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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.

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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.

Navigating the Small Moments in Kampala

By Kirstie Russell

My commute to and from work is, in many ways, the time when I am most reflective on my new life in Kampala. Part of me wonders if this is because it makes up about 2 to 3 hours of my day, but another part of me thinks it is because it gives me time to slow down and really observe the city, its people and the way of life here. Kampala’s exuberance and vibrancy is difficult to put into words. Whatever I write here in this blog cannot possibly do it justice.

I arrived in Uganda nearly two months ago and still, almost every day, I see a passenger riding a boda (the motorcycles that most locals use to get around) while balancing some kind of large object on the end of the bike. For example, last week we saw a passenger transporting what must have been a 4-foot sheet of glass, which if you are at all familiar with Kampala’s traffic, is extremely risky business. The week before that, we saw a boda driver carrying a passenger who was balancing another broken down boda perpendicularly in his hands, clearly on the way to a mechanic. Just yesterday we saw a boda driver transporting what must have been 8-foot tall stalks of sugar cane horizontally through the narrow streets of Old Kampala, just missing other drivers passing by. Each and everyday we see bodas carrying entire families (sometimes up to 3 or 4 people, including small children) to their workplace and to school. Most of the time these small motorcycles narrowly squeeze in between the traffic, which operates relatively seamlessly but on its own accord given that there are barely any stop signs, traffic lights or street lamps. Meanwhile, pedestrians boldly skirt between the vehicles, which move in sudden spurts taking little mercy on anyone who risks getting in the way. Goats and chickens also occupy the roadway, trying to feed on whatever they can find in the grassy patches next to the uneven tarmac ridden with potholes.

Traffic, which is called “jam” in Uganda, is an inevitable part of life here. This is part of the reason why so many locals rely on using boda-boda’s, which are small motorcycles that weave in and out of the traffic in order to get their passengers to their destination on time.

In a way Kampala traffic is utterly hectic and completely overwhelming but from another perspective, it’s quite beautiful. The streets are chock-full of multicolored cars, mostly models from the 1980s to early 2000s, and motorcycles weaving in and out carrying all kinds of people wearing anything from a suit to flip flops to a beautifully patterned kitenge dress. All of this takes place against a backdrop of lush green hills, dotted with red roofs and rich rust-coloured dirt. A friend of mine local to Kampala describes the city as “beautiful chaos” and I think that puts its perfectly.

Kampala sits on seven hills and numerous valleys. It is extremely lush with all kinds of different trees, ranging from fruit trees to pine trees. Virtually anything can grow here because the climate is so amenable to growth.

The smells of Kampala are almost as diverse as the users of the roadway. On a warm sunny day, the air is usually thick and polluted but as you pick up speed you get enough of a breeze to catch the smell of fresh cassava cooking in oil in silver pots set up all along the road. Towards the middle of the day, the “rolex guys” start setting up their small stands typically protected by nothing other than a meager umbrella that is nowhere near big enough to stop them from getting drenched by one of Kampala’s intense but brief rain storms. Rolex’s are a classic Ugandan food consisting of a thin omelet rolled up in chapati, which is a wheat based fried bread, similar in a way to naan. Even later in the evening you can see women and their children setting up stoves along the roadside where they spend the evening roasting maize, which they then try and sell to tired and impatient drivers stuck in traffic (which the locals call “jam”). I’ve learned that food is extremely important to Ugandans. In fact, I find that it is one of the very first topics strangers ask me about when they find out I am visiting from Canada: “…but have you tried Ugandan food?” I’ve even had Uber drivers invite me over for dinner out of fear that the local food I have tasted is not up to standard. I have been lucky, though, because the organization where I interned at the beginning of the summer kindly provided its staff with lunch. Lunch typically consisted of a number of staple Ugandan foods, including: ground nut “g-nut” paste, which is a purple paste that is made out of nuts that taste similar to peanuts; mataoke (the most cherished Ugandan food), which is boiled and mashed green banana cooked in a banana leaf; Irish potato, which is similar to boiled potatoes at home; pumpkin, which is similar to acorn squash in Canada; beans or cow peas; rice; and some kind of stew, typically made with chicken, beef or fish.

A local man making chapati at a rolex stand near the Refugee Law Project. Chapati is a very cheap but filling option for lunch. I think this is the best Chapati out there, but apparently everybody thinks their “rolex guy” makes the best chapati.

