Five Reasons to Visit Uganda

Yesterday, I was a guest on a radio program talking about our recent juvenile justice work in Africa.  One of the initial questions was about the “perils” of visiting Africa: Is it safe?  Is it a major endeavor?

Life on the outskirts of Gulu

I think most people want to visit Africa at some point in their lives–if not for some humanitarian purpose, then at least to go on safari or see the mountain gorillas.  Africa is indeed an amazing and diverse continent that is not to be missed.  Uganda, in particular, is a great country—I just made my fifth trip this.  If you’re considering a visit to Africa (or you’ve never desired to visit Africa, but might unexpectedly find yourself there one day), it’s a good place to start any journey.  As a matter of fact, Lonely Planet ranked Uganda the #1 travel destination for 2012Rwanda is also at the top of my list–and I recommend seeing both countries on the same trip.  With Rwanda fast-paced development, it’s surpassed some of the “rustic charms” you might expect from Africa.  Kigali feels like a European city–an example of the direction much of Africa is heading.

Here are five good reasons to visit Uganda:

  1. It’s Relatively Safe and Stable – Uganda is relatively.  In the 6 years that I’ve been sending large groups to Uganda, the only incident we had was a stolen laptop once.  I suspect we would be hard pressed to have the same results in Europe.  It’s also relatively stable.  I say relatively because there is the occasional protest—we watch things carefully, but no political situation has yet stopped us from going.  But, if you look around Uganda, it looks like a safehaven.  Congo: basketcase.  Sudan: Basketcase.  Burundi: basketcase.  Kenya: Mixed—as I left Uganda they had terrorism warnings.  The only neighboring country with stability is Rwanda—a personal favorite to visit.
  2. Safaris – Kenya and Tanzania typically get highest marks for safaris in the region.  While I haven’t had the chance to go on safari in either country, the gave drives in Uganda have not left me disappointed.  When I bring groups, we always make the 5 hour drive north to Murchison Falls National Park.  Entering Murchison is like driving into Jurassic Park on red dirt roads through a dense forest.  You finally arrive at the Nile where you have to take a ferry to the delta where the animals make their home.  No trip to Murchison is complete without a boat ride up the Nile to the base of the falls.  If you’ve ever been on Disney’s Jungle Cruise ride, you will feel like what you’re experiencing isn’t real, but some Imagineer’s version of Africa.  I recommend staying at Paraa Lodge—everything you would except from a game lodge.  Then, early in the morning, you rise to go on a game drive.  Elephants, giraffes, water buffalo, and even—this year I finally saw them—lions.  The only missing animal in Africa’s big 5 is the rhino—they no longer live in the wild in Uganda, but there is a rhino farm if time permits.
  3. Diverse Cultures – Uganda has diversity.  We learned from our work with kids that there are dozens of actively spoken languages and dozens of self-identifying people groups.  Northern Uganda is not like Kampala, and it’s definitely not like Karamoja.  Those who live in the south sometimes can’t understand a word spoken by those from the north—they could easily be different countries!  With so much in such a small country, it makes for an interesting visit that will keep you on your toes.
  4. Adventure – Uganda has a growing adventures tourism industry, with a lot of room for more.  My favorite thing to do in Uganda is go whitewater rafting on the Nile River—some of the world’s best Class 5 rapids.  In addition to rafting, there are the game drives, bungee jumping for those comfortable with local safety inspections, visiting waterfalls, climbing mountains, and, of course, simple travel throughout the country is an adventure in itself.  I would bet that the adventure travel industry sector in Uganda is only getting started.
  5. There’s Even More to Do – Despite visiting five times now, I’ve always got more to do.  I want to climb Mount Elgon and the Rwenzori Mountains.  They are fairly serious climbs—no day trip from Kampala.  I learned of some islands in Lake Victoria that I would like to visit one day.  I’ve never been to Queen Elizabeth Park for a safari and I still want to visit Karamoja.  I guess I need to go back–several more times.

As Pepperdine Law professor Carol Chase remarked mid-way through our recent trip, “I would have never thought about bringing my family on a vacation Africa, but now I wonder why not.”  Try it for yourself–you might be surprised.


Become an Expert in One Thing

I get calls and inquiries continuously about careers in global justice.  Common questions include: “How can I get involved?” or “How do I establish myself?”  These questions ultimately transcend the topic of global justice into any field.

It’s a hard question to answer.  There are huge needs, but few jobs (if you want to get paid that is).  Typically, people are involved generally, but haven’t narrowly focused their energy yet.  They just know they want to play some kind of role.  And, on top of that, there are actually quite a few people involved in the field.


I’ll give you an example: Human trafficking.  I get so many inquiries by people who want to help abolish modern day slavery that it’s almost the presumptive default. It’s a good thing—the issue naturally breaks people’s hearts, but its also tough to plug people into it. Most just have an unfocused desire to be involved somehow.

My recommendation for those who want get involved in something is to focus deep.  Become an expert on a tiny sector of a topic.  Unless you are charting completely new water, there are already many purported experts who have gotten there before you.  Find the niche that few have uncovered.

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Wrapping Up the Masindi Project

The third and final day of the Masindi Project was busy.  We started at 9 a.m. on Wednesday with most of the team calling final witnesses in for interview.  I went out to the Remand Home with two students, Steve and Megan, for some follow up projects.


We called the two boys for follow first.  We asked our driver, whom we had just met, if he might be willing to translate for us (since none of us spoke Swahili, Arua, Acholi or any of the various local languages.  He happily agreed to help.

While the interviews began, I took photos and video around the Remand Home.  I haven’t made a documentary film in about two years, so I’m feeling eager for a new project.  I’d like to do something on the remand situation, but I haven’t put much thought into yet.  I also worked with Steve to take photos of the kids that we would print and give to them later.

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Juvenile Jail in Africa: A Photo Essay

Despite the slow internet, I was able to upload a select 10 photos from the Remand Home Project. In short, I’m in Africa with a team law students at a “remand home”–a jail where kids are placed to wait for hearings or trials. Unfortunately, due to the lack of resources in the justice system, most of them end up waiting a very long time. Some of the 30 kids here have been in this tiny jail for over two years without a sentence. Here in Uganda, you must receive your day in court within 6 months, so we’ve already passed that in many cases. “Jail,” you will see, gives the facility a little too much credit. Our job is to assist the judiciary by creating case files for each child. The prosecution, defense, and judge will receive our case briefs and be able to make a quick determination on the case. We hope these kids will be out within the next few weeks. I wrote about some of the stories we’ve heard in my previous post.


The tiny “remand home.”


The kids sit behind bars most of the day.


About 30 kids wait in this dark, crowded space. It recently received a paint job, so it looks better than it did two year ago when I was here.


There’s not a lot to do waiting for years on remand, so the kids etch their names and charges into the wall.


One of our teams interviewing the kids.


Another team mid-interview.


My team taking notes during an interview.


The kids grow and cook their own food. This is the “kitchen.”


Professor Carol Chase in her element.


Day 2 at Jail for Kids in Africa

We are very busy here. The Remand Home project (jail for kids) in Uganda is moving along quickly with many cases in need of attention. We got on the road early to arrive at the Remand Home and work through several interviews.

The boy's remand building

On my team’s first interview, we called for the kid and about halfway through the interview we realized that another boy with a completely different case had come instead. The case was simple theft of an old wooden door by a boy who needed money to pay for school. The owner of the door saw him take it, retrieved it immediately, and had him caned. Then, on top of that, the owner had the boy arrested and he’s been waiting in jail for several months. The boy just wants to get back to school. You hear a case like this and you shake your head that it came to this.

