Uganda: Reaching out to rebuild cultural identity
06 August 2010

Elderly people in an IDP camp near Kitgum. Since the LRA insurgency they lost their authority. (Angelika Mendes/JRS)
"The door of communication has been opened. The elders have realised that culture evolves over time. Young people see the value of preserving their cultural identity," said Ms Birungi

Kitgum, 14 July 2010 — During the Ugandan conflict between the government and Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), the once respected elders of the ethnic Acholi people slowly lost their authority and the respect of younger people.

In the past, the elders were the custodians of Acholi culture and traditions, the resolution of conflicts and the provision of guidance on acceptable behaviour. With people forced to survive in camps, new ways of life were introduced and attitudes changed. However, with some space and encouragement, dialogue has been able to revert, at least in part, this trend, bringing some unexpected results.

In 2007, JRS began working with the most vulnerable groups remaining in the camps - older persons, persons with disabilities, child-headed households - approximately 4,000 of the remaining 48,000. It was at this time that teams began visiting older persons at home. They recognised the need to strengthen relationships between younger and older people: their cultural values and ethnic identity as a way of healing the wounds of war and providing protection to extremely vulnerable persons.

"In the beginning, it was difficult to get elders and young people to sit together. However, when they realised the value of the activity they started participating in the weekly meetings; first in Amida camp, then in Oryang and Lumule camps. All the participants have changed their perspective and behaviour with regards to their culture" said JRS Uganda Community Outreach Coordinator in Kitgum, Margaret Birungi.

"The door of communication has been opened. The elders have realised that culture evolves over time. Young people see the value of preserving their cultural identity. This has led to the re-introduction of traditional medicine and many young people have learned how to hunt to supplement their food supply", added Ms Birungi.

Feedback from the community has been positive, and by 2010, 45 older persons out of 101, who received home visits, had been reunited with their families. Many have received assistance building more permanent shelters and establishing livelihood activities. Phased out at the end of 2009, the project also assisted 115 young people. Although it managed to reach a small percentage of the IDP population, it was worthwhile because it willbring a long lasting impact on the lives of the few", said JRS Uganda Kitgum Project Director, Donna Cimafranca.

Four years after the initiation of 2006 peace talks, nearly 280,000 (84 percent) internally displaced persons (IDPs) had left the camps. However, many of those who have remained are unable to leave.

Extremely vulnerable individuals continue to rely on the support of other returnees and NGOs for their needs. Agencies and the government are taking steps to restore basic services and improve infrastructure. Nevertheless, many services remain out of reach for residents in the return areas.

During the return process, many extremely vulnerable have been left behind due to lack of support and resources. Some lost their families in the conflict, others had become estranged. Relatives are often unable to support older members.

JRS currently provides support to approximately 200 extremely vulnerable persons in Kitgum.

Press Contact Information
Angelika Mendes
+254 20 3874152