For the first week, I tried every single food available at lunch (with the exception of the meat dishes because I am a vegetarian). I enjoyed most of the dishes but I quickly learned that my body was not used to consuming that much starch all at once in a single meal. Perhaps my challenge with digesting rice, potatoes, chapati, etc. all in one sitting is related to the fact that in North America there is an obsession with body image and because of this, often pressure to eat fewer carbohydrates. It’s possible that given my diet at home, I have difficulty digesting such a large amount of gluten all at one time. In the following weeks, I realized that I had to adjust my lunchtime eating habits to include just beans, cowpeas, rice and avocado in order to avoid getting a stomachache. This disconcerted my colleagues a lot. Every day someone would comment that I wasn’t eating “real” food. Ugandan’s love meat so it was difficult for them to understand why I would choose to eliminate this cherished food group from my diet. Initially, I felt really guilty about not eating all of the different foods offered in the buffet because I could tell that my colleagues were proud of their cuisine and eager to share it with me. I also recognized that choosing not to eat meat is a privilege that is not available to everyone. I didn’t want to come across like a picky eater because let’s be honest, nobody likes a picky eater. I tried to explain to my colleagues that in Canada, unlike Uganda, animals tend not to be raised ethically. Upon hearing this explanation, most of my colleagues understood my reasons for being vegetarian. Many of them seemed aware that food in North America is highly processed and they are very much proud of the fact that Ugandans eat real, natural food. And they should be proud. The tomatoes here are a deep cherry red like I’ve never seen before; the avocados, which are literally the size of my face, are a bright shade of green; and the chickens and goats roam around freely until maturation. The freshness and diversity of the food here is truly amazing, so it is unsurprising that it is such a critical aspect of Ugandan identity.

However, after three weeks of receiving commentary on my food intake, I admittedly became a bit tired out by other people’s focus on my personal dietary choices. Sometimes it felt like it’s all anyone wanted to talk to me about. That and the fact that I had a driver, which I admit, is not something that I felt great about either. While I would have preferred to take public transport to work, I was told by my friend who is from Kampala and who knows the city well that the safest and most reliable way for me to commute to my workplace (which is located about 40-60 minutes outside of the city) was to organize a scheduled driver. Before arriving in Uganda, I had many reservations about this set up. I recognized that this was not a typical form of transport and that it would likely be perceived as “privileged” (as it should be). I wasn’t wrong about this. On my very first day, I was asked the normal question of “where do you live?” and then “how do you reach?” which means “how do you commute?” When I explained that I had a driver due to the challenge of using public means from where I live, the next question was almost always “how much do you pay for that?”

In Canada we tend to avoid asking strangers personal questions, especially questions related to money. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case in Uganda, which is a much more collectivist society than North America, where we are typically more private and individualist. In my experience, Ugandans are much more willing to ask questions about money, family and even in some cases sexuality. Indeed, many people, including work mates, seem to have little reservation asking for intimate details about your personal relationships. A common question people would ask me is why I haven’t had children yet given that I have been with my partner for so many years. At first, my immediate internal reaction to these sorts of questions is shock and then, admittedly, some amount of irritation – why is that anyone’s business other than mine? My external reaction, however, is typically to laugh sheepishly and to try and explain how expectations surrounding family planning are different at home. As a “western intern” in Africa I regularly find myself in this confusing position of feeling like an outsider – distanced and alone – while at the same time feeling like I have no personal space whatsoever because my understanding of what is “personal” is so different from that of most Ugandans, who have a genuine curiosity and well-intentioned concern for one another’s personal wellbeing and family life. I wonder if this is a feeling that international human rights workers feel all of the time or if it something that they get used to as time goes on.

I tried to remind myself of these cultural differences each time I was asked about the cost of my driver. I would try and vaguely explain that while the transportation to and from work is a significant cost, a local friend suggested that having a driver was the safest and most reliable mode of transportation for me, given where I lived. Unfortunately, living close to work was not really an option because the office is so far outside of Kampala and there is limited rental housing in the area. Those who found out how much I paid my driver were shocked by the amount (and to be completely honest when I said the amount out loud, I was too). However, many of them tried to hide their surprise by acknowledging that where I lived was particularly challenging to commute from. Others responded by referring to me sardonically as “their rich friend” or their “rich sister.” These comments were uncomfortable, but I had to learn to brush them off and not take them personally. I anticipated this response and to be quite honest, I understood it. I wished that I felt more confident navigating the matutu routes (local taxi buses) and taking bodas into the rural suburbs outside Kampala, but I knew I had to recognize my own boundaries and I chose to prioritize my safety. I had to accept the consequences of that decision and make the best of it. And funnily enough, it worked out. While at first having a driver seemed like something that was going to make me feel like a total outsider (and a privileged one at that), it had the paradoxical effect of bringing me closer to my colleagues because I could pick several of them up on the way to work and drop them off at the end of the day. In a weird way my commute, which I thought might distance me from my co-workers, actually brought us closer together by allowing us the opportunity to learn about one another’s lives outside of the office.

