“Is he purposely hitting every pothole on the road?”
As I try to hold on to something, anything, on the cargo bed of the pick-up so I don’t completely embarrass myself falling off, I couldn’t help but think that the truck driver was messing with this “mzungu” (white person), and just testing how far I’d go before asking him to let me get into the main cabin.
We were bringing over 200 packed meals, composed of a boiled egg, some beef and a sort of fried bread, to the Ik; a community in the northern mountains of Uganda. My counterpart seemed unfazed by the bumps and jumps while my hands were hurting from clenching the metal rods on the side of the truck. As we got further away from town I could see the black clouds hovering above us. Rain was imminent. During the rainy season, any dirt road can become a river in a matter of minutes and leave you stranded for hours.
I managed to store my equipment inside the main cabin before it started pouring down. I closed my eyes and held my breath while the raindrops hit my face with the force of little stones being thrown from the sky. It was no longer just the driver, it was the universe testing my limits.
I wasn’t going to just give up even though every fiber of my body was asking me to. I didn’t want to show weakness during my first week in Uganda. After all, this is what I wanted out of a summer internship: to be out in the field. To see firsthand what it means to work in International Development.
In that moment I couldn’t help but wonder if I was cut out for this or if I had chosen the wrong career path.
It takes about an hour to reach the Ik settlement from Kaabong, one of the last towns before crossing into South Sudan. Kaabong, Kotido, Moroto, are all part of the Karamoja region. Karamoja is still one of the poorest and most underdeveloped regions of the world. A 2011 report from Mercy Corps estimated that “Cattle raids, theft, poor agricultural productivity, illiteracy, abysmal maternal and child health, aid dependency, and the breakdown of traditional semi-nomadic livelihoods combine to prevent the estimated 1.2 million Karamojong from living secure and productive lives.” [i]
The Ik, currently settled in Kaabong district, are regarded as the most marginalized of all ethnic groups in Karamoja. Located between rival tribes such as the Dodoth in Uganda, the Turkana in Kenya and the Toposa in South Sudan, the Ik have been victims of constant attacks and violence.
A raid the night before we arrived to their settlement had resulted in a member of the community being shot and killed.
And here I was, in the middle of nowhere with my camera, my zoom recorder and my big headphones. Around me, a community was grieving. I never felt more like a fraud in my life. I came to Uganda to use media as a tool for peacebuilding but there was no amount of footage, audio or photos that could fix what had just happened. A man had just died. His body was laid down in front of me, covered in flies. A few feet away men were digging his grave. Next to me was his mother, covering herself from head to toe with a blanket, and I could still hear her crying. I couldn’t even tell her that I was sorry for her loss; the Ik speak their own language.
A quick Google search of “cattle raid in Karamoja” will give you a series of different statistics and numbers of people killed every year as a result of the raids. Statistics are important, they help us make sense of any given situation, but they also make us forget that behind those numbers, there are sons, fathers, mothers and daughters.
I came to Uganda and Kenya looking for stories. Stories that would shape the way I see the world and allow people to connect with each other in a more humane way.
I can’t say with certainty that I was successful in my quest so far, but I was lucky enough to meet Rarcad and Awi (not their real names), two refugees now living in Kampala. Rarcad is a refugee originally from Burundi. He left his home village three years ago after his house was attacked because of his father’s involvement in politics. He is now going to school during the day and working as a security guard at night. He sleeps an average of three hours per day.
Even as he talked me through the hardships he had to overcome to be where he is right now, the smile on his face never faded. Nor did his optimism.
Awi’s expression on the other hand was stoic, as if she had relived her memories so many times that her skin had grown thicker, preventing any emotion from surfacing. She came from South Sudan 13 years ago. Afraid for her life and her children’s future, she parted ways with her family and, while pregnant and carrying her three kids with her, she started her journey to Uganda.
The hope of a better tomorrow is what keeps most refugees going, even when everything seems to go wrong.
That’s my intention behind stories like these. That maybe someone out there who listens to them will find the hope they need to overcome a problem they are facing. To know that someone, maybe next door, or all the way across the world; someone like them, has overcome the same feelings of desperation, hopelessness and fear.
Communication for development is not a new concept. In the early 1950s, UNESCO and other international organizations saw how rapid mass media, and in particular television, was growing and realized that a free flow of information and the development of local information agencies would be key in the development of a more peaceful world.[ii]
If the rapid growth and massive reach of TV was enough to catch the attention of those trying to influence behavior in the 1950s, you would think that the emergence of the smartphone, internet and social media would have revolutionized the world of development. And it did, but for the wrong reasons.
Organizations everywhere started to see how far their messages could reach and the impact those images and stories from the field could have. People’s hearts were touched by the image of a child with a distended belly in a faraway village somewhere in Africa. Donations came in and organizations began to see the power that media had to raise money, forgetting the power that media could have to create sustainable change.
Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to go into any international development organization’s website and not find mention of storytelling or a compelling testimony of one of the beneficiaries of their projects. What it is hard to find is an organization that uses media as an integral and fundamental part of their projects.
In its early days, the aim of communication for development was to affect behavior using mass media. Any international development project that claims to be sustainable should, in one way or another, try to influence behavior. And yet, finding a project that includes a comprehensive communication strategy as part of its methodology to achieve whatever the project’s goal is, seems to be as difficult as finding real love on Tinder.
Both organizations where I’m doing my internship this summer – the Center for Conflict Resolution in Uganda and Children Peace Initiative in Kenya – are no strangers to this practice. Through no fault of their own, they are in need of funding to be able to run their programs, and they see in those appealing videos and stories a way to attract funds. In the five weeks I was in Uganda and with the three weeks I have left in Kenya, I know that I won’t be able to change that. But my time here has shown me that even if I can’t find my place in an organization yet, I can still get those stories out and hope that someday the world of international development will stop looking at their bank accounts and start looking at the impact they can have on people’s lives.
Before starting a journey, the Ik, toss a shoe in the air and they interpret the results[iii]:
- If the tossed shoe falls on the same line with the one on the ground, it means that one is going to meet another person on the way and it is safe to travel
- If the tossed shoe falls and crosses over the one on the ground, it means a good travel and one is likely to be successful in his/her mission
- If the tossed shoe falls opposite the one on the ground, it means death and a person intending to travel is likely to meet enemies
- If the tossed shoe falls on top of the one on the ground, it means a grave and a person intending to travel is likely to meet enemies/death
- If a tossed shoe falls upside-down, it means a gun and a person intending to travel is likely to meet armed enemies
I didn’t toss a shoe before starting my trip but even with all the ups and downs, surprises and disappointments, I can certainly say that if I had done it, it would have fallen and crossed over the one on the ground. As to Communication for development’s fate, that shoe is still up in the air.
[i] MercyCorps (2011). Cattle Raiding in Karamoja: A Conflict and Market assessment https://d2zyf8ayvg1369.cloudfront.net/sites/default/files/karamojaconflictmarketassessment_june_2011.pdf
[ii] McAnany, E. G. (2012). The History of Communication : Saving the World : A Brief History of Communication for Development and Social Change. Urbana, US: University of Illinois Press.
[iii] CECORE (2011). The Ik of Kaabong district. http://cecore.or.ug/wp-content/downloads/Ik%20report.pdf.