Project Uganda: Blood Tears of Acholi Land

Can two students make a difference?

By Travis and Kaitlin Curtice

A rainstorm quickly moves in over the Ugandan plain.

“The white man has, up to now, perhaps unconsciously yet certainly, sought to determine our existence…So we use “black” as an epithet here because we are black; because we are each somebody. We matter, we are alive and kicking and black is beautiful.” 
Desmond Tutu

Trip to Uganda convinces correspondent people can change world for the better 

“There is something different about these babies. Isn’t there? I cannot quite place it but there is. They’re not like us are they?”When I was just a child, my grandfather asked these words to my sister. I still remember his tone. She was sixteen and had returned from working in Haiti. As she showed him pictures from her trip, I remember watching as she turned her face away in anger, sadness and confusion. In her eyes these children were children, not black or white, simply children. The distinction my grandfather sarcastically drew is a scar that haunts my life. I am only two generations removed from the bitterness and injustice of the prejudice that still lingers in the world in which we live. In his failing health I do not wish to dishonor the character of my grandfather. In many ways I respect him and applaud him as a good man, but racial prejudice held by a man of good character is merely a stronger testament of its evil.

My name is Travis Benjamin Curtice, and I am white. The color of my skin is stained with blood; and for that pain I am eternally sorry. Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of South Africa, once said regarding the black community that “we [blacks] must give them [whites] a chance to re-discover their humanity.” Our humanity — it has been buried deep in the red, African soil. My heart is that one day, soaked in tears of reconciliation, it will be found.

Alan Paton wrote when modeling his character, Theophilus Msimangu after Leo Rakale, a preeminent, black South African monk, “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they [whites] are turned to loving, they will find we [blacks] are turned to hating.” I pray that the generous and resilient hearts of the black African community do not succumb to bitterness and that the next chapter will be one in which reconciliation triumphs over division, hope over despair, and love over hatred.

The white man is not salvation but joint inheritors of the world in which we will all live. As I prepared to leave for Uganda my close friend, Clayton Carnahan reminded me that this trip would not be like my initial journey to Uganda. His words were ones of wisdom. Wisdom, I did not fully understand at the moment. But as I walked through the last several months I have begun to see, though still unclearly what all these words would entail.

Ugandan children head to school.
Ugandan children head to school. Travis Curtice
believes the hope of developing Uganda and all
of Africa lies with Africans themselves.

When I first worked in Uganda the summer of 2007, my heart was torn by the atrocities that ravaged this country. Their faces and stories pierced my inner most being in a way that I cannot describe. Their humanity and suffering was a shot of sobriety to my life of ennui. In their brokenness and resilience I discovered the power of hope and the depth and capacity of love. In the midst of war, I found the meaning of peace in the face of an orphaned child, Aol Mercy, lavishing kindness on her friends and joy in the laughter of her sister, Linda.

In the rawness of Africa’s humanity, I found hope for my own. But as Clayton told me, this trip would not be the same. As Kaitlin and I traveled to Uganda I hoped that I would find a path forward for peace in the North. What I found was that which has haunted me that which Tutu longed for and spoke of, the search for my humanity as a white man.

On our first international flight from Newark, New Jersey to Amsterdam, Netherlands, I wrote these words:

Can two students from Joplin, Missouri really make a difference in a war that’s raged in Uganda for twenty-two years? This question seems like madness. How ethnocentric and arrogant would we have to be to think that as two undergraduates we could do what hundreds of analysts, political leaders, missionaries, peace activists, and diplomats could not? In our defense, I think our ability to be the catalyst for change is founded more in our passion than our abilities to orchestrate it. Moved by the tempo of cultural revolutions, we believe that change rarely happens through those best equipped to bring it about, but by those whose passions blind them to the reality that things are hopeless and then their blindness to the hopelessness enables them to see with hope. In many ways this is what faith is: looking at something and seeing what could be, rather than what actually presents itself.

When I look at Uganda’s twenty-three years of horrific war, tribal conflict and bloodied past, I see hope for a future of reconciliation, peace and prosperity. I see what once was and the cost that will have to be paid to transform it to what it can be.

Landing in Uganda, I saw that for there to be peace in Uganda and development in similar countries a root of deeper prejudice must be addressed. A root of bitterness that though it does not span the length of tribal tension certainly is more bitterly rooted, that is the role of the white community in black Africa. There is talk about how prejudice and racial enmity is no more, certainly the election of the first African American president is a testimony of quantum steps forward, but those who present and forward these conversations are shortsighted. For they neither recognize and take responsibility for the crimes of the past nor see the scars of the present. The hope of Africa, especially Uganda, is not in the actions of those like the woman I met on our return flight who when I asked what she was doing in Uganda responded, “We just took over money. You know how badly they need it, so that’s what I was doing, just spreading the wealth around.” These well intentioned steps of altruism perpetuate a cycle of cultural and racial prejudice and dependence. Steps begun and paralleled by the colonizing practices of exploitation and suppression, masqueraded as altruism, by King Leopold in the Belgium Congo.

For the white man’s humanity to be restored it is necessary for him to first understand his vulnerability. He is not — we are not — salvation but joint inheritors of the world in which we live. Our motivating sense of mission and goal can no longer be one of conquest or sympathy. For both though different in scope infer the same fallacy, an inference of racial or cultural superiority. Conquering enslaves and subdues the “other,” but sympathy too is to see someone’s position in regards to and lower than your own and be moved by pity. To genuinely engage the world’s issues, it takes an openness of mind leading to joint partnership. In an interview Kaitlin had with Isaac Mugabi, he told her, “You are colonizing again…when we need medicine you give medicine but…” He described the growing process of dependence on the fleeting altruism of international assistance, “then we come back and you are gone and we don’t know what to do.” He continued, “You should marry what we need with what you think we need.”

This trip was different from my last one to Uganda. I still found the power of hope and the depth and capacity of love in the Ugandans’ brokenness and resilience, but I also found responsibility and a challenge to engage the issues facing Uganda in a new way. In the way of reconciliation, reconciliation for wrongs committed not only by warring tribes, but also the war of ignorance and misplaced altruism. There is hope for the developing Africa, including Uganda, that hope is and will always be Africans. There is hope for the developed western nations, too. I believe that together we can change the world for the better. We can stand in solidarity against injustice and abject poverty. We must stand together, together in unity.