The African warlord Joseph Kony is finally getting the attention he deserves, following the popularity of the viral video "Kony 2012." This is long overdue for the brave Ugandans, the human rights groups and charities who have tried for years to bring Kony's atrocities to the world's attention.
Kony's victims, the long-suffering people of northern Uganda, need justice and the chance to live in peace and security. But in the meantime, they must rebuild their shattered communities, and heal the deep psychological wounds that we in the West can often struggle to comprehend.
When I visited northern Uganda in 2008, Kony's troops had recently withdrawn from their last sanctuary, in an obscure area called Patongo. Signs of Kony's recent occupation were everywhere, from the scars people bore to the burned-out huts and the empty fields: how could the region's farmers go about their business when doing so risked abduction, mutilation, rape and worse?
Only in 2008, after two decades spent in squalid refugee camps, were the people of this forgotten place daring to return to their farms, trying to put their lives back together again.
The UN estimates more than 30,000 children were abducted and forced to become soldiers in Kony's militia. My charity interviewed survivors who described the process of brutalization: a young woman, kidnapped when she was eight, forced to cut the head off a little boy who was her neighbor and then carry his head around all day. She was then kept in the bush with Kony's men for the following decade, made to serve their every need, including bearing their children. Finally she escaped and made her way home, but like many abducted children who eventually return, she was not welcomed back by her village.
If you put yourself in the place of an adult living in her village, you might see why. Perhaps you were one of the hundreds of thousands who managed to run and hide when Kony's army attacked. But you remember what the child who was once your neighbor did to your family. Imagine if that child has now returned home as a disturbed young person, and has moved back in next door.
The charity I founded, Network for Africa, is in this forgotten corner of Uganda, passing on skills enabling local people to rebuild their devastated society. We help set up farming and savings groups and train people to become trainers, teaching their neighbors about health, nutrition, and rediscovering efficient traditional agricultural methods.
But how can people concentrate on learning a skill when their surroundings provide triggers that daily plunge them into post-traumatic stress and depression? Forty percent of the people we interviewed admitted feeling suicidal, constantly reliving the atrocities they endured or witnessed. For instance, how can a child soldier come to terms with killing his sister to save himself?
We know that shipping in outside experts to give one-on-one counseling treatment does not work. Westerners lack the deep cultural knowledge of the communities with whom we work. We will never understand what it is like to live in constant fear of attack by Kony's army, still at liberty in nearby countries. Nor can we grasp being haunted by recent memories of enslavement and rape.
More effective would be to train individuals within their local communities to be counsellors. Two psychotherapists from Missouri have thrown themselves into a pioneering project that tackles these problems head on. Barbara Bauer and Shelly Evans are volunteers with Network for Africa, training well-respected local leaders, former child soldiers and village 'wise aunties' in the basics of counseling.
Barbara and Shelly, drawing on their expertise in trauma counseling, have created a program in consultation with, and based on interviews with hundreds of people about their experiences during the war. The results show post-traumatic stress affects the very foundations of society, with high levels of suicide, rape, alcoholism, domestic violence, HIV-AIDS, early pregnancy and severe depression. Women and girls very often bear the brunt of these problems, struggling to hold together their fractured families. Yet, say Barbara and Shelly, the women's incredible courage, enthusiasm and resilience makes the project work.
Twice a year, the team visits Northern Uganda to run workshops on recognizing and managing post-traumatic stress. People in Uganda are not accustomed to analyzing their feelings. Nor do they grasp that emotional distress can manifest itself as physical pain, insomnia or paralyzing sadness. Hence, the team starts by explaining the meaning of post-traumatic stress, and how to diagnose it. With the assistance of translators, they use games and drama to demonstrate standard psychotherapy techniques. Simple exercises like relaxation and imagining a safe place can help calm ever-present anxiety.
By popular demand they've added training about conflict resolution, leadership skills, and sexual and gender-based violence. Participants have been using their skills within their communities, and the benefits have spread throughout Patongo and beyond.
We now have a team of 26 outreach counselors from affected communities, equipped with bikes to reach distant villages to spread their knowledge and offer counseling to groups and individuals. We also have a counseling center where people can talk about their problems. Already the outreach counselors are having a positive impact, with villagers reporting they are better able to work, study and sleep and reports of reduced rates of suicide, domestic violence and some family conflicts.
In Barbara's words, "Speaking as someone who has spent my whole professional life treating trauma, the challenge has never been greater. But the rewards are enormous. It's life-enhancing to watch a community healing itself and rebuilding."
Her colleague Shelly adds, "Africans are often portrayed as helpless victims of poverty and war. Yet we've found the majority are resourceful and determined, coping in the face of circumstances that would overwhelm most of us in the 'developed' world," she says. "They deserve a helping hand."
An effective way to defeat Joseph Kony is to deny him a legacy of traumatized and suffering people. To help Network for Africa, please click here.
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