Saturday, December 22, 2012

Attitudes & Beatitudes

Two of our children received the “Christian Character” award at their school’s end-of-term chapel and awards ceremony the other day. The awards are given to the boy and girl in each grade level who display the most Christ-like qualities.

The awards came as an enormous surprise to Scott and I for a number of reasons, including the fact that had these been the “Lambie Awards” these would not be the two children we would have deemed most Christ like. In fact, some of the more desirable fruits of the Spirit have eluded these two particular children for a few months now. It just goes to show that you really can’t judge your children by the way they behave at home.

It also came as a surprise because, to be honest I always thought my kids were doing pretty darn good if they get the coveted “child of the week” award before the month of May.

I’m not writing about the awards simply to brag about my kids (although I am a rather proud momma at the moment) but more so because I’m surprised by how completely inspired I am to behave more like my children…or at least more like the way they behave whilst at school.

I can’t help but wonder if there were such an award among my peers and colleagues (when I have them) would I even be in the running? I seriously doubt it. On a good day, I might shout only once at someone who cut me off in traffic. On a good day, I might make it home from the car pool run without having to apologize to one of my kids for losing my temper over the nonstop bickering and tattling. As my kids, family and friends all know, I’m not exactly known for having a good deal of patience or optimism.

One of the Christian Character certificates reads that this particular child received the award because he/she “is very nice, is good to others and never gives up.” The other certificate was awarded because this child “is kind to everyone all the time.”

I cannot begin to tell you how challenged I feel to be nice and good to others, to never give up and to be kind to EVERYONE, ALL the time.

When I think on some of the more admirable character traits of my three other children, I think about my child who has the faith of a saint and is always concerned about the well being of others. I marvel at his words, his thoughts and his concerns when I hear him pray out loud. I also marvel at his light-heartedness, resilience and creative genius – a true gift from God. He has the ability to see the silver lining in every situation and can see the beauty in a heap of trash. He’s appreciative of every meal I put in front of him (including rice and beans) and puts up the least amount of resistance when it comes to piano practice and homework. God fearing, appreciative, loving and obedient. Thank you Lord for this marvelous child.

My eldest child is wise beyond his years. He has a strong sense of justice and thus sets high moral standards for himself and others. The other day he actually refused to watch an R-rated movie with Scott and I. For a teenager, he has the kind of self-control most priests would probably long to have. The kid is so good at punishing himself, Scott and I rarely have to intervene when he makes a bad choice. He too has a strong faith, but unlike the unquestioning child-like faith of his younger sibling, his faith is the result of relentless inquisitiveness – questioning everything and seeking absolute truth – which led to self conviction of the undeniable truth. Wisdom, self-control and faithfulness. We are in awe of Your creation Lord.

Then there is the child who is still so young he wakes up with a smile on his face every morning. He finds delight in life’s simplest pleasures…feeding the chickens, turning a sock into a puppet, and running down hills. One minute he’s hugging my leg, and the next he’s chasing a butterfly. And when I'm short on patience, he’s always quick to forgive and forget. He may have come into this world unexpectedly, but this little life was  certainly no mistake. He is hope personified. He fills our house with joy and our hearts with absolute adoration. Joyful, trusting, loving. Thank you Lord for blessing us with this little light of Yours.

I often find myself praying for the fruits of the Spirit. Not just one specific fruit, but the whole fruit salad. I so desperately want to be a good Christian role model to my children and the kind of women that reflects the love of Christ to EVERYONE, ALL the time. Sometimes it seems that the harder I work on obtaining these fruits off, the harder they are to reach.

At one point, I decided that perhaps I was asking for too much. Maybe, I was being a bit too greedy. Maybe, rather than praying for the whole fruit salad, I should ask for one bite at a time. I decided to go with the one that looked easiest first. Gentleness. How hard could it be? Walk softly, talk softly, use gentle words, think gentle thoughts. Don’t be violent, don’t use force.

Turns out, it’s a lot harder than it sounds. For months I’ve been praying to be more gentle. It may come naturally for some people, but let me assure you there is nothing natural about being gentle to me. If I could, I’d slap gentle in the face, put it in a headlock and twist its arm until it succumbed to my will. As it is, I’m lucky if I can grasp it for one fleeting moment.

I never realized just how abrupt and abrasive I actually was until I started praying for this fruit. I never heard how heavy my feet sound as they pound down the hallway until I chose gentle. I never knew how many times a day I yelled across the house until I started focusing on this one “easy” character trait. At the rate I’m going, it may be half a decade before I’m ready to move on to the next fruit.  (I’m thinking I’ll leave self-control for last.)

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. No one person in our household possesses ample amounts of every one of these character traits, but when you throw our whole loud and rowdy family together, once you get past the noise and chaos, you’re bound to find a bit of each mixed up and across the whole lot of us.

