Category Archives: Africa Connections

The First Decade: From Long Island to Kampala to Brooklyn

At the Source of the Nile River in Jinja, Uganda, where some of Gandhi's ashes are scattered.

Hey all, whether you are in Brooklyn, Wisconsin, Uganda, or Kenya, I really wish you a blessed new year in 2010!

This year was one of the most challenging of my life– but also the most rewarding.  Many times I felt as if I had slammed my head
or fell over my feet (both metaphorically and in the real sense!), and other times I prayed for a crystal ball that would let me go back in time.
Do things differently.

I can’t say this enough- Hindsight is 20/20.  Hindsight is 20/20.  But mistakes offer the most powerful lessons of all.  In many ways, I entered 2010 with
a gigantic blindfold over my eyes, and had to let reality be my teacher.  I realized I was scrappier than I ever imagined, but simultaneously blessed
in more ways than I could fathom.

I enjoyed writing at New Vision this year.

2009 was a year of writing for Women’s eNews, Saturday/New Vision, and the New York Post.  It was a year I began in Jackson Heights, Queens, shifted to Brooklyn, moved to Kampala, returned for respite in Long Island, and relocated back to Brooklyn.  It was my first year that I was not in school.  Where my interview subjects ranged from the president of the Kampala ghetto (with a cabinet, no less!) to Felix Kulayigye, Manhattan garage owners, NYPD officers, bicyclists, colon cleansing patients near the Old Taxi Park (I kid you not), and a woman who survived living with HIV, a white blood cell count of 0, poverty, and cancer– but now weighs 80 kilograms, runs a support group for discordant couples at Mulago Hospital’s Infectious Disease Unite, and has reunited with her husband.  Her name is Zam.

It was a year of launching the Ugandans Abroad website and social networking site, and making our first e-commerce store at our Africa Connections ebay website.  I used all sorts of proxy sites to access Facebook at New Vision, tweeted quite a bit, started this blog, and temped at Iconix.

I got horrific food poisoning at Shell Club, was cheated dramatically Abii Clinic in Wandegaya, and attacked by bugs in New York’s Central and Highbridge Park.  When I would cough in Uganda, people feared I had swine flu.  I began paying back my students loans in June.  I skyped a bit, but mainly used gmail chat
as my favorite form of communication.

My father gave me a red Blackberry Curve for Christmas, allowing me to file from the field.  It was definitely an upgrade from my kiboko phone.  Or is it a
kikumi phone? I can’t remember.

To go further back… I spent New Year’s 1998/9, ten years ago, in Sayville.  I was 13 years old, and went to an awful laser show with my then step-brothers.
I was in eight grade (S2 for my Ugandan readers!), and had glasses, stringy brown hair, and pants that were too short for my rapidly growing legs.  My favorite past times were chatting on AOL instant messenger, drinking Mountain Dew, playing Mario Kart and Sim City 2, as well as Grand Theft Auto.

In 2000, I moved back to Oyster Bay, where I enjoyed history lessons, diatribes about Hillary Clinton (haha well maybe not that part! My family and I are lifelong Democrats), and learning about ancient Greece & Rome from Mr. Levorchick.  During a world history moment on Africa (an afternoon’s worth of coverage in 4 years of high school), I nearly blew off the assignment, disinterested in ancient Mali.  I lived in Karen Court, and did spring track with Grace and Stephanie.  I was awful at the 200 meter, but at least I got in pretty good shape.  I took my first and only photography class with Mrs. Crowley, who was terrified of peanut butter but loved my photos and writing.  The key quote from her is- “Has anyone seen a lens cap?” It was when Mrs. DiMaggio was Mrs. Scudieri, and I tried to get through Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens.

My city of ruin...

In 2001, there was 9-11.  My biology teacher, Mr. Billelo (spelling?) told us that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, and we turned on the radio.  I figured it was an awful accident, then saw my best friend Stephanie in the hall.  I told her, and she gave me a startled look.  Mr. Rose, our history teacher,

told us that two planes had hit the World Trade Center, and the White House was on fire, the Pentagon attacked.  We thought he was kidding.  Mark Mitchell burst into stunned laughter.  Classmates began calling their parents who worked in the New York City.  I came home to my teary father, who hugged me and paced around the living room, devastated.  We went with a friend of his he had been seeing to a temple the next day to grieve.  On September 12th, there was a terrible smell of decay.  Only a week before, my friends and I had attended a boat tour of the NYC skyline for my friend Lisa’s sweet 16– the last time we would ever see the city whole.  I was writing for my high school newspaper, and we debated what to put in the next issue.  What should be our focus? Our teachers refused to turn on the televisions to keep calm, but students went to computer labs that week to download images of the crumbled towers.

