Rebuilding Lives after 21 years of Civil War

Measha Brueggergosman, Goodwill Ambassador, Amref Health AfricaIn June 2007 Canadian Opera singer Measha Brueggergosman, Amref Health Africa's (formerly AMREF) Goodwill Ambassador, traveled to East Africa to visit Amref Health Africa's work. Deep in the war-affected village of Patongo, northern Uganda, Measha found herself surrounded by school children performing the traditional Acholi Bwola dance. This was an opportunity to share her voice and performance skills with children as a form of music therapy. Measha shares her thoughts and feelings of her this life altering experience through a four-minute documentary of her visit, two radio interviews for CBC and her personal diaries (scroll down).

Measha's Field Diary

Day One: "I don't think I'll ever be the same"

Tuesday June 12th, 2007

Oh Lord. What have I gotten myself into? Between the mosquito nets, the bug spray and the malaria pills, I’ve truly got my hands full. And, I’m stinky. (I should also mention that the hotel here in Gulu turns off its electricity at 11pm and I’m typing this little testimonial in the dark with whatever battery life remains on my computer.) Measha's trip to AMREF's offices in East Africa.

But despite my weakness, the spirit of Africa seems infallible. It’s truly humbling to see a people so torn by war and unspeakable atrocities greet you with such enthusiasm and warmth. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same.

I arrived in Kampala late last night after missing my flight from Paris the day before (don’t ask) and this morning we headed to AMREF headquarters where I was reunited with the wonderful Joshua and introduced to the entire Ugandan AMREF staff. I was pumped full of information I was all too grateful to receive and then we began the 5-hr treck to Gulu. Truly, it was an amazing drive through villages and the countryside. Yes, I saw poverty and depravity but I also saw children playing and laughing and people making a living simply doing what needs to be done to live their lives. Amazing.

Once in Gulu, we were able to visit one of the night commuter centres. Some of these children have been kidnapped by the rebel army and forced into military service….before their 10th birthday. Yet somehow, they manage to laugh and joke and ask and answer questions and make ME feel like the one who has truly found sanctuary. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same.

Day Two: "A light of hope in Northern Uganda"

Wednesday June 13th, 2007

Follow the light, people. Follow the light. The brightest lights come out of the darkest places. Today, there was urine. There was excrement. There was dehydration. There was burning waste. Today, I learned that poverty has a distinctive smell and it’s a mixture of all these things.

I spent most of the day just trying to keep it together. The AMREF team and I visited a regional referral hospital. Understaffed, under-funded and devoid of any reliable infrastructure to speak of, this hospital serves as the poster child for the inaccessibility to proper medical care that affects a lot of Ugandans. But these doctors’ and nurses’ dedication is humbling. It is truly only them, and no one else. They soldier on because they know that if they don’t, no one will and people will die. It’s just that simple.

We then made our way north to an original Internal Displaced Persons (IDP) camp. Established 11 years ago, IDP camps were an attempt by the Ugandan government to protect its citizens from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who have been waging a civil war in the country for the past 21 years.

But the camps have become a festering breeding ground for cholera, typhoid, malaria and HIV/AIDS. Thousands have died and at least 20,000 children been abducted by the rebels during the night and forced to become child soldiers or wives to the rebel soldiers. Since the peace talks between the government and the LRA began in April, “satellite” camps have emerged as a way of transitioning people back to their original land. But so much work has yet to be done.

Today, there were children laughing. There was safe passage. There were leaders emerging. There were working wells. Today, I learned that hope has arrived for Northern Uganda! 

Day Three: "A Peaceful Protest"

Thursday June 14th, 2007

The children of northern Uganda seem to be treated a lot like weeds. They've been cut down, hacked away, uprooted and cursed for their mere existence. These "weeds" continue to serve as an incessant reminder of the horrible gardening skills of a political infrastructure gone horribly wrong.

I'm in northern Uganda with the African Medical & Research Foundation (AMREF) and we visited Patong Elementary School today, where hundreds of children thirsty for knowledge, thrive under the weight of destitution and deprivation. And their offertory to us was anything but the "quaint" little ditty you'd expect from an elementary school. They tried to teach me just the basic step of the Bwola (the traditional dance of the Acholi tribe) and I embarrassed myself quite successfully. These children are victims and psychological casualties of war. Some have been kidnapped by the rebel army and forced into becoming killing machines. Others have witnessed the brutal slaughter of their families. This war has raged on for 21 years, so there's an entire generation of children who do not know what peace is. Their daily reality is a poverty so extreme, it suffocates me every time I see it.

But when they sing and dance ...

The immediate, undeniable transformation that these kids undergo transports them to a place where war and violence have no power. They're in a zone where their voices are heard and their bodies are their own. They feel the wind at their backs and you feel as though you're witnessing them mid-flight.

Their song and dance is their peaceful protest. It's the closest thing to rehabilitation these children will ever get, and it's free. When I see the students at Patong, I can't believe our government considers music a "luxury" we can afford to lose from our schools.

Day Four: “Performance art therapy in the slums of Nairobi”

Friday June 15th, 2007

I'm exhausted. I just wanna wrap myself in my mosquito net and wait for the electricity to shut off ... again. It's hard to describe the mixture of emotions that come with your first trip to Africa. And I'm talking actual Africa. The Africa of dance and tribalism and pride and laughter and polygamy and poverty and hunger and heeeeat and red dust and potholes and avocados the size of a human head. THAT Africa.

Today I travelled from Uganda to Kenya with AMREF to visit a project in Dagoretti, just outside of Nairobi. This program targets the over 30,000 homeless children under the age of 10 living in Nairobi's municipal dumps. It uses the arts as a rehabilitative tool. AMREF builds relationships with these children with the hopeful result that they come to the AMREF school/drop-in centre: a place that enables children to be children again ... and have breakfast and lunch.

The ultimate goal of this program is to integrate these children back into society and reunite them with their families. Many are orphans of parents who've died from HIV/AIDS, and others leave their homes to help relieve the burden of another mouth to feed. Whatever the reason, these kids' realities have rendered them basically expressionless and through dancing, music and drama, they come alive. By empowering them with their own voice, they're taught they have options and rights.

More often than not, the expressive opportunities are based on traditional stories from African history. Today I watched The Black Pinocchio, a show that 20 children wrote, produced and directed themselves and then performed in Europe. Seriously? These kids went from living in a dump to getting their own passports and performing in Rome! - Tomorrow, African travel keeps you on your toes.

Day five: “Africa – a continent of energy, generosity and hope”

Saturday June 16th, 2007

I can understand the pull and sway that Africa has on people. I understand now why people come here and end up staying here or making it a priority to come back. By putting my life in perspective, Africa has a way of simply making me want to be better: more thankful, more patient, more carefree, happier, generous, accountable. Sometimes I forget that my job as an opera singer is servitude. Being in Africa was such a humbling experience. Africa ripped me out of my Westernized, cushy haze and into a lucid reality of active generosity and hope.

It's almost 10 p.m. and I'm sitting in the Nairobi airport, just about to board my plane. I've had a couple of days to decompress, go to church in Kijabe and see where my sister Teah lives. She's been an invaluable support for me on this trip. She works in international development and public health education. She is beyond fierce. I'm sure she'll contend for the Nobel Peace Prize someday.

Being in Africa has been a humbling experience. Africa is not the destitute, hopeless continent that so many people think. Quite the opposite, actually. It's a continent of energy, generosity and hope. What is needed are the resources and training to put these invaluable assets into action. And it's amazing to know that there are organizations like AMREF on the ground to foster that hope.

Truth be told, I'm a little nervous about getting on the plane. I haven't quite "adapted" to African travel. Between the breakneck, ramshackle offroading in Uganda to checking in at the Entebbe airport --sans electricity. African travel keeps you on your toes. But security measures in this country actually make sense! I mean, how eeeeevil can WATER be? Seriously. Don't get me started. But I gotta go. I am NOT missing my plane again ...