I’m proud of my children, who they are, what they believe in and how they behave…at least, most of the time.  I know it took a heck of a lot more than good parenting to get them to where they are today. Their behavior and attitudes has a lot to do with their role models (pastors, grandparents, teachers, etc.) their school environment, the church, and above all else, God.

We all still have a long way to go to being true reflections of Christ. It’s easy to get discouraged…to wonder how I’ll ever nail any of the fruits if I can’t even nail gentleness. But today I’m inspired by each of my children to simply work harder on being the kind of Christian who is worthy of earning a “Christian Character Award.” I am challenged to never give up on being nice, good to others and kind to everyone, all the time. My children have become my role models, and I have so much to learn from them.

Lord, thank you for helping me recognize that I will never be like you, and that’s OK. Thank you for forgiving me when I’m anything but gentle, for the days when I don’t have the grace to shrug off an insult or the heart to be kind to someone who just needs a smile.

Thank you for the moments when you teach and inspire me through the attitudes of my children and the Beatitudes of my Jesus.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Stories from Nakivale Refugee Camp

Sarah Lambie

There are more than 43.7 million refugees and displaced people in the world according to a recent report by United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). About 27 million of those are displaced within their own countries. The remaining 16 million have fled their own countries in search of safety elsewhere. Around 56,000 of those are living in the Nakivale Refugee Camp in Uganda.

Nakivale Refugee Camp is one of Africa's oldest and largest camps. It is home to mainly women and children – most of whom were forced to flee sexual and gender-based violence or ethnic conflicts in nearby countries like Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The camp is situated about 310 kilometers southwest of Kampala, Uganda’s capital.

Unlike the cool red dirt of central Uganda, the earth under the Nakivale Refugee Camp is hot, cracked and dry. It is the color of west Texas. The hills are strewn with low bushes and sun-scorched shrubs that seem not quite dead, but not quite alive. They’re living on the verge, somewhere in between. Sadly, the inhabitants of this camp seem much the same.

I went to Nakivale on a hot, dusty day in August of this year with an American friend who runs a social enterprise called Open Arms ( Open Arms employs resettled refugees to create apparel items using recycled t-shirts. By offering a living wage, the company helps them avoid the cycle of poverty that refugees often find themselves trapped in after being resettled.

We went to Nakivale so Leslie could gain a better understanding of what a day in the life of a refugee is like and to hear some of the stories behind the stories of the individuals living there. Our first stop was a community hall of sorts in the first “village” we reached within the camp. With nothing but our prayers, words of encouragement and sodas and snacks to offer, we told the people assembled there that, if they were willing, we’d like to take their pictures and hear their stories in order to share them with the rest of the world. Because, as Leslie puts it, “awareness leads to compassion which leads to action.”

After making this proposition, we headed out to a small tree we’d decided to sit under, expecting maybe 4 or 5 women to follow us. To our surprise, when we turned around, we found dozens of ladies standing in a line that wrapped itself around the community hall. Leslie and I were bewildered – why would so many women want to tell their stories – difficult, horrendous, personal stories -- to complete strangers who didn’t have much to offer in return?

Lack of time prevented us from hearing them all, but we did manage to hear the stories of nine women and two men. First hand accounts of rapes, beatings, murders and starvation -- they were indeed difficult stories to stomach. Vile. Horrific. Unthinkable. These were the words that rattled my brain throughout our conversations.

You can only hear so much until you’re unable to process the awfulness of a situation any longer. Keeping myself engaged (and maintaining a pleasant demeanor on my face) wasn't easy; but their sheer determination to share their stories with someone (anyone, apparently) was the only reminder I needed to stay focused. We all know the healing power that sharing a traumatic story can have.

Clearly, many of those we spoke with had never had the chance to share their stories with people who weren’t already consumed with tragic experiences of their own. These people wanted to be heard and understood. They desperately wanted someone to understand their burden and to somehow bear it with them. And so, we listened intently, kept our tears at bay and hung onto every word.

Below are pictures of some of the women we spoke with along with small snippets of their stories. As we promised, Leslie and the Open Arms team will give more detailed accounts of their stories to a larger audience.

The truth is, most of their accounts were very similar. The women living in this particular “village” were all from the Congo. They had all been raped by the military, militias and other rebel groups in the DRC. Many of them were ganged raped and beat for hours on end and have the scars, babies and STDs to prove it. All of them fled on foot through the jungle where many were attacked by militiamen who raped and beat them again. Many of their husbands were shot or beat to death, or near death. Lots of them watched their babies die -- either of an illness, starvation, or by the hands of their attackers. One of the women we spoke with lost 9 of the 11 children she fled the DRC with. Many of the women we spoke with were nursing babies conceived by rape.

