Victors Express: Recovering from trauma of war and insurgency

I wrote a few months back about Northern Uganda and the years of conflict that left the economy shattered and people traumatised:

On Thursday, I attended ‘Victors Express’, an exhibition of paintings by youth from Northern Uganda. Most of the artists have lived experiences of mental ill health. Basic Needs Foundation Uganda (, the organiser of the exhibition works with youth who have suffered from mental ill health to facilitate their engagement in economic, political and social development programmes.

Business as Usual

The paintings had simple subjects and depicted simple aspirations of young people, some of whom have suffered directly from the war, either as victims of atrocities or because they have been forced to commit atrocities themselves. Encouragingly, most paintings depict hope and change. This one, called ‘Business as Usual’ by Abalo Fiona from Nwoya District depicts a scene quite uncommon till a few years back: A well groomed business-woman going about her business in a village. She has a mobile phone that is charged by a solar panel (there is little electricity provided by the grid in the North) and she has a house thats a permanent structure, a mark of status in villages where most dwellings are mud, wood and thatch.

This one, called Once Upon a Tilling by social worker Ojok Francis, perhaps my favourite because of the vibrant colours, depicts a folk tale about two boys in a village where the war is over but everyone still feels hopeless and ‘blue’. Two bulls arrive and absorb everyone’s blues. The boys use the bulls to till their land and live happily ever after. The simplicity of needs in these paintings is a brutal reminder of how damaging war can be.


This painting, called ‘Bend it like Benson’ by Oneka John Benson from Lamogi depicts the role sports play in war torn and troubled region. Despite the trauma youth have to suffer, they are able to enjoy a game of football and temporarily forget their worries.


This is also the subject of my cousin’s recent film, The Only Real Game. The movie is about the role baseball plays in the lives of people living in crippling conditions in the militancy stricken state of Manipur in India. The documentary is screening in Mumbai next week, so if you are around, do go and watch:!/pages/The-Only-Real-Game/141790055980724

I must add as a DFID employee, that Basic Needs Foundation Uganda is funded by DFID to carry out this work and it is heartening to see a real impact on people. Finally, the Victors Express exhibition is still on till Sunday 20th October, at Garden city rooftop, and is open until late. So if you are in Kampala, do visit and witness for yourself the splendor of color, emotion and hope.

Collateral Damage?

Conversation with a driver two days back:

Him: When are you going to the North again?

Me: I don’t know yet. Maybe I won’t have the time, although I would love to.

Him: it’s very good that you are trying to do development in a hands on way. Very important to get out into the field and see that the project is actually there and that the money is not being wasted away. You see, now that donors have stopped giving money directly to the Government budget, it is struggling. The university teachers are on strike, then it will be someone else. They are really feeling the pain.

Me: so things are improving now?

Him: oh no, they are getting  worse. Much worse. You can’t run a country like this, not like a dictator that rules for 30-40 years like Mugabe.

Me: but it’s coming up to 30 yrs. so you won’t vote for Museveni in the next election?

Him: no, I won’t. I will vote for the opposition. But only if the opposition can unite. If they are fighting between themselves, no. Then I will vote for Museveni… You see there is one thing us Ugandans really don’t like. That’s war. We don’t want War. Not like what’s happening in Egypt and Libya. We can’t have that. It’s better this way.









The Awakening

On Friday night, I attended ‘The Awakening’, a poetry recital performance by the Lantern meet of poets: Bold, Refreshing, Honest, Touching. For those in Kampala, I highly recommend future events:

awakening 1

Young speakers, students, professionals from different walks of life performed and recited passionately, poetry and prose that captured the turmoil in the hearts and minds of most Ugandans- and the hearts and minds of all who care about Uganda.

They highlighted the uncertainty of existence “The bigger question is whether we shall sleep tomorrow”.

They talked of identity- “We are Ugandan, but we might as well be Kenyan or Rwandan… A child born in a hospital might as well call it home because that is what determines who you are.”

awakening 2

This resonates with my thoughts on just how much where we are born, and where we are, determines who we are and what we think of the world. See my previous blog- Much closer to reality:

They talked of leadership and possession: “Do not wrap your arms around anything you’re not ready to claim”. I was reminded of Gandhi when they said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. This is where I say ‘hats off’.