In 2002, I took the PSAT, AP exams, and had my first boyfriend (no comment, but tragically, he loved anime, a type of Japanese animation).  He fetishized East Asian women (I hate the idea of racial/ethnic fetishes- shudder!), and dumped me for a Korean girl, hoping she would be “submissive.”  Glad that relationship didn’t survive! I looked him up on facebook, and found him overweight with long, greasy brown hair to his waist, working in IT.

Joshing Around in College

In 2003, I proudly served as my school newspaper’s features editor, and applied to colleges, a mess of anxiety.  I was accepted early decision into Sarah Lawrence, and felt more dread than excitement about university life.  In 2004, I finished up my freshman year in a difficult semester, full of drama and disappointment.  I joined facebook– back when just a few universities could participate! That summer, I interned at the Anti-Violence Project, and was fired from IHOP for being a shitty waitress.  I handed out copies of my poetry chapbook to my office coworkers.

In 2005, I took economics, history, and had a difficult summer at home.  The following year, in 2006, I spent the summer interning at the U.N.  I lived in the Columbia dorms (hey- where Barack Obama went to college! yay), and hung out with my friends who lived nearby in International house.  In 2007, I traveled to Uganda and Rwanda for the first time for a study abroad program with Makerere University, living with Ugandan host families in Kampala (Kanyanya) and Busia.  My life has never been the same since then.

Studying Abroad in Uganda, 2007...

That fall, I began my master’s in journalism.  While I had been in Uganda, I debated whether to go into international relations, development studies or journalism after getting accepted into three different master’s programs.  My heart was in journalism, so for better or worse (I didn’t realize the extent of problems in the industry), I began my new, exciting life at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism– community board meetings in Queens, living at International House with Adeola, Nadia, and other amazing friends, and (not) doing ballroom dancing or salsa (I have two left feet, to put it mildly!).

24 and with a master's degree in journalism! Graduation- Me, Jeff Jarvis.

Through CUNY, I got a grant from the Knight Foundation to intern at New Vision, and ended up going back to the English daily to work after graduation.  I also got a grant from CUNY to start my Ugandans Abroad website and Africa Connections company, which launched at the end of November.

I have no idea what the next decade will bring.  Journalism? Marriage? East Africa? New York? Someplace entirely new? Children?

God, I am staying tuned… please love and protect me in these years ahead.
Surround me in your love, and help me to grow as a person, writer, journalist, daughter and friend.

Love,

Becky

Where I will be for my 25th birthday?

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Ugandan Gen. Admits the IDP Camps Were Part of UG Military Strategy: A Bombshell Dropped (Literally)

It was a Friday night in Brooklyn, in my apartment that’s a mix of memories from New York and East Africa.  Ugandan crafts, earrings, and scarves liven up my otherwise typical New York journo-bedroom: books, magazines, newspapers, too many cans of diet soda, a dirty gray, much-loved laptop, with the letters wearing off.  I was waiting for a friend to visit, decompressing after a week of excitement writing for Women’s eNews, the New York Post, and working on stuff for my diaspora news company, Africa Connections.  Out of habit, I quickly scanned the latest headlines on the Kampala-based Independent’s website, and scanned a story about Northern Uganda.  Then, what—–!

To my horror, I read an admission that a Ugandan general leaked in an interview with the Observer, a Kampala-based Ugandan weekly newspaper.  Without thinking, he blurted out that the IDP camps were part of deliberate military strategy, something the Ugandan government has been denying for decades.  (The war in Northern Uganda was actually the longest-running conflict on the African continent.)

What are IDP camps? Well, for those who haven’t had the experience of visiting NGO-City (in northern Uganda, the joke is that there is an NGO for every person living there), almost 2 million people lived in “internally displaced person camps” for decades, or camps for people who are refugees within their own country.