Our next two cases were (aggravated defilement) rape of girls until 14 by older boys. In both cases, evidence was incredibly thin, but the boys both seemed believable that they had not committed the crime. In one instance, a feud had broken out between two sides of a family. To seek revenge for the boy of one side who had been arrested for stealing money, the other side accused him of defiling their younger daughter. It’s hard to say what really happened and I will be digging into the case file momentarily.

In the final case of defilement, the boy indicated that he might be a neighbor randomly accused. The girl had apparently not come home and her father beat her until she told him with whom she spent the night. She gave the neighbor boy’s name. We also interviewed the boy’s uncle (whom he lives with) who corroborated the story and said he was with him the entire day and they slept in the same room. The seemed so frustrated with the scenario and said, “I’ll just tell them I did it if it means I can go back to school!” Answers like this give me reason to believe he’s telling the truth.

These are just a sampling of the cases with which we’re dealing. Other cases range from death by poisoned insects to witch craft. We run the gamut here.

If you know Michael and Karen Mudgett from Malibu Presbyterian Church, I think they’re enjoying their time. Michael is definitely on top of things during the interviews. We’re not on the same team, but occasionally I hear him switch hats from lawyer to pastor and bark out something like, “Okay young man, now you tell me how you’re going to change your behavior around women.”

For those who know Carol Chase, she’s definitely in her element here. The fact patterns we get are better than law exam questions with all sorts of complex procedure and evidentiary problems. It’s criminal law professor’s dream and she’s loving try to solve these complex cases. “I want to come back here and do this again!” she blurted out after we finished today’s round of interviews.

Tomorrow is the final push—we need to get everything wrapped up and filed away. It will be a busy morning.


Returning to the Remand Home

It was an unexpectedly strange sensation returning to Ihungu Remand Home in Masindi. On the drive out of Masinidi and into the bush, the powerful emotions of our first trip started to return. I remembered the twists and turns, and the bumpy spots on the red dirt road. Turning into the facility, it all felt smaller than my memory, but partially because we were only four on the first trip and now we are 18 with students and translators.

Remand Home

I was struck by how unprepared we were the first time. We were unprepared to see the squalor conditions of the Remand Home. We were unprepared to see the types of cases and the lengths of time that the kids had been there. We didn’t have any of the case files. We didn’t know what questions to ask or how to proceed. We didn’t know if the judicial system would listen to us.

Ultimately, we figured it out, but it involved a lot of trial and error. We were exploring the fringes of the rule of law. But, most of all, it was powerful. It blew us all away and had a significant impact on the lives of each team member. The first time you do something can be deeply meaningful.

This time is interesting–new cases, new kids–but it’s not as personally powerful as the first time. We can never expect to have those “firsts” experiences twice.

While I don’t get to have a “first” experience again, we have 14 law students and lawyers who are having their’s. That’s fun to watch.

On my team, today’s cases included a complicated aggravated defilement (rape) and several “simple defilements” (statutory rape). Unfortunately, we don’t have the court file for most of them, which makes it harder. We are, at this point, relying on the testimony of the accused. I will share more about these cases soon.

I will end with this: One of the highlights for today was working with Joseph. Joseph was accused of a murder in 2010 and we presented his case that he could not have committed the murder. He was exonerated and we helped him get back into school. Joseph was able to come down to Masindi this week to help us translate–a beautiful turn of events. He gave the kids a pep talk and told them that they would get out and could get back to life. I asked him if there was anything good about his time in the Remand Home. He said, “Oh yes, I learned a lot about leadership.” He definitely displayed that today.


Back in Uganda: The Masindi Project 2 is Beginning

I am back in Uganda this week for another installment of the Masindi Project—a juvenile justice initiative Pepperdine conducted in 2010.  On this trip, I’m joined by Pepperdine Law professor Carol Chase and Michael and Karen Mudgett from Malibu Presbyterian Church.  Michael is a lawyer turned pastor.

