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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Mostly Harmless

I recently had another opportunity to work at a youth camp for young Ugandan boys. Northern Camp B.U.I.L.D. is gear towards young Ugandan boys between the ages of 15 – 25, similar to National Camp B.U.I.L.D. held in Entebbe (see post titled ‘Two Caravans’), but rather than work with boys from all over Uganda, this camp was focused on boys from the greater northern region of Uganda. The camp was held in Gulu, one of the key areas during the northern wars and one of the key areas targeted by Joseph Kony and the LRA. Gulu is currently going through great rehabilitation, which camps like Northern Camp B.U.I.L.D. are a part of. 

During the camp, sessions focused on building leadership and life skills, teaching about entrepreneurship and business development, strengthening team work and understanding between people of different tribes and communities, and improving and maintaining one’s health. 

The day at The Recreation Project, a ropes course in Gulu, was quite inspiring. Many of the boys were nervous and feared the heights and obstacles that were ahead of them. However, you could see the change within each boy, how they took that fear and channeled it to overcome what lay ahead. All my boys attempted every task. All were successful. Some of the PCV staff and counselors weren’t as successful as the campers were, which was amazing to see.

The day dedicated to HIV testing was also inspiring. The AIDS Support Organization (TASO) came to assist in testing and counseling, as well as perform traditional dances for the campers. Each member of the TASO team shared their personal stories about when they were testing and they found out they were HIV positive. The testing was completely voluntary, but all the boys were encouraged to get tested. Knowing your own status is the best way Uganda can control the spread of HIV. Some boys were very resistant to getting tested, as were many of the Ugandan counselors. I decided it was important for me to set a good example for my camper group, so I stepped up as the first one from my group to get tested. One boy in particular seemed to be motivated by this as he requested, almost demanded, that he go immediately after me for testing. I was happy to hear that he would be tested, and in the end all buy one of my boys were tested (that I know of). After the testing was completed, we found out that out of those who had been tested, there were no positive results. I think this was great news for the campers as they could feel inspired not only that they had led a safe and healthy life so far, but they now have the knowledge and tools to continue doing so. 

The day the Northern Camp G.L.O.W. (Girls Leading Our World) campers came to visit the B.U.I.L.D. campers, we had the entire day dedicated to Gender Equality. This is certainly a topic that needs addressing within the youth of Uganda, however sometimes it feels as if this topic needs to be touched upon slowly. As a female counselor, it was hard hearing some boys from my own camper group strongly protest the idea of women wearing trousers. While I understand that some people have the opinion that it is not feminine for a woman to wear trousers, we were trying to get the boys to understand the different between what is one’s opinion versus what is a fact, in this case the fact that women can wear trousers. One of my boys in particular was very insistent that women should not wear trousers. He suggested it was disrespectful for women to wear trousers. After the session, I confronted him with the fact that his own counselor was a female and in fact was wearing trousers all week. I asked him if he felt this was disrespectful, seeking an honest answer and hoping for the ability to have a conversation about the difference between ‘should’ and ‘can’. When confronted, he suggested using violence against women, including me, in order to prevent them from wearing trousers. I found this very alarming, as he is really the future of Uganda. While I believed his threats were mostly harmless, I spoke with some staff members, even the PCV who nominated this particular camper regarding the incidence and what the proper reaction should be. It was suggested that I didn’t understand where this camper was coming from culturally. In fact, I almost completely understand where this camper is coming from, culturally. The fact is that we were trying to make him understand that one should not use violence to make his or her point and also that he needed to understand the difference between the opinion he had and the fact and ability of females. The day was somewhat resolved in the end, however a part of me feels like there wasn’t any real progress made. I would like to think that what happened that day made a difference, that the young camper finally understand that what he believed did not relate to the fact of a woman’s physical ability, but a part of me honestly thinks it made no difference at all. Unlike at Camp G.L.O.W., where you can really see how strong and empowered the young girls become, at Camp B.U.I.L.D., it is really hard to make young boys understand that both genders should have equal ability. I guess it’s true that anything worth fighting for isn’t going to be easy.

The Malawi Flames showing off our flag

The last day was just as challenging for the boys and myself as the rest of the week. Struggles getting respect and understanding from the boys seemed to be a common thing. In the end, I felt just as happy and almost as impactful as I had after National Camp B.U.I.L.D. While I may not have changed anyone’s life drastically, I do believe that by showing the young boys that women are strong and will demand respect, that I, as a woman, will not allow men to walk all over me, their minds have changed a little bit towards realizing that men and women should be given equal opportunities. 

One of the most interesting boys I met was a young boy who was part of a group called ‘Breakdance Project Uganda’. This boy was very outspoken and helped make huge strides during the Gender Equality sessions. He presented his ideas of progress and equality in such a way that I think the other boys really learned something. Having a young Ugandan boy validate things that were being taught really helped the overall message become solidified. 

Breakdance Project Uganda itself is a very progressive group, promoting gender equality and empowering youth through drama, breakdancing, and graffiti. The group encourages youth to take personal responsibility for their lives, suggesting they can change their future by getting tested, empowering themselves and their communities, and working together towards a brighter future. During the camp, the group did a breakdance performance centered on gender equality. It was really neat to see the group in action and I can really see how something like breakdance, which initially has been stereotyped as a cause for so many problems in youth, can now be used as a solution to many problems the youth face. Organizations like this give me hope for tomorrow. I really believe that youth like the ones I’ve met here in Uganda really will change the world, one small step at a time.

“Gender equality does not mean both genders are the same, but that they have the ability to be.”