Today I learned about the true resilience of children.
We set out to meet with villagers from northern Uganda's Kotido county, which is about three hours from where I am based in Pader. We were going there to prepare the community members in Nakeplemoru to organize a peace committee, as well as discuss with them how this peace building structure could be used as a way to handle conflicts at the community level.
But we had to get there first.
Riding along the dry rugged road, I wondered how the day would end. With each twist and turn along the road, around pot holes and washed out sections caused by heavy rains, I bobbed up and down and was tossed about with an occasionally jarring thump. I was beginning to see how poor infrastructure can create major delays in development, preventing the flow of goods from reaching markets, delaying travel and ultimately slowing down progress as a whole. I also now understand why most non-governmental organization vehicles that frequent the roads of Pader, Kotido, Kitgum and Lira carry a spare reserve of two tires on the rack instead of the usual one.
As we drove further north, I began to notice the scenery changing from rich greens and muted red browns to simply dull and dusty brown. The thriving first season’s crops that I once saw farther south, of sorghum, maize and beans were now replaced with half-shriveled fields of groundnuts, far too gone to be revived.
Upon riding farther north, closer to the Sudan border, it became evident that this area really is “where Saharan and Sub-Saharan meet.” The talk you often hear about the poorest of the poor being the most affected by climate change really begins to hit home. Headlines that read “Food insecurity rises for northern Ugandans" are evident in the failed crops that line the roads.
Uganda as a country is “food secure” but the northern parts, most affected by prolonged drought, are where the poorest and least equipped to handle it are bearing the brunt of the burden, and feeling the greatest impact. The outcome has resulted in a decrease in health, lower incomes and declining morale, leaving many dependent on food handouts in order to survive, as well as feeling discouraged about future developments.
As I shifted my focus back to the meeting ahead of us, I began to reflect on what I’d previously heard about tribunals and committees that have been formed in other areas such as Rwanda, in an attempt to achieve reconciliation. I also thought on how they’ve not been so successful, though some have been more government initiated than community driven, and I wondered what the outcome will be here in northern Uganda.
I began to notice, as we drove along, the groups of Karamojong women walking alongside the road. They strolled gracefully by, with plastic jerry cans of water and bags stuffed full of rations balanced perfectly on their heads. They stood out with their brightly colored clothing amongst the dull hues of the landscape. Their dark skin set a perfect mahogany background for the fabrics of pink, red and bright green shawls that wrapped across their torsos, tied in a knot across their backs. Their tall thin legs were partially covered down to the knee with a type of skirt made of tan and red plaid, complete with pleats that resembled a kilt. Their heads were mostly clean shaven, but some were crowned with narrow patches of hair closely cropped to the scalp.
I wondered as I watched them walk along what had inspired their tribal wear. Had it been due to previous colonial encounters or had they simply taken part of the décor from their cousins to the east in Kenya, the Masai? As we passed them, we waved awkwardly like silly tourists, yet they kindly returned the gesture.
Upon arriving in the village, we parked the vehicle and greeted the few who had already gathered under the shade of a large tree. We continued to mingle while we waited for others to arrive, as word spread throughout the village that Mercy Corps was here. After talking for a bit with some of the adults and elders, I gravitated to a group of children that I noticed were pointing at me and laughing.
I began to introduce myself to each one and shake hands (shaking hands is customary here). As I peered closer into the faces of these children, I began to notice the whites of their eyes tinted in a yellow haze. Some have a secretion that formed puddles in the corners of their eyes, and I noticed this seems quite uniform as I make my rounds. I surmise this is a sign of ill health, which is later confirmed as I’m told that jaundiced eyes are often a symptom of malaria, sickness and liver disorders in this land where illness is tolerated, due to lack of medical attention, and the fortunate simply live on.
Despite their obvious rough surroundings and lack of health and nutrition, they seemed to focus on the moment and take great pleasure in getting their pictures taken. They smiled and laughed at my attempts to entertain them as we crouched next to the closest surface to write on: a large rock. I wrote my name in blue chalk that one of the children ran to get.
As I wrote, again and again, spelling out every letter aloud, I wondered what life would have been like for these resilient children if they had access to more. If they didn’t have to haul water, herd goats, work at the market or in the fields. If they could go to school, eat healthy meals and didn’t have to grow up so soon.
Life isn't easy here. Yet the children of the Acholi and Karamojong people of northern Uganda are still resilient. They still smile.