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

 

Advocacy is not all it seems

This week’s writer is Janessa Mann, Advocacy Research Intern in the Ottawa Office. 

In the global north, advocacy is often held up as a way to fight for justice in the global south, and a way for students to be active in the political sphere. As I found out reading Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism (Zed Books. 2015), advocacy is not all it seems.

Advocacy in Conflict

Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism. Edited by Alex de Waal. Zed Books, 2015.

The book, edited by Alex de Waal, is a compilation of essays on specific advocacy campaigns and their unintended consequences—consequences that we do not often question or even notice. The book focuses primarily on Western advocates and how they have impacted communities in the global south with their efforts. The essays challenge the dominant discourse by creating dialogue about the “misrepresentations and inadequacies of advocacies” (p. viii).

I found this book very interesting, because it exposed new truths that I had not previously known about specific advocacy movements. I recommend it for MCC programmers, students, and activists — to renew your desire to fight for justice.

The central argument of the book is that advocacy should be responsible, with the people most affected by the conflict leading the advocacy movements. For advocacy campaigns to be effective and promote sustainable development, they must be “more self-reflective and accountable to the people and the evolving situations they represent” (p. 1). As one example, the writers of the book explored the negative impacts of Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign, which highlighted the violent actions of Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony.  The organization encouraged students to get activist kits to pressure the US Congress to stop Kony, but did not encourage students to think about agency for Africans or any negative impacts that might result from their efforts.

Within the introduction, the writers ask some very interesting questions about advocacy campaigns. Do advocates in the global north have the right to propose solutions to global south problems, based on their perspectives? How can advocacy groups be involved in development work? How can we reconcile academic knowledge with practical activism? Is it ethical to use celebrities as “bridge characters” for activist issues (p. 5)? These questions are all then answered in the following chapters with varied examples.

This book gives an in-depth analysis of specific transnational campaigns, their achievements, and ethical challenges. It incorporates global south perspectives on the dominant discourse of advocacy, illustrating that programming often does not address local knowledge effectively. One of the chapters discusses Global Witness’ shaming of companies using products made from conflict minerals in DR Congo.

The international campaign focused on policy-based evidence, making use of a specific narrative that did nothing to reduce violence in the DRC. Advocates didn’t know that their boycotting and protests would cause many Congolese to lose their jobs, as well as increase smuggling. The Congolese population, as well as academics, were able to predict this outcome, which shows that transnational advocates were not effectively investigating the consequences of their actions.

Uganda school

Students at Kiroba Primary  School, near Kamuli, Uganda.  MCC supports students affected by HIV/AIDS.  MCC photo/Lynn Longenecker

Advocacy in Conflict provides a fresh perspective on transnational advocacy, urging activists to educate themselves on situations before becoming involved. I feel encouraged in MCC’s work that there are so many people involved (especially the Ottawa Office) in ensuring we know as much of the story as we can, to provide constructive, sustainable, and ethical advocacy work in our programming. The work is rooted in program work, our relationship with partners, and their experience.

The biggest takeaway from the book was that advocacy is not effective if it does not integrate diverse perspectives, consider stakeholders’ priorities, and make appropriate “asks” of policy-makers.