Some people still live in them, but most of the camps have closed down (forcing people, many of them disabled, to return to their former villages without transport or assistance, and causing deadly land disputes as people ofind their former homes occupied by new people), but in their heyday, 1.7 million people lived in these camps, where an estimated 1,500 people died weekly, a significant number children under five.  On average, three northern Ugandans would commit suicide daily in these camps, which were maintained largely by, well, NGO-City.  Women faced much more sexual and domestic violence in these camps than they would have ever endured in their villages.

Although people have known this for awhile (but don’t speak up, afraid of Uganda’s sedition laws or worse), the people who lived in the camps weren’t necessarily fleeing the LRA insurgency– many were actually fleeing the Ugandan army, the same military that receives a lot of aid and training from the U.S. government (the largest Africom exercise this year was in Northern Uganda).

To starve the rebels’ of youth (conscripted child soldiers), information, and stolen food, the military thought the best strategy would be to evacuate the ENTIRE region and put them into virtual-death camps.  I do not use that phrase lightly.  Before I read this article in the Independent, I never called the IDP camps that way, because I didn’t realize they were a direct part of the government’s military strategy.

Why did the government do this? Well, this way, the army could bomb and attack the LRA at will throughout Northern Uganda, at a time when the insurgency was being supported by the Khartoum-based Sudanese government (in response to Uganda backing Sudanese rebel groups).  Can you imagine destroying an entire region’s economy, homes, traditions, and social networks by forcing everyone to evacuate their residences, farms, etc. and live in IDP camps? The LRA was never stopped– they just moved their atrocities into the DR Congo and the Central African Republic.  Meanwhile, Uganda now has one of the highest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and mental illness in the world.

(I went to a conference in Lira, northern Uganda, over the summer, and one of the country’s psychologists–there are only twelve total in a country of 30 million- tried to defend Uganda’s mental health this way: ‘Well, Uganda is not that bad off.  Some countries are worse, like Sierra Leone.’  Yes, Sierra Leone was his reference point for defending the country’s mental health.  But the rate of mental illness in northern Uganda is off the charts, as well as in the urban refugee communities in Kampala, where Congolese refugees battle PTSD.  I visited the World Bank-funded mental hospital in Kampala to interview a Congolese teen girl whose family’s support from UNHCR had been stopped due to budget cuts.  She told me that she saw men with pangas, or machetes, everywhere– in her bedroom, in the marketplace, etc.  Her father and brothers had been killed in Bunia, DR Congo.  Her mother, who she lives with in Kampala, contracted HIV when she was raped by Congolese rebels.  When the girl Sarah first heard about her mother’s diagnosis, she went mute for months.)

I still cannot believe that this general finally admitted that the camps were not a by-product of LRA terror in Northern Uganda, but a deliberate strategy of the Ugandan government– which has always devalued the people of north and northeastern Uganda.  The Human Rights Watch even reported in the 1990s that the LRA were not the ones bombing northern Ugandan villages with mortars, but it was the Ugandan government bombing its own nationals.  Why? Aronda’s words now ring clear– the government, which has a long history of systemic violence against the region, bombed its own villages to encourage people to move to these IDP camps.  And anyone who left these camps to, say, cultivate their crops or visit their former homes, was treated as either a rebel or rebel collaborator.  Any independent political organizations that rose to challenge the treatment of northern Ugandans was also destroyed as a potential rebel-collaborating group.  All of this from a country and government that has been lauded for decades in the international community for its macroeconomic stability, its progressive policies towards women, successes in fighting HIV, and universal primary education programs.

My colleague Patrick Ogwang, who works for a Northern Ugandan newspaper called Rupiny. His aunt still works daily in the farm in Patrick's village, about 30 minutes from Lira town. I'm the woman in black on the right. Igor Kossov, an American journalist and former Sunday Vision writer, took this photo during our trip at a mental health conference. Northern Uganda has some of the highest rates of mental illness in the world.

In the camps, there was no economy, no farms for an agricultural people, no hygiene.  Reporting for the Washington Post in 2007, I interviewed northern Ugandans who had left the camps and were trying to rebuild their lives in Lira, a small agricultural town.  One young teen boy, at an NGO school for students with disabilities (disabilities are very common up north), showed me his leg, deformed by a bullet.  The government thought the LRA might have infiltrated the camp, and began shooting people, he said.  I remember I asked him who had shot him, and he whispered to me softly: “The UPDF.”  Moving along the classroom with crutches, he took lessons with another boy who accidentally broke his leg in the camp.  There was no medical infrastructure or way to go to a hospital.  He wasn’t treated, and his leg was left to fix itself on his own.