The long road back to Kampala

So far, things have been very busy.  We arrived in Uganda late Friday night and slept 3 hours at a hotel before departing to head north.  When I bring groups to Uganda, I like to start the trip with a quick safari over the weekend to get us out, active, and over jet lag.

On top of that, Paraa Safari Lodge is one of my favorite places in the world.  I looks like the kind of lodge that Disney would design, except that it is a real safari lodge!  I also love it’s celebration of African explorers—the walls are covered in paints of Livingstone, Speke, and the great Nile explorers.

The night we arrived at the lodge, we did the Nile cruise.  Again, much like Disney’s jungle boat ride, except that it’s all real.  Along the river banks you see cape buffalo, warthogs, elephants, hippos, and crocodiles.  It’s calm and relaxing.

Early, early the next morning, we arose for the game drive safari—you head out before sunrise.  I had one mission this time: see lions.  They had eluded me the past two visits.  We drove out quickly, blowing past the elephants and giraffes to try to find the lions early.  Thankfully, we were not disappointed.   A pride was spotted and we tracked them for a while.  We saw 4 or 5 lions up close—within 10 feet at one point.

After the safari, it was back to Masindi—a long 2.5 hour bumpy ride on dirt roads.  We pulled into town about 3 p.m. and checked into the Masindi Hotel, another one of my favorite hotels in Uganda.  It claims to be Uganda’s oldest hotel (built in 1923) and lays claim to being frequented by Ernest Hemingway during his trips to Africa.  I think they even claim he recuperated here after he crashed in an airplane.

We were also joined by all of the Pepperdine Law students and Professor Gash on Sunday night at the Masindi Hotel.  We briefed the team on what to expect the next few days as start the Masindi Project.  By evening, the local legal aid lawyer, Susan, and probation officer, William, arrived at our hotel and brought a few of the available case files.

The boys' remand building

My team will have about 7 or 8 cases.  So far, we have two files.  Both involve teenage boys accused of rape and imprisoned at this jail.  One of the victims was 3 years old, the other was 12.  The file also always thin, so our job is to figure out what happened in build the case for justice to be done.

For the most part, the kids here have been held for 1-2 years, far over the 6 month maximum that you can hold a child under Ugandan law.  A few have even crossed the 2 year mark, which means they arrived soon after I left on the first Masindi Project trip.

We head out to the jail in just a few short hours.  I will keep you posted on how this week transpires.


Back in Uganda

I’m back in Uganda! Our group arrived late, late last night to conduct another remand home project in Masindi.


I’m too exhausted to write, going on only a few hours of sleep in the last 48. Tomorrow will be fantastic and will be posting soon about our work.


Dining with a Hero

This week I traveled to Nashville to present at an academic conference focused on reconciliation. One evening, I was invited to an in-home dinner with conference attendees focused on justice. I was surprised to find myself seated at a table with Fred Gray and his wife, Carol. Fred was a guest of honor for the conference and a hero. If you don’t know the name, Fred Gray, you’ve been impacted by his work.

MLK and Fred Gray

Fred Gray (right) with client, Martin Luther King Jr.

Fred Gray grew up in Alabama before the Civil Rights movement. He found a vision to destroy legal segregation in the United States. Knowing he would not be allowed to attend law school in Alabama, he went to Case Western and returned to the South immediately, and with a mission.

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The Story Behind the Go and Do Trailer

Wow, things have been busy here–and it’s kept me from blogging.  Lots of traveling at the moment.  Just returned from Minnesota and now I’m in Nashville presenting at the Christian Scholars Conference.  I’m here until Saturday, then return to California to re-pack and leave for Uganda.  When I’m this busy, it’s hard to pause, reflect, and write.  And, with no time to reflect, it’s hard to feel inspired.  Thankfully, I’ll have some things to write about next week from Africa!

Go and Do is getting out there  It takes a while, but we’ve been doing regular media and radio spots.  I’m beginning to get emails from readers, so it’s exciting to see it taking shape and hear that the message is resonating with people.

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