War has a devastating effect on the lives of the children caught up in it. Education is one of the first things to suffer the disruption to daily life caused by conflict, while the effects of trauma can last for many years after the end of hostilities. The Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency in Northern Uganda became particularly notorious worldwide for the abduction and abuse of children; the duration of the conflict left a whole generation without formal schooling.
War Child Holland works to restore normality to the lives of young people, and will be bringing eight youths from the region to eLearning Africa as Social Media Reporters. The News Team talked to their programme manager in Uganda, Ernst Suur, about how they are helping rebuild the lives of young people in the North.
By Alasdair MacKinnon
“When we started working with them,” says Ernst, “these children were still living in IDP [Internally Displaced Persons] camps. They were like a lot of young people there: shy, insecure, idle and afraid of being recruited by the rebel forces… they were thinking they were not able to make something out of their lives.”
What these young people first needed was a sense of structure and normality. “In war nothing is secure, everything is unforeseen,” says Ernst. “Bringing young people together helps to restore a normal day-to-day life.”
They also needed to gain the skills that would give them the autonomy, the agency, that war had deprived them of. To do this, Ernst and his colleagues looked to eLearning, using a computer centre to provide “a set of tools that we believe are enabling” – including Internet, radio and technological capabilities.
The ability of these young people to learn using the tools they were given proved formidable. “A lot didn’t speak English,” Ernst says, “but we gave them Google… they taught themselves English using Google and the Internet.”
Their mastery of technology provided the first step in a series of entrepreneurial ventures that are continuing to grow to this day. From the start, the young people War Child worked with were able to gain income from small ventures, including installing solar devices, photocopying and charging phones. “From this, they gained revenue to invest in bigger businesses – for example, they have just opened a restaurant next to the computer centre [in Barr, Uganda].”
War Child has helped these young people gain a set of skills to change their lives, to turn from insecure people into entrepreneurs and activists, working with radio to get in touch with other young people and help the local community.
At eLearning Africa, they will be able to add another string to their bow: social media skills. The eight young people from the North, with others from across Uganda, will be reporting on the Conference live online, setting up an online back-channel for comment and debate. This will be important for them, Ernst says, because social media has “opened a lot of doors” for people in their region.
“This is not a tourist area, it’s an often-forgotten part of Uganda,” he explains. “North Uganda is soon to be on its own again, a lot of the NGOs are leaving. Social media helps to put this area on the map.”
Through his work with War Child, Ernst has seen not just young people, but a whole society, reconstruct itself after the devastation of war, and look to the future. And while North Uganda may well soon be on its own, he feels certain that the region has moved on. “People have moved forwards, Kony is gone, that’s what’s important. This is a very forgiving part of the world – people don’t look back, they look forwards.”
“We’re happy to get young people talking” says Ernst. At eLearning Africa, participants will get a chance to meet and hear the stories of these eight remarkable young people – Vicky Akite, Sandra Alum, Moses Ocen, Alex Okello, Joseph Nakasamba, Rogers Achila Bishop, James Ogwang and Proscovia Awor – at a session entitled “How ICT can benefit young people affected by war and conflict”. More information on the Conference can be found here.