These very brief interactions in Kampala have taught me the importance of slowing down and noticing the small moments, for example the commute to work and lunchtime conversations, which can be easily taken for granted during an internship abroad. Often times, these seemingly insignificant features of everyday life are the things that we learn from the most. My more challenging moments have also served as an important reminder that when things feel difficult, frustrating or uncomfortable, it is important to remain calm and open-minded because things are not always as they seem and, in some cases, if you just hang in there, they even have a funny way of working out for the best. While it is important to prioritize your wellbeing and know your personal boundaries, I’ve learned that letting your guard down (in some situations) has the potential to change your experience for the better.

A view of the hills in Fort Portal, a city in western Uganda near the crater lakes.

A friend paddling along the Nile River in Jinja, Uganda.

Driving back to Kampala from Nakwero, the town where CEHURD is located.

Abortion Laws and Blue Tape

By Catherine Labasi-Sammartino


During my last month interning at the Center for Health, Human Rights, and Development (CEHURD), I focused on access to safe abortions in Uganda. I am grateful for having been given opportunities to explore this topic in depth, as it was my biggest interest at the beginning of my internship. I engaged with Ugandan abortion laws in my work, including legal research, a community visit to the district of Mukono, and a staff presentation on the Harm Reduction Model as a legal defence for health care providers. Through these experiences I acquired an understanding of the current constitutional and legislative provisions framing access to safe abortions in Uganda as well as the associated social and cultural barriers.

Uganda addresses the issue of abortion under Article 22 of the Uganda Constitution 1995, which protects the right to life of all individuals. Article 22(2) provides that no person has the right to terminate the life of an unborn child except as may be authorized by law passed by Parliament. However, the duty to legislate and legitimize abortion under justifiable circumstances has yet to be fulfilled. Access to abortion is currently dictated by the Penal Code Act under Sections 141, 142, 143 and 212, which criminalizes abortion and penalizes any person, including mothers and health workers, who enables the termination of a pregnancy. Consequently, women risk undertaking clandestine and unsafe abortions without any professional health care out of fear of being prosecuted for murder.

On the other hand, the Uganda National Policy Guidelines and Service Standards for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights 2012 recognizes justifiable circumstances for the completion of safe abortions. It states that when a pregnancy threatens a woman’s life and requires the use of a safe abortion, it is admissible. Since the Penal Code Act has yet to be amended to decriminalize justified abortions, it remains inconsistent with the new policy and the intention set in the Constitution. This uncertainty in the law makes it so that women continue to die while conducting clandestine and unsafe abortions and that health workers risk being prosecuted when providing care. Hence, CEHURD advocates for Parliament to amend the Penal Code in order to align it with the Constitution by clearly stating the conditions under which women can legally obtain safe abortions services and under which health professionals can treat them without risking prosecution or stigmatization.

One of the most interesting discussions I participated in regarding access to safe abortions in Uganda was in the context of a Value Clarification and Attitude Transformation exercise (VCAT) led by CEHURD staff as part of a one day sensitization conference with police officers. The exercise was simple and yet effectively created a safe environment for each participant to discuss their perspectives on a variety of questions touching on abortion. Blue tape was placed on the floor to divide the conference room in two equal parts. As the participants all stood on one side of the room, CEHURD staff members explained that they would read a statement out loud and that each individual should move towards the blue line proportionally to their agreement with the statement. Those that fully identified themselves with the given statement were to cross the blue line. Statements included “I have kept someone’s abortion a secret” and “I believe that all women should have access to safe abortions.”

After everyone positioned themselves according to their feelings towards each statement, CEHURD staff gave an opportunity to individuals on both sides of the line to explain their position. Personal stories, political ideas, and religious references were shared and no judgmental or aggressive responses followed. It was a simple mediated conversation that left me surprisingly content and seemingly hopeful. This does not imply that all interventions were ones I agreed with. On the contrary, ideas I consider as distressing, such as that giving all women access to safe abortions would be dangerous because women would surely use this new right to threaten men, were many. I was satisfied by the exercise because of its effectiveness in creating a dialogue where I felt that both sides were actually listening to each other in a way that I had not witnessed in several years. Overall, Uganda’s alarming maternal mortality rate and CEHURD’s incoming cases on women maltreatment have left me impatient to see change in Uganda’s health and legal system. However, I have learned that processes that bring immediate and tangible change in both these systems are practically obsolete. Small and effective exercises that require only an open mind and blue tape, such as the VCATs organized by CEHURD, ought not to be overlooked in the process of changing social mindsets and reducing the maternal mortality rate in Uganda.

