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Love in Action in Uganda: Remembering the Life of Nate Henn and Looking Forward

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Until the recent bomb attacks against World Cup fans at a Rugby club and an Ethiopian restaurant in the East African city of Kampala, few Americans thought about Uganda. If Americans did think of Uganda it was often in the context of the conflicts flanked between Congo to the West, Somalia to the Northeast, and Sudan and Darfur to the North. Cycles of violence in the region are further compounded by the lack of accessibility to education. Even in stable cities like Kampla, public schooling ends at age 12 and children 13 and older who wish to further their education must pay for private education. For someone who is not familiar with the complexity of the region it's easy to be ignorant and simply see it as a boiling stew of tribal, religious, and political conflicts. Historically however, the politics of Uganda has never been simple. Both local and foreign business interests have often forced the hand of conflict on the ground, have influenced policy making like that of Uganda's recent popular attempt to criminalize homosexuality and similarly, this most recent bomb attack by foreign militants is no different.

For many the World Cup, like the Olympics, is solidarity expressed through sport. You don't need to be a football fan to appreciate the way the game brought nations together for nights of sportsmanship. Each tournament leaves us imagining a world where our differences could be settled amidst friendly competitions... that may sound idyllic but for Jackson Mubiru & the Uganda Skateboard Union that same sportsmanship principle has helped create a space where Ugandan youth can be creative, bond, and build over skateboarding.

In 2005 Jackson Mubiru met a European skateboarder and immediately became enthralled by the sport. He purchased a plot of land and he and his late brother, Nusbuga-Kyakuwa-John, hand built a half-pipe mini ramp with cinderblocks, mud mortar, and hand mixed cement. It was Jackson, the ramp, and only two worn skateboards when the Uganda Skateboard Union was born.

Within it's first year the Union's members increased from 1 to 30+. Supplies and gear were limited and shared between the Union's members. Differences were set aside, and kids who spoke Acholi, Ugandan, Swahili, Lango, Rutooro, Runyankore and English found a united narrative in the language of skateboarding. Perhaps Jackson did not even know it, but he was doing something that missionaries, NGO's, and governmental agencies, tried repeatedly to do for decades before him but their efforts were often consumed by Uganda's contentious climate. Jackson Mubiru was cultivating peace...

Uganda has been crippled by a 20 year long civil conflict, part of that conflict still rages on today in Northern Uganda. Uganda's North is considered home base for The Lord's Resistance Army and Joseph Kony's child soldiers, children who were stripped from their parents when they were killed, fled as refugees, or worse... and then were recruited into the same army that stole their parents from them. This heartbreaking cycle moves like a malignant tide, at times expanding outward and across the western border into the Republic of Congo. What is even more heartbreaking is the silently accepted fact that these children who are most effected, and in the need of the most help, will one day be doing the same to future generations. This situation is so complicated, and so dire, that standard approaches to bring an end to this cycle by governments and NGO's alike almost always fail.

In 2008, Invisible Children, an organization dedicated to bringing home Joseph Kony's child soldiers in Northern Uganda and in the Congo made a t-shirt that benefited the groups efforts on the ground. The t-shirt read "I Heart The LRA," with an explanation that 90 percent of the LRA was comprised of children who were indoctrinated against their own will. The shirt received criticism, and some argued that it was in poor taste, but the spirit of the shirt is exactly what is needed in the region. These kids need love in their lives. Love is the only way to derail this cycle of conflict that was in play long before they were born.

Nate "Oteka" Henn, believed that through love this conflict could end. Nate took a job as a "roadie" intern at Invisible Children traveling between college campuses educating people about the child soldiers. He was joined on the road by a young man named Innocent who was born into the Ugandan conflict. Nate eventually traveled with Invisible Children to Uganda to put his love into action on the ground. Nate was killed last week when the rugby club, where he and Innocent had planned to watch the game, was the target of two explosive devices. Innocent was by Nate's side when he died. 2010-07-22-nate_huffpo.jpg Nate's love did not die with him that night. That beautiful fire inside of Nate was stoked by others; torches were lit by it and picked up by fresh faces, and those who were already involved found a renewed zeal aflame inside of them. Nate did so much and is continuing to do so after he has passed. In the recent days after his death Nate's already overflowing love has been magnified. In a statement issued by the Henn family they explained,

"On his Facebook status posted on the day of his death [Nate] wrote that "he has never had a happier time in his life." On the day of his death, he was with friends including some of the very children that Invisible Children has helped and have grown to be advocates themselves. His life ended too early, but we look at the few years God gave him on this earth, and we are humbled that he was used in such a powerful way."

Love as action can do more than just heal, love in action can build.

Invigorated by the selflessness of Nate Henn, Invisible Children is continuing their work on the ground with their Schools for Schools campaign. Schools for Schools is a unique invitation for high schools across America to participate in the fundraising for and the building of schools in Uganda. Student bake sales at a school in Chicago can help to lay the foundation of new school being built in Uganda while money raised at a school dance in San Diego can fill it's library with books. For many American students this is their first exercise in solidarity and activism, and hopefully it will be the first of many. The love felt by the young people participating together on both sides of the globe is infectious and radiates into the homes of fledgling student activists, and likewise the children in Uganda play a role in building their own school, something that will benefit their community for years to come.

Motivated by a similar love, Jackson Mubiru hopes to expand his skate park to include an adjacent free school and social center for the kids. His wide eyes and big dreams are echoed in the kids that frequent the park. Kids who are being exposed to this feeling of solidarity at the skate park are now bringing that same solidarity to surrounding communities. Most recently kids from the skate park have been congregating at the park, heading out to collect potable water and then bring it to people in displacement camps to the North. Jackson is building his park with more than bricks, mortar, boards and wheels, there is a piece of his heart in there too.

Perhaps one day the history books will reflect that it was these moments of love in action, of building, and sacrifice that helped craft a lasting peace for East Africa, that in some way simple acts of caring, selflessness, and solidarity managed to destroy what no army could take down. I myself have never been a sports buff, but I can say that I will forever look at the World Cup differently. It's more than a ball, teams, and fields, it's solidarity through sport, it's a segway to peace...

To learn more about Invisible Children's work in Northern Uganda & the Congo please visit - http://www.invisiblechildren.com

To learn more about Nate "Oteka" Henn or to donate to the Nate Henn memorial fund please visit - http://www.natehenn.com

To learn more about the Jackson Mubiru & the Uganda Skateboard Union please visit - http://ugandaskateboardunion.wordpress.com

You can donate to the Uganda Skateboard Union via Pay Pal by donating to SKATEBOARDUGANDA@yahoo.com