“The UPDF intimidates people of Amuru…no one notices”: An International Volunteer Calls for More International Accompaniment

Recently I had the opportunity to revisit Uganda with an organization, Solidarity Uganda, doing peace-building and justice-seeking work in the Northern district of Amuru. In this region, the government’s greed is superseding the well-being and rights of residents. Amuru sub-county is a very rural area that one would only have the pleasure of seeing if purposeful effort is exerted. This is one reason it is easier for the UPDF (Ugandan People’s Defense Forces) to intimidate, bribe, and bully the people of Amuru: there is no one to notice it, at least no one with particularly powerful influence. In this way, it is greatly beneficial for the people of Amuru to have international accompaniment.

SU Local Coordinator Ben Ocan takes a break from driving American volunteers Kelly Curran to Amuru by motorcycle.

SU Local Coordinator Ben Ocan takes a break from driving American volunteers Kelly Curran to Amuru by motorcycle.

Initially, I was interested in Solidarity Uganda because of my previous experience in the country; I studied abroad there the previous year. I also went to school for Peace and Conflict Studies, so anything justice related peaks my interest. What I liked about Solidarity Uganda was its honesty; they do what they say they do and they do it humbly. Efforts to profit off the plight and disadvantage of others was absent. Solidarity Uganda endeavors to tackle injustices (political, environmental, racial, etc.) through its work in Amuru Sub-county, Uganda, with sincerity and urgency, and nonviolently. It is because of the quality of this organization’s efforts that they would greatly benefit from international accompaniment.

In our globalized, connected world it makes sense for organizations and people with similar interests to join efforts and provide mutual support. These kinds of international partnerships provide local people with motivation and encouragement to continue working for their own rights, and communicate to them the validity of their struggle and lives. Knowledge, trainings, successes and failures can be shared across nations that have similar conflicts. Partnerships also provide a level of safety for those involved; there is increased visibility so any conflict that arises will be known by more people; this can be a deterrent for violent, corrupt groups that may wish to harm those supported by the local organizations.

Precisely because of these benefits to international accompaniments, Solidarity Uganda should partner with other individuals and NGOs with similar visions. SU is a small organization dealing with controversial issues, locally. The people it supports, in fact people working for/with SU, are in danger because of the threats by the government. Detainments, illegal arrests, and other forms of violence and intimidation are all too common. The visibility created by more partnerships would increase local security, which will allow staff and volunteers to do better work to secure their land. Also, while I was visiting, the people of Amuru Sub-county requested that SU acquire international partnerships; they want to learn more about how to best use the fertile, beautiful land they have and to ensure that land will remain theirs, instead of being stolen by the UPDF or large corporations. The international community has the opportunity to give the community of Amuru a stronger backbone with which to pursue their own causes.

International accompaniment will not only benefit the residents of Amuru, it will also benefit the Westerners who support them. Anyone who has the pleasure of visiting this region of East Africa is surely blessed by its beauty. Westerners also have the opportunity to use their nationality and global influence to bolster security for Amuru residents, as well as to put pressure on the powers within Ugandan government. For those who want to demonstrate solidarity with the residents of Amuru, I primarily recommend communication with them; associates of Solidarity Uganda can help provide them with whatever materials they need (bikes, computers, cell phones, etc.). Financial support is also key; without it, Solidarity Uganda cannot function and the residents of Amuru cannot make some of the regional journeys necessary for their cause. Thirdly, genuine interest in their struggles is encouraging; to know there are people around the world who care about their land and wish to see peace and justice for them is so encouraging.

For international people interested in volunteering with Solidarity Uganda, some challenges will for sure be encountered. I imagine the biggest obstacle being cultural differences; in many ways, Ugandan culture is exact opposite of American culture. One major difference is the perception of “getting work done”; because Americans have a very individualistic perception of the world, we feel like we want to be necessary and obviously helpful. In Uganda, we need to remember that we are there to aid what our friends in Amuru already have going, and that how we see success and how they see success may (most likely will) differ. Primacy should be placed on what the residents deem useful, helpful, and meaningful, not Westerners’ projections of those ends.

Kelly with other participants of an interfaith nonviolence training in Gulu

Kelly with other participants of an interfaith nonviolence training in Gulu

My recent trip to Uganda is one I am very thankful for. I got to experience much more of the country and learn about this contentious issue of land-grabbing. The greatest effect of this trip was the illumination provided by our friends in Amuru; their desire for support, for knowledge of nonviolence, and their joy despite their insecure situation. I was thankful to be with people who possess such fortitude.

Kelly Curran, the author, is an American citizen (resident of Maryland) who volunteered with Solidarity Uganda during September 2013. Contact Solidarity Uganda if you are interested in participating in international nonviolent accompaniment teams.

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