The Privilege of “Uncomplicated” Culture Shock

By Kirstie Russell

In preparation for international internships like this one, students are often warned about a phenomenon known as “culture shock.” According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, culture shock is defined as “a feeling of confusion felt by someone visiting a country or place that they do not know.”(1)  Interns are told, or we read, that upon arrival in a new place, especially somewhere as far away as “Africa” that we will be exposed to new sights, new smells, new social cues and new foods that will likely cause us to miss or even mourn home – what the literature on culture shock calls our “abandoned culture” (2).  I won’t lie, I did feel a certain element of shock upon arriving in Uganda. The most intense period probably lasted about two or three weeks, but to be honest, the lingering discomforts and confusion remained until my last days in the country.

For me, the shock of being in a new place did not present itself in the “typical” ways, or at least not in the ways that I was expecting. What I mean by that is that it was not the food or the lack of sidewalks or the religious prayers before each work meeting that were the most difficult aspects for me to adjust to. Yes, I faced challenges with some foods, especially as a vegetarian, and yes, I certainly found it claustrophobic not being able to walk around my neighbourhood alone (particularly at night). For me, the biggest challenge I felt in terms of “culture shock” was my inability to even remotely understand the lived experiences of the many people I met, and most especially the people with whom I worked – both clients and colleagues.

The Gender and Sexuality program at Refugee Law Project (RLP) assists refugees who have experienced sexual violence and sexual torture and helps connect them to medical and other support services. As an intern, I interviewed clients about their history and what in particular was bringing them in that day. The stories I heard are, I would imagine, for most people born and raised in Canada probably unimaginable. It was utterly disturbing to hear about what instability, war and conflict allows human beings to do to one another. What was equally disturbing, however, was the lack of awareness about some of what is currently going on in areas of conflict – for example, the perpetration of sexual violence and sexual torture against men,  a current focus of RLP’s. During these sessions, I could nod my head and listen actively to the best of my ability, but I knew that at the end of the day, there was nothing I could personally do to help the client’s situation. I couldn’t heal their wounds, give them money for their children’s school fees, or as some people requested, bring them to Canada for a better life. I could only take down notes and hopefully give them a referral to a doctor, but even that depended on what funding was available and whether it applied to that individual and their particular circumstances. At the end of the day, I would pack up my Macbook Air, fill up my S’well water bottle, pull out my cellphone and call an Uber to my secure compound after stopping by the grocery store, all the while knowing that the client I saw that day was starving themselves to save up enough money to send their child to private school so that they can get a decent education (several people have told me that in Uganda, if you send your child to public school, the children are so unsupervised that most come back unable to read and write and many girls in particular end up ditching school entirely in order to make money engaging in prostitution) . This, for me, was the most intense form of shock or confusion I experienced in Uganda. I felt shocked and confused by the deck of cards I have been dealt compared to others; shocked and confused by my privilege and all that my peers and I consider “basic needs;” shocked and confused by the things I have taken for granted. I don’t think there’s much that can prepare you for those complicated feelings of horror, shame, guilt and sadness. I was nothing short of smacked in the face by the fact that my quality of life is so much better than someone else’s for no reason at all, except that I were born in a different place – a place free of conflict and instability – under entirely different circumstances. When that reality is staring you in the face, it really is nothing less than shocking and, for better or for worse, it is the type of shock that doesn’t really go away.

However, as I write this blog post, I can’t help but feel guilty (or at least some complex version of guilt) for spending 1000 words talking about my experiences with “culture shock” during my McGill University human rights internship in Uganda. After working at RLP with individuals who have been forced to flee their home for unimaginable reasons, I realize that the idea of feeling culture shocked is a privilege in and of itself. Indeed, most of the individuals I have been working with at RLP have experienced such horrific things that they do not have the time or the wherewithal to feel culture shocked, despite the fact that they are in a new country, generally living in slums with people they have never met, often separated from family and friends for an indefinite amount of time. This is in contrast to me, a law student who is in Uganda by choice for a limited amount of time, fully aware that I will be returning to my peaceful and stable home where I will be greeted by my family. Unlike me, the migrants I have met at RLP do not have time to feel culture shocked. No; they are far too busy focusing on how to seek treatment for their wounds from torture, how to pay for their children’s school fees and in some cases, how to locate family members, even children, from whom they have been separated for many months, if not years. My “culture shock,” which the literature aptly calls uncomplicated culture shock is, I have come to realize, one of the most significant forms of privilege I have encountered during my time in Uganda (3).

A busy city market in downtown Kampala on a Sunday.

 

The “taxi” park in downtown Kampala. In Uganda, a “taxi” refers to a matatu, which is one of the main forms of public transport in Uganda. They only cost about a dollar, but do not have reliable schedules so you must be patient because the taxi will not leave until it is full.

 .  

The view from the office I shared with my manager at RLP. I was lucky to work next to the English For Adults Center at RLP, where RLP staff would teach new refugees English, Uganda’s official language, so that they would be able to integrate more easily into Ugandan society. I heard from many refugees that this program was absolutely vital to their quality of life in Uganda because knowing the language made it so much easier to get a job and to interact with administrative bodies like UNHCR.

_________

(1) The Cambridge English Dictionary, “Culture Shock”, accessed on August 29, 2019 from: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/culture-shock

(2) Garza-Guerrero AC, Culture shock: Its mourning and the vicissitudes of identity, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 1974 Apr;22 (2):408-29.

