Africa through new lenses

This week’s guest writer is Patrick Handrigan. Patrick is a grade 12 student at O’Donel High School in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland where he is active in a wide range of social justice initiatives.

Last summer I had the amazing opportunity to become a better global citizen.

I joined three other  Atlantic Canadian youth, plus five Alberta students, in a three-week youth learning tour to Uganda with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), in cooperation with the Alberta and Atlantic Councils for International Cooperation. The tour was called ACT 4 Global Change. While in Uganda, we visited MCC partners who are working to bring about positive change through peaceful initiatives.

During one of our final group debrief activities, we were asked to relate something we saw, felt, or heard on the trip to a symbol on a die. The pair of glasses that I rolled became a symbol that represented my new vision of Africa.

Uganda group

The group of Canadian students who visited Uganda. Photo credit Leah Attarh

Many Canadians believe that the African continent is the nucleus of poverty, famine, political unrest and conflict. My own closed-minded views of Uganda and its people concerned me and added an element of unease to my travels. The continuous media images of a violent region had me believing that I was going to land in a -plagued zone. But I was wrong. On landing in Uganda, I was greeted with smiles, open arms, and a genuine happiness for my visit. I didn’t expect such a warm reception 10,000 km away from my home in Newfoundland.

After arriving at the Entebbe airport in Uganda, we traveled five hours by bus to Kamuli, a small town in the eastern part of the country. AIDS Education Group for Youth (AEGY) is an organization working within the community to promote the education and the de-stigmatization of HIV/AIDS. They offer support groups, school courses, radio talk shows, and health services to people needing them, with support from MCC.

In our first day in Kamuli, we worked with AEGY to build eco-stoves from clay which allowed for proper kitchen ventilation to reduce the risk of lung-related illnesses of people living with HIV. This unique architectural consideration in a simple family dwelling not only made their homes safe, but gave the community a sense of ownership, pride and self-reliance. Our visit concluded with dancing, singing and lunch with the Namasambya 1 Village Savings and Loans Association, a visit to the Peer Support Clubs at Kasambira High School, and a community game of soccer and netball with teens.

AEGY Stoves (Leah Ettarh)

Students assist in building AEGY eco-stoves. Photo credit Leah Attarh.

The next day, we made a visit to Nakulyako Primary School to observe the RUMPS (Reusable Menstrual Products) club in action. Prior to this program, female students were unable to attend school while on their menstrual cycle, but with support from MCC, this new program evolved. Male classmates fully supported and actively participated in this venture, and understood its importance to a better future for Ugandan women. This is a huge step forward for women’s rights and educational equality in Uganda.

In Kampala, African Leadership and Reconciliation Missions (ALARM) works for  peace between boda-boda (motorcycle) drivers and the local police. At our visit to the police barracks, we learned about peace club initiatives that promote respectful dialogue.

At Mengo Hospital, we met Dr. Edith Namulema, who is responsible for the Counselling and Home Care Clinic and coordinates the peer support group. This group provides medical and counselling services for teens living with HIV. Our team joined the group for a session and connected through eating, dancing, and sharing stories. From the support of MCC, the hospital is expecting the completion of a new clinical wing.

Stella Matutina - Sister Sophia and I (Louise Hanavan)

Patrick Handrigan with Sister Sophia of the Stella Matutina All Girls Secondary School. Photo credit Louise Hanavan.

We were welcomed with open arms at Stella Matutina All Girls Secondary School in Kiryandongo. This school was founded in 2001 during the reign of the Lord’s Resistance Army and provided a safe-haven and an education to girls affected by the war. Under Sister Sophia’s leadership, students performed a comedic spin-off of Cinderella and a somber, more informative play about malaria and its effects on the community. We enjoyed a meal together and spent the afternoon playing volleyball, soccer, racing Sister Sophia in a 100m dash, and teaching the Macarena to the girls–a truly wonderful way to spend my last few days in Uganda.

Our visit to Soroti gave us the opportunity to see a different geographical landscape and the challenges that persist with living within this region. Action for Peace and Development (APED) supports conservation agricultural community initiatives that create jobs and peace within Soroti District. They follow a method of “Farming God’s Way” which teaches them to respect the earth and not destroy its natural beauty. Church of Uganda in the Teso Region (COU-TEDDO) taught us the importance of agriculture in peacekeeping and the impact climate change is having on this region. We celebrated the first rain in many months together.

Youth, as global citizens, are the catalysts for change in today’s world. We have a responsibility to ignite a paradigm shift in how Africa is portrayed in our society. Learning not to judge an entire country or continent by a news headline is a critical way to increase global understanding. Building positive relationships with that country, in turn, will  assist in the country’s educational, economic, political and social development.

Because of my learning experience, I see Uganda – and Africa — through new lenses.

“If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together.” — Kenyan proverb

 

The weak made strong – girls as agents of peace in South Sudan

By Candacia Greeman of South Sudan who is working as a teacher/teacher mentor with MCC at the Loreto Girls Secondary School. Candacia shares a powerful story of hope in advance of Africa Day on Thursday, May 25.  She also supplied the photographs.

It can be hard to have hope for South Sudan, and even harder to have hope in South Sudan. Daily news reports featuring the world’s newest country are filled with words like famine, civil war, rape and genocide. But that is not the whole story. In the midst of the political and economic turmoil facing the country, pockets of hope exist.

At the Loreto Girls Secondary School (LGSS) in Rumbek, a rural region in South Sudan, MCC is helping young women to promote peace in their communities through the Loreto Peace Club.  This is one of many peace clubs across Africa supported by MCC, and is based on the girls’ experience with the Peace Club Handbook produced by MCC Zambia.