All arrived at the Nakivale Refugee Camp seeking safety, shelter, food and protection. Unfortunately, most of them still live in constant fear, have little in the way of shelter and are given barely enough food to survive. The two biggest issues they face in the camp are lack of food and lack of protection. Though they live in what should be by definition a safe refuge, these women are still attacked and raped frequently. Sometimes it happens as they’re returning to the camp after searching for food or firewood just outside the perimeters. Other times it happens within the camp itself.
Gathering curiously around us, the children we encountered had distended bellies and bald spots on their heads. They were hungry, clearly malnourished, and very thirsty.

“We cannot watch our babies die of starvation anymore,” a women told us through our translator. “We have to sneak out of the camp in the night to take water from the muddy puddles that cows drink from. People fight over the water that is there. My neighbor was killed when he tried to take water the other night.”

This was sad considering that as we entered the settlement we saw two bright and shiny boreholes which were meant to serve this community. Like so much of the infrastructure here, the pumps were broken.

We were told time and again about inadequate food rations. According to the men and women we spoke with, once a month they receive 3 kilos (or 6.6 pounds – think 6 bags of flour) of maize flour to make posho, a starchy staple void of much nutrition. In addition, they receive one 300-milliliter soda bottle of cooking oil and about 3 cups of dried beans. That’s it. No matter how large their families are they all get the same amount.

(We later learned that this was not supposed to be the case. The amount of food they receive should correlate with the number of people in each family unit, but the people we met with clearly did not know this and obviously weren’t receiving their fair shares. Whether this was a result of some form of corruption within the camp itself, or simply a mistake on the part of the food distributors, we do not know. What we do know is that these people are undoubtedly starving.) 

When they first arrive at the camps, families are given one small plot of land to farm on so they can become somewhat self-reliant. However, they claimed they were not given any seeds to sow and that the land had been so over-farmed that it was no longer fertile. Lack of water for irrigation is another issue.

(We also later learned that, as part of the camp’s sustainability program, food rations are gradually reduced over time so the refugees have to begin relying more and more on the food they grow on these plots of overworked land.)

Thus, many of the women living in the camp walk far distances each day in search of farmers who will let them work their fields in exchange for a bit of food.

“Sometimes, after working the whole day, I can come home with one or two small pieces of cassava,” (an edible root) one lady said. “Other times, I can come home with nothing.”

It is usually as they walk home, after a long day of digging, that the women are attacked and raped. We heard this over and over again…nearly every women we spoke with claimed to have been raped in or near the camp.

Education, or lack thereof, is another major issue in this camp.

We spoke with a teenager who wanted desperately to attend school, but even though there are several government-run schools in the camp, she can’t find enough money to buy the required supplies, much less to pay the fees required to take exams.

Children played about us obliviously, as children often do. One creative child had made a pinwheel from scraps of paper. Another boy fashioned a pair of big earphones out of what looked like plastic lids from jars and a piece of metal wire. Other than those two inventions, we never saw any toys in Nakivale.
None of them, we were told, attended school because their parents could not afford the supplies required.

At least the children still had smiles on their faces and hope in their eyes. Their parents, so desperate in their daily struggles and constant nightmares of the past, have become too numb to even cry.

“We are treated as animals here, not people,” one mother lamented. “We will die here in this camp,” an older lady named Feliciana exclaimed.

“I need the world to swallow me,” Christina, a wife and mother stated with hollow eyes.

“I am in constant pain. I dream of dying. I wish I were dead,” Esperanze said without even blinking.

Why does it have to be this way? Why are people who have come here seeking safety starving to death? Why are they still the targets of violence and abuse? Where are the security measures to keep them safe? Where is the food and water? Why hasn’t anyone fixed that stupid borehole? Whose responsibility is this anyway?

Why are people languishing away in camps in Uganda and around the world for decades…losing their skills, health and dignity…when they should be set on a trajectory to make it out of the camp and into a self-sustainable existence within a few years?

Those we spoke with yearned to be employed but found themselves in situations where, no matter how hard they tried, they could not find enough work to support their families. You could see the shame that lied beneath the men’s eyes as they discussed their inability to be providers for their families.

The women too, are eager to find jobs that don’t require them to risk their lives as they walked from the camp to nearby fields to beg for work. They want to reclaim their dignity. They want to reclaim their lives.

“I know how to make soap and brooms. If I had the materials I could make these and sell them like I did in Congo,” one young lady told us. But there are no resources available to her, so she spends her day sitting, or digging, or searching for food and water.