(3) According to A. Cesar Garza-Guerrero, “uncomplicated culture shock” is “culture shock resulting from a more or less voluntary decision by a newcomer to leave [their] country for diverse reasons…[T]his is in contradiction to ‘complicated culture shock’ – that is one in which the newcomer left his country for the very reason that his ‘average acceptable environment’ was no longer that ‘average’ for their particular ego identity. One example of ‘complicated culture shock’ would be that suffered by refugees from sociopolitical upheaval in the abandoned culture.” [pg. 417]

 

A Prison in the Middle of Nowhere

By Katrina Bland

“You have to wear a long skirt, for the security of the inmates.”

The day before our visit to Muinaina Prison, I was told that a woman is not allowed to enter a prison in Uganda if she is not wearing a skirt. What else did I know about prisons in Uganda? Almost nothing.

I had spent the last couple days reading a report from a partner organization, Interaid, about refugee clients in Luzira Prison in Kampala that they wanted Refugee Law Project to take on. The report described each prisoner’s country of origin, their charges, sentence, and their requests. While many requested help with their appeals, a prison transfer, or to contact their families, every single one requested the basic necessities of cooking oil and rain boots. I had also heard people say that conditions in prison in Uganda are awful, and likely responsible for the country’s low recidivism rate of 30%—the lowest in Africa. In the car during the three-hour drive to Muinaina from Kampala, I went over these clues in my mind. First, I had to wear a skirt. Second, the inmates want cooking oil and rain boots. Third, the conditions are so bad no one wants to go back.

With these clues, I unsophisticatedly adapted an image of North American prisons in my mind. Muinaina would be, I thought, the same, but the incarcerated persons might do their own cooking and the courtyard would be mud instead of cement. I wrote off the third clue because it’s difficult to imagine any prison anywhere where the conditions would be such that people would leave wanting to return.

For most of the drive from Kampala, we had no idea where Muinaina Prison was. We stopped for directions three times, and each time we were simply told to keep driving. The tarmac road turned to dirt, but the same open hills of green tea plants and matoke rolled by. Suddenly, or so it seemed to me, my colleagues breathed sighs of relief and announced our arrival. What gave them that idea? As I looked around, I saw nothing that indicated a prison. There was no massive parking lot or ten-metre high wall, no buildings made of flat grey cement with barred windows. Then I spotted a man in a bright yellow uniform with a herd of cows. Then another man in a bright orange uniform carrying a bundle of firewood. And a group of ten men in yellow carrying sacks of maize. A group in mixed yellow and orange tilling a field. They were prisoners, but there were no guards to be seen.

As we got closer what I thought was just another collection of houses surrounding a school turned out to be the prison staff quarters around the inmates’ wards. We went in, gave the name of the client we were there to see and were shown to a wooden bench looking into a courtyard through a gate. Nearby, three or four guards stood talking. They were the first security personnel I had seen in Uganda without guns. There was no privacy, but we were not searched or asked any questions. A guard simply called to an inmate near the gate to tell our client that he had visitors. I realized that it is not surprising Muinaina does not have the fluorescent lit visiting room that I had pictured during the journey there. The prison is so remote; it is difficult to imagine visitors are more than a rare occurrence.

When our client appeared dressed in yellow, he sat on an identical wooden bench on the other side of the gate bars and described his case. Yellow is the colour for incarcerated persons on remand, while orange is the colour for those who have been convicted—at least most of the time. These days, prisons often run out of yellow uniforms due to the huge number of persons incarcerated waiting trial. They make up more than 50% of Uganda’s prison population and many are relegated to the orange of convicted persons.

Much like the lack of information about the whereabouts of Muinaina Prison, RLP had been referred our client’s case without any details. This is not uncommon. RLP has eleven offices across Uganda serving thousands of clients who often do not have permanent phone numbers, residences, or in some cases, even birthdates. RLP staff at other offices refer the vague details of a potential client and my supervisor, Jesse, sets out into the field and hopes for the best.

Our client told us he had been incarcerated for over three months. Originally, he was told he would be brought to court for a bail hearing on June 11th, but the day of, the guards told him he wasn’t going. He hadn’t heard anything since. No one was surprised by this story. The prison is so remote that there is no internet or cell service there. Communication to and from the prison is difficult and expensive. Just as family members of incarcerated persons do not know where they are or how they are, the incarcerated persons themselves are usually not informed of the status of their file or when they will get to appear in court. There is no broad promise of legal aid in Uganda, and without an advocate on the other side any information is difficult to come by.

Court room at the Law Development Centre in downtown Kampala

As my colleagues interview our client, in a mixture of Congolese Swahili and Luganda, I watch as the courtyard comes to life. Inside, there only appears to be one guard, distinguishable among the sea of orange and yellow by his beige uniform. The incarcerated persons sat in three neat groups, two of yellow and one of orange. Surrounding each group were three or four other individuals in yellow or orange, each carrying a long skinny stick. While the single prison guard appeared to chat amicably with them, they seemed to be the ones in charge.

The colour doesn’t seem to matter, however, in Uganda’s overpopulated prison system. Uganda has 249 prisons, with a maximum carrying capacity of 16 612 individuals. The most recent statistics say that the total population of these prisons is 48 422, exceeding their maximum capacity by over 30 000 people. Individuals on remand are not separated from those convicted and those convicted of the most serious offences are not treated any differently than the rest. Muinaina is only one prison among these 249, but as the inmates get up and move around it is not difficult to see how overcrowded the facilities are and how impossible it would be to separate offenders by their crime or sentence.

