I founded ‘The Huts For Peace’ community based initiative on February 17, 2013 in Paicho, Gulu District in Northern Uganda when I met with members of the group ‘Rwot Omiyo’ literally meaning the lord has given (14 women and 1 gentleman). When I asked why a women group would have a man as a member, they replied… “because he knows how to read and write’ They needed him to put their decisions in writing since none of the women is literate. The decision by the group to unite was to share experiences, having gone through similar experiences including abduction, torture and rape as a weapon of war during the Lord’s resistance army (LRA) insurgency led by rebel leader Joseph Kony. During our first meeting, it became evident that members, most of who were widowed due to the war, took up the burden of taking care of orphans/grandchildren and yet were either homeless or had inadequate housing. One widow for instance had six daughters who had to look for a place to sleep each night, while another (together with her children) was sent away from her marital home by the relatives of her late husband who died in abduction! She was blamed for the atrocities her husband subjected to the community at the orders of the LRA. There were also common stories by the women who lived in cramped huts with several grandchildren and orphans Stigma from the community is also evident for many of these women, who are looked at as ‘rebels’ wives. Every member of the group had a story to tell and one of the things they had in common was a lack of a place they called home. They were displaced, lost their homes, a basic necessity which would shield them, a place they could call home. That’s when I challenged the group ‘why don’t we build these huts our selves’ and then we brain stormed about where we could find locally available materials. I made a promise to save money from my salary to buy the remaining materials that required money and we would build one hut at a time. Together, we drew a roaster, prioritizing the order in which women would get housing (huts) starting with those who were completely homeless, lacked land and with girl children who were most vulnerable to abuse. The local church donated to us some land where we would construct some huts. Before I left on the evening of February 17, 2013, I had left money to buy materials like nails and hard wood which were not locally available in the community. We voted and gave women positions of leadership including treasurer. It was an emotional time for me, the Huts For Peace program was born! To date, with over 22 extended families housed, am inspired by women who have continued building their communities utilizing locally available materials, harvesting grass, molding bricks, collecting water and physically participating in the building. Am also grateful to friends who have since joined me in sponsoring huts including my friend and colleague Jacob Siminyu who together with his bride, rallied friends to sponsor huts instead of buying them other gifts. While building huts, we spread a message of peace and reconciliation (hence the name ‘Huts for Peace’) this minimizes stigma especially that some survivors were forced to kill their own relatives. When we participate in building communities (huts), it therefore changes perceptions and the women are seen as valuable members of the community. Volunteers from the community are welcome and members eat together, share experiences and talk about issues of peace and reconciliation.
Because the Women are taking care of so many orphans (over 100 who lost their parents during the war or to HIV prevalent in the area due to war crimes), Am also excited with the ox-plough I bought for the group, which is helping the women plough their gardens in turns and work together as a team. This enables them to not only grow their own food but also sell the surplus to buy other necessities like medicine and send their children to school.
I remember breaking down in tears when we made the first official visit to the first family to benefit from the Huts For Peace Initiative.
With land donated by the local church, this one hut was housing an extended family of 15 (three generations ie. 3 sisters, ten children and their grandmother).Together with her children, one of the women was sent away from her marital home because of accusations that her husband (who was abducted and joined the ranks of the LRA) had returned to the village and committed atrocities including stealing food and killing his own relatives. He later died in captivity. The inside of the hut (see photos) was separated into two sections- the cooking area and sleeping section. All the 15 family members slept on the floor and their only possessions/clothing hang on the string above their heads. The children did not go to school but survived on tilling borrowed church land, their only source of food. Am happy to note that the church has since provided more land in which we have constructed the family more huts.
This article is dedicated to women in post conflict who are making a difference rebuilding their communities.