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Travels with Jackie Okanga, UUSC's Team Leader in Uganda
Jackie Okanga, UUSC's on-the-ground representative in Uganda, and UUSC Senior Associate for Major Gifts Charles Huschle
Since 2007, UUSC has been working in northern Uganda to help thousands of Acholi people resettle their villages after more than 20 years of brutal war between the Lord's Resistance Army and the Ugandan government. This month, UUSC has been hosting Jackie Okanga, our on-the-ground representative in Uganda, for her first visit to the United States. During her U.S. visit, Jackie has been traveling and speaking to people throughout New England and elsