Working with the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI) has truly been an unforgettable experience. The people that I have met in this organization have made such a difference in Uganda and even abroad. Most of the team treats me like a sister or a daughter and they have really helped me to feel at home with jokes, stories and dances, and by bringing me food to taste or family members to meet.
My favorite project that ARLPI has created is the Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) Prevention and Response program funded by CARE. Stella Atolo is the Alero Field Coordinator of this initiative and she is one of the strongest women that I have met. She moved to Gulu from an area called Teso once the conflict started. I have learned much about the Acholi ways of life thanks to Stella and Geoffrey, our ARLPI driver. They have taught me Luo phrases and words, where to go if I get sick, which bars to stay away from because I might be mistaken for a prostitute, and how to attract good men (even in America, apparently).
While attending these SGBV sessions there are normally at least 20 people present with a good mix of men and women from different villages. Rwot Kwerie’s (local chiefs, which can also be women) usually attend the events are greatly valued for their opinion and life experiences. The SGBV program often conducts their meetings in old IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) Camps because many Ugandans still live in these. It’s difficult for the Acholi to move back to their own villages or even in Gulu Town due to the financial stresses and mental abuse that the conflict with the LRA caused. It’s heartbreaking and at the same time gratifying to see the IDP camps and how far the Acholi have come since the LRA ceased fire.
Conversations posed by the SGBV team focus on domestic violence and how to avoid and prevent it, rape victims (that were assaulted in the bush or at home) and how to cope with the aftermath of the violence, how to share work positions between men and women, etc. The Acholi are able to use humor and seriousness at the same time in order to tackle these heavy topics in order to share previous experiences or opinions that will make their lives easier.
There are sometimes issues that the communities bring up concerning the interns that lead the SGBV program because they are so young. However, ARLPI has properly trained the Ugandan interns and I have been extremely impressed with the way that the meetings are conducted and how easy it is for the interns, Brian and Michael Dennis, to relate to the people that are present.
The language barrier has been very difficult for me and I have often felt that it has deterred from my experience in the field. I have had to focus on other things such as facial expressions, gestures, loudness of voice, body language, and respect that is given in order to determine the personality and characteristics of a group or topic that is being discussed. In essence, the language barrier has been a burden but has also been a blessing in disguise due to the way it has given me a new way to dissect work in the field and when understanding Acholi culture.