A group exercise facilitated by The Recreation Project
Before the Fall semester ended, the Cross Cultural Practicum, Community Art in Uganda, and Social Work classes took a trip to Gulu in Northern Uganda to learn from a couple of different organizations and their unique approaches to development. Gulu hosts many organizations working toward rebuilding a society impacted by over 20 years of conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army.
The Recreation Project (therecreationprojection.org) facilitates experiential learning in the forest through ropes courses, a zip-line, climbing wall, and other group building activities in the forest. The Project creates opportunities for youth to reclaim courage and self-belief through exhilarating experiences, encourages them to have fun with peers, and creates safe spaces for youth to engage their past and current circumstances while building hope for the future.
Amani Ya Juu (www.amaniafrica.org) is a fair trade sewing and economic development program for marginalized women in Africa. Amani is committed to holistic development through gaining experience, skills, mentorship, and relationships. Amani generates a culture of peace to transform lives. The women participate in singing, praying, and daily Bible study as they live out peace with each other, as well as pass it on to neighbors in need.
Cross Cultural Practicum student, Mariel, wrote about her experience in Gulu. Check out her blog (marielrieland.tumblr.com).
"After a 9-hour long dusty, bumpy coaster ride, we finally pulled into a bustling town. It felt so surreal, and yet it was so true.
I was finally in Gulu.
Gulu is the home of Invisible Children, Krochet Kids, Restore Academy, and countless other NGOs that I’ve followed and connected with over the past few years. But more importantly, it is the epicenter of 20 years of LRA violence, abductions, and forced evacuations into horrific IDP camps. I won’t get into the full history of the northern region here, but please look it up if you have the time.
[On a more personal note, my interest in this region was one of the initial reasons I began looking into the Uganda Studies Program, so finally arriving there after spending three months in the country was definitely surreal. I will be forever indebted to my dearest friend Aly Inouye for inspiring and encouraging me to take this pilgrimage to Uganda.]
After our first night spent in a Catholic guesthouse, I awoke early to spend some quiet time with God. I was looking forward to the day and I wanted to prepare my heart, but I didn’t know what passage to read. I’m not much of a “pray for a verse to pop into my head” person, but in that moment of questioning, I felt that I should turn to Isaiah 51. What I found there struck me to the core, and I knew without a doubt that God was revealing to me his heart for the people of Gulu.
“I, even I, am he who comforts you. Who are you that you fear mere mortals, human beings, who are but grass, that you forget the Lord your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth, that you live in constant terror every day because of the wrath of the oppressor, who is bent on destruction?
For where is the wrath of the oppressor? The cowering prisoners will soon be set free; they will not die in their dungeons, nor will they lack bread. For I am the Lord your God, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the Lord Almighty is his name.”
The Lord saw his people Israel in bondage, and he used the prophet Isaiah to remind them that through their oppression and captivity, He is still the Sovereign Lord. What does this promise mean for the people of Gulu, many who became foreigners in their own land?
The Recreation Project
The first half of our day was spent like any other day in Uganda—completing ropes course challenges, careening through a forest on a zip line, and scaling a rock-climbing wall. Wait, that doesn’t sound normal to you? It definitely doesn’t to Ugandans, either!
The Recreation Project is a recreational therapy organization that uses play to rehabilitate young people who have been traumatized by the war. Over the past few years, they have seen over 7,000 Ugandan youth visit their site. While many of the elements at the camp were familiar to us North Americans from church summer camps and climbing gyms, most Ugandans have never even heard of a ropes course in their life! After completing a challenge as a team, the facilitators sit down with the kids and help them process what they just went through and how the lessons they learned can be applied to their lives. Concepts such as building trust with one another, working as a team, and even reaching “impossible” goals are discussed. For many children with issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder having a positive stress experience (such as the thrill of a zip line) can help their brains cope with all the negative stress their body has experienced during the war. We even got to work with some girls from a nearby school who have formed a rock-climbing group!
To learn more about TRP’s mission and operations, visit: therecreationproject.org.
Amani Ya Juu
After a delicious lunch and some more ropes course adventuring, we all hit the coaster once again and drove across town to visit Amani Ya Juu, (Swahili for “peace from above.”) Amani is an economic empowerment organization that works all over Africa to restore and redeem the lives of women who have been affected by conflict, poverty, and other forms of marginalization.
We pulled up to their beautiful new house/office, and walked in to the sound of joyful singing and clapping. The ladies welcomed us with a choir of praise and laughter, and it was truly beautiful to see! We were greeted by Simprosa, the founder of Amani in Gulu, who was herself a refugee in Kenya for many years due to the war in the north. Upon returning home to Gulu, she discovered many women who had fled LRA captivity, often with children in tow, only to return home and find no opportunities to work or provide for their families. After working for a time in a church doing vocational training, she decided to open her own branch of Amani.
We were able to hear a few of the ladies’ stories, and they were definitely heartbreaking. Many of them were abducted at the age of 12 or 13 and given as “brides” to elderly LRA commanders. They were forced to march for miles through the desert with little food or water, and many had to bear children by their captors. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that I can never imagine being able to continue living, nevermind smiling, again after experiencing something like that.
Now at Amani, they have been trained in tailoring and jewelry-making skills, and also have discipleship training and trauma counseling. For the 10 women employed there, Amani means much more than a chance to make an income. It means having a supportive and loving community that helps them regain their dignity and confidence, all while learning more about the incredible God that has been with them through all their trials.
After hearing their stories, we were able to purchase the beautiful products they made (and I definitely got some Christmas gifts)! I didn’t feel “exploitative” or consumeristic by buying their products, rather, I felt honored by the opportunity to empower these beautiful women to continue supporting their families and regaining their dignity.
Visit amaniafrica.org if you would like to learn more about the work they are doing/look into purchasing some beautiful products!!
Overall, Gulu was a short but incredible pocket of time in which God showed me so much about his love and justice for oppressed peoples. I know I’ll return one day, but until then, I’ll carry the memory of this weekend close to my heart.