Our patron Milton Jones blogs about his recent trip to Uganda:
Another month, another comedian goes out to Africa.
Patongo sounds like a made up name that might feature in a Tarzan film. But it’s a real place to the Ugandan north, off the beaten and often flooded track. A decade ago its quietly spoken people were caught in the killing fields of the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army. They didn’t own much to steal in the first place, but Kony’s cronies made off with their most precious assets – their children. Then they mutilated, shot or set light to anyone who got in the way. Those who escaped hid in the bush.
I’m apprehensive. Thus far I respond to human suffering with my head not heart. I’m a professional and cynical observer of life after all, aren’t I? Well I’ve brought my wife and daughter as human shields – they can shed tears for me. We’re escorted by the director of a small charity, and a photographer.
The town’s children, sometimes literally captured in nets, were forced to do things they didn’t want to – serve, fight, kill, be raped. When at last the psychotic locusts moved on, a refugee camp was established in Patongo for 60,000 displaced people. It disbanded in 2006. Then the children began to trickle back. Except now many were not welcome – more mouths to feed, and some had been forced to commit acts of violence against their own people. Throw in 8% HIV, corruption and now some failed rains and this could’ve been a hopeless place.
But a few good people from the local church become the focus of an attempt to restore a community. They were helped by Chance for Childhood, (formerly Jubilee Action) and that’s who’s brought us here. We’re here to observe, listen, and to make small children laugh, apparently.
A youth centre was built brick by muddy brick with the help of abductees. (The staff were abused too and are well qualified to try and bring healing.) Everyone has a story, each seemingly worse than the last. The clan system has broken down, it’s every man woman and orphan for themselves. Today they run classes in numeracy, tailoring, healthcare and single mother groups. Mentoring and counseling also form a vital part of the program, as people meet up and learn to trust each other again.
In partnership with the Village Savings and Loan Association they have helped set up small groups where ‘the youth’ can get a chance to start their own small businesses. We meet about 20 of them beneath a mango tree a few miles away. A motley gang of both sexes, all smiles and ribbing each other. They’ve pooled their money and members can take out loans to buy stock – soap or vegetable oil, perhaps – to sell at local markets. Or maybe to hire a pair of oxen to plough a field. (Interest at 10% over two months). They have themselves a bank. All the cash is kept in a box, which stays in one person’s hut, but someone else has the key. They have monthly meetings and a secretary who writes everything down. There are even fines for arriving late to group meetings (in Africa!). All they need is a lasting peace, a small loan and a bit of technology. (Yes, someone even uses a mobile to check prices at local markets.) These kids mean business.
Strangely perhaps, we don’t really shed any tears – it’s all too overwhelming. Besides the spirit of these people shines through, as the survivors don’t seem to feel sorry for themselves.
The Patongo Youth Centre is giving this abused generation a chance. Not just to be counselled, get healthcare and set up in business, but to sing, draw and play sports. To give them back the years the locusts have destroyed. We come away vowing not to complain about anything ever again.