They dared to touch on feelings that most Ugandans have but few dare to utter publicly: “Your constitution he treats as he would his shoe laces, tightening and loosening to fit comfort” and in a joke talking about someone’s granny “this is what happens when old people refuse to give up power”. I was comforted to see that the young Ugandan feels just as passionately about democracy and power as most of us in the West do, and even more comforted that they can speak their mind.

awakening 3

They took the blame on themselves- and on each one of us- when they underlined that we blame everything on the Government and challenged the common man’s apathy “We are the Government”.

And they asked people to rise to the challenge “Falter if you must. But rise. Because raise new kings you must”

awakening 4

This is not mere poetry. This is stuff of passion. Of change. Of inspiration. And I am inspired.

Much closer to Reality: Nationality and Choice

Being in Uganda, I feel much closer to the harsh reality of how tough the world can be, than I do in London, even while working on international development. Uganda is a land-locked country surrounded by several in-conflict or post-conflict countries and marks of this are in the news everyday.

Just last week, the leaders of the Great Lakes region met here in Kampala to talk about The Democratic Republic of Congo, which has had a civil war ongoing for many years:

About 60,000 refugees from DRC arrived in Uganda about a month back, almost overnight, into a refugee camp in Western Uganda

In another story, some Rwandan refugees living in Tanzania since several decades, are being extradited by Tanzania, to go back to Rwanda. They claim that they no longer have homes in Rwanda and that the situation back home is still hostile so they cannot return. In effect they are left with nowhere to go.

One of the things that strikes me about these situations is about how they leave people without any choice whatsoever. What happens to them is almost entirely dependent on external factors that they as individuals do not control. They cannot choose if they like tomorrow, to live and work in a different country like most of us can. In fact, they cannot live and work in any country. There is no home. Or no home that is safe- what I find is a shocking truth. As someone who lives and works in a country that I am not a citizen of, I know that if needed I can always return ‘home’, to India. Its painful to imagine a scenario where there is nowhere to belong. It’s a harsh reminder of how where one is born can make all the difference between whether or not people have the opportunity to make something of their lives. I feel infinitely privileged to have the Nationality and identity that I have.

The West- Crater Lakes,Tea Estates and Primates

Western Uganda presents beautiful landscapes and stunning wildlife. It is more developed and prosperous than several other parts of the country and this is clearly visible in the make-up of the region. There are better roads- the majority are tarmac, there are few traditional mud and thatch houses and much of the land is either forest or cultivated.  

We drove from Kampala to Fort Portal, where we visited the crater lakes at Ndali.Image

region is serene and peaceful, with an abundance of animals and birds. Kibale
forest is natural home to several species of primates including the Eastern
Chimpanzee. Our closest ancestors, the species are endangered, primarily
because of habitat loss and hunting for bush-meat. We were lucky to see a group
of about 30, on a patrol to check the boundaries of their territory, ensuring
no chimps from other groups were feeding on their territory. When they found intruders
all the chimps broke into a war cry. About half of the group members trotted off
to chase the intruders while the others stayed behind as reinforcement.


Image Image

We were told this guy was the Chief of the clan and other chimpanzees were giving him their greetings. Their expressions were scarily human and I thought the Chief’s age and authority showed in the lines on his face. We also saw black and white collobus monkeys and blue tailed monkeys. On the way back from the trek, our guide, ‘Africano’ got lost in the forest and we walked in what seemed like a loop for an hour or more, up and down a hilly terrain. As night started to fall we were started to wonder if we were being led somewhere else and kidnapped but the guide did eventually find his way out and to the waiting vehicles.

 As we moved towards Ruhija, the landscape turned to rolling hills covered in mist.

Deforestation for cultivation and for timber threatens the long term sustainability of this beauty. Banana and tea are major crops- if you are sipping a cup of Kenyan tea, its possible the tea actually come from here. Yes, about 90% of Ugandan tea is auctioned off in Mombasa and gets exported as Kenyan tea. International branding of Uganda’s agricultural products remains extremely weak, which means farmers get a lower price for their product.