I interviewed Andrew about his experiences living in the camps, and his new life in Lira. The students were disabled because of both UPDF-inflicted injuries and the lack of health infrastructure in camps.

Northern Uganda is a much different place these days, as the camps have closed, and people have gone to traditional healers to try and treat madness, or mental illness.  Countless banks are in Lira and Gulu (another northern Ugandan town), and many new shops have sprung up.  Many of the NGOs, which kept the camps going, have left.  Life is going on.  Despite 2008’s floods, and a horrific drought this year, northern Ugandan farmers are trying hard to feed their families, make a living, and rebuild their communities.  Women are taking on traditional male tasks in rebuilding their homes, redefining gender roles.

But now that the Ugandan government has finally admitted to the military policy that guided it for decades, even during the ‘good’ years of the regime, I can’t help but wonder– what do we do with this information?

Before the government forced Northern Ugandans to live in camps, they had their own villages and towns, schools, a vibrant culture, and contributed to the country's economy as farmers and merchants. The camps took almost 2 million people and left them in a quagmire of NGO dependency, state and rebel violence.

This blog is a product of Africa Connections, which helps African immigrants connect with news from home.

Happy Thanksgiving

The olden days, a.k.a. last summer in Kla

Hey everyone, how are you doing? Well, the site I am doing with Emmanuel is almost ready to go up, though our hosting site is being a bit difficult. Thanks for all your encouragement and support as we transition to our new web presence. This project was definitely a labor of love… and it will be live next Monday at http://www.ugandansabroad.org.

There has been all sorts of interesting/disturbing/fascinating stuff going on in Uganda and her neighbors…

-The U.N. released a damning report to some media houses (still haven’t been able to access the real thing) that said two Rwandan rebel groups, including the FDLR (composed largely of the former Interahamwe, which commited the Rwandan genocide), were recruiting in two refugees camps in Uganda– one of which I even visited in 2007, Nakivale, when I was with SIT. It also said that Uganda and Burundi were smuggling $1.2 billion in gold out of the DR Congo, purchasing gold from FDLR-controlled mines, and reselling it in the United Arab Emirates.
As a reporter, as sick it is, my first impulse was– whoa, what a story! I could imagine eight or nine follow-up stories coming from this report, and stories that would come from the follow-up story. Immediately, I began imagining commodity chains (it’s the Joshua Muldavin in me!). And this report had one hell of a commodity chain, from Spanish NGOs giving funds to the FDLR to recruiting in the camps that are repatriating their Rwandan refugees as we speak (I got to cover this for Women’s eNews!).  If you somehow can find a copy of this report, please let me know– I am dying to see it, and I don’t get why the UN leaked it so many press organizations, then didn’t share it with the public.

In eastern Congo, the mineral trade fuels and funds war-- at the expense of millions of people.

Other things that I have been paying attention to…

-If you want a good story, there’s always the General James Kazini murder saga (and see, this actually is a nice segway from the UN report, since Kazini spent a great deal of time looting minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo).  This famous general, who has led troops against all sorts of insurgencies in the Great Lakes region, was allegedly bludgeoned to death by his lover in Namuwongo, in one of the strangest stories I’ve heard in awhile.  Andrew Mwenda had a great take on it. Whether Lydia Draru, his 28-year-old lover, really killed this top general, I have no idea…

Continue reading

A New Life in an Old Place… Home

It’s funny, but all Ugandans seem to have this one phrase memorized. “East or West, home is best.” At so many different times, Ugandans from all walks of life have told me that.  In fact, my Ugandan mom tellls me that all the time.  I never knew what to make of that– was it a not-so-subtle hint for me to go home? Or, were they just right? Is home really the best? Americans always say “you can never go home again.” But that may not be accurate…

Thousands of miles away from Kampala, I’m in Brooklyn, an hour’s drive from my childhood home.  I’d still have to hop on a plane to visit my birthplace, but I grew up in New York.  So who is right– Ugandans? Or can you never go home again?

Well, my Ugandan friends and family weren’t kidding.  You can go home again, and it’s fantastic.  Uganda is my home in reverse, and where much of my heart lies, but there is no place that seems to fit me as well as New York.  The first few weeks I was here, I would just look around and burst into tears. Not because I was sad, but because I felt ecstatic.

