Uganda: More than just neighbor helping neighbor - Assistance provided with a human connection

By Stephen Padre, ACT International

Abirichaku, Northern Uganda, July 13, 2005 - When strangers showed up in Mariam Abdulai's village in northern Uganda, rather than ignoring them or hosting them as short-term guests, she treated them as if they were her own family. In fact, her view of the outsiders is deeper than that. She says the members of the family who are staying with her are human beings just like her who deserve to have one of the basic human needs - shelter - provided for and who deserve compassion as well.

The outsiders in Mariam's village are not total strangers, but are fellow Ugandans who have been forced from their homes in a nearby village by attacks from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The group has waged a war against the Ugandan government for the past 19 years, and residents of villages across the northern and northwestern parts of the country have been both direct targets in its violent tactics, as well as indirect victims when survivors of the attacks flee for safety.

In February, LRA soldiers attacked Mindraa Cezira's village of Dzaipi. She says they came around 9:00 p.m. and went from house to house beating people to death with any tool they could find. About 18 people in the village were killed. The 40-year-old woman has six children ranging in age from 9 to 20 years old. After escaping the attackers, she and her children stayed briefly in another village in the area before finding their way to Abirichaku, about 24 km from their home.

It was here that Mariam agreed to take Mindraa and her family in. The village is hosting many families that have abandoned their homes in the several sub-counties and other districts in the region in search of safer places. While many of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region find their way to makeshift camps set up specifically by or for them, some have relatives in nearby villages they can stay with or are fortunate enough to find villages that are willing to host IDPs.

Mariam invited Mindraa and her family to stay with her because Mindraa had no relatives she could go stay with. "I am helping because she is a human being like me," says Mariam.

The culture in many parts of Africa dictates that neighbors help each other, especially in time of great need. Nevertheless, in this type of situation, neighbors have come from farther away and have put additional strains on villages like Abirichaku that are hosting IDPs.

Daily life is a struggle for both Abirichaku's residents and the IDPs they are hosting. "Even the house is not enough to accommodate all of us," says Mariam. Although her host had two adjacent houses and is allowing Mindraa to use one of them, the space is crowded with Mariam's five children who range in age from 18 years to seven months. This makes for a total of 11 children and two adults living in the two small houses topped by a thatched roof.

The list of other needs of the two families and that of the rest of the village is long. There is insufficient food and water. Children must share the few mosquito nets a family owns. The village needs additional latrines. Paying school fees is a challenge. Mindraa's two oldest children should be attending secondary school, but she says there is no money, so they are at home.

Lutheran World Federation (LWF) - Uganda, a member of the global alliance Action by Churches Together (ACT) International, has assisted both permanent residents and IDPs in Abirichaku with some of their basic needs, distributing jerry cans for carrying water as well as plates for residents' kitchens. LWF - Uganda also distributed a limited number of blankets, which went to the most vulnerable, such as the elderly and widows. People in the village say they need many more household items and other types of assistance.

The needs are enormous and are difficult to address adequately - and many are related. An overarching need - security - is key to addressing many issues. "In my original place, I had a farm," says Mindraa. "Here I don't have a farm. And in one house, when one person gets sick, it spreads." If she were able to return to her village, Mindraa would be able to farm and perhaps grow enough food to feed her family. Better-fed children and more space could mean fewer illnesses - one example of how issues the village deals with are complex and must be addressed in a comprehensive way.

For now, however, the people in Abirichaku must rely on the basic assistance humanitarian-aid organizations such as LWF can occasionally provide, as well as the generosity of their hosts. These are essential things in this situation of deep poverty exacerbated by conflict - churches around the world offering assistance through local ACT members, people helping fellow Ugandans from nearby villages, and humans helping humans.

For further information, please contact:

ACT Communications Officer Callie Long (mobile/cell phone +41 79 358 3171) or ACT Information Officer Stephen Padre (mobile/cell phone +41 79 681 1868)

ACT is a global alliance of churches and related agencies working to save lives and support communities in emergencies worldwide.

The ACT Coordinating Office is based with the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Switzerland.