of both survivor and attacker. It is a breath of fresh air to read about peacemaking from the people who are actually doing the peacemaking in their own lives.

The other article is a report on Rwanda’s plan for economic development, a venture undertaken by Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame. In a lot of ways I wholeheartedly agree with a lot of Kagame’s proposals and ideas. And as a tourist in Rwanda just over a month ago, I can see how some of his ideas are working on the ground. The tourism industry can especially take root in a place that is as clean and safe as Rwanda is now. However, there is a lot of concern over the heavy-handedness of the Rwandan regime, the suppression of dissent, etc. So it is hard for me to give my full support. Regardless, the article is well-written and important. (HT my dear friend Nathaniel for this one).

Please check these out – they are too good to pass up.

rwandan flower

Easter Greetings from Kampala!

Enjoy this flower photo from Rwanda as a reminder of the renewal that Easter brings.

me, JJ, Joe, Jason, Rachel, July 2006

me, JJ, Joe, Jason, Rachel, July 2006

I have a problem saying goodbyes. My problem is that, pretty much no matter who or what the circumstance, when I say goodbye to someone, I usually end up crying. Sometimes it is more of a tears-rimming-the-eyes kind of cry, and other times it is a full-out bawl. Regardless, it happens a lot, too much, and I’ve been preparing for a lot of tears this month, as I say goodbye to my friends, my first apartment with Jon, and to my Uganda.

I began my farewell tour last weekend in the place where I first said hello to this country. Mbale, on the eastern border with Kenya, was my first taste of Uganda on my United Students for Fair Trade trip in 2006. During the trip, we visited coffee farmers in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda and wrestled with the concept and specifics of “fair trade”. We came to Mbale to learn about Mirembe Kawomera, the newly formed interfaith fair trade coffee cooperative that is just as inspiring in real life as it is on paper.

During the trip, we’d been making short visits to coffee farmers and learning a lot about the process of farming coffee and of the ins and outs of fair trade. In Mbale, however, we got to dig in a little deeper and actually live with a coffee farmer to better understand everyday life. My host father, (well, the host father for 14 of us!) was JJ Keki, the founder of the coffee cooperative. JJ, a very active member of the Abayudaya (Ugandan Jewish community) welcomed us into his home and allowed us all to feel like part of the family. We shared a Shabbat celebration with him, helped his children carry water up the hill (this was only slightly successful), and got to know the neighbors. When I left Mbale that July, I could have never imagined that I’d be back so soon, or that my relationship with the Keki family would grow as deep as it has.

In the years between the trip and my return to Uganda, JJ made several tours around the US. It was during one of these coffee tours last March, while driving JJ to the place he was staying in Chicago, that he claimed me as a part of the family. “You became my daughter that day that you carried the water up the hill for your bath,” he told me. “When I saw you coming up the hill, with the jerrycan on your head, I said to myself, ‘that one is my daughter now.'” I teared up a bit, caught off guard by the comment, and surprised that he remembered something that I’d almost forgotten.

When I returned to Uganda last July, JJ and the farmers of Peace Kawomera were my first stop. Since then, Jon and I have visited a number of times. Every time we visit, I remember my first time at JJ’s house, my introduction to Uganda. I think of how much more I know now than I knew then. I think of how much there is still left to learn.

On this, my last visit to Mbale, I tried to act like it was a routine visit and not my last. We enjoyed a lunch with Elias, one of the coffee cooperative’s administrators and farmers. We visited the bean fields that JJ’s son Maccabee was busy planting. We greeted JJ’s mother, Devorah, who has given us Bagisu names (Nafuuna for me and Wambede for Jon). I chased turkeys and teased the goats. It was like a routine trip… until we had to say goodbye.

JJ, luckily for my tears, had left a day before we did, bound for a meeting in Kampala. So our goodbye was small and to a few members of the family including JJ’s amazing wife Miriam. I tried to make it quick so I could avoid being seen crying.

And so, my first home in Uganda was also the site of the first of my long string of goodbyes.

JJ Keki, July 2008

JJ Keki, July 2008

Ssemakula and family...

Ssemakula and family..

