My Trip to Uganda and Our Project to End Child Sacrifice

Monday, February 8, 2016

I spent a week in Uganda at the end of January. The traveling-parent curse struck once again and Jude got sick with Hand, Mouth, and Foot disease. Fun times for Joe, but he managed like a rock star. He allowed me to focus on my trip, and my time there was good. Pretty great actually.



I was a bit reluctant to go to Uganda. Last time I traveled to the region was 2008 when I volunteered in Eastern DR Congo and that left quite a few bitter memories. Mind you, not bitter memories of the people there but of my and other NGOs’ presence and lack of relevance. You can read more about this time here. I was afraid Uganda feel the same, where locals resent NGOs, resent their staff and their presence. But I was surprised to see that, despite the huge amount of white people in the capital, there were no aggressiveness or outward disdain –I’m not saying it isn’t there. I’m saying I didn’t feel it.



My boss was to arrive on the same flight as mine but he got stuck on the East Coast for an extra day due to the snow storm. So I spent the first day in the office. I read about the situation of children in the country. And my mind was blown! I should have done my research before departure but I didn’t, and in a way it was more shocking and heart wrenching to read the statistics in country. A few examples: Out of the 90% of children who enter primary school only 30% finish. Most children drop out between grade 5 and 7. Boys drop off mainly because of boredom. But girls… girls leave because they’re married early, are pregnant, or are afraid to go to school. More than 70% of pupils report being physically and sexually assaulted and the vast majority of perpetrators is male teachers. Most children also report not being fed enough and being beaten or emotionally abused at home. And a lot of children report living in fear of kidnapping. That’s the main focus of our project: preventing kidnapping leading to ritual murders, also called child sacrifice.

You read that right. Child sacrifice. A child –usually very young, usually male- is snatched from his or her home, driven away in the bush, brutally wacked by machetes (depending on the situation, witch doctors can request fingers, genitals, or a head), and left to die. It’s gruesome and traumatic. Survivors and their families have terrible scars –physical and emotional- and some grieving families completely fall apart. Our project has put in place a sort of Amber Alert so that kidnapped children can be found and rescued before they are hurt. We also hold community discussions and training on positive parenting, child rights and child protection, and on debunking myths that allow the demand for body parts to remain or increase. Our project manager there has done miracles engaging community members, including perpetrators, and on changing what we call “social norms”, what people consider normal but is actually detrimental to children –think beating a child as a way to discipline him or her.

My boss and I were directly confronted with these issues twice in the same day: in the morning while visiting the local office, a phone call came in notifying the project manager that the body of a 13-year old girl had been found that morning. She was missing fingers and other body parts and was left in a sugar cane plantation. We later learnt that her family didn’t report her disappearance. In the afternoon we met a child survivor, a little girl of 4 who was kidnapped when she was 2 but was rescued without a scratch because her amazing 4-year old brother, whom we believe was the child they actually wanted to get, ran from home to home until he found someone who triggered the Amber Alert. While walking to the child’s home, we heard a child scream and cry and we all witnessed a mom violently beating her daughter with a cane –the cane actually broke. The little girl was sobbing and her ear was bleeding. In our organization we are mandated reporters so the Ugandan staff talked to the mom, took pictures, and reported the abuse to the local authorities. On our way back from the survivor’s home, we walked past that home again. The mom had left to fetch water and the little girl, who was 6, was taking care of her baby sister, who couldn’t be older than 2 months old, along with a few of her siblings. She said her mom beat her up because she woke up the baby from her nap. There were 9 children in the family, all rather young. It was heartbreaking to know that the mom didn’t have the proper resources to care for her children –neither material nor emotional- or moral barriers preventing her from beating her child –she did this when her door was open! As a matter of fact the daughter’s ear bled because she had an injury from a previous beating that never healed. This happens all the time.

(I took this picture from the car. These children are representative of the children I'm talking about.)

As outsider it’s so hard to know how to stop these practices –from beating a child as a means to discipline them to the terrible crime of murdering children for rituals supposed to bring good fortune and wealth. Fortunately, our Ugandan colleagues are leading the charge and are changing the way children are treated. I’m so proud of our organization for tackling these issues and for supporting these projects. On a personal level I’m so lucky to be involved in this work with the most vulnerable children. We’re doing amazing work slowly changing minds and hearts, attitudes and behaviors. We are allowing children to have a childhood filled with play, school, and love -and, most importantly, to live a childhood free from fear.