These girls represent one of the most vulnerable populations in South Sudan. They are at-risk for early/forced marriage and pregnancy in a country where a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than she is to complete primary school. As the situation in the country deteriorates, these girls are more likely to be forced into marriage to improve the family’s economic condition through their dowries. In spite of these daunting odds, they are actively working for peace while pursuing a secondary education.

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Some sources of conflict/trauma in my community are misunderstanding, revenge [killings], elopement of girls and tribalism. [Through peace club activities] I have learned about how to stay together, how to be generous, forgiveness and reconciliation. During this term, my brother and sister [who are older than me] quarreled at home and they even swore not to forgive each other. My sister decided to run away so I started with her, telling her the importance of forgiveness. Then I did the same with my brother. They listened and now they have forgiven each other. –  Elizabeth, LGSS student

While at school, the girls receive training in peace building, conflict resolution and trauma healing. Using this knowledge, they facilitate outreach events to the local community with a focus on women and children, groups that are usually excluded from decision-making during conflict. The peace club hosts an annual Peace Day celebration for local primary school children, an event filled with sports, dancing and music. For older students and adults, a solemn evening Peace Concert is held to reflect on the lives of those lost to conflict and to encourage discussions on peace in the community. The club also facilitates cultural presentations for the community that use drama, poetry, song and dance to explore topics such as revenge killings and blood feuds and forgiveness.

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

When someone was killed and it was not we who were responsible but our houses were burnt, I was there all alone. I am the only person in my family, everyone is dead except for my brother who takes care of me. [Through Listening Circles] I have learned how to open up. If you have stress, whatever has happened to you will not go away. Now that I have come here, for a while, the stress has gone away. It is forgotten. I also learned how to approach someone if I have stress, how to share. It [Listening Circles] has given me hope that somebody somewhere cares for me to invite me to come to this. It will help me to survive. After it [the burning of the homes] happened, the school gave us food but now they also give us help for our heads. – Mary, local woman from Rumbek

After a workshop on trauma healing in 2016, the Loreto Peace Club members were inspired to share the strategies they had learned with other members of the community. In response to an incident of inter-communal conflict, the club started Listening Circles,a rapid response trauma support resource. Listening Circles were held to help local women who had been forced to burn their own homes by armed groups, and to provide grief support for primary school children after the loss of their schoolmates. They comprise groups of 5-20 participants with 2-3 facilitators depending on the age and/or gender of the participants. Participants form a circle or semi-circle and are guided through a range of activities focused on trauma healing for 45-120 minutes.

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students_2

With the knowledge I gained in the [trauma healing] training, I was able to help in conflict resolutions. For example, during my holidays, I was assigned as peace mobilizer in which I approached and talked to some elders about the long conflict between two clans of Pan-aguong and Pan-awur in Cueibet. With the knowledge I have gained I was able to convince the elders and the youth and now they are living in peace. What I was telling them were the dangers of revenge killing and dangers of conflict .I detailed to them until they all understood the fruit of living in peace. This was in January 2017.  – Jennifer, Loreto Peace Club member

The Loreto Peace Club members are selected for membership based on an interest in peace making or prior involvement in conflict at the school. During their participation in the club, many girls report on their personal growth and their efforts at peace building not only at school but in their home communities as well. Driven by the credo, Peace begins with me, the Loreto Peace Club members exemplify the strength and resilience of the South Sudanese people.

They are a source of hope for South Sudan, and a reason to hope in South Sudan.

Loreto Peace Club members

Loreto Peace Club members

A prayer for refugees and displaced persons

This week’s reflection is written by Steve Plenert, peace program coordinator for MCC Manitoba. 

Context: 

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees says that there are over 50 million refugees around the world currently. That is considerably more than the entire population of Canada. In Lebanon 1 out of every 5 people in the country is a Syrian refugee. There are huge needs within the refugee community there, but there is also significant tension and resentment among the host people too. Their services are overmatched, their jobs are threatened, their patience and compassion are being stretched beyond capacity at times.  Boatloads of people cross the Mediterranean everyday, full of people fleeing violence in a number of Northern African countries.There is considerable political pressure to not do too much to help these people. There are many other contexts, all equally complex and potentially devastating.

Iraq IDP

Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, we remember that in your infancy you were a refugee. The political leaders of your country sought to end your life as an infant. Your parents took you to another country in secret. We don’t know, dear Lord, how long you had to stay there.

Help us, O Lord, to grow in compassion for those who are displaced from their homes in our day. Help us not to see them only as problems, statistics or threats. Help us to see refugees as fellow humans who have been forced to flee their homes.

O God, we know refugees and displaced persons must make excruciating decisions, and we ask for your mercy upon them. We ask for mercy for parents who take children from their homes. Mercy for children who leave parents too weak to travel. Mercy for those who choose to stay for whatever reasons and who live with severe consequences for those choices. We ask for mercy for those whose housing is inadequate – cold in winter, hot in summer, insufficient for privacy or hygiene or satisfaction. Have mercy on your children who have left their homes, O Lord.

O God, we know – sometimes too well – the causes of displacement and migration. We pray for the situations that have led to the refugee crises in our world. We pray for those who promote extremist ideologies, that they would change their ways and not choose violence. We pray for repressive regimes, that they would seek to engage people in building freedom. We pray for human smugglers and traffickers who prey upon those who have fled their homes, that they may stop victimizing the fearful and vulnerable.

Help us O Lord, to be compassionate and to know how we can help those who have been displaced. Help us to know when it is time for humanitarian relief, when it is time for resettlement, and when advocacy for peace and change is what is needed most. Give us courage and strength to be people of compassion and justice in the face of complex and overwhelming demands.

We know that you love all people, dear Lord.  Help us to be the instruments of your love and peace in the world.  Amen.