Starting an internship in a country you’ve barely any knowledge of can be daunting. I found myself filled with trepidation at the prospect of working with individuals who belong to a culture that is so drastically different from my own. Though, those fears of exclusion and bewilderment were quickly dispelled upon entering Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET) offices and meeting some of the most focused and inviting Ugandan leaders of today. Greeted with smiles and an encouraging attitude by all UWONET staff, I found it easy to fit in and make myself useful as a temporary member of the dynamic team.
My first week of internship started not in the headquarters, but in the field. I met with Sandra Komuhiimbo – Communications and Information Officer at UWONET, and helped to prepare one of the first and only caravans of humanitarian support to travel to Northern Uganda in response to Nodding Disease. Unaware of what I would witness and unprepared for the suffering I would be photographing as part of the documentation of the caravan, I found this first week to be the most personally challenging venture I’ve ever undertaken.
The team distributing packs of food, clothes, and soap to families with children who were affected by Nodding Disease throughout the North met many men, women, and children who desperately wanted their concerns to be heard. Of the stories we documented, most powerful were the disheartened pleas for a gendered response to the disease. Our team encountered hundreds of women acting as the sole care takers for their children or grandchildren whom continue to suffer from a disease that is only recently being given media and government attentions. With the help of translators, we heard the tales of added hardship and oppression that befall women who must spend their time in the fields gathering food for their families while caring for all of their children, and tending to those who are sick with this debilitating disease. The belief upheld by UWONET that the existing gender inequality and poverty impacts more on women than men was supported by the stories we documented and the instances of malnutrition and extreme poverty we saw from district to district.
Thus, the true power of humanitarian activism and gender responsiveness settled over my thoughts of the UWONET caravan. We were not only helping these families by giving aid, but we were collecting their stories and testimony in compliance with the objective of UWONET to promote a strong, well-coordinated, interrelated and interdependent network that is strategic and proactive in tackling women’s concerns. On this transformative journey to the Northern districts of Gulu, Kitgum, Lamwo, and Pader, I was able to bear witness to the blatantly gendered repercussions of Nodding Disease. I was able to see that strong activism can happen at the grass roots level and progress further to a national scale if there are strong leaders behind such efforts. Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET), The Association of Uganda Women Lawyers (FIDA-Uganda), Action Aid International Uganda (AAIU), Institute for Social Transformation (IST), Isis-WICCE in correspondence with various women’s organisations and individual women activists embarked on a mission to spread hope to the north and to document and deliver those concerns of women to the politicians and media so that awareness of this disease and its gendered effects could be recognized and mitigated as quickly as possible.
Upon returning from my six day stint in the field, I found the preceding week to be far less emotionally taxing. I was able to help with some of the office work that must be done to keep an NGO such as UWONET running smoothly and effectively. Finding myself spending the next two weeks in the offices at Kampala and analyzing news media along with proofreading reports was a drastic change. I was able to see just how important it is for an NGO to have staff with skill sets that vary. The feminist movement would surely die if not for the cohesive efforts of a team with such a wide variety of talents as those who work for Uganda Women’s Network.
I feel this internship has given me a far more encompassing outlook on activism and the feminist movement in Uganda. Both my time in the field and in the office have given me insights that I previously had no knowledge of. Though my stay was brief, totaling three weeks, I feel I have been enlightened and in some ways forever changed as a result of my internship with UWONET. I owe the organization and individual staff the greatest gratitude for their role in providing me with the tools I will need to continue my efforts for equality throughout the rest of my life.
Robert Lorenzo Elliot IV
Intern at UWONET
B.A Hospitality and Tourism Management student at Purdue University