When Nothing Can Be Done

I recently returned from a trip to Northern Uganda, in part to participate in the launch of TCON’s 2012 Agriculture Initiatives. I documented the event of our first distribution in Odek Subcounty in the previous post on our blog. In summary, we believe our strategic partnership with tens of thousands of Acholi widows will help promote food security for this region. By empowering these marginalized women with better resources to farm, we are putting Ugandan’s in the lead role to determine their future. As we claim, we are fighting poverty and cultivating hope. But there is another lesson I learned in Odek that I believe is worth exploring: the moments when nothing can be done.

As I stated, the day in Odek was a great success. Nearly 1,000 widows in one day gathering in one of the epicenters of the LRA insurgency, the actual birthplace of Joseph Kony. Deeply scarred by war and overlooked in the recovery efforts since, the widows of Acholi were skeptical that we had come to offer anything but words. It really didn’t matter if they had been told ahead of time that we were bringing seed for planting season.  There are a lot of empty promises spoken to these women.  So the photos I’ve included here can really give you an idea of the raw joy they expressed when TCON actually gave them seed to begin farming with this month.  But in the sea of smiles, there is often somebody whose issues run deeper than what seed can promise.

As we were preparing to return to Gulu, a 30-year old mother approached us to talk. In reality, she had the appearance of a child. She had become a widow in only the last two weeks. Her frail frame was partly the evidence of her battle with AIDS, but even that wasn’t the whole story. She brought over her two sons and shared with us that the oldest was suffering from the Nodding Disease that has recently spread in Acholi.  Nodding Disease is marked by uncontrollable seizure-like episodes that often take place when attempting to eat.  The condition is mostly seen in kids and often worsens over time, creating scenarios where kids are severely impaired mentally and physically, and unable to take food.  Thousands of cases have been reported in this region, and the Ugandan Health Ministry appears to be struggling to respond.  (For more on this issue, see two Ugandans: Photojournalist Edward Echwalu’s recent Blog Post, and Journalist Rosebell Kagumire’s blog reporting)

Two Weeks a Widow

“What can we do to help?” asked Dave McPherson, TCON’s founder, who stood alongside the desperate mother. Knowing Dave for some time, I am always struck by his heart to find individuals among the masses who have a particularly special challenge or need for help. Dave’s sense of urgency to do all that we are capable of doing is an incredible asset to our work. But after some brief discussion about the necessity for medical expertise on a condition that seems to be baffling even medical officials, it quickly became clear to all of us what we could do for this mother’s inordinate circumstances: Nothing.

The Second Son Looks On

It might seem strange to highlight this story, but I’m realizing how important this moment was for me personally.  I want to be clear.  There certainly is still hope in the seed that this new widow received.  But given the fact that the only person physically capable of managing the farming is her second son, who is seven, it will be incredibly hard to succeed. (We did give her extra seed, and tried to network her to agricultural help in the area) I’m also not saying there isn’t hope for her because she has AIDS, or her son has Nodding Disease.  There are helpful medical responses available in both cases. But those weren’t resources TCON had that day. There are simply times when you must stand in the face of the complexity of human suffering, and not hold a solution.

Understanding the limits of aid & development work and even the limits of our own agency in bringing that help is critical in framing why we are involved in fighting poverty in the first place. In 1980, the archbishop of El Salvador Oscar Romero was assassinated largely for his outspoken messages on behalf of the impoverished people of his country. There is a prayer he wrote that closed with the following line: We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. Concerning The Children of the Nile, we are celebrating the tangible success of programs that develop and empower widowed women and their children across Northern Uganda. But we are also content to embrace the places where the change we hope for is simply beyond our means, and outside of what we will be able to provide.  In that context, powerlessness will always be our asset.