Thursday, May 4, 2023

Working with LRA Survivors

“Working with LRA Survivors”

Louis Picard

President ASA Social Fund for Hidden Peoples

    Joseph Kony led a group of rebels that fought a civil war against the Uganda government of Yoweri Museveni from 1986 to 2008. The Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, waged a cruel and nasty revolt against the Uganda government. It is typical of rebel groups all over Africa, where despite some legitimate grievances, they mostly attacked civilians and used the torture, murder and mutualization of  people to put fear into the hearts of civilians and the members of the group itself. 

    One of the most horrific characteristics of African Civil Wars is the use of children as tools of war.  Of these, the most shocking is the kidnapping young girls to be used as “child brides,” married off at 12-14 to commanders to serve the needs of the rebel leaders.  Most of the members of the Women’s Advocacy Network (WAN) suffered this fate.

Joseph Kony and LRA Commanders
Joseph Kony and LRA Commanders
 What happened to them? These young girls were ages   5-9.  They were taken from their families, marched   100s of miles to rebel camps and were cruelly   punished, beaten, and sometimes forced to kill their   families and others. They become slaves to the LRA.

    The fate of the child Brides? After several years    serving the commanders and their older wives as child   servants, these girls at 12-14 were “married” and raped by their “husband.” This resulted to their pregnancy. A child bride could have three to five children during their time in captivity.


 Aside from the psychological and social impact, the long term of the captivity, the result was the lost time they were without education (creating an educational gap).  The children were kidnapped in pre-teen years and were held in usually held in captivity for ten to twelve years. When they were released as young adults, they were illiterate and had no skills to earn a living.

    How do the former captives bond together?  The women bonded during their years in captivity as they experienced a common growth to adulthood. Many of them joined together and formed an organization, the Women’s Advocacy Network. There are over 900 members of WAN most of whom were held in captivity.  Their bond has held firm as they have used their organization to try to restore their lives and those of their children.  They gather together socially to support each other, keep the memory of their experiences alive, and inform the world of their experiences.

Women's Advocacy Network Members

    The major question they faced was could these women create a semblance of a post-captivity life. Through WAN, they support each other to restore some kind of economic independence through income generation.  They make and sell things that can be sold locally or crafts that can be sold to visitors.

    This is where the potential of micro-loans comes in. The Gulu branch of WAN currently manages four income generating micro-loans supported by ASA Social Fund for Hidden Peoples. These groups provide support to over thirty women. Though there have been problems of repayment of loans during covid and the economic crisis that followed it, the vast majority of the loan recipients have paid back their initial loans and are now on their third or fourth loan.  WAN and ASA Social Fund would like to expand the micro-loan groups, to include many more of their members.

Below is a shop owned by a WAN micro loan recipient

Sunday, August 29, 2021

A COVID-19 Update: Education in Uganda

As vaccination rates remain relatively low and restrictions remain in place, Uganda continues to struggle with the presence of the coronavirus. The future of the education of Ugandan children is a primary concern due to the intense restrictions still in place within the region.

The majority of schools in Uganda have been entirely closed for the last 18 months and most students are not receiving supplemental educational materials. According to the Daily Monitor, a local news source in Uganda, only around 20% of families have received supplemental learning materials distributed by the government (Bargiba, 2021). The likelihood of the reopening of most public schools appears bleak.

In an address to the nation in July, President Museveni stated, "schools will remain closed until sufficient vaccination of the eligible population and children aged 12-18 years old has taken shape.” Uganda’s vaccinations remain low, as experts estimate only about 1.5% of Ugandans are fully vaccinated.

Many disagree with the President’s school reopening strategy as the vaccine rollout in the region remains as an obstacle. Expert Dr. Nakabugo stated in response to President Museveni’s address to the nation, “You are talking about loss of a generation, loss of a future of the country,” says Dr Nakabugo. “We are losing a generation if nothing is done immediately. We are looking at a crisis, and it has to be acted on now”. While online schooling is an option for some, it is not a sufficient resolution to the problem as many in Uganda do not have access to electricity, a report in 2018 declared only 43% of Ugandans had access to electricity. Unfortunately, we are already witnessing the consequences of lack of education for the children of Uganda. 

