Today I go from Gulu to Kolongo, a small trading center in the northeastern part of the Acholi region of Uganda. On October 20th , the Feast of the Acholi Martyrs takes place in Wipolo, just a few kilometers from Kolongo. The feast commemorates two of the first Acholi Christians, killed in the early 20th century, but given the effects of the war, it also serves as a remembrance of all who died in the recent conflict. There are dramas, music performances, and gatherings of friends who have not seen each other for a long while. I will post photos when I return.
I promised that I would discuss the work of PeaceHarvest in this entry, and the best way to do that is to talk about our first pilot project in March 2008. We selected Lokung and Madi Opei Internally Displaced Persons camps because they are close to the boundaries with other political and ethnic groups. As I mentioned in the first blog, one of the aims of PeaceHarvest is to develop economic and other relationships across borders as a means of reducing the likelihood of conflict. First, however, we had to establish our main bases. Lokung is just a few kilometers from the border of South Sudan, and Madi Opei is near not only to the South Sudan border, but also to the Karamojong region of Uganda to the east. The Karamojong people are cattle herders, and their practice of raiding cattle runs afoul of the Acholi farmers. In future iterations of the project, we plan to help establish more cooperative relationships between the Karamojong and the Acholi. There are precedents for such cooperation in the peoples' own histories, so we know that violent conflict is not a given.
We began the pilot project in Lokung because that is the IDP camp where I had lived longest and knew the people best. Farmers organized themselves into teams of five per team of oxen. The Acholi regularly practice group ownership of things such as land, so the shared possession was not a new idea for them. If each farmer has a family of six (an average and even small size for a family in the region), then each team of oxen feeds thirty people. We brought five teams (ten oxen), which means the feeding of 150 people. One of the great satisfactions of the oxen approach is that we get to see tangible benefits by the next growing season. One of the farmers told me when I returned the next year that he made enough from selling extra produce to send three children to school.
The first thing we did was introduce the people to the oxen and vice versa (photo). The farmers give the oxen short and easily remembered names, often after people they know – so, yes, there is an ox named "Todd" in Lokung. I am not sure who is the more stubborn and difficult to train!
Oxen, like any animal, work best with people they know. For the first day or two, then, the farmers and the oxen familiarize themselves with each other. The farmers stand in the corral with them, stroke them, and lead them around on walks with a short rope.
In the afternoon, when the sun is high and the air is hot, training moves indoors to the classroom, where we cover such topics as the construction of the yoke and the plow (photo: You will notice, by the way, that the teachers are Ugandans. Our practice is to teach local people and, in time, make ourselves unnecessary. We prefer this to creating any kind of permanent dependency on us.). In the photo, the writing on the blackboard says "Theory of Yoke Making."
One question that sometimes comes up from people in the United States is, "Why do the farmers need training? Haven't they been doing this for a long time?" We always begin with the knowledge and wisdom of the people, and do not operate under the assumption that we are the only ones with knowledge. We operate under the assumption that no one has all knowledge. What we try to do is share with the Acholi people the knowledge we have gained from others around the world who also work with low-technology agriculture. In the pilot project, we teamed with an NGO from the United States, Tillers International (http://tillersinternational.org/international/international.html), which has done similar projects all around the world in countries such as Senegal, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Mozambique, Honduras, Costa Rica, and more. In addition, Tillers invited an Acholi man to their farm outside Kalamazoo, Michigan to train and to learn from the Amish in the Midwest.
I can mention one concrete difference that the pilot project made in the agricultural practices of the people in Lokung. The traditional yoke that the Acholi use for farming is a straight cylindrical beam, with no shaping or tapering, that rests on the backs of the necks of the oxen. The plowing oxen are called Zebu oxen, and feature a significant hump of hard fat between their front shoulders. When the farmers plow, the yoke beam gets purchase by pressing back against the hump. The farmers cut holes in the beam on either side of the neck of each oxen and drive straight rods into these holes so that the beam does not slide from side to side. That's it: a straight beam with rods driven through it. The problem is that the beam presses against the hump on the back of the ox, forcing the ox's head up when it pulls. It works, but is not very efficient.
We taught the people of Lokung how to make tapered yoke beams to fit around the tops of the oxen's necks and how to make oxbows instead of using the straight rods on either side of the animals' necks.
It took some ingenuity to fashion the oxbows. The farmers were not sure whether they had a wood that we could steam and bend and still retain strength, and it was important that we use materials readily available to the farmers. So we fashioned oxbows out of pvc pipe (available in the town nearby). We heated the pipe over a fire (photo), and when it was soft, we bent it around a template sized for the necks of the oxen (photo). We put sand inside the tubing during this process, so that the tubing would not crease or collapse. When the tubing hardened, we drove dowel rods down the sides of the bow. The result is a strong oxbow that can do the work it is intended to do. When tapered beam and oxbow come together, the result is a more efficient yoke that uses the full surface area of the oxen's chest and shoulders, and does not just rely on the hump (photo).
There is more I can tell you about PeaceHarvest – about the blacksmithing training and the peacebuilding – but I now need to go to Kolongo if I am to get there before dark. It is several hours of rough dirt road. I am going by dirtbike and need to arrive by dinner if I am to eat tonight.