Without any signal or instruction, some men begin sorting through maize, separating kernels and putting them through a grinder to create maize flour. Others begin cooking in a corner. Some men work at a makeshift carpentry station under the branches of a young tree. One man in yellow discusses something with the guard and then uses a saw to cut a long branch off of another small tree. This man then appears to be able to wield the same authority as the other men in orange and yellow overseeing the activities in the courtyard. No one objects. The sticks do not appear to be threatening at all. Granted I cannot hear or understand anything that is being said, they seem almost like a wooden pointer in a classroom, used to indicate or just to hold, imparting a sense of confidence and status to the bearer.

Along the edges of the courtyard are two long single-story buildings with many doors. While the centre of the courtyard is bustling with activity, men on the edges sit on the doorsteps or lean against the walls of these buildings. They look like they are waiting for something and have been waiting so long they have run out of things to talk about. Many watch us intently from afar as we interact with our client. Soon, without warning, the men return to their original three groups of yellow and orange sitting on the ground. After a short while, they get up and work or wait again. And then return to their groups. And repeat.

The Ugandan Prison Service (UPS) promotes farm prisons like Muinaina as self-sufficient entities that teach inmates agricultural skills they can use when they are released. It is one of many rehabilitation programs that has been promoted by the UPS since the Prisons Act was passed in 2006. In a way, what I saw presented a much more believable version of rehabilitation than what I know of prisons at home. There was no trace of the North American version of incarceration where individuals are surrounded by cement above and below as well as on all sides or where a fight between inmates or bad behaviour is punished with solitary confinement. Instead, Muinaina seemed to function like a small village, replicating life outside the prison quite well. At the same time, the shortage of resources is evident. Indeed, it is probably the shortage of resources that makes this style of prison both possible and necessary.

The government does not have the funds to provide food, so the inmates must grow and cook their own. Other shortages, like space, medical services, and clean water reported in Ugandan prisons, however, are less possible for prisons to remedy on their own. Even worse, there are reports of torture and ill-treatment, especially among individuals incarcerated on remand as guards are charged with securing confessions to push cases forward. The difference between forced labour as punishment and agriculture as a rehabilitative program may be impossible to observe in such a short visit. For individuals waiting for a trial date that may never come in Uganda’s backlogged and bureaucratic judicial system, all of these conditions—no matter how rehabilitative—violate their fundamental rights.

The entrance of Muinaina Farm Prison

It is colder at Muinaina than in Kampala, cold enough to remind me of a late September evening at home, and the sky is dark with coming rain. When it rains, it will get colder and the ground will turn to clay. The ten men carrying sacks of maize return from the fields. The guards unlock the three padlocks keeping the prison gate closed, and the men run in, deposit their maize in a pile and run out again. They repeat this three times in the period we are there. Some of these men have uniforms including pants or a sweater, while others wear only shorts and a t-shirt. Many of these men are barefoot, while others are wearing the much coveted rain boots.

As we drove away, I asked Jesse why no one seems worried about the men escaping. They seem free to graze cattle as far from the prison as they wish or to disappear into tall fields of maize unsupervised. Jesse asked me in return, where would they go? My response of ‘anywhere’ only made him laugh. Their yellow or orange uniforms make them visible from so far away, they would need to run naked. Moreover, many of them are safer here than at home as traditional justice in their villages sometimes means wrongdoers must be killed for the sake of peace. Besides, he said, the guards know the prisoners aren’t stupid. They could be out of here any day, so why would they run?

Adam, our translator and driver for the day

Jesse, a lawyer with Refugee Law Project and my supervisor

Research and Knowledge Theft in Uganda

Katrina Bland

There was a professor from Canada, who every year would take me for coffee, and at the end of every coffee, she would have a chapter written based on my conversation. So, I have decided that I no longer share vital knowledge on the issues we have been working around. As an issue of intellectual property rights, this is my request, don’t let western scholars steal your knowledge. Let us write.”

Maybe it was my imagination, but I felt all eyes in the room turn to me. As the only Canadian present and the intern charged with taking verbatim notes, it appeared that I could be preparing to do the very thing he was warning against. Words that the speaker intended as a call to arms for the native Ugandans in the room would recur to me again and again as they echoed some questions I have been asking myself about my time in Uganda. 

This is the view from my office at RLP. Across the street is Old Kampala Primary School and in the distance the National Mosque is visible. From my office I can hear the sound of children playing, practicing the drums as well as the call to prayer everyday. Old Kampala is no longer the downtown centre of Kampala, but was the centre of the colonial administration before independence.

On my first day at Refugee Law Project (RLP), I sat in my office and read the Compendium of Conflicts put together after years of research by RLP’s Conflict, Transitional Justice and Governance department. I am embarrassed to admit that I was surprised by how complicated Uganda’s history of internal conflict is and how little I knew about the country that would be my home for the next three months. While I was familiar with Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, I knew nothing about the funding of various rebel groups by foreign African governments, the diversity of Uganda’s ethnic make up and the inter-tribal tensions further exacerbated by religious adherence, or the efforts made to have customary, religious and English common law co-exist as parallel and at times equal legal systems. My surprise, however, transitioned into something that resembled exasperation and recognition of my own incompetence. Who am I to be here? What could I possibly offer?

Set up of a psychosocial, medical and legal aid camp hosted by RLP for World Refugee Day. Almost 300 people attended seeking access to one or all of the services at the event. Although the event was meant to end by 5PM, it stretched on due to the overwhelming demand. During the event I tried to help as much as I could, but my ability was limited. While I gained a great deal from witnessing the event, I feel that I was able to offer little in return.