Refugees that make it as far as Kampala can go to an incredible NGO called Refuge & Hope ( where, for a nominal fee, they receive language lessons, job training and occasionally, even scholarships. We had a chance to meet with several beneficiaries of Refuge & Hope’s programs. These people inspired hope with their stories of unimaginable suffering followed by recovery and renewal upon obtaining the skills needed to get good jobs.

If the people in this camp only had the means to learn the local language and to acquire job skills needed to find employment in Uganda, their lives would be forever changed. If every refugee camp in the world had a program like Refuge and Hope, millions of lives (like 43 million lives) could be changed forever. Nakivale would have 56,000 fewer men, women and children barely scraping by.

I left the camp with a broken heart, a half-crushed spirit and a sinking sense of helplessness. I’m only one person. What can I do? What can anyone do? This problem is too massive, overwhelming and complicated.

With conflicts in Syria and DRC escalating, the number of people fleeing violence is growing daily. I know the UNHCR, the World Food Program and other refugee-focused organizations are overwhelmed by the needs of displaced peoples and are doing their best to address them.

I have no solution to offer. There is no call-to-action here. Only a prayer in my heart that widespread awareness of this issue will lead to compassion on a massive scale, which will lead to significant action. Actions that will eventually transform refugee camps from the hopeless states of purgatory they’ve become into truly temporary settlements designed to help their inhabitants regain their independence as well as their hope and dignity.

Following are testimonies of some of the women we met with. (I've recently been advised to remove the ladies' photos as it may compromise their privacy, safety and security.)

Please pray for the safety, health and futures of these women and the millions of refugees around the world.

Christina: Christina was raped multiple times by soldiers while living in the Congo. Her parents and relatives were all killed in the Congo. She claims she has also been raped since she arrived at the camp. She had 7 children but lost 5 of them to starvation. She wants the world to swallow her up.

Claudina: Claudina was gang raped by 28 men. She was ripped in such a way that she doesn’t believe any man will ever want to be with her. She contracted HIV and has a child who was conceived during the raping. She is not on meds for the HIV.

Gentile: While in the Congo, Gentile’s parents and husband were killed. She escaped and ran with one child to Uganda. While she was on the run, she was raped repeatedly and conceived another baby. She leaves the camp to look for food daily but often comes home with nothing. Once, as she was returning to camp with her baby on her back, she was raped.

Jaqualina: Jaqualina has a baby that was conceived during a rape. Her parents were killed in the Congo. She and her husband fled with her mother-in-law. After they arrived at Nakivale, her mother-in-law was killed when she left the camp to look for firewood for cooking.

Esperanze: Esperanze fled the Congo with her husband and 8 children. She watched as four of her children were killed by rebels. Her husband was severely beaten and thrown in a pit to die. He survived, escaped the pit and found Esperanze only to be discovered again by the soldiers. They were both beaten so severely that they could not move for four days. She made it to the camp with her husband and four of her children. She and her husband live in constant pain from the injuries thy incurred from the beatings. Esperanze dreams of death often and wishes she was dead.

Feliciana: Feliciana’s husband and 9 of her children were killed in the Congo. Yes, 9. She made it to Uganda with her two surviving children, both daughters. She was shot in the leg by a bullet that when in one side and came out the other. Her two daughters both have babies but don’t know who the fathers are because they both conceived when they were raped. She continues to have faith and hope in God.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Take Heart

Something happened last week that rattled my soul. While driving with a group of friends visiting from Austin, a cop pulled us over. One of the guys was taking pictures and the cop thought we were taking pictures of him. Taking pictures of the police or the army is illegal here. He wanted to take the camera. I took him aside and showed him the pictures on the camera. There were no pictures of the police officer. He continued to badger me and I asked to speak with the officer in charge (OC). We walked across the street and met the OC outside of the nearby police station. The police station and the officers were in aims way of one of the photos on the camera, but there were no pictures of the station or anyone in uniform. He quickly dismissed the problem and happily told me to take my camera and leave.

As I was leaving, I noticed the officer that stopped me was climbing into the driver’s seat of the pick-up truck parked next to me. In the back of that pick-up truck laid a dead man dressed only with a swath of cloth covering his privates. “Don’t look at him,” the OC said. I couldn’t help but stare. He was freshly dead, lifeless. Lying under the bench in the back of the pick-up where the riot police usually sit, covered in dirt like he had been rolled around on the ground. I thought for a moment that he was just sleeping. My brain started racing, just two days ago this man was walking around. He had life in his body, a spirit, a personality. He had no idea that he would soon be dead. He had no idea that all of his friends, his family, his stuff, his hopes, his worries, his future would be taken. He had no idea that he would be dead, in the back of a pick-up truck.

From where you are sitting take a moment. Right now you’re facing your computer screen. We are going to take a journey. Now, slowly start to imagine yourself taking off, away from this screen straight up into the air. As you ascend watch your city become an outline of lights and roads. Keep going up until your country looks the same. Go further until you see the earth from outer space. Keep going and you’ll see the moon by your side as other planets come into scope. As you continue to pull away you’ll see planets revolving around the sun and the bright star is suddenly at the center of our solar system. You are way out in space now looking back on our solar system as is melts into the background of our galaxy. From way out here, earth is just a speck of dust, rotating silently in 24 hour cycles and circling the sun every 365 days. From here you can’t see yourself sitting at that computer anymore. From this place it is quiet and time seems to stand still. From here you can almost take pause and feel peace. As you watch from so far away, you get a new perspective. It might even be calming. Take a moment and just think about it all. All of the time before us and all of the time after us, quietly somewhere down there. The whole galaxy is moving. Time isn’t measured by minutes. Its life isn’t measure by years. The universe is so vast from here, yet everything seems to be moving with order. You can actually realize the greatness and peace of God’s creation and order.

Now, when you’re ready, start heading back to earth. You can go fast if you want, but stop as soon as you get close enough to earth to see the whole planet. A big mass of blue, you’re probably imagining the land mass in your vision to be the continent that you live on. On that speck called earth, rotating slowly are 7 billion people. All 7 billion people going about their business on each and every side of that speck of blue, rotating. Some of the 7 billion are enjoying the sunny side of the speck while the some face away from the sun in the darkness. Somewhere on that speck sits you, unique like a finger print. You have your worries, you have your life, you have your concerns. But, somewhere else on that planet sit millions of people living in fear, living in extreme poverty, living in a country where they have no rights, in displacement camps waiting for someone to come with food. They have no house, no kitchen, no food, no clothes, no job, no education. People living in the middle of a war, people suffering from the corruptions that man made. There are people living in places where they can’t speak their mind or provide for their family. They were made for a purpose, but robbed of their lives. God’s order is wrecked and doesn’t seem to exist for them, but they are also as unique, unique as a finger print.

Okay, now, let’s end this imaginary journey and go back to earth. You’re probably picturing yourself sitting back in front of your computer and now you can get back to your daily routine. But, is that what you want to do? Is this where you want to be? Are you just there because that’s where everybody else seems to be? Do you ever feel like all of the injustice on this planet is better off out of your view? Better when your camera isn’t pointing in that direction? Do you ever feel like you’re just distracting yourself with other things? Ignoring what is tugging at you to make change? Ignoring the things that are wrong? Do you want to land back in the same place?

The dead man in the back of the pick-up truck isn’t waking up. He is limp. It’s still hard to imagine that he is dead. I now realize why the police wanted to take the camera so badly. ”Don’t look at that guy” they tell me again as I stare. I realize I’m in the middle of something that is wrong. I realize that this is just one moment somewhere in the galaxy where God’s intent for perfect order has been corrupted. I realize that humanity is lost. I realize that I’m not always willing make a difference. Sometimes I’m just trying to keep what is wrong out of my view. Sometimes I’m willing to shut up and walk away. I want to ignore these things. I’m not pointing a camera at the things that are wrong. I’m not making an impact.

I’m just staring at a dead man.

But, I have to change. We all have to change and fix what's wrong.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Almost famous, but definitely infamous. by sarah

I didn’t intend to write about this, but with all the questions and comments we’ve received about the Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” campaign it seems it might be time to contribute my two-cents to this conversation.

But before I tell you how I really feel, let me state for the record that I have supported the Invisible Children in the past. I’ve participated in the rallies, I’ve “liked” them on Facebook and I’ve bought the t-shirts. The Invisible Children deserve to be recognized as one of the greatest advocacy groups of our generation. They did a brilliant job of shedding light on the atrocities Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army committed in Uganda. They were fantastic at mobilizing the masses to put pressure on congress to support measures to make ending the conflict a priority. They have contributed a good deal of funds to education and economic development initiatives in Gulu. And from a marketer’s perspective, the Invisible Children are a shining example of how organizations can harness the power of social media to achieve advocacy goals.

Let’s be honest here. Who of us even knew who or what the LRA was before the Invisible Children? For that matter, who really even knew where Uganda was? They put Uganda on the map and the LRA on the radar of important decision makers as well as thousands of young Americans eager to make a difference in the world.

To their credit, the IC succeeded in achieving some very ambitious goals:

1) Inspiring America’s youngsters to help end the war in northern Uganda: Done. The war in Northern Uganda is over. As for inspiring the young to get involved, find me one American college student who hasn’t seen an IC film, participated in a rally, or sent an email or signed the form letter intended for their congressman/woman.

2) Pressuring the US government to make ending this conflict a priority: Mission accomplished. 100 American troops were sent to hunt Kony down a few months ago.

No doubt, governments need to continue being pressured to support efforts to find Kony and put an end to the heinous crimes the LRA has committed for once and for all. Yet that does not appear to be the true aim of Kony 2012. For some inexplicable reason, the campaign goal of Kony 2012 is to make Kony famous.

Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t he already infamous? The International Criminal Court has named Kony one of their most wanted criminals for crimes including the rape, mutilation and murder of civilians as well as forcibly recruiting child soldiers. We have troops actively working with African troops to hunt this monster down. Celebrities and influencers around world are decrying his deeds. Those affected by his militia will never forget him.

So what exactly is the point of making Kony more famous?

Have the IC considered the negative ramifications that making Kony more famous could have on the very children they aim to want to help? Don’t psychopath’s thrive on notoriety? Could this campaign embolden him to become an even bigger and more brutal monster? If he’s not emboldened, perhaps the increased pressure of being “famous” will compel him to beef up his defenses by killing, maiming and kidnapping even more civilians.

IC’s latest documentary and campaign is nothing short of an opportunistic ploy to take a victory lap for what’s been accomplished to date and to sell more t-shirts.

The release of the film and Cover the Night campaign is also an exceedingly irresponsible tactic when you consider the negative impact it could have (by compelling Kony to bolster his numbers) and when you consider the outdated and inaccurate portrayal of Gulu today in this film. (FYI, Gulu and other villages in the north that were once at the mercy of the LRA have lived in considerable peace since the LRA was driven out of the country in 1996. While there is still much to be done in the way of recovery and development in northern Uganda, it is relatively peaceful today, though you wouldn’t know it from the portrayal of Gulu in the IC’s film.)

The timing of this campaign is way off. Had they launched it before 100 American troops landed here, it may have worked. Had they portrayed northern Uganda in this new film in a more accurate and realistic light, it might have been credible. Had they nixed the whole “lets make Kony famous” deal, it could have made sense. Had their call-to-action been to support relief and development in northern Uganda or to provide counseling and rehabilitation services to the victims of the crimes Kony committed in Uganda, Congo, Sudan and CAR, I would have gotten on board. I would have bought another bracelet and put up a few posters myself.

But instead, I see an organization that is struggling to keep itself relevant. I see an organization whose real motive seems to be to make itself famous.

While there are undoubtedly hundreds who have benefited from IC’s investments in education and economic development initiatives, there are many others who see this campaign as an attempt to profiteer from their misery. (See

That may not be the reality, but from what we’ve seen, heard and read here in Uganda, it’s certainly the perception of many living in northern Uganda today.

I don't believe IC is a bad organization, but I think they definitely pushed the envelop too far with this last campaign. Before you jump on the Kony 2012 bandwagon I’d suggest you consider the impact (both good and bad) such a campaign could have on civilians in Kony’s path. I’d also encourage you to explore locally-driven initiatives that are offering meaningful and lasting solutions to the issues plaguing the affected areas today, as opposed to the issues that plagued them 5 years ago.

If you’re interested in digging deeper, here are a few more examples of Ugandan’s perceptions of the Kony 2012 campaign:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

HIV, MARPs, MSMs and Other Fun Acronyms

Hi friends. It's me, Sarah. And since I'm not working at the moment (unless you call cheuffering and taking care of five kids work) I thought I'd fill you in on some of the more exciting projects I've worked on lately. Here's one from Aug./Sept. 2011:

Aug. 31, 2011 text exchange between Scott and I. (I was in Nairobi and Scott was at home in Uganda):

Sarah: Hello. Everything ok? How come you never text me?
Scott: Hi Sweet Girl. Thanks for checking in. I’m busy with these 500 children. Oh, and also killing the rats…
Sarah: Killing rats? Awesome! Fantastic! I’ve been interviewing male sex workers all day. Trying to film them on the streets now.
Scott: WHAT????
Sarah: Yeah, I luv this job! Was in a brothel this morning. Good times! The NGO I’m working with targets MARPS for HIV/STD testing & prevention. Will interview truck drivers in the morning!

I do love my work. In August 2010 I started working as an independent communications consultant in Kampala. For a year or so I had a contract with a John Snow Inc. program called Technical Assistance to the New Partners Initiative, or TA-NPI. True, it may not have the catchiest name, but it certainly is an innovative program. TA-NPI is a project designed to support non-governmental organizations (NGOs) receiving funding from the U.S. government. Through this project, I’ve had the opportunity to work in 5 countries with 6 amazing organizations that are tackling HIV/AIDS in truly unique and inspiring ways.

If you grew up in a 1st world country, you probably were educated time and again about HIV, how it’s contracted, how to avoid it and so on. I can still remember the first time I heard about the disease…it was sometime in the 80s. I was watching Oprah and she was interviewing a very courageous young woman who went public with the fact that she was HIV+. She had contracted it during a dental procedure.