The Right to Health in Uganda

I have been in Uganda for a little over a month now and have already learned so much, both from my work as an intern at the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) and from my daily life in Uganda. I have visited Ugandan courts, taken countless boda rides and visited the source of the Nile. My first challenges were mostly activities that usually seemed simple to me, such as getting to work. My colleague’s kindness and patience in showing me the way around allowed me to feel much more comfortable in Kampala and to focus on my work as a legal intern.

CEHURD was created to advance the right to health for vulnerable populations such as people living with HIV/AIDS, women, and children. It is divided in three complementary programs (1) the Research, Documentation and Advocacy (2) Community Empowerment and (3) Strategic Litigation. As a second year law student, I was assigned to the Strategic Litigation program. Their objective is to provide legal support to persons whose rights have been infringed upon in Uganda and to litigate issues with the potential to redress systematic problems in the country’s health system. I have supported their work by drafting legal opinions on incoming cases and federal bills, completing research papers, and putting together grant proposals. This experience has allowed me to witness the use of the law as not only a tool to solve a single fact pattern but as a tool with the potential to create population shifts and improve health conditions on a national scale.

Most of the cases move for the implementation of the right to health. However, the Constitution of Uganda lacks an express provision on the right to health, which makes the conceptualization of each case particularly demanding. The right is implied from other constitutional clauses, the national objectives and the directive principles of state policy, each with health-related facets such as the right to life, human dignity and women’s rights. Furthermore, the implicit nature of the right to health in Uganda makes it so that its realization largely depends on political goodwill, judicial interpretation and the treatment of the other rights from which it derives. This particular situation highlights the importance of advocacy and community engagement in the respect of human rights and the delivery of safe and acceptable health services. As much as one may put together a case supported by persuasive evidence demonstrating a human rights violation in the delivery or lack of health services, the societal attitudes towards specific issues and vulnerable populations are often the last and most difficult barriers to overcome in obtaining justice. For example, CEHURD & Kabale Benon v Attorney General is a recent case that demonstrates the prevailing stigma surrounding claims made by individuals who have suffered from periods of mental distress. In addition to silencing the plaintiff based on his identity as an individual with a mental health disorder, the court also disturbingly put all medical decisions above the scrutiny of the law. This message discourages Ugandans from taking initiatives towards ensuring the respect of their rights and towards keeping the government accountable in its actions. CEHURD has recently filed an appeal for this case.

Overall, I am very motivated by CEHURD’s work as they put forward that the right to health extends itself to the causal determinants of health such as adequate sanitation facilities, health infrastructure, trained workers and essential drugs. I hope to contribute to my team’s work as much as I can in the following weeks and am excited to learn more about the right to health in Uganda.

Catherine Labasi-Sammartino

CEHURD’s office in Nakwero, Kampala

View from the National Mosque

Perceptions, Misconceptions, and Reverse Culture Shock

Ohayon Jillianby Jillian Ohayon

Perceptions & Misconceptions

Here are some of the things that were said to me in Canada when I told people I would be spending the summer in Uganda:

“What’d you do to piss your dad off?” – My father’s (very loud and rather obnoxious) acquaintance, whom I met in the Montreal airport on my way to Uganda

“Is it for a punishment?” – My Cameroonian Uber driver in downtown Montreal

“If you can’t afford to fund the difference on your own, maybe you should get a real job in the summer instead of doing an internship in Africa.” – McGill financial advisor

***

The first thing that I’ll say is that the general Canadian public’s perception of East Africa, and Uganda in particular, seems to me a little twisted. It’s true that Uganda is one of the least developed countries in the world. There is poverty. It is hot outside most of the time. Police officers regularly walk around carrying machine guns. Most living compounds are surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. That being said, there is not crime, violence, and savagery to be found around every corner like some of my friends and family were concerned there would be. Uganda is not a dry and deathly desert land; Uganda is vibrant, lush, and beautiful.

