Beyond Access: Community Network Centers –a source of new identity!

The building constructed using the savings from the Village Loan and Saving Association

Watching “The War Dance”, am reminded of years back in my lower primary, when two of my siblings and I, were among the many passengers in the bus who had been captured by the rebels as we traveled back from our village to Kampala to attend school.

Despite the insurgency, every holiday, we used to travel back to our village where we spent our holidays. My dad passed on many years before the insurgency and his written request to his brother who he left the responsibility of taking care of us was to let us spend our holidays in the village. Unlike the previous trips, our second dad was not able to come along with us this time because he needed to run some errands in Kitgum. As such, he had to put us in the bus, paid the fares and bed us farewell. He requested the driver to drop us at a strategic location where we knew the way to our home once we were in Kampala.

However, a few hours from Kitgum, we were woken up by gunshots, screams and cries to God that filled the place. The bus had instantly come to a stop and the rebels had surrounded us. The three of us were seated together. Shortly, some of the rebels entered the bus, ordering everyone to get out. Among the rebels were child solders.

While we were seated on the grass on the roadside, some rebels were in the bus throwing out whatever they wanted while the other group outside were picking whatever items they needed. My two siblings and I had put our clothing in one travel bag we had shared. We saw our bag being thrown out too. However, when they opened to pick items, they threw them back –probably because they were little clothes that could not fit any of them.

After hours, the commander of the rebel group told his colleagues not to kill anyone and that they were not taking anyone with them –stating that it was our lucky day. However, we were instructed to surrender any money we had before we enter back into the bus else, the person found with money would be killed in our presence. The adults were checked as they entered. In the bus, we found that all our peanut butter meant for school was poured onto the floor of the bus.

In those years, as the rebels were killing the parents and abducting children, HIV/AIDS was killing many of the parents and making orphans many of the children who would have survived the rebels!

“When someone was bedridden, they would call me and say Jane, tomorrow when am not there, please do not leave my children, take care of them”. Jane recalled how back then in 2004, women and children in Patongo Village were dying because of the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS at the time due to lack of awareness, care, support and treatment.

Jane Adong Margaret is the site manager for Gwoke Keni ICT Center, in Patongo, Agago district. I was humbled to learn about a month ago, that Jane was also one of the main casts in the documentary “The War Dance”, a very compelling documentary which reveals how music and exposure to a different environment was therapy that helped children orphaned as a result of the war in the Northern part of Uganda, to forget about their pains.

In 2004, the women living with HIV/AIDS came together to find a solution. This is when Gwoke Keni ICT Community Network Center was formed. An Acoli word, “Gwoke Keni” means “Take care of yourself”. It is a network that brings together children orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS and women living with the disease to receive counseling and support on how to take care of themselves in their state.

Community networks are communications infrastructure deployed and operated by the community to meet their own communication needs. They reduce barriers to access to and sharing of information and offers possibilities for socio-economic growth among other benefits. They also provide community ownership of the implementation of technology whereas before there has been a reliance on external providers for last mile connectivity.

Gwoke Keni Community Network center offers three major services; The Village Savings and Loan services, ICT training and Radio services.

Some of the computers the community uses to access the internet

Through the center, the community has registered a number of success stories. For instance, there are women who are now running their petty businesses such as tailoring and restaurants, from which they are earning their living.  They get the skills, knowledge and business ideas through the internet which is accessible at the community center.

The group managed to construct a building from the savings of the Village Saving and Loan Association (VSLA), a building in which the ICT equipment, office of the Site Manager & support staff and the Radio that serves the community are based.

The center uses its radio to sensitize the community on prevention and care of HIV/AIDS, Malaria among other diseases; environmental protection and conservation; reduction on violence against women, and on anything that affects the general community.

 “I am HIV positive, I was hiding in my house for a very long time because of shame. I am alive today because of Jane, who encouraged me to come out, join the group and get support.” Said Rosemary (Not real names), one of the women in the community.

Christian Lakot (Not real names), one of the Client Experts for the center, says that through the services at the center, she learned for the first time that for her baby to remain HIV-free, she had to avoid breastfeeding it. Today, she is very proud that much as she is HIV Positive, her daughter, who is now in Primary 7, is HIV-free.

As children, our experience with the rebels -listening to gunshots which was so close and threats of death, being escorted by soldiers either during travels to the north or even as we laid our loved ones to rest as security against possible rebel attack was always very traumatizing experience! However, once in Kampala, the boarding school experience, fellow kids in the neighborhood, no gunshots, all made life normal and helped us to quickly forget!

In the documentary “The War Dance”, we see Dominic (14 at the time) traumatized for having killed at his age, we see Nancy (14 at the time) cry painfully as she remembers about the death of her dad and the sad life in the camp –away from home and we see Rose (13 at the time), evidently sad whenever she recalls the manner in which her parents were killed.

However, when the trio joined the rest of the pupils who traveled to Kampala to participate in a national music competition and won in the traditional dance, the three found healing; their identity in the camp had changed from “the children whose parents and brother were killed by the rebels”, to “The children who have been to Kampala and were the best in the traditional dance at the Uganda National Music Festival”. During and after the music festival, we see the three smiling, laughing, dancing away so energetically and very happy for the very first time. The music festival and the tour in Kampala had given them a new identify.

Gwoke Keni ICT Center is more than a community Network- it gives its women members a new identity. Women facing different life challenges find emotional healing and a sense of belonging when they meet in this center and share with fellow women who could be going through the same challenges. Gwoke Keni calls some of them “Client Experts”. The Client Experts are trained members who continue to provide support to the center in various ways. Christian Lakot for instance, is now one of the people who freely talks about HIV during the Radio Talk Shows. Rosemary, is now among the women who reach out to the other women in the village who are HIV positive but are still in hiding in their houses to come out and receive the support they need.

A bucket in which the community radio is secured

This is our life. This is our reality in our post war Northern Uganda. This is the grassroots awakening and leadership, in the face of living beyond war experiences and its consequences, not limited to loss of loved ones, contracting and living with HIV/AIDS, catching up with lost opportunities and contemporaries elsewhere who did not experience these lapses.

“Gwoke Keni” spirit is self and communal confidence and empowerment through usage of modern tools of communication (ICT and Radio Services), Music, Dance & Drama and the benefits of collective savings and loans power. This is the reclaimed spirit and identity of a resilient people from generations immemorial.

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2 thoughts on “Beyond Access: Community Network Centers –a source of new identity!

  1. Thank you for sharing this Lilian. We cannot underestimate the impact of CN however small it is.
    I look forward to watching THE WAR DANCE.

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