I think internships are often more work for the host organizations than for the interns themselves, no matter where you are in the world. Here, so far away from home and where the perspective on history I had absorbed over my life is out of place, this is exacerbated. I imagine I would need at least a couple years of education in Uganda, on the culture, history, socioeconomic structure and so on, before I could offer anything at all. I am lucky that my colleagues at RLP have been nothing but patient and welcoming with me as I try to catch up.

One of the tasks I have felt I could be useful doing has been editing working papers and other documents written by RLP staff from across Uganda. I am extremely self-conscious while doing it, however. English was forced upon colonized societies and there is still a tendency for people from the Global North to assume that English being different in post-colonial societies is the same as English in those societies being bad. Instead, however, I think that English in Uganda simply evolved differently the same way English in Canada evolved differently from English in the United Kingdom or the way French in Montreal is recognizably different from French spoken in Paris. They are in a way, all different dialects with the same roots. As such, I struggle to understand at times, as the primary connotations of words here are different from those at home. More than this, I think story telling is a deeply personal and cultural practice. The expressions that resonate with individuals vary from place to place, from culture to culture. Is there any objective value to the Global North’s conception of academic English? Or should we all be moving towards accepting more diverse versions of story telling and argument writing?

Inner courtyard of the Parliament of Uganda in Kampala
Kampala was chosen as the capital of the British protectorate of Uganda as it was the centre of the Buganda Kingdom, the Kingdom the British favoured to rule over the conglomeration of other Kingdoms that became Uganda. The same speaker as in the quote above said in another instance, “What is Uganda? There is no such thing. You know, the thief is always in a hurry, so the British forgot the B. On the copy of the agreement signed between the British and Buganda Kingdom in Luganda, the B is still there.”

In my experience, this recognition of lived experiences as a form of truth telling worthy of legitimacy in academic and professional spheres is only emerging in legal scholarship in Canada. In comparison, it seems that Uganda is years ahead. RLP, for example, specializes in organizing events they call memory dialogues, which serve as an opportunity for individuals to describe events as they remember them and contribute to the creation of a collective history. I have edited many documents that draw on these memories, describing surviving mass killings in village squares or witnessing individual murders where the bodies were later skinned or boiled in the street. Who am I to change the words and phrases someone has chosen to relate their experience working with war torn communities in northern Uganda? Still, as the documents are intended for a global audience, particularly future donors and other NGOs looking for best practices to follow, there is some practical need for them to meet the expectations of those readers. As such, I try to find an appropriate balance between what my instincts tell me about academic English and the author’s original voice.

I am reminded of the words of the speaker above during this process. Although I am only editing, it is not hard to imagine the sense of ownership the speaker’s Canadian friend would feel over a chapter resulting from their conversation. Does translating stories into the Global North’s conception of an academic thesis give us the right to call the ideas our own? Or does it simply allow us to remain willfully blind to what the speaker resents? If I consider research and writing about Africa as, at least in part, a self-interested practice, often allowing individuals who participate in it to garner some kind of elite status, it seems that extracting knowledge and experiences as fuel for this process is akin to colonial resource extraction. Unlike physical resource extraction, however, the market in which scholars from the Global North sell their ideas does not buy raw materials. There are so many good reasons and intentions behind this kind of research and writing, but at the same time, I feel it may be complicit in the perpetuation of the Global North/South dichotomy. Have I trapped myself? I am not prepared to celebrate such scholarship wholeheartedly, but I am not prepared to denounce it and walk away either.

The question, then becomes, what can I possibly offer in the future? Will I ever come back to Uganda? Will I work for an international human rights organization somewhere else? Will I ever be able to give anything back to the people who have shaped my experience here by walking me through some of the most complicated and painful issues RLP is trying to tackle through transitional justice?

Petit, a fellow intern at RLP and law student and me at the Wildlife Conservation Centre in Entebbe, known to locals simply as the zoo

Solomy, a transitional justice lawyer with RLP, and me at an event on property rights in post-conflict communities hosted at the Parliament of Uganda

I thought at first that even if I took what I learned here and applied it in Canada or elsewhere, that would be enough. In fact, there is so much that Canada could learn from the transitional justice movement in Uganda. But, then I learned that the resentment against knowledge theft, as articulated by the speaker, is not an isolated opinion. Communities all over Uganda—whether rural or urban, refugee or host—describe people, like myself, coming in, conducting interviews, doing research, and leaving. It feels, understandably I think, exploitative to be asked to share painful experiences and hopes for the future with a stranger who will take your words, translate them into a paper written in academic English and return to their comfortable life somewhere where their families will be happy they survived Ebola. No tangible difference in your life as an individual, often no thank yous and no goodbyes.

My focus on this seems to reinforce that I am from the Global North, a fact that I often instinctively wish I could hide. In contrast, my colleagues seem less concerned. As educated professionals from the capital, they are in some ways removed from the people they are trying to help like me. More than anything, they want me to worry about gaining as much as I can from my internship experience. Just yesterday, one of my coworkers said he was going to talk my supervisor into taking me to the field to see some of what I have been reading about first hand. In response to my discomfort and concerns, he simply said ‘What you learn here could influence what you do for the rest of your life.’ I have no doubt that my time at Refugee Law Project already will, and even though I don’t think I have any answers to the questions I have been asking in this blog, maybe that is enough for now.

Lake Victoria as seen from Ssese Islands where the main economic activities are fishing, logging, and palm oil production for exportation. Prior to colonization, the islands were the spiritual centre of the region.

Sanitary napkins, Bribery and Refugee Status Determination

By Molly Joeck

What do these three things have in common? They can all be found at the important-sounding and all-powerful Office of the Prime Minister, or OPM, in Kampala, an office that I am frequently obliged to visit in the context of my work at the Durable Solutions Unit at Refugee Law Project. The OPM is, essentially, the equivalent of the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board, granting new arrivals asylum seeker status, and then assessing them through a series of interviews as to their eligibility for refugee status, and, if they are lucky, eventually granting them this status. As with the IRB, and probably even more so, the process is very bureaucratic, difficult to navigate and opaque beyond belief.

On one particular day at work, I needed to bring some paperwork to OPM, the usual assortment of things: appeals applications, lost ID declarations, requests for the merging of family files, etc. There is one officer at OPM in particular who deals with these sorts of requests. I’ve never become clear as to what her exact title is, but for my purposes she holds God-like status, able to grant or refuse almost any of the requests I have. There are always crowds of asylum seekers huddled in the waiting room hoping to see her, but on this day I slipped into her office ahead of the throngs. Because OPM works frequently with RLP, they are relatively tolerant of our frequent meetings, and generally willing to let us pop into the office when we come by

The all-powerful god-like officer, whom I’ll call Vicky, was occupied with a client when I arrived, but quickly wrapped up her conversation to turn to me. She greeted me as the client stood up to leave, and the client had one last quick exchange with Vicky in Swahili before exiting the office. Seemingly in reaction to whatever words she’d just exchanged with her client, Vicky turned back to me, grabbing a box from behind her desk and placing it on the desk it front of me.

“Do you know these?” she asked me. It was a box of sanitary napkins. My mind was racing – why should I know these particular sanitary napkins? Did they have special magic properties? What was going on? I remembered a newspaper article I’d read when I first arrived in Uganda about a local entrepreneur’s new project – sanitary napkins made very cheaply out of local materials, affordable for girls attending rural schools and easily disposable, the main problems facing adolescent school-age girls coping with menstruation. I concluded that the sanitary napkins on the desk in front of me must be these new sustainable Ugandan-made pads.

“Yes, I think so,” I replied. “Aren’t they the ones made locally in Uganda?”

“No,” Vicky replied firmly, “they are international sanitary napkins,” (with extra emphasis on the word international, in case I should conclude that these were merely shoddy Ugandan-made products). “They are very good quality, the best available. Would you like to buy some?”

A representative of the Office of the Prime Minister of Uganda is trying to sell me sanitary pads? I wasn’t quite sure how to handle the situation. So I did what I usually do – I blurted out the truth. “I don’t use pads,” I replied.

Vicky’s curiosity was piqued. She leaned forward across her desk, looking very interested in what I had to say. “Ahhh, you use tampons?” she asked me.

“No, not necessarily,” I replied. Vicky was confused, and I felt that I had no choice but to embark on an explanation of alternatives to tampons and pads. Vicky was very curious, and asked lots of questions.

Once we’d finished our conversation about menstruation and sanitary napkins and tampons, we passed to what Vicky seemed to feel was the much less interesting subject: my clients and their futures as refugees in Uganda. Vicky’s attention waned visibly, and she rushed me through what I had to say.

“No, we can’t handle that – UNHCR has to deal with it,” in reference to a client who has been unable to obtain asylum seeker status for almost a year because of issues around his repatriation.

“OK, give it to me, I’ll look at it later,” in reference to a client whose testimony has been lost not once, but twice, by OPM, and as a result has been without status for two years in Uganda. And so on.

Evidently buying sanitary napkins is an easier mission to accomplish at the OPM than resolving issues of status for asylum seekers.

UNLESS the right sum of money enters the right person’s pocket, I was later to learn.

A group of RLP’s clients have formed an organization called the Association of Torture Victims, or ATV. ATV is supported by RLP, provided with space for meetings and occasionally given funding for its activities. In the last week of June ATV organized anti-torture day, inviting torture victims as well as various organizations involved with torture victims to attend. The event took place in the field of Old Kampala Secondary School, across the street from RLP. Three big tents were set up for attendees, and various speeches and performances took place, including music and acting.

One of the highlights of the day was a series of skits put together by members of ATV meant to communicate their experiences as asylum seekers in Kampala. OPM was one of the organizations featured in one of the skits. The actor playing an OPM representative, as part of the skit, asked an asylum seeker for money in order to process his application, a procedure which is meant to be free. The asylum seeker had no choice but to hand over the money in order to proceed with his application in a timely manner.

After the skits wrapped up, speeches began. Various people got up and spoke, including Mama Eunice, the much-loved head of the Legal and Psychosocial Department at RLP. Her heartfelt words drew much applause from the large audience.

The next person to take the microphone was a representative of OPM, who, after pronouncing some insincere words on the plight of torture victims, proceeded to launch into a defence of her agency, stating outright in response to the earlier skit that OPM officials never take bribes. This is not the way OPM operates, she explained. The agency is staffed by honest folks who wouldn’t dare do such a thing!

On this warm day in the middle of the school field with the sun beating down on us, this questionable statement drew the liveliest reaction of the day from the hot, hungry audience. The ATV members and other clients of RLP in attendance, who were numerous, began waving their arms in the air and booing so loudly that they drowned out the words of the OPM representative. Anyone who may have been dozing at that point was rudely awakened.

The message from the audience was clear. Do OPM representative take bribes? Ha! Is the sky blue? Do Ugandans eat matooke? The OPM representative, looking embarrassed and unsure of herself, rushed through the end of her speech and hurried back to her chair to take a seat.

I wonder how many Ugandan shillings you have to slide into an OPM representative’s palm to get a box of high-quality international sanitary napkins along with your refugee status determination. I suppose I’ll never know. But any women in Kampala looking for some top-notch pads, ask for Vicky at the OPM. Maybe she can help you out, for the right price of course.

Uncertainty looms over Rwandan refugees in Uganda as cessation clauses to be invoked on December 31, 2011

Nelly MarcouxBy Nelly Marcoux – Fears of unwanted repatriation have been spreading among Rwandan refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda over the last months.  In 2003, the signature of a Tripartite Agreement between the Governments of Rwanda and Uganda and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had laid the foundations of a framework to eventually repatriate Rwandan refugees.  Following its 6th meeting, held in 2009, the Tripartite Commission issued a statement to the effect that “the retention of refugee status by present Rwandan refugees (was) no longer justifiable or necessary”. At the 8th Tripartite Commission Meeting, it was finally decided that come 31 December, 2011, the cessation clauses of Uganda’s Refugee Act 2006, of the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention and of the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention) would be invoked against all Rwandan refugees, causing them to be stripped of their refugee status.

Cessation of refugee status is a mechanism within refugee law which allows for the removal of international protection when it is deemed that the circumstances having justified its extension no longer exist.  It can be applied on an individual basis or to a group of refugees whose initial flight shares similar characteristics and motives. Certain conditions must be fulfilled to lawfully invoke such clauses: first, there must first be fundamental change in the circumstances existing in the country of origin; such change must be enduring, beyond transitory; and finally, state protection must be restored to the forced migrant. Exemption procedures are provided for those individuals who remain in need of international protection and those who, due to compelling reasons based on previous persecution, cannot go back.

Seventeen years after the 1994 genocide, as of January 2011 there were an estimated 16,300 Rwandan refugees in Uganda, with asylum seekers being numbered at approximately 11, 551.  These migrants have been coming into the country in successive waves, fleeing various conflicts since 1959.  Following the mass exodus created by the 1994 genocide, asylum seekers have been trickling in steadily into Uganda since 1998.   In March and April 2010 alone, for example, 1,312 officially recognised asylum seekers arrived in Uganda.

Rwanda boasts an impressive economic growth and rapid improvements in the areas of education and health; it is perceived as having achieved stability and as successfully managing the daunting tasks of promoting national reconciliation and nation building.  As such, the Rwandan government benefits from a favourable image in the eyes of the international community. In recent years, having deemed that it was time for its exiled nationals to return “home”, Kigali has invoked this record to support its claim; it has also pursued spirited means of repatriating its citizens, notably through the signing of tripartite agreements with Uganda and Tanzania. Increasingly, the idea that refugee status for Rwandans is “no longer justified or necessary” has gained currency in international discourse and accordingly, policies are put in place to encourage, facilitate or implement return.

In Uganda, some of these measures involve severe restrictions on livelihoods, and have resulted in an overall decrease in the protection afforded to Rwandese refugees.  For instance, as a means of “encouraging repatriation” and “promoting self-reliance”, Rwandan refugees in Ugandan settlements have seen their land confiscated and have been forced to rely on rations only for survival, the rationale behind that policy being that attachment to land constitutes a factor undermining repatriation. Decreases in rations and in access to other services have also been reported.  Such policies have severely curtailed refugees and asylum seekers’ ability to ensure their food security or to engage in income generating activities

Although it is important to acknowledge that a vast number of migrants have successfully returned to and stayed in Rwanda, questions remain: why are so many Rwandans reluctant to go back?  Why have some promptly made their way across the border again after returning voluntarily, choosing the hardships of refugee life over repatriation?  Several reasons have been cited by the latter to explain their decision; for instance, many report having been unable to recover the property left behind during the initial flight, and having faced violence in attempting to do so.  Others mention fear of persecution on various grounds, or of the potential abuses of the gacaca system, set up to implement transitional justice following the 1994 genocide; and many Hutu refugees report fearing blanket accusations of participation in and responsibility for the genocide.

Furthermore, several human rights abuses and restrictions on civil and political freedoms in Rwanda have been documented, prompting the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative to issue the following statement in its 2009 report on Rwanda’s application for membership of the Commonwealth:

There are considerable doubts about the commitment of the current regime to human rights and democracy. It has not hesitated to use violence at home or abroad when it has suited it.

Arbitrary detentions and restrictions on political activity and freedom of expression are also reported, notably on account of the implementation of legislation against “genocide ideology”, a set of legal instruments emphasizing national unity and reconciliation by banning “ethnic classifications or any discussion of the country’s diversity”; some critics allege that this law, as currently implemented, works to suppress public debate around issues relating to ethnicity, and to stifle criticism of current government policies.

Also of concern are the circumstances surrounding two instances of forcible return of Rwandan refugees conducted in recent years, which have raised the alarms of the international community.  In October 2007, some 3000 Rwandan ‘rejected’ asylum seekers “illegally” in Uganda, were expelled at gunpoint, in the early hours of the morning.  On July 14, 2010, at Nakivale  and Kyaka refugee settlements, over 1,700 Rwandans refugees and asylum seekers were told to gather to receive food rations or obtain the results of their asylum applications from the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM); they were then rounded up by the military and loaded onto trucks which drove them across the border. Two individuals died and 26 were injured as they attempted to jump off the trucks; families were also reportedly separated, as parents were deported while children remained in the settlements.  It is significant to note that Rwandan officers were on the premises during the operation which, according to Salima Namusobya, legal officer at the Refugee Law Project, was “coordinated between the governments of Rwanda and Uganda.”   Notwithstanding the obvious problems associated with this way of proceeding, from a strictly legal point of view, these operations have deprived refugees and asylum seekers from exhausting the appeal procedures provided for Refugee Status Determination in Uganda’s Refugees Act, 2006”; they also violated principles of international law prescribing that repatriation must be conducted in safety and dignity.