According to the Human Rights Watch, the lack of education as well as lack of government assistance in Uganda has put children at risk of exploitative child labor. Families feeling the economic pressure due to COVID-19 have been placed in a position to send their children to work as well. Most of the labor for children is little pay and harsh working conditions. The programs director at Initiative for Social and Economic Rights Angella Nabwowe stated, “the government should immediately get children out of precarious labor situations and increase cash assistance to families to prevent further increases in poverty and child labor.”  

ASA continues to offer the support necessary to vulnerable groups within the region. If you want to help, click the link below to learn more about ASA and how to donate.


Tuesday, August 24, 2021

A Reflection: From ASA's Summer 2021 Media Intern


 Caitlyn is a MPIA student at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) with a focus on human security. She is ASA's media intern responsible for the development of blogs for ASA's Voices from the Shadows blog and podcasts for the organization. She is also working to increase the organization's engagement on all social media platforms.

As the summer winds down and my summer internship comes to an end, I offer a reflection on my internship experience during the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID made its known entrance into the United States when grad school acceptance letters began to arrive. COVID ravaged the United States as decision day crept up on me. After deciding on Pitt’s graduate program, it quickly followed that the decision was made of an entire year of online schooling. I struggled with imposter syndrome combined with the isolation from COVID restrictions. The only connections made were with the small square boxes of my classmates during Zoom calls. 

What followed was the dread of my looming internship requirement. As COVID cases continued to rise in the area. I was flooded with feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. The internship applications were one after another. I had cover letters mastered, and rejection became second nature. With the world all online, the competition widened, encompassing anyone with access to the internet. At the end of my spring semester, I discovered ASA, an impressive organization I was surprised I had not yet heard about. After reading ASA’s mission statement as well as some of their work, I felt motivated to be an intern for their organization.

I was welcomed by founders Dr. Louis Picard and Pauline Greenlick with optimism and understanding. I was given the flexibility needed for a graduate student juggling an internship, a part-time job, and the weight of an endless pandemic. My passion for human rights and the security of vulnerable groups made me especially eager to intern for ASA. Not only have I gained skills regarding my writing and use of social media platforms, but I had the pleasure of working with people dedicated to the cause. The stories of those ASA has impacted in Uganda will live with me forever as I pursue my career in nonprofit and human rights work. 

At whatever stage in our lives that we are experiencing what seems like this endless pandemic, none of us remain unaffected. At 24, there is a lot I do not know, but what I do know is in the two years I’ve been living through this pandemic I’ve learned the immense importance of compassion for one another.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

COVID-19 and The State of Nonprofit Organizations

The novel coronavirus or COVID-19 has ripped through the globe, infecting over 200 million people to date. COVID-19 has disrupted every aspect of society, including all components of social and economic life. Unfortunately, nonprofit organizations are not immune from the effects of the virus that has halted the world. Nonprofits universally have felt the pressure of COVID-19. A survey conducted by Independent Sector reported a clear decrease in revenue for the nonprofits questioned. Another study conducted by WealthEngine concluded COVID-19 resulted in 75% of  nonprofit organizations making budget cuts. While it varies how the pandemic has affected nonprofits based on their unique structures, I checked in with President of ASA, Dr. Louis Picard, and ASA’s experience as they trek through unprecedented times.

ASA’s mission and unique design seems to have protected them from the fundraising disruptions other nonprofits across the US have been experiencing. Dr. Picard noted ASA’s fundraising opportunities have yet to be disrupted and there has been an increase in generosity among people during the pandemic. The struggle for ASA is the current COVID-19 challenges ravaging Uganda. While the US is experiencing wide vaccine distribution, with an overall 50% vaccination rate, Uganda is significantly behind with an assumed vaccination rate at 1.3%. ASA relies heavily on the connections they make in Uganda with those whose stories they wish to tell. Dr. Picard mentions, “we really depend on meeting with people, monitoring what is going on the ground, and supporting training activities”.

Furthermore, the country has implemented severe lockdowns with the threat if arrest if defied. These intense lockdowns prevent individuals from making income to pay back the microloans provided by ASA. The microloan program is a key component of ASA's mission to provide the people of Uganda economic empowerment. In our interview, Dr. Picard reflects on next steps and how to adapt in a world where connectivity, the key to nonprofit organizations, has been disrupted.