The worlds of boda-boda drivers in Uganda fascinate me. At first glance, the boda system looks haphazard and hectic. At most intersections in towns throughout the country, you find a group of young men on motorcycles competing to take you where you want to go. For most of the day, they hang out…play cards, debate each other, sleep, and (all too often) take alcohol. When they get a customer they normally try to overcharge a bit and then often driver recklessly in order to make the trip as quick as possible to allow time for more customers. As a result, Uganda enjoys some of the highest “road carnage” rates in Africa. A few doctor friends of ours that work in the ER of Mulago (Uganda’s national referral hospital) told us that at least 75% of the emergency trauma cases they see are a result of boda-boda accidents.

But that is only part of the story…

During our time in Munaku we have struck up friendships with several of the boda guys who stay at our corner. Admittedly, our original intentions had self in mind…if we develop relationships with these guys then maybe they will drive a bit safer, give us a better price, and watch out for us in the neighborhood. But over the last nine months our friendships have grown deeper and a bit more genuine, allowing us a window into a world that is much more complex than what meets the eye.

For starters, boda “stages” are by no means the seemingly random gatherings of motorcycles that they appear to be. Each “stage” is a highly organized social group in which there is a democratically elected chairperson, clear hierarchies based mostly on seniority, and formal rules for participation.

And, underneath the stereotypes of boda drivers as rough young men who couldn’t find any better work are individual stories of resilience, resourcefulness, and decency.

Take Ssemakula, for example. Ssamakula grew up in Awe, Gulu District (about an hour from Gulu town). His father is an Acholi and his mother is a Muganda (thus the reason he has a Baganda name). As a young man Ssemakula came to Kampala to find his own way.

Last week Ssemakula invited Lauren and I to his home for lunch. He has a small two-room house not too far from Munaku for his wife and six kids. As we ate a traditional meal of matoke and fish, Ssemakula showed us a family photo album. The pictures narrated the life of a working man – a proud father who shows up on time, makes ends meet, and is continually trying to push his family forward. The pictures showed his kids in school uniforms, his late father at a desk, his first boda, his beautiful wife.

The pictures made me think that Ssemakula would have alot to talk about with the family men I know back home who, although they show up to an office every morning very different than his, show up to it for the same reasons and with the same hopes.

nankusi, uganda

Shameem, 10, practices her baby toting skills with little sister Ellen, 1.

Nankusi (just outside of Mbale), Uganda.  April 5, 2009.


Last weekend we traveled to Hoima District in northwestern Uganda to visit two friends (Sean and Katherine) from Northwestern who are living there for the year to teach high school science. Lauren and I have played host to them a few times in Kampala, so this time it was our turn!

Although we didn’t know each other well at Northwestern, the four of us have gotten close this year. Shared experiences will do that. In addition to living in Uganda and loving euchre (best card game ever), Sean and Katherine also recently got engaged…so we have more than a little bit in common.

We spent the weekend learning about their daily life in a rural area. They are staying in an old brick homestead built by Europeans that started a nearby vocational school in the 1960s. Its in a village named Munteme about 40 minutes from Hoima Town. To a much greater extent than Lauren and I, Sean and Katherine are truly fending for themselves. They have no electricity or running water and grow much of their own food in gardens they tilled themselves. During our short visit we planted some carrots, read alot, visited their school, played euchre, and toured the surrounding area. Their plot of land buts up against a beautiful forrest where chimps can be seen from time-to-time.

On the ride back to Kampala I reflected on the different path Sean and Katherine selected for their year here in comparison to Lauren and I. Unlike us, they have planted themselves in one small rural setting for the duration…working consistently with the students in their small school. They will leave Uganda understanding the daily life of the rural poor in Hoima and knowing they made a small difference in the lives of several dozen children. Lauren and I, on the other hand, have moved all over the country doing “back-end” policy advocacy and organization capacity building work that has a much less tangible feel. And, we have done so while enjoying the perks of Munaku, which include pretty regular electricity and water, and a proximate grocery store with all the essentials.

This isn’t to say that I regret the path we chose. But, I was certainly impressed with our friends in Hoima!


Welcome to our blog! Follow along with us as we travel and experience life as a couple of 20-somethings - with all its ups and downs. We hope to post photos, short videos, stories about our daily life and not-so-daily adventures, and thoughts on what’s going on in the world.

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