I have also noticed some western misconceptions with regards to East Africans themselves, in that I get the sense that some people assume laziness on their part. To be clear, very few Ugandans sit around pouting, complaining about living in poverty, and waiting for some wealthy person from some wealthy country to come and dump money into their laps. Everybody is doing something pretty much all the time. I always tell people that there exists a strong sense of vitality in Uganda that I have never quite felt before in any other place that I’ve visited. In fact, Uganda was recently named the most entrepreneurial country in the world. From what I have felt and observed, it is a sense of gratitude, pride, and resilience that fuels this spirit.

I worry that the negative stereotypes about danger and disease in East Africa keep people from visiting, even just for purposes of tourism. Uganda has a lot to see. Among others, I visited Jinja (the town on the source of the Nile), Sipi Falls, Murchison Falls waterfall, and went on a safari in Murchison Falls National Park.

Roasting coffee beans, Sipi Falls

Murchison Falls National Park

Murchison Falls National Park

Murchison Falls

Murchison Falls National Park

Sipi Falls

Cave by the shore of the Nile, Jinja

Sunset over the Nile, Jinja

Reverse Culture Shock

Everybody expected me to find myself in serious culture shock upon arriving in Uganda. That didn’t happen. This might have been because I had had a few long, in-depth conversations with two expats living in Kampala before leaving Canada. It may have been because I had prepared myself to expect the unexpected. For whatever reason, I arrived in East Africa, took in the warm, sweet air that filled my senses the moment I stepped off the plane, and hit the ground running. Kampala felt like home after only a few days.

My Canadian-Ugandan friends and I at the top of the Gadaffi Uganda National Mosque overlooking Kampala

This is not to say that there does not exist a multitude of significant dissimilarities between Canada and Uganda. There are certainly many cultural and ideological differences between Canada and Uganda that make being a young, white female more difficult in the latter country. I grew used to being incessantly catcalled on a daily basis on my ten-minute walk home from work. I grew used to having locals shout “Muzungu!” at me in their attempts to get my attention to buy their products (actually, sometimes, they didn’t even want to sell me anything – they just wanted the satisfaction of gaining my attention). I also quickly became used to walking around the city hyperaware of the fact that almost everybody assumed I was in possession of deep pockets filled with American dollars. I even learned the hard way not to travel alone after dark. However, just like Uganda’s shoddy internet and temperamental electricity, all of this just became a part of the experience – and because I loved the experience so deeply, I learned to love the bad with the good.

It was the reverse culture shock that hit me the hardest.

Coming home was not easy. My departure from the full and exciting new life that had so quickly materialized before my eyes throughout my three months in Kampala was cushioned slightly by travels to Kigali, Rwanda with my close friend and IHRIP intern, Julia, as well as a four-day stopover in London, England. Nonetheless, I arrived at home in Montreal, spent a few hours with my family, and proceeded to sleep for seventeen hours straight. I think that, combined with the intense jetlag through which I had put my body, this was my subconscious way of avoiding the feelings that I knew were creeping in ever too quickly as I tried to reintegrate into a society and a life that I now felt so far away from.

It wasn’t just that I missed the beautiful friends I had made over there, or the restaurants I had been to so many times that the waiters knew me by name and even brought me a cake with the words “We are going to miss you” written in chocolate on my last night in Kampala. That was undoubtedly a part of it; but there was something more.

I had never anticipated feeling so free. This feels like a somewhat ironic sentence to write. I can imagine that someone reading this may be thinking, “Free? Really? In a country where you were shouted at every time you walked outside in public and felt afraid to walk alone at night?” Yes. Kind of. I will try to explain it as best as I can, but please bear with me, as I’m still trying to figure it all out for myself.

Kampala, with all of the shouting, traffic, pollution, and poverty that it has to offer, is imbued with a vibrant soul that is only felt by those who understand it. I know this to be true both because I have felt it firsthand and because I have spoken to many people who have enthusiastically agreed with this assertion. It probably isn’t the most beautiful city in the world. It’s not on the ocean, nor is it exactly wealthy. It is, however, a city of sunshine, red earth, many hills, and an abundance of palm trees. All of Uganda has a certain vitality to it. Whether it’s a woman braiding her daughter’s hair, a man selling fruit on the side of the road, or a child carrying water to their home in jerry cans, everybody always seems to be doing something. Rarely do they seem exhausted or miserable. In fact, to my mind, they generally seem to be much happier than the average person one might encounter in North America.

