Youth Empowerment With Survivors of Violence in Uganda
For 22 years, Northern Uganda has been the scene of bloody civil wars and political unrest. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, made homeless or drafted against their will into various resistance armies and political opposition groups. Amongst all of this blood shed more than 1,000,000 young children have been abducted by the notorious guerrilla group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army, headed up Joseph Kony. Once captured, any child strong enough to hold a weapon is forced into service in Kony’s army.
PYE has been working in Uganda since 2006 alongside arts-based youth empowerment organization In Movement. This year, for the first time, we were given the opportunity to visit the troubled Northern region and to work directly with some of the young people whose lives have been touched by the conflict.
Our co-founder, Charlie Murphy and facilitator Khari McClelland, traveled to the grounds of Hope North, a 40 acre campus that was established as a sanctuary for children and families affected by the violence. Hope North works with ex-child soldiers, refugees and orphans, and Charlie and Khari were invited, along with our partners, In Movement, to use their experience to run an arts and creativity-based youth camp with 50 young people at the center.
“I was told that many of the young people we would be working with were forced to leave their ancestral lands as a result of rebel forces violent attacks on them,” says Khari, “these are people who have suffered greatly. At the same time, many of the issues faced seem universal – ethnic tension, war, trauma and healing.”
“To make sure that we were working with the local community’” says Charlie, “we connected with social artists and youth workers in the area. They have an intimate knowledge of the problems the young people in this region face and are able to tailor the camp accordingly.”
“Before the youth camp began, we gathered 30 adult mentors from Uganda and led a 4-day workshop and training. There was a fantastic mix of attendees, including staff from both In Movement and Hope North and staff from local youth serving organizations Breakdance Project Uganda and A River Blue. “
As the workshop began, Charlie was surprised to recognize a familiar face among the assembled youth workers. “I had met this young man back in 2006 when he attended our first Ugandan camp as a youth member. The camp had been held to support young people who were living with HIV/AIDS. He had really excelled and had been switched on by the work. He now told me that after that experience he decided to get training and started working as a peer counselor supporting other young people who were living with HIV/AIDS. Now, he was ready to come back to the camp and train as a facilitator. It was incredible to see how deeply a life can be impacted by a five-day camp experience. I was completely blown away.”
Once the training had finished, the 50 young people, all aged between 14-18, arrived for the camp. “We immediately started using the creative games and community building techniques which are at the core of what we do at PYE. Part of our camp design includes what we call “family groups,” five youth and two staff who meet together at least once a day during the camp. The family groups became a home base where youth felt safe enough to share the real stories of their lives and give and receive the kind of attention and support that changes lives.
“By the end of the program many of the youth told us that they were going to take the family group idea back to their school with them so that they could share it with the rest of students. For many of these young people, their traditional family structure has been shattered by the violence in the region, so it was extremely powerful for them to bond so deeply.”
All of the young people who were attending the camp have very intense and powerful stories given what has been happening in their country.
Understandably, many of them arrived at camp quite timid and somewhat shut down. Charlie and Khari with their team of youth workers, now fully trained in the use of arts and creativity in working with young people, led the youth through a series of workshops, activities and group-bonding experiences, encouraging them to feel confident, positive and able to take control of their lives.
“By the time they left, they were telling the staff that they had learned the importance of sharing their story and their feelings with other people. It was amazing to see how much more confident they were.”
While at the camp, some of the facilitators worked with the young people to help them to film, direct and create a series of video diaries. The videos capture the energy, enthusiasm and confidence of the young people. Take a look:
“The camp ended with hundreds of people from the local community coming down to celebrate with us. The youth put on a performance based on some of the things they had learned and practiced over the week. The evening ended with a big dance – the whole community together. The joy and celebration of togetherness is something I will never forget.”
Better still, as a result of this first training and camp, many relationships were developed and many of the social artists who attended the camp will be going back to Hope North over the next year to continue working with the young people.
“Several youth-serving organizations in this region have expressed a desire for more creative facilitation trainings for their staff. The creativity revolution is alive and rolling in northern Uganda!”
If you are interested in adding creativity and the arts to your work with young people or groups, take a look at our upcoming trainings.