Months away from December 31, and despite the seriousness and widespread character of these concerns, the paucity of information available publicly about the implementation of cessation, even among refugee agencies, and NGOs, is surprising.  Uncertainty lingers with regards to roadmaps, timeframes and modalities of implementation; questions also remain concerning the institution of mechanisms to ensure that all those in need of international protection will be able to access the recourses to which they are entitled under domestic and international law.

Refugee law provides for three durable solutions, namely local integration, repatriation and resettlement to a third country. Yet in the case of Rwandan refugees, repatriation seems to be strongly emphasized to the detriment of the remaining two options.  As a result, Rwandan refugees in Uganda face pressure such that their situation has been qualified as “constructive refoulement” by some analysts.  Non-refoulement, a cornerstone of refugee law, bars states from returning anyone to a place where they would risk persecution.  Yet, the indiscriminate application of cessation to all Rwandans risks creating such a situation by failing to account for the circumstances of individuals who run very real risks, should they be compelled to repatriate.  Any solution prematurely withdrawing international protection to individuals in need of such protection, in violation of fundamental principles of refugee law, would be anything but durable.

An uncertain future for Rwandese refugees in Uganda

kelly_mcmillanBy Kelly McMillan

Last Wednesday afternoon, cell phones started ringing throughout RLP. In hushed, urgent tones, reports began circulating among refugees and staff: Rwandese asylum seekers were being forcibly repatriated from Nakivale refugee settlement in Western Uganda. Interpreters were quickly reassigned from consultations and testimony taking, as RLP staff and volunteers scrambled to figure out what was going on in Uganda’s largest refugee settlement, located several hours from Kampala.

Within hours, reports were confirmed: dozens of Rwandese asylum seekers (whose claims for refugee status had been rejected in a recent sitting of Uganda’s Refugee Eligibility Committee (REC)) were lured to basecamp with promises of food, and claims that their status rejection would be reconsidered. There, rejected asylum seekers were herded onto lorries by Ugandan soldiers. As reality began to set in and chaos erupted (people running in all directions), soldiers fired shots into the air, people were injured, and families separated. At least five lorries filled with asylum seekers left Nakivale settlement for the Ugandan-Rwandan border. [See RLP/IRRI joint press release].

As in Canada, Uganda’s Citizenship and Immigration Act provides for a review process for rejections of asylum seekers’ claims. The Act also provides for procedural safeguards for the deportation of those who have exhausted all avenues for appeal. These forcible removals thus violate Uganda’s own refugee law, not to mention the principle of non-refoulement in international law.

The removals are also part of a troubling political landscape that Rwandese asylum seekers and refugees in Uganda are currently facing… On which more later!

*Internship undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)

Refugee law and … witchcraft law?

kelly_mcmillanBy Kelly McMillan

When I first learned I would be wWitchcraft Actorking with the Refugee Law Project’s legal aid clinic, I had in mind several types of issues I might be dealing with: refugee status determination and appeals, tenancy law, family law…

Witchcraft certainly wasn’t on the list.

Yet, during interviews and information sessions held prior to and during a recent twelve-day field visit to Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in Western Uganda, witchcraft was one of the most pressing legal issues raised by authorities and refugees alike. In fact, when our team of eight legal officers and counselors first arrived at the settlement to introduce ourselves to the Camp Commandant’s office, Uganda’s Witchcraft Act was prominently displayed in various locations, apparently to serve some kind of deterrent effect.

Far from an expert on legal pluralism, I have been racking my brains to remember what my first year Foundations class might have had to say about reconciling something like witchcraft with a modern legal system like the one in place in Uganda. For someone who doesn’t really believe that people can turn into dogs or snakes, or eat another person from a distance, it is hard to imagine how these kinds of allegations could form a basis for any legal action at all. (So I wasn’t surprised to hear from Kyangwali Settlement’s Assistant Camp Commandant that lack of evidence is the principal reason for the few prosecutions under the Witchcraft Act!)

Nonetheless, the practice of witchcraft, whether one believes in it or not, is widespread throughout Uganda’s refugee community and beyond. A number of my clients cited instances of witchcraft as the main threat to their security in Uganda. Child sacrifice for the purposes of witchcraft is an ongoing problem that has recently received a lot of media attention here in Kampala, after the kidnapping and beheading of three young boys.

Correspondingly, the reality of witchcraft has slowly been incorporated into Uganda’s common law legal system. I am told that use of witchcraft is one basis for a provocation defense for murder in Uganda’s criminal law. The Witchcraft Act sets out penalties for those suspected of practicing witchcraft, or for being in possession of items used for witchcraft.

Upon further investigation, our team in the field discovered that a number of the alleged instances of witchcraft in the settlement were actually cases of children dying from malaria, an extremely common and largely preventable and treatable illness. So once again, I am left wondering about the adequacy of a purely legal response to many of the realities refugees here are facing. The whole witchcraft thing is beyond me, but has definitely provided me with some interesting – and very unexpected! – food for thought.

*Internship undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)

Law as a tool for development?

kelly_mcmillanBy Kelly McMillan

After finishing an undergraduate degree in international development studies, I was eager for some “real field experience”. Sure, I had participated in a number of valuable development-related internships in Canada, but I wanted a taste of how Development (as industry) operates on the ground. In 2006, I headed to Cameroon to participate in a 10-month internship on housing rights. I touched on a wide range of projects over those months, from trainings on income-generating activities for women, to facilitating the commercialization of local produce, to improving an existing microcredit facility, to organizing workshops on gender-based violence, to offering legal information seminars on housing and family law issues.

It was this last experience that ultimately motivated me to study law. Over the course of that year, I was exposed to a number of consultants in various fields passing through the organization and offering their expertise with concrete, tangible results. I felt my background in IDS was insufficient to allow me to make any really meaningful contribution. In particular, I was frustrated by the small scale of the community-based interventions I was involved in, and was discouraged by the lack of immediate results in some of the more policy-oriented initiatives. I felt that law—and community legal services in particular—would be my own “tool” to use to further women’s rights in the international context.

So, four years later, I was thrilled to have been selected for McGill CHRLP’s internship placement at the Refugee Law Project. I have already worked for two legal clinics in Montreal, and love the satisfaction that comes from solving a real human being’s concrete problem. It was a perfect combination of my IDS background and legal skills.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as so much of a shock to me that a few short weeks into my internship, the things that seemed less significant to me in my first overseas experience are the exact ones I find starkly absent in my present placement—namely, small-scale income-generating activities, vocational training programs and microcredit facilities! Not to mention an overarching philosophy of what is trying to be achieved.

On one of my first days, a counsellor at RLP summed up the general feeling of frustration I have since heard echoed by a number of RLP staff: “I refuse to counsel a hungry refugee!”

For someone who had initially been so optimistic about the promise of legal aid in development, this was a disturbing thing to hear. I have been thinking about it more and more: legal aid and psychosocial support is well and good, but is not enough for a person who fails to meet even the basic daily needs of herself and her family. Many refugees wait outside RLP all day without a meal. Many of the children cannot attend school for want of funds for transportation, uniforms and supplies and so instead work as house girls under oftentimes harsh conditions. I have heard the children themselves articulate education as their single biggest priority. As Intake Officer, a majority of my clients’ problems are not really legal, but medical or financial.

Although, admittedly, one organization cannot do everything, perhaps CONGEH did have the right recipe after all: an integrated approach focusing on finding sustainable ways to meet communities’ basic needs first, with some small resources to address individual legal problems in the short-term, but with a greater emphasis on preventing the legal issues from arising through information campaigns. I certainly don’t have an easy answer to this (surely there isn’t one), but now I have an even greater respect for (and am more in tune to) the priorities as identified by refugees, rather than donors.

So while Uganda’s theme for this year’s world refugee day (June 20th) is “Self-Reliance: Life Beyond Relief Aid”, I am perplexed by an almost total lack of services available to Kampala’s refugees to assist them in actually building such a life. For a person who has just lost everything, a start-up loan could go a long way…

A snapshot of the first four weeks

kelly_mcmillanBy Kelly McMillan

The first four weeks of my stay here in Kampala, Uganda, have been a whirlwind. If I didn’t contribute to this page earlier, it’s not for want of subject matter. Rather, I have been trying to wrap my head around everything I have been seeing and experiencing—both in my daily life and in terms of the legal issues I have been exploring in my internship.

Children and youth from the refugee community participate in an SGBV workshop at Old Kampala Primary School, May 15, 2010

Children and youth from the refugee community participate in an SGBV workshop at Old Kampala Primary School, May 15, 2010

Since my arrival, I have been busy getting lost in the chaos of Kampala’s taxi parks; learning to say “I don’t eat meat” (silia nyama) and other choice phrases in Luganda; sampling Ugandan cuisine (posho [known elsewhere in East Africa as ugali], matoke [mashed plantain], mputa [Nile Perch]); listening to  stories of the Buganda kingdom; venturing through congested markets on the shores of Lake Victoria (ten minutes from my house); not to mention dealing with such common occurrences as power outages, water shortages, vehicle break-downs and flash flooding! Just getting through the day in Kampala has proved exhilarating, to say the least.

At work, the learning curve has been just as steep. The Refugee Law Project is a large, bustling NGO of approximately 65 local and international staff, interns and volunteers. RLP is part community legal clinic, part crisis centre, part public policy advocate, part research institute, and part language school. At any given moment, dozens of refugees from a handful of countries can be found milling around the front courtyard waiting for legal or counseling services; attending English-language classes in the back; or even—in the case of one refugee women’s association—giving back by cleaning the office on a Friday afternoon.

I work in RLP’s Legal & Psychosocial Department (LPD). I spent my first two weeks assisting with the planning and execution of a week of events to raise awareness on sex and gender-based violence in the refugee community, including a children’s workshop, a police training and a roundtable discussion with stakeholders.

More recently, I have started doing “intake”, which is essentially the front line of RLP’s services. I listen to the client’s story and if her situation falls within one of the LPD’s program areas, I schedule a moment later in the week to take the client’s detailed testimony (everything from her experiences in her country of origin to her life here in Uganda). If the problem does not fall within RLP’s mandate, I refer the client to another organization.

One of my passions as a law student has been community legal services, and I am certain that interacting with RLP’s clients will be the most rewarding aspect of my time here. Nonetheless, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for some of the stories I’ve listened to over the past two weeks. So while my first month has been largely devoted to settling into a new city, a new culture and a new workplace environment, I have also taken the time to step back and reflect on some the social and legal issues facing Kampala’s refugees. I look forward to sharing these thoughts in later posts.

*Internship undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.