There is also a very different mentality in Uganda by contrast to Canada with regards to time. Scheduling and planning – which are essentially second nature in the western world – do not hold the same influence over Ugandans. One might often hear jokes about “Africa time.” Africa time is, for example, when you tell someone you will meet them at 10:00 AM and then only show up at noon, and nobody thinks anything of it. Rarely did a work meeting begin sooner than 45 minutes later than its set time. Again, nobody ever seemed to be particularly stressed over this. If I told a boda boda driver to pick me up in ten minutes, it was because I knew I was only going to be ready to leave in twenty. This was a significant aspect of Ugandan life that helped to feel liberated during my time there. It might have also been a part of why coming back to the western world felt like something akin to suffocation for a while.

There is also a feeling of liberation involved in being a white person in East Africa. As young females especially, whether or not we are always conscious of it, we live under the constant impression that we are being scrutinized. We aim to look a certain way, we dress in a certain way, and we even walk, sit, and stand in a certain way. Being in Uganda, I knew that I was going to be noticed and stared at no matter what I did. There was no way around that. It took me a while to get to this point, but eventually, I came to find this realization very liberating. It didn’t matter what I was wearing, how I looked, or how I walked, because people were going to stare at me either way. Since nobody there knew me previously, I was free to do and act as I pleased, and to let go of some of the unconscious stress and awareness of judgment that governs so much of my behaviour on a daily basis back home.

To be painfully honest, all of this, combined with the facts that I was on a different timezone from everybody who had ever known me and that I had limited internet connection, allowed me the space and freedom to discover parts of myself that I’m not sure I had known existed. It’s a very liberating feeling, to say the least.

***

Well, that’s about what I have to say on Uganda and its gift of reverse culture shock. Thanks for reading my blog! If you’re reading this because you’re considering visiting East Africa, I hope that my experience functions as a helpful push in that direction. Challenges will certainly present themselves from time to time, but I can guarantee that the positive aspects will far outweigh the negatives. You cannot put a price on the self growth from which you benefit when you succeed in making a home out of an unlikely and unfamiliar place. It wasn’t always easy, but it most definitely was worth it.

Access to Justice and Health Services for Women in Rural Uganda

by Jillian Ohayon

I came to Uganda this summer to work as an intern for the Center for Health, Human Rights, and Development in the city of Kampala. I want to use this post to focus mostly on one aspect if the work that I have done here, and will likely use the next to write more generally about life in Kampala (which, spoiler alert, has been pretty amazing and an incredible experience of self-growth).

The Center for Health, Human Rights, and Development is an organization comprising about thirty employees. Most of them are lawyers, although vital members of the organization also include administrators, research officers, communications officers, and accountants. CEHURD has three programs which generally function separately from one another, though they are intentionally and intrinsically interlinked. They are Community Empowerment; Research, Documentation, & Advocacy; and Strategic Litigation. In Ugandan NGO terms, I have come to understand that CEHURD is a rather well-known name, despite it being a young organization of only about seven years.

I began my time at CEHURD by attending a court session regarding Ugandan tobacco laws with the Strategic Litigation team, but was soon after incorporated into a project with the Community Empowerment program. This will be a two-year long project supported by The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). CEHURD’s project is under a PEPFAR partnership with the DREAMS project, which stands for “Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe Women.” The DREAMS goal is to create country-owned and country-driven sustainable programs to address the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among adolescent girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa. The vision is to combine evidence-based approaches with regards to the structural drivers that directly affect adolescent girls and young women in their risk of contracting HIV. This is where CEHURD comes in. CEHURD’s fieldwork on the DREAMS project involves going into villages to interview adolescent girls and young women as well as a variety of stakeholders. The work is focused predominantly on access to HIV services and the legal and societal context surrounding sexual assault. Due to the societal framework and corresponding views prevalent in rural Uganda, young women who are village dwellers are heavily susceptible to sexual assault. This, in turn, drastically heightens their risk of contracting HIV.

My work on this project began in the Kampala office, where I wrote a literature review for the Community Empowerment team. I researched past work that had been done on this topic, and noted the successes, failures, and recommendations that came out of those studies. This helped to shape and inform the fieldwork. I was also involved in editing and writing many of the research tools for the interviews we conducted in the field. Once the surveys were completed and the stakeholders had been mobilized, I joined the team to spend a week in the district of Gomba, about three and a half hours outside of Kampala. We visited three villages where we interviewed adolescent girls and young women, as well as various stakeholders, including police officers, parole officers, healthcare providers, NGO officers, and various members of local government. I had the opportunity to engage both with the stakeholders and women alike.