Image Image

We saw the highly engendered silverback mountain gorillas. Their remaining population is only about 700, spread across the forests of Rwanda, Uganda and Democtratic Republic of Congo. Civil war and habitat destruction, as well as traps set for other animals are quoted as key reasons for their population decline.


Gorillas are shy beings and do not like coming close to humans. Over years of repeated contact, some groups have been habituated to human presence. Still, faced with a curious group of camera wielding tourists, they tend to hide in bush and shrub. Adult male gorillas can weigh between 150 and 220kg and their sheer bulk and size is impressive. The forest we trekked through was a beautiful thick green. Narrow paths have been carved for gorilla tracking but guides use machetes to clear the paths of vine and roots- making the vision of a difficult and unexplored jungle in the name Bwindi ‘impenetrable’ national park ring true.

Northern Uganda- Green and pristine

I visited Moroto (in Karamoja), Lira and Gulu– three towns in Northern Uganda- a stark contrast to Kampala. Uganda is largely a one-city state. While there is some economic activity, a visit to the town centre in either place quickly feels like ‘there isn’t much here’.


The drive to Moroto from Kampala is about 450kms and takes about 10 hours- that’s a dismal 45km an hour. This is because only about half of the road is paved with tarmac- the other half is a murram road. Transport infrastructure is one of the biggest constraints to people accessing markets, inputs, schools and hospitals and to pulling themselves out of poverty. After 4-5 hrs a day on murram road for two successive days, being back on tarmac felt like an absolute pleasure. Perspective!

The fact that the country is largely undeveloped also means that it is a stunning green- pristine and unspoilt. The scenery feels like a lush green carpet- we crossed untouched ponds with beautiful wild lilies. Much needed development will eventually disrupt some of the nature. This is the site of the upcoming Karuma dam- a 600MW hydropower project, being built by Chinese contractors.


Northern Uganda has a troubled past: It’s a resource rich and fertile region which has been at the centre of conflict for several decades. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) terrorised large parts of the region for a long time. A peace agreement was signed in 2006 and the LRA has indeed withdrawn, but a majority of the population was in refugee camps until a few years back. A large proportion of population is under 15- and has grown up in refugee camps; unemployment is high and many continue to suffer from post-conflict trauma.

I am reading ‘Aboke Girls’, a book by Ells de Temmerman which sketches a graphic picture of the abduction of 30 girls from a school by the LRA.

aboke girls

It’s a gripping read and I would thoroughly recommend it- its a must not only for people interested in this conflict and in Uganda, but also anyone interested in human behaviour. I am shocked about just how cruel  humans can become. Here is a related news story to kindle your interest:

There is abundant wildlife- both birds and animals. For a taster- we met this happy baboon on the side of the road, munching away on his mango.


On that note, there is absolute abundance of bananas, mangoes and avocados- and everything you can make from each one of those!

Kampala- City of Seven Hills

The Pearl of Africa and the City of Seven hills. My home for the next three and a half months, as I undertake a short posting to the Uganda office of UK’s Department for International Development. I have now been in Kampala for three weeks and am starting this blog to record and share my impressions- with my family and friends, and with anyone who has an interest in Kampala, in Uganda and in Africa.

Kampala is a lovely city that spreads over seven hills- the height variations means you can spot a beautiufl view of the city just making your way somewhere. It has a relaxed feel to it- most people are in no rush. Traffic is unorganised but the slow speed makes me feel I just need to slowly ‘glide’ through. Good music helps. I have been provided with a manual Toyota Prado- which makes me feel confident in the chaos. In rush hour, there is often a traffic gridlock and people like to stop bumper to bumper, going uphill. My ability to do an uphill handbrake start has increased manifold in the last two weeks!

Boda-bodas – motorcycle taxis are everywhere. They drive particularly bad and without helmets, so not the safest mode of transport. But they are often the fastest as they sneak through all sorts of traffic jams- left, right and centre. Young men can be spotted on many street corners, seemingly loitering. If you pass by on foot they start talking- they are only trying to solicit clients for a boda ride.

All in all, a bustling yet easy city with a lively buzz that I am looking forward to exploring further.