In the face of ongoing challenges as a result of COVID-19, Dr. Picard appeared optimistic in accepting and adapting to the current conditions. ASA’s main battle is loan repayment, which is essential to the generation of new loans to be distributed, and is challenged by the strict restrictions implemented in Uganda. They take the loans in good faith, but the restrictions inhibit them from making income to pay them back. He mentions, “we must be realistic about loan repayment”. The current COVID conditions are disrupting the sustainability of the loan program ASA has established in Uganda. ASA plans to prepare a strategy to help alleviate the loan payments many in Uganda struggle with while adhering to COVID lockdowns. The successful loan groups are located in Gulu because they are dealing with projects in which they have experience like produce buying and selling which are grown and harvested there. While some have been able to pay them back, they are seeking an equitable solution. ASA has started a fundraiser this week seeking funds for the microloan project that will generate emergency bridging grants to help loan recipients coming out of the lockdown get back on their feet. Dr. Picard hopes to provide each group a grant to restart and to provide additional training and educational resources. He remains hopeful ASA will continue to persevere through the multiple components impeding them from normal operations.

For more information regarding ASA's current fundraiser:

Monday, July 26, 2021

January 14, 2020.

 From my last trip to Uganda

I have known Charles for several years. He lives in Gulu, Uganda and he works hard repairing cell phones and small electronics in the Gulu Mall.  I also know he received a micro loan from my non-profit, ASA Social Fund for Hidden Peoples, to help him grow his business.  I know he is married to Ketty and they have one child.  That is all I knew when I met him again in Gulu January 14, 2020. 

I had arranged to meet with Charles at 6:00 on the basketball court.  When I got there, I was surprised to see that the basketball court was an actual cement court with faded lines and hoops hanging properly.  The netting was torn, but it was good enough.  I was surprised because here I was in Gulu, a town in northern Uganda.  The people are poor.  The town is poor.  Many people are without jobs because they are recovering from a horrible thirty-year civil war.  And here in the middle of Gulu was a very nice basketball court.

I saw Charles sitting in his wheelchair on the edge of the court putting on his red and blue striped basketball jersey.  He was talking with his teammates who were all sitting in wheelchairs too.  He told me earlier in the day that he belonged to a basketball team that played one day a week and he wanted me to see him play.  I wanted to make sure that I would not miss this. 

 I said hi to Charles and watched how he adjusted his wheelchair for playing. His wheels splay outward.  All of the other wheelchairs did too.  He was happy that I was there.  I saw pride in his smile knowing he could show me how he plays even though he does not have any legs.  His legs were blown off when he stepped on a landmine many years ago during the Joseph Kony Lord's Resistance Army civil war.

A whistle blows and that is when I noticed that there were coaches and referees around. They started to 
practice and warm up.  They passed the ball back and forth.  They had an opposing team.  Both teams were young, some in their teens others in their twenties and thirties.  And yes there were young women too!  Then they lined up, the two teams gave Hi Fives, a whistle blew and the game started.

Wheelchairs whizzed back and forth all over the court and the ball was passed at lightening speed.  I tried keeping score but lost count because the basketball was dunked many times into the net.  One team member's wheelchair fell backwards and I worried that he hit his head when he landed on his back, but someone lifted him up and the game continued.  

I could tell they had strong upper body strength making up for their weakened or missing legs.  It was a short game.  It lasted about an hour.  The sun was setting and darkness was coming soon.  I congratulated the team.  I think Charles' team won.  They proudly told me they played in tournaments and they were the champions

I have thought of them often during our COVD quarantine.  I hope that all are ok.  Maybe this next year, 2022, I can finally return to Gulu and watch them play ball again.


Tuesday, July 20, 2021

What Uganda Meant to Me

   Thanks to our 2020 summer intern, Chidinma Onuoha, we have a series of thoughts
     from our ASA volunteers as they reflect on their experiences in Uganda. 

 Why did you decide to work in Uganda and what was it like working there?

 What was the average day like?

 “I decided on Uganda, due to my interest in Africa. Unfortunately, there were not many

options for Africa, it was not until I was studying in the University’s African Studies room,

where I heard about the internship and was seeing stars! I asked my advisor about it, and

we got working on being able to get myself on a flight to Uganda.