Village of Kanoni, District of Gomba

sitions in local government. In relative terms, these interviews were relatively encouraging experiences. Most spoke English very well, and they were all quite highly educated. They were also all quite familiar with the prevalence of HIV among adolescent girls and young women in their district, and seemed to have been very aware the structural drivers that perpetuate the problem. They shared with me their plans and programs that are being developed to address the problem, and all of them seemed serious and committed to the work. I am confident that CEHURD will be able to work with them toward the implementation of programs that will improve upon this situation in a significant way.

Health Facility Assessment

On my last day, I conducted a facility assessment, which took the form of an interview with the in-charge at a health facility in the village of Mamba. Luckily, I had been given a detailed assessment tool, because if I had been told to assess this facility according to my own standards, I’m not sure how I would have proceeded. The health facility does not have a doctor. From what I understood, the in-charge is trained in nursing, and, occasionally, they have a midwife come by. The facility has no electricity, no bathrooms, no running water, and had run out of stock on about half of its medication. Unfortunately, CEHURD’s area of expertise does not lie directly in facility improvement. From what I understand, it is the government that is responsible for that.

Interviews with Adolescent Girls and Young Women

In total, I surveyed 17 girls. 15 of them were transactional sex workers, all of whom were in relationships, some of whom were married, and all of whom had been tested and were HIV negative. I asked them questions about their experiences with gender-based violence, ranging from verbal abuse to being violently forced into sex using a weapon. Only one of the 17 told me she had never experienced any abuse, and the translator seemed to think that she wasn’t telling the truth. One of the girls, after I asked her whether her husband insults her and humiliates her in public, looked deeply confused, and then replied, “Of course.” Others laughed when I asked whether or not their partners had ever slammed them against the wall as if to say, “What kind of a question is that? Doesn’t that happen to everyone?”
To say the least, it was a lot to process.

One main issue that revealed itself from the interview responses we received is the lack of access to justice and the necessary HIV services in cases of sexual assault. The problems that amount to this issue are extensive and interlinked. Girls are very often married off at a young age in order to bring money to their families. If a girl has been sexually assaulted, she may be considered impure and possibly not suitable for marriage. Therein lies the first problem. Next, there is a 72-hour window in which a person can visit a clinic after sex in order to get the medication that would prevent HIV had they contracted it. However, since many girls are too afraid to tell anybody when they have been assaulted, and are also unaware of the 72-hour window, many do not receive the proper preventative care. Furthermore, most of the women with whom I spoke told me that they were too afraid to tell police officers about their experiences with sexual assault. They fear not being believed, being stigmatized, and having to face the anger of their perpetrator and/or their families. Furthermore, often, private negotiations will take place between the victim’s family and the perpetrator, and so the perpetrator is rarely formally punished. Beyond this, even if a victim does go through with the process of successfully filing a police report, there are two related access to justice problems that lie beyond that. The first is that the only court that hears those cases is quite a significant distance away from the village, and transport is both inconvenient and costly. The second is that the law states that the health worker who examines the victim after the assault took place must testify at the hearing. However, there exists no means of compensation for the worker’s time or transportation. Therefore, the large majority of the time, the health worker simply does not show up. When this happens, the case is thrown out.

***

On a more personal note, I have to say that as emotionally challenging as it was, speaking with these girls and women was a humbling privilege. Despite the hardships they shared with me, I sensed nothing but kindness and positivity radiating from them.


I sincerely hope that the empowerment programs that CEHURD implements will effect real change in the lives of these girls and women. Given the passion, focus, and dedication of the Community Empowerment team, I have faith that they just might.

Sunset over Lake Walamo in the village of Mamba

Additional Hurdles in Accessing Justice

2016 Moreau AndreBy André Moreau

Over the course of my internship at the Centre for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) in Kampala, I’ve witnessed some challenges with some of the cases and petitions we brought forward to the courts.

In particular, one difficulty was caused by the influx of election petitions triggered by the recent Ugandan general election, which was held on February 18, 2016. This was the 6th general election since the Uganda Bush War (1979-1986) where the National Resistance Army, led by current president Yoweri Museveni, overthrew the autocratic and militaristic regime.

February’s election saw Museveni’s controversial re-election ­–his sixth consecutive term as the President of Uganda. The election results sparked protest, arrests and a series of formal election petitions. These election petitions have put much strain on the Ugandan judicial system, which has resulted in an even longer wait before Ugandans and Ugandan organizations can access justice before the court.

This is a photo of the Ugandan Constitutional Court's Registrars Office

This is a photo of the Ugandan Constitutional Court’s Registrars Office– files upon files

Last week, Justice David Batema came to speak to the CEHURD’s staff about his experience working as a judge at the High Court of Uganda. He spoke about the courts’ challenge to process cases in a timely manner, especially during the post-election period.