Suddenly, it seemed, AIDS went from being a taboo disease that was only contracted through sex to something that anyone could get anywhere, no matter how young or innocent.

Debates broke out about whether or not HIV+ children should be aloud to attend public schools. School nurses pulled on their latex gloves before tending to scrapes or pulling teeth. Information about condoms and “safe sex” became prevalent in and out of school.

Although there are still pockets of ignorance throughout the states and the west, for the most part, it seems we’ve received a sound education on what HIV/AIDS is, what it is not (as in, it is not a disease that only affects gay men and prostitutes) and how it can be avoided. Some of us have heard so much about it we may even suffer from a bit of AIDS fatigue at this point.

Unfortunately, a lot of education still needs to be done here in Africa to combat both the spread of HIV/AIDS and the stigma that often comes with it. Although it’s certainly not a common belief, there are some here who believe (thanks to the advice of their friendly neighborhood witch doctor) that a sure fire way to rid themselves of the disease is by having unprotected sex with a virgin. There is a tribe in South Africa that, according to tradition, stipulates that the young men who undergo the ceremonial circumcision that marks their transition to manhood must have sex within 24 hours of the circumcision. And more often than not, the tribes who practice circumcision rites (male or female) use the same blade on all the youngsters participating in the initiation.

But probably the greatest contributor to high HIV rates in Africa is unprotected sex, which can be attributed to, in some cases, sheer ignorance, and in other cases to a lack of condoms. In fact, just a few months ago, one of the clinics I work with in Kenya told me there was a condom shortage in the country.

The simple truth is, many African populations have yet to be exposed to the kind of in-your-face safe sex anti-AIDS campaigns many of us from the west grew up with. And because of this, HIV rates are still high and HIV/AIDS-related stigma is an enormous reality.

Through my work with JSI, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of African-based NGO’s that are working to change this.

One of those organizations is NOPE (pronounced no pay). (I know the name doesn’t make sense from where you are but trust me, it works here.) Kenyan-based, NOPE is working to improve the health of the country’s most at-risk populations, or MARPs, by providing them with sexual health and social services, among other things. MARPs can include anyone who’s at a high risk for contracting HIV and hard-to-reach due to where or how they live.

NOPE’s target MARPs include homosexuals, sex workers (both male and female) and truck drivers.

Sex workers are at a higher risk for HIV for obvious reasons. Having been stigmatized by the community for their line of work (which -- in a country with a 40%+ unemployment rate* and where most people live on less than $1 a day** – may be the best work option they can find) sex workers are often apprehensive about seeking testing or treatment from clinics where nurses or doctors may refuse to serve them or chastise and humiliate them.

Homosexuals in Kenya (and throughout Africa) are at high risk because they’re often uninformed about the risks or unable to afford condoms. In Kenya, where homosexuality is outlawed and taboo (as it is in Uganda and many other African nations) many are afraid to seek sexual health services from a clinic and therefore don’t have access to HIV/STD testing and prevention counseling.

Meanwhile, it’s believed that truck drivers are more likely to employ the services of prostitutes since they lead such transient lives – on the road during the day and in truck stops at night – making it difficult to maintain long-term, monogamous relationships. They’re hard-to-reach because they’re constantly on the move, working under tight deadlines to haul truckloads of cargo from one destination to another.

So how does an organization like NOPE reach homosexuals, sex workers and truck-drivers in Kenya? Simple. They employ what they call “peer mobilizers” – other gay people, former sex workers and truck-drivers who have been trained to approach MARPs in the places they’re likely to be (i.e. brothels, gay bars, truck stops and other “hot spots”) to provide them with condoms, counseling and testing and information about the health services available to them.

It’s actually a brilliant approach. As a genuine peer, a NOPE counselor is naturally in a better position to gain the trust of a MARP because he/she shares a similar background and is therefore more sensitive and understanding of their needs. A male prostitute is more likely to listen to the advice of a former male prostitute than someone who doesn’t truly understand his lifestyle and the challenges he’s facing. A connection can be made quickly and trust can be established shortly thereafter.

Once that trust has been gained, the counselor can refer the person to a nearby MARP-friendly clinic run by NOPE. There, they can receive HIV/STD counseling, testing and treatment services. The folks at the NOPE clinics will also work with the sex-workers to help them find jobs in other fields if they’re interested.

In order to make these services as convenient and accessible as possible, the clinics are strategically located near MARP “hot spots.” For example, a NOPE clinic might be located in the same building as a brothel, across the street from the gay bar or inside a truck stop. And since they stay open late, a new prospect can walk straight from the bar and into a clinic late in the night and still receive services.