An average day there would consist of waking up around 5 or 6 am (From Monday to Friday) , spending an hour getting ready, including mosquito repellent, sunscreen, and anti-malaria pills, then heading down to breakfast. After a small breakfast, we would attend lectures of Luganda Language courses and meet with people who would tell us about their stories and about Uganda. Then we would go to different locations to conduct interviews and have lunch. We would then be free for the rest of the day to either explore, play with the little kids, or continue to do some work and research; before having dinner and retiring for the day.”  ~Zeinab Abbas

How has this internship impacted you as a person/ how has it sculpted your goals and perspective on the future?

     “My favorite part of my days were walking through the village and sitting around for hours chatting

with local entrepreneurs at their places of business. One woman in particular really made an impact on

me (who I am still in contact with today). Despite the hardship she and her children endured, she exudes

joy, gratefulness, and positivity. Upon returning home to Pittsburgh, I found  that I was more appreciative,

less wasteful, more intentional about aligning my values with my career, and was inspired to make a

difference on the lives of others.” ~Mariah Fosnight

“I don't think it is possible to see the work of Bright Kids Uganda and other Ugandan NGOs and leave unchanged. It was an honor of a lifetime to be able to use my skills in research and writing to get them some capital investment (they received a $50,000 grant over one year to implement those four projects!). Making the connection between an organization/community's need and what it is that I am good at really helped me to refine and carve out what I want to look for in a future career/job. Currently, I am the Director of Administration at a prisoner reentry project, and I am still (even at my desk at work today) using my research, grant writing, and overall organizational skills to serve returning citizens.” ~Lindsay Angelo

 What would you say to other graduate students who are thinking of taking on this internship?

“The time you spend in Uganda will be like none other. You are in charge of what you want to get out of this professional experience and you will get out of it what you put into it. The friends and relationships you develop are invaluable.” ~Courtney Smalt

Friday, July 16, 2021

Checking in With Our Summer 2021 Interns: Matt Pribis


   About Matt

   Matt recently graduated with a Master of International Development from Pitt's Graduate School of Public in International Affairs. His studies focused on the humanitarian- development continuum in Africa, so working with ASA's Microloan programs in Uganda is a natural fit. Originally from Butler, Pennsylvania, Matt joined the Navy after high school and studied Oceanography while in the Navy Reserve Unit at Old Dominion University in Virginia. After a failed attempt at SEAL training, Matt realize his vocational interests aligned more with the development side of the 3 D's (defense,diplomacy, and development) triangle. After volunteering with resettled refugees in Louisville, KY and in Pittsburgh, Matt did a career pivot and applied to GSPIA.

What Matt Has Been Up To:

So far I've been busy designing an evaluation framework for ASA's microloan program.  The goal here is to collect data via interviews with loan recipients and program administrators in Uganda to assess the impact and sustainability of the program.  So far, I've interviewed the microloan supervisor, and I have interviews scheduled next with the finance manager and a prior loan coordinator.  During these interviews, I'm trying to gather as much data as possible about program shortcomings, blind spots, and opportunities for improvement.  Evaluation is a fun and interesting process that we can use to improve the microloan program and ultimately improve the lives of our loan recipients, and it's nice to see that our team in Uganda is on board with the process.  The challenge is communication though because they are living through a very stressful and dangerous time in Uganda.  With a recent spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths, the government has implemented extremely strict lockdown policies.  This has put everyone on edge and reduced much of the economic activity that allows both the program administrators and loan recipients to maintain their livelihoods.  As a result, we are expecting loan repayments to drop in August as recipients lose income due to lockdown measures.  This, on top of the very real risk of our Ugandan counterparts getting sick with COVID-19 due to low vaccination rates, combines to make conducting a rigorous evaluation quite difficult.  I was supposed to travel to Uganda in August to conduct interviews in person, but with the situation there now that seems highly unlikely.  Nonetheless, we will press on and continue to interview our program stakeholders over phone and zoom.  We're keeping all our program staff and recipients in our thoughts and prayers during this difficult time, and I hope our ASA supporters in the states will too.  Stay tuned for a fundraiser to help our recipients in the coming weeks”.