When I asked him how the High Court prepares for the flood of election petitions, Justice Batema explained that the High Court developed a new strategy to minimize backlog. The High Court’s new strategy consisted of selecting 26 judges (almost two thirds of the High Court Judges in Uganda) and training them on best practices when dealing with the petitions.

To ensure nonpartisan decisions, the judges would then be relocated to a different district where they’d hear the petitions. This process, Batema explained, is designed to address all the submitted election petitions ­–hearing, trial, and judgement– within 60 days. This ambitious plan, however, is expected to exceed that timeframe. Further, if petitions are appealed, the process will take even longer.

Despite the Court’s effort to limit the backlog of cases, law firms, organizations such as CEHURD, and all the others parties involved are left with even more delays in their attempts to access justice.

Furthermore, Justice Batema has been vocal about the Courts being short-staffed: “we have very many cases, but we are few, we don’t want our people’s cases to delay here,” he said to one of the national newspapers, New Vision.

As CEHURD continues to fight for health and human rights in Uganda, this unfortunate influx of election petitions has created an additional hurdle in bringing forward cases and seeing them resolved.

Advocating Taboo Issues in Health and Human Rights

2016 Moreau Andre  By André Moreau

I’ve been in Uganda for a month now and I am really enjoying my experience thus far!

Kampala, Uganda’s capital, is a big bustling city laid out over a series of hills and valleys on the northern shore of Lake Victoria. Kampala appears to be continuously developing. The city is undergoing countless construction projects, which are improving the city’s infrastructure and the art/music/culinary scenes are becoming increasingly prominent.

My internship at the Center for Health, Human Rights & Development (CEHURD) is providing me with an opportunity to learn about some of the issues relating to health and human rights in Uganda in particular and East Africa as a whole. From visiting Uganda’s Constitutional Court, to drafting memos and conducting legal research, I have had the privilege of being exposed to some of the key initiatives of this dedicated organization.

A bird's eye view of Kampala

A view of Kampala taken from atop of the Uganda National Mosque

Recently, I was given the task of conducting research on some of the Sexual Offences Acts that have been implemented in various countries around the world. More specifically, I was asked to compare and contrast these pieces of legislation in order to find out whether the rights of sexual assault victims have been emphasized. Fortunately, of the seven pieces of legislation that I analyzed, only one jurisdiction did not make mention of the wellbeing and protection of victims within its Sexual Offences Act. The purpose of this research is clear: the Ugandan government is currently in the process of drafting its own Sexual Offences Bill and CEHURD is advocating for the inclusion of the rights of victims, notably when it comes to the issue of abortion.

The Ugandan Constitution states: “No person has the right to terminate the life of an unborn child except as may be authorised by law.” As it stands, abortion is only permitted in Uganda when the mother’s life is in danger. As CEHURD pushes to advocate for the rights of victims of sexual assault, the organization hopes to broaden the range of exceptions to include situations of rape, incest, and/or defilement.

This is no easy task. Abortion is a topic that carries a considerable amount of weight in Ugandan society, a taboo. Even lawyers who are advocating for these changes appear to be wary of having their names ascribed to the file.

The Ugandan government made its views regarding abortion heard when it nearly rejected the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (commonly known as the Maputo Protocol). The product of eight years in the making, the Maputo Protocol felt strong resistance from the greater Ugandan society, namely its religious groups.  The main point of contention was subsection (2)(c) of article 14, which seeks to protect the reproductive rights of women by permitting abortion in the cases of sexual assault, rape, incest and where pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. In the end, Uganda ratified the protocol but with a reservation to subsection (2)(c).

Despite the attached stigma and legal ramifications, Ugandan women still resort to clandestine abortions. Roughly a quarter of the maternal deaths in Uganda are from unsafe abortions where roughly four women in Uganda die each day as a result. The gravity of the issue is impossible to ignore. Seeking inspiration from nearby jurisdictions such as Rwanda and South Africa, CEHURD continues to put pressure on the government to draft victim-centric legislation.

Although post-abortion care in Uganda is decriminalized, the health workers who provide medical services to abortion survivors are often persecuted. To help assure the rights of health care workers, CEHURD has formed the Legal Support Network (LSN) ­–a coalition of lawyers throughout the country to provide pro-bono services to help health workers who require legal assistance.

In a society that still presents many barriers, this is one example of how the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development has embarked on the long struggle of protecting and advocating women’s health rights and the rights of health workers throughout the country.

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