Currently, NOPE has 7 clinics that it operates with the help of two other African NGO’s -- Hope Worldwide Kenya and I Choose Life Africa. These are complemented by 3 safe places that serve as venues for group counseling sessions and meetings.

Here are a few short videos we developed that do a better job of explaining who NOPE is, what they do and their unique approach. (They’ll also explain what I was doing in Kenyan brothels and truck stops.)

The NOPE clinics have been an enormous success. Within just a few short years of opening the clinics had already registered 7,215 clients including 6,197 sex workers, 889 men having sex with men (MSMs) and 129 truckers as of July 2011. Of these numbers:

a. 5,584 patients had received health education, HIV counseling services and STD screenings.
b. 7,202 went on to be tested for HIV, including 4,572 sex workers, 696 MSMs, 558 truckers and 1,254 of their partners.
c. 683 went on to accept training in entrepreneurship, 122 were trained in vocational skills and 647 received assistance in developing business plans. Additionally, 59 table groups (informal investment/savings groups) were formed, with 25 businesses receiving support and 146 individuals receiving career support through the program.
d. 329,532 condoms were distributed through the clinics and peer counselors.
e. All 7,215 were counseled on stigma and discrimination, alcohol and drug abuse as well as gender based violence.

In addition to providing health and social services, each clinic and satellite center has become an informal setting for homosexuals and sex workers to hang out and socialize because it’s one of the few places they can do so freely, without feeling threatened or shunned.

As I stated earlier, homosexuality is outlawed in many African countries and is often condemned as being "un-African" - a 'disease' imported from the West. In some traditional beliefs, homosexuals are thought to be cursed or bewitched. Though rarely enforced, punishment in Kenya for gay sex is five to 14 years in jail.

In Kenya gay people have found a place of acceptance in the NOPE’s clinics. Unfortunately, homosexuals in Kenya, Uganda and many other countries are still shunned by the church and other
religious institutions. Rather than opening their doors to all of God’s children, many churches here are so openly opposed to homosexuality they chase gays away before they even reach their doors. In doing so, they’ve further stigmatized and rejected many of those who are HIV+ in their communities, gay or not.

In Uganda, it was a well-known pastor who lobbied for the anti-gay bill that caught the world’s attention with its clause to make homosexual defilement punishable by death. (BTW, This was largely misunderstood and promoted by the international media as a law trying to make the act of gay sex itself punishable by death.)

We are all sinners and as I understand it, God pretty much sees all sins as equal. So why should homosexuals be any less welcome to worship in a church than any other sinner in this world. It seems to me that a pastor who honestly believes he can actually preach the gayness out of a person would do better to welcome them into their sanctuary with open arms, demonstrating the love and grace of God, than to chase them away. The same would logically apply to prostitutes, those who employ the services of prostitutes, drug addicts, alcoholics and anyone else whose practices aren’t in line with the church’s values (which pretty much means all of us.)

Anti-gay preachers, churches and religious institutions could learn a lot from organizations like NOPE. Laws, stigmatization, ignorance and anger don’t change attitudes. Love and compassion do. The kind of love and compassion that Christ showed the poor, the sick, the beggars and the lepers. And that love must be rooted in trust and nurtured into relationships.

Of course, NOPE doesn’t aim to make homosexuals straight, but by earning the trust of those they serve they are achieving their goal of reducing HIV/AIDs among their targeted MARP groups.



Saturday, October 1, 2011

Our Home In Austin

Yes, blogs coming out in random order make for a more interesting puzzle. So, our house burned down in Austin. I received a text message from Sarah's brother at about 5:30AM a few weeks ago, "Steiner Ranch is on fire", or something like that. Facebook is by far the best way to get news. We watched some streaming local news for a while and they didn't know a thing. I put a post out on Facebook asking about my address and within ten minutes someone posted a video of our house burning. That video went on to find fame on CNN and most of the local news channels.
We had renters in the house, great renters. They barely made it out of the house with their dogs and lost most of their belongings. They had graciously allowed us to use the attic space in the garage that helped us to stay out of a storage unit. We keep remembering the things that we had stored in the attic that now amount to ash. But, we didn't really get sad.
The insurance company has been responsive and our friends and family have jumped into action to help us deal with everything.
It was a great street of neighbors and a great neighborhood.

The Village

Last week we were at city hall meeting with our probation officer about Hope's adoption. On our way out, we saw a young girl in rags just standing around. We asked about her situation. She had been sleeping under a counter at the police station for two weeks and the probation officer was trying to find her a place to stay. I went over to talk to her and she just broke down in tears. Her story really stirred me and I looked at Sarah and she gave the nod. We're not sure how Vanessa fits into the picture, but bringing her home was the only thing to do. We'll see where this one goes, but she is happy and safe and the rest of the kids have accepted her into the family.