Project Uganda: Blood Tears of Acholi Land

'Trade, not aid' a truism evident in Northern Uganda

By Travis and Kaitlin Curtice

Travis Curtice discusses farming techniques  with a local citizen.
Travis Curtice discusses farming techniques
with a local citizen.

While Kaitlin and I ate dinner at the BOMA Health Club, a restaurant and hotel located in Gulu’s Senior Quarter, we had a rare opportunity to watch CNN. The large, plasma television was barely audible over the sound of the generator that powered it. Though we were not able to watch the entire program I did catch a glimpse of the dialog taking place between the CNN broadcaster and the African businessmen being interviewed. The gist of the argument being discussed was the need for “trade and not aid” in Eastern Africa.

This reality, “the need for trade and not aid,” is most horrifyingly evident in the aftermath of Northern Uganda’s 20 year insurgency. When walking the streets of the post-Internally Displaced Peoples camps in Northern Uganda, you hear the children cry,

Muzungu” or “Mono!” (Meaning white person)

How are you?” They ask.

No matter what your response to the child, he or she will respond, “I am fine.” The tailored question and answer are so much a part of the routine here that no matter what you ask or say the question and answer will be “How are you? And “I am fine.” The child’s next response will be, “Mono, give me my shirt! Give me my pencil! Give me my money!” The lists of demands continue but the root of the issue is the same. That is the sense of entitlement created by years of depending on the perpetual pattern of international, or what the locals consider, white-man’s aid.

My second day in Atiak I was visiting with some children outside the compound and their drunken father approached stumbling and muttering. In an inebriated stupor he said to the children, “Do not fear him. You have no need to fear him. There is no need to fear. Go with him. He’ll give you only the finest things: new clothes, books, and money.” He then turned to me and said, “Yes, you do that. You give only the best for them.”

There is no denying the devastating effect the horrors of the war has had on Northern Uganda. But the lingering effect of the war is the psychological dependence that has occurred from over twenty years of unmitigated aid from the International community.

In an interview with Otto Celestino, a visiting Acholi leader from Gulu, he told me that hundreds of hoes and farming implements have been given to the camps. “But when you look in the camps you will not find.” He explained the process of aid workers coming and distributing farming implements in the camps, but the next day the people go out and sell them back to vendors. “You give the hoes and they go and sell them to buy drinks, gin or vodka, or whatever. They get for free and sell at half [the] price because they know tomorrow they [the aid workers] will come again and give for free.” The refuse lining the roads confirms what Celestino shared. Most of the trash along the streets are plastics bags; bags that once contained gin and vodka imported from UK or Kampala. Many children mimic their father’s drinking patterns by dipping and drinking water out of the raw sewage the flows next to the road, or by making hats and playing with the plastic bags.

A child in Northern Uganda wears a hat fashioned  from trash lining the streets of a camp. Drinking is  rampant in the camps.
A child in Northern Uganda wears a hat fashioned
from trash lining the streets of a camp. Drinking is
rampant in the camps.

Overgrown bush surrounds the village of Atiak, over grown in part due to their fear of returning to their land because of the residual threats of the rebels return; but neglected more so because of their tailored response of waiting, hands-outspread, for a solution to present itself. The overgrown bush is the sign of neglected or completely abandoned fields and also a warning that the consequence will be either the continuation of international aid, via programs like the UN’s Food Programme, or imminent starvation.

A week after my interview with Celestino, Kaitlin and I heard that two people had died from eating poisonous cassava. Cassava is a root similar to yucca that is a food-staple here in Northern Uganda. Poisonous cassava is another type of cassava unlike the one grown for food consumption; this root is wild and is only used for brewing alcohol. The people who died from eating it knew that it was fatal but they also understood the choice that faced them was either to die from starvation or risk eating the cassava. Though this choice is one that no human should have to make, it is a daily reality that many live with here in Northern Uganda.

A report published by New Vision, Uganda’s leading newspaper, stated over a third of Uganda’s GDP is international aid; in contrast, the international aid given to Uganda’s neighbor, Kenya is roughly 3% of Kenya’s GDP. This dependence is not only the aftermath of camp life but the reality for much of Uganda.

The Ugandans told Kaitlin and me that the answer to breaking the bondage of dependence on international aid was a simple, often overused, antidote. “You can give a man a fish, but he will eat the fish and the next day he will come to you and ask again for a fish. But if you give the man a hook and show him how to fish the next day he will go and catch a fish.”