Assistance had been training midwives in Afghanistan for two years when things became too dangerous. We were planning to begin a new class of
midwifery students in a new location, Badhakshan Province. Badhakshan has the highest
rate of maternal mortality ever recorded.
The need for skilled care providers is impossible to overstate. But that province was growing a lot of
poppies, and foreign aid workers were perceived as a new kind of threat through
that lens. In 2006, aid workers were
murdered, buildings were burned down, and our Board of Directors brought an end
to our work in Afghanistan. I miss Afghanistan terribly and hope that the future holds a day that
we can return. For now, our work is
elsewhere, currently Uganda and Haiti.
When we were contemplating
various possible new projects and partners, northern Uganda stood out.
There is a desperate need there, a true crisis, and there is very little
humanitarian aid being provided. The
people that we serve there are called "IDPs" — internally displaced
persons. They aren't refugees because
they are Ugandans in Uganda. They cross
no international border as they run from the horrific violence wrought by the
"Lord's Resistance Army." Although the
LRA doesn't raid where we work anymore, there are thousands "IDPs" living in
squalid and overcrowded camps around the town.
They are deeply traumatized people, they've seen horrific violence,
murder, many of the children have survived abduction and either forced
soldierhood or sexual slavery. The
moral ambiguity of a conflict in which children are brutalized into committing
atrocities has challenged the fabric of the society. Now these people are supposed to leave the
camps, to "go home." But no one is sure
where that is, or how to start over. Where
there were once communities, there is nothing.
These people have experienced violence similar to what occurs in Darfur, but they aren't on the media radar.
I traveled to Uganda at the request of a group of nurses who had
established a small clinic in partnership with a Ugandan non-profit. Their clinic provided first aid and some
medical services to the IDPs. Mostly
they treated malaria. Malaria is such a
huge part of living in Africa, there is nothing like it in the US. They wanted
to add maternity services at the clinic, but they were out of their depth and
budget. I traveled to visit their clinic
and my board decided to fund a salary for one midwife. She would provide prenatal care to the
patients at their clinic. The need was
great and it was a terrific little clinic, but I was pretty concerned about the
Ugandan partner organization. It looked
to me as though the director was a con-man.
I returned to Uganda three months later.
Unfortunately the concerns were real, the local non-profit organization
was corrupt. The director had no
interest in the well-being of the clinic patients. Sadly, this is not really unusual. Corruption in the developing world is
endemic. I was there to sort that
out. Of course, in order to do any kind
of large scale project, we had to feel confident that we could put things in
order. What struck me as remarkable was
the intense contrast between the folks who were running the little con on some
donors, and the amazing medical staff that was in fact providing care to
desperately needy people. Even without
the money that got pocketed, the clinic staff managed to run the clinic in an admirable
way. Certainly the clinical staff and
their incredible dedication to their patients influenced our desire to carry on
the work there. Now there is this
miraculous clinic which serves hundreds of people each month providing medical,
prenatal, labor and delivery care, childhood vaccines, and birth-control. It's a very different project than the one in
Afghanistan, but it's a great program. And of course, we have all sorts of due
diligence in place. Before we invested
in the clinic, the finances were all cleaned up.
Uganda is a completely different cultural experience than central Asia and Islam. Uganda was colonized by Anglicans, but the Catholic Church
and other evangelicals have been sharing the air with the Anglicans, and
perhaps most profoundly, with the residual indigenous beliefs. So much of the gruesome suffering wrought by
the LRA is the product of an intersection of sorcery, guilt, shame and loss. The Acholi tribe, from which this movement
springs, had suffered terrible losses at the hands of other tribes, and they
had perpetrated terrible violence in the process as well. The army part of the Lord's Resistance Army
was originally raised by a young woman who did so at the direction of a disembodied
spirit called "Lakwena." "Lakwena" and
quite a few other spirits ("Wrong Element," and "Franko" were two) would
possess Alice and direct the war.
There was a promise of victory and redemption for the Acholi, but Alice
fled to Kenya after a major defeat in a battle in 1987. Lakwena then lost no time taking possession
of a fellow called Joseph Kony, and he is still about. They have laid waste to much of northern Uganda. Joseph Kony
leads the LRA to this day, lately from southern Sudan where they have been making their dreadful
These traumatized people
that we serve have two particularly difficult challenges. Many suffer from depression and Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder related to their experiences. They have lost family members and experienced
violence first hand, much of it sexual violence.
As well, they have been impoverished.
They had homes, livestock, fields, clothes, cooking pots, lives in
communities that were destroyed by LRA raiding and the subsequent conflict
between the LRA and the Ugandan army.
They have lost so much, and their government is unable or unwilling to
help them properly. The politics are
complex and in some ways, on the ground in northern Uganda, meaningless.
We have to, we simply must help with sustainable change.
Working in this environment
has raised different questions and security issues from the Taliban. The rush to vengeance in a society that turns
to sorcery to settle scores is a tricky challenge. After divesting from the Ugandan non-profit
organization that was corrupt, we had some months of peace and quiet. Then a few things happened that revealed the
former corrupt director we had effectively cut-off was on a little campaign to
harass some of the staff. This provided my
most face-to-face experience of sorcery ever, and I would be happy if it were
also my last.
There were just three
incidents that made it seem, for a while, that the clinic staff was being
harassed. They were unpleasant and
tedious, but not actually difficult to resolve.
The third was different for me, although not really any more difficult
to resolve than the other two, quicker even.
The Ugandans didn't experience it as particularly different from the
other two incidents. For me it would have
to be called at least paranormal — but for them it was not. It was just another example of revenge on
clinic staff, this time targeting our lab man.
He and his wife live in a
modest, middle class home. It's brick,
with two rooms and cement floors. The
back room contains a bed, a small table and their clothes in baskets and stacks
on the floor. In the front room are a
couple of chairs and a small table, plus a long table against one wall with
some shelves beneath. The shelves hold
some dishes and a radio, but the whole weekend this was going on, there was no
"city power" — no electricity, as is often the case. They cook outdoors on a charcoal burner. They have a small covered cement slab porch
in front, they share an outhouse with their neighbors. The total square footage of their home is
about 400 or 500 square feet. There are
family photographs, calendars and religious pictures on their walls. They are Anglican.
One Friday afternoon, while
recovering from typhoid, his wife left work early and went home to nap. The room she was in has one window with bars,
but no glass or screen. There were a few
children around outdoors. The oldest, a
teenage girl who had recently come from "the village," was pretty quiet and
still intimidated by the "city" life.
She certainly would not approach a man she didn't know. But the children all saw them, two men,
standing at the window. Two adults
across the street also watched this unfold.
The men did something with their arms, and then walked away. After the men were clear of the compound, the
children walked over to the window and saw that many of the clothes on the floor
inside the house were on fire. She was
still asleep in bed. A girl ran inside
and woke her and the two of them struggled to extinguish numerous fires. By the time they succeeded, two walls and the
ceiling were black with soot.
No one called the
police. If the police do make it to a
crime scene, there is a cash charge to the victim. They say they need to be paid for
transportation. Many of us gathered at
the house. I realize I made an assumption
that afternoon. I believed that those
men had thrown something flammable into the room. I was, as was everyone, extremely grateful
that the mosquito net over the bed hadn't caught fire. That image was difficult to contemplate. We were all very thankful that she was
unharmed. We were all unnerved and upset,
and I ultimately went to bed that night with my assumption intact.
Three days later, after a
very unsettling weekend, I wrote my regular report to my board. It was a hard report to write:
This is considered not an
uncommon experience here, a typical way a witch doctor sends a curse to someone
— generally they are hired to send these curses. I am certainly inclined to believe a more
mundane, mechanical explanation, but it is widely believed here that these
things happen. And, these two are trustworthy
in my experience and certainly not hysterical.
They tell the same story: they
were sitting in their room when suddenly a flame shot up out of some
clothes. It happened four times on
Saturday. His hand is quite burned from
putting out one of the fires. Their
mattress, sheets and now all their clothes are ruined.
The priest from their
church was there twice on Saturday and had been there once already Sunday when
I visited. They are Anglican, I attend
the same church that they do when I'm here.
I am pretty sure that our US Episcopal Church acknowledges the existence of these
nasty spirits, we are just forbidden to associate with them. They are considered satanic. The priest indicated that it usually takes
about a week of praying in the house to make the spirits go away.
When it became clear to me that the priest
was required to overcome this problem, I looked into whether or not there is
anything in it for him. I feel pretty
sure there is not, this is not a service he is getting paid for, for example. But neither does he grow in esteem, it seems
it is just part of his job. I asked if
we could discuss finding them another place to live, somewhere with a wall and
a gate, somewhere more secure. The
belief is though that the curse will just follow them and they want to stick it
out where they are until enough prayers have been said to overcome the bad
magic. The house walls are now covered with black soot, way more than what I
saw Friday. They are pretty
spooked. They stayed in the house to
pray today. The other, new lab tech
handled the work well without him, although it's a lot for just one person —
she did pretty well.
I honestly cannot even
imagine how this goes down in your heads.
It sounds strange as I type it, but I suppose you can accept that I
wouldn't send you this news if it hadn't been what I experienced. I have talked with a few folks about it, they
are all educated people, some highly educated. They all told me the same: these things happen, they are sent by
sorcerers, someone paid the sorcerer to send the spirits, God Almighty will
prevail but it takes some time. Now I am
guessing at least that you have not had to ponder this type of question before
in your professional life, but if I am wrong and you have some insight or
guidance, please let me know. I have suggested that perhaps some person left
something that took some hours to combust in the house, some substance. That is a conversation everyone is willing to
have. But then you begin hearing of
other, similar spells that are less easy to explain. The consensus of belief here is that it's
One of my board members, in
reply, pointed out that as an Episcopalian I don't believe anything less
fantastic than fire sorcery. I suppose
that is true. The comment seemed kind
and yet quite funny at the same time.
Perhaps we must have some edge of fantastic, intense conviction simply
to live in northern Uganda. For me, the
most heartwarming and appealing thing about the Ugandan people we serve is
their seemingly indestructible belief in the goodness of humanity. In the face of all they have witnessed and
experienced, they still feel that most people are basically good. When I ask people to sign permission to tell
their story, a release to publish their photo, there is no shying away, no
asking for money to take the photo.
"Please, please tell our story," I am told constantly. They so firmly believe that once people in
the world understand what is happening to them, the help will roll in. Spontaneous combustion is the least of their
Why is it that human beings
living on the same planet that we live on have to live in a reality that includes
no safe water, so much rape and physical violence, raiding militias, hunger,
and always malaria, sickness, misery. I
often stumble trying to illuminate something about the apparently obvious statement
that these are people, human beings.
What would you expect from the world if you and your community lost
everything? We came into a world with
such disparity already in play that we might not notice our responsibility to
correct it. In the US, even the homeless can find safe water to
drink. Human beings live in
grass-thatched huts on the dirt, without running water, without access to work
or good healthcare. Human beings. People.
Deserving people, innocent people.
Africa is in bad trouble and I believe we all have to
stand up against the bad magic.
When I was asked to write
an article for Reality Sandwich (about changing the goofy law against homebirth
midwifery in Colorado), Steven said that I could put in a link to our
website, www.midwifeassist.org and
that I could beg a little for IMA. He
said that many months, 50,000 people read Reality Sandwich. If half that many people went to our website
and donated $50, that would fund our work in Uganda, plus the new project we're doing in Haiti, for more than six years. Our work is concentrated in places where we
can make a difference. We are small, but
we have accomplished a great deal in a very accountable and tangible way. What helps us do the work is money to pay for
the program expenses. IMA was founded by
a small group of women who believed they could succeed in sending aid very
directly. We have been successful in
doing that. Now, four years after that
first project in Afghanistan, we are building the community that will support us
financially. Thanks for the opportunity