All those small things that I missed while I was away are here… seeing my parents on the weekend (a train ride away on the LIRR), buying coffee at bodegas, my editors at Women’s eNews (I just feel good stepping into their office! What a fantastic place!), and of course, the subway! After being jostled and smacked around Kampala in the city’s taxis (their word for buses, or public transport), the MTA seems almost delightful.  And of course– the Gray Lady on my doorstep! Nothing like reading the newspaper on the train to feel like home.

The best part is that the next time I am in East Africa, I’ll feel just as good! I’ll trade in my cereal for rolex, a cup of wine for a tot of banana gin, and the NYT for some of my favorite Ugandan reporters.  Whether I am heading home or to Uganda, I feel like I am going home either way.  No matter the direction, I feel so safe and loved.  Blessed, in every sense.

And it all feels very Wizard & Oz to me.  “Now Dorothy, you knew how to get home, all along…” My life is intertwined with Uganda, my other home.  But for this moment in time, I am clicking my heels three times…

Royalty Free
The City of My Dreams: Home
vincent and becky
Vincent Kasozi and me, in my last day at New Vision

Life in New York  has been full of all sorts of pleasant surprises and moments.  I am doing a bunch of interesting things… first, I’ve been working on a website for the Ugandan diaspora (we go live on Nov. 30!) with the support of CUNY and the Ugandan Association of New York (UGAANY), and my fantastic business partner, Emmanuel.

Emmanuel and I have started a web company called Africa Connections, which finances independent journalism in our readers’ home countries through diaspora services.  We are starting off with Uganda as a model group for our project, which makes sense, given our backgrounds.  I’ve been to Uganda four times, most recently writing for New Vision, but for a variety of adventures/endeavors over the years, such as a four-month study abroad program in college, where I lived with an urban and rural host family in Kampala and Busia (an agricultural town on the Ugandan/Kenyan border).

Emmanuel is a Ugandan who seems to have lived my life in reverse.  He grew up in Busia, which is how we connected– I wrote a travel piece for New Vision about my time spent in eastern Uganda, and he was able to find my e-mail through this blog.  For college, he moved to Kampala, and studied at the same university where I did for study abroad.  (FYI: I was reading the Ugandan news today, and apparently Makerere University, one of the best on the African continent, can’t pay their light bill!)He did the social sciences (I did too, with a bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence, and a concentration in Africana studies), then moved to NYC for a CUNY program, and lived at -yes- Ihouse!!

ihouse
Valentine’s Day at Ihouse: Min, Jackie and me

I also stayed at International House (its full name), a fantastic grad dorm where a thousand students from 100 different countries (Really!) live together for up to three years.  (I did one year there, at their historic building in Morningside Heights, for fall 2007-spring 2008.)  He went back to Uganda, then came back to study web design at John Hopkin’s University, and is now doing an MBA at the University of Maryland.

We became friends when I was in Uganda through one of my potent addictions: gmail! (Coffee and gmail run my life.  Or do I run them? It’s a toss-up.) While I battled homesickness and work stress (writing for a Ugandan daily was like boot camp, except for the fact that staff served us ginger tea every 2-3 hours), Emmanuel would encourage me, laugh at the way Ugandan sub-editors would ‘Ugandanize’ my copy and writing style, and generally cheer me on.  We met up in Baltimore where he lives, and decided to go into business together.

So, look out for our website on Nov. 30. ! It will go live at http://www.ugandansabroad.org.  Ugandans Abroad (the parent companyis AfricaConnections) will feature a ton of content (most written by me!), bloggers, video, loads of thoughtful news aggregation so you can get your latest Ugandafix, and helpful diaspora services.  These include a store to get Ugandan products, a wire transfer service cheaper than Western Union and Money Gram to send cash to Kampala, and a delivery service to sends gifts to relatives in Uganda using pay pal.

You can follow us on twitter and facebook, and this will help me stay in touch with you (the audience that lifted me up when I was abroad).  Friend UgandansAbroad, or check out some of our twitter feeds at: BugandaKingdom (latest tweets about Buganda), HealthyUganda (latest health news, such as the recent plague threat in Nebbi, and a cancer that interacts with malaria, killing Ugandan kids), and UgandaBusiness.

Suggestions and ideas? Let me know.  E-mail me at rebecca.jane.harshbarger@gmail.com.