Writing these notes has been delayed because of power cuts. Re-charging laptops means vigilance – when the power returns my colleagues and I leap to check that we’ve remembered to plug them in. That’s not always enough as the heat can lead computers to be fickle or go on strike. The rain and hail turned out to be a prelude to The Rains rather than their arrival. So the temperatures return to the upper 30s and beyond.
I have been told that at the height of the LRA insurgency there were 1000 NGOs in Gulu Region. Eight years on, the figure quoted is 40 but I have no way of knowing the accuracy of this. There is certainly a plethora of names and acronyms to take in as well as the multitude of different religious organisations, one of which seems to be trying to drown out the Muslim call to prayer and the Roman Catholic early morning Angelus with its 5:30 aural bombardment. The NGO I met with Sarah and her colleagues seems to be one which is trying to bring together the resources it finds out about by networking. My understanding in attending the meeting was that they would be coming with resources to put on the table but as the meeting progressed, I found myself becoming increasingly annoyed as this didn’t seem to be the case. I have found that by taking a position of “I wonder why this is happening / what is happening here?”, I can better manage any sense of outrage and wishing to scream “What the hell are you doing?!” – this has stood me in good stead in establishing myself as a volunteer and maintaining a position of learning from which I may be able to contribute through questioning and perhaps even teaching. My irritation is not so much on my own behalf but for the Children’s Village staff – I gain from the process simply by observing and learning. Sarah and her senior colleagues have given significant time and listen carefully and patiently. At the end, they respond politely with questions and some explanations. But I am left feeling that the visitor has not realised what could be learnt from them rather than coming with an assumption of what could be offered to them. Networking not working? I had tried to channel my energy into asking questions to clarify issues but also found myself wanting to act as an advocate for the SOS Village staff and the work they were doing – but I’m not sure that they need such advocacy – or perhaps it is useful to them to hear this as it is an authentic expression of my respect for their work. I asked Sarah afterwards whether my irritation had shown and whether I had managed to be of use in clarifying what was being brought or sought by the NGO: I think I had been of some use or at least had not been of disservice.
From previous discussions with practitioners I had heard that there could be a problem with the numbers of people who visit, networking, and consume time without ever appearing again. People who want to find out more but not necessarily learn more and perhaps find out whether they can truly contribute something of use - or whether what they want to “sell” is something that is worth buying. Disaster tourism and therapy salesmanship rather than respectful enquiry and learning whether there is a place for them or their approaches in the lives of the people they are visiting.
On my previous visit I had come across what I later learnt was called a “Research Safari”. The staff at the mental health unit had received a message that an overseas research team would be visiting the next day and needed some ex-child soldiers to interview – staff were expected to contact their patients / clients who fitted the description and make arrangements. Some felt this was a directive that simply needed to be followed but others were angry about it. To my mind it was a flagrant breach of all that I had been taught about research ethics governance and had practiced for 10 years as a member of an NHS Research Ethics Committee. But what was my position here in Gulu, in a health facility in which I had no clinical or managerial authority? I felt slightly empowered by having just been appointed as Visiting Professor but this was not strictly a University matter. I dealt with my discomfort by discussions with the local clinicians in which I made it clear that this process would not be allowed in the UK since it flew in the face of principles such as respect for the autonomy of research participants who are not to be regarded as “research subjects”, and their right to be properly informed in a timely manner in order that truly informed consent can either be given or withheld. The need to be guided by the principle of “First do no harm” was emphasised by the response of one ex-child soldier who was contacted. He was incensed by yet another group arriving. When he was trying to establish a life that was not a constant reminder of the past, he had to deal with people wanting him to go through his story all over again, subjecting him to a repetition of the emotional trauma and yet never coming back with anything that made his life any better. Then they disappear again. [And, I thought, received academic recognition for their work enabling further research grant submissions, so they can do further research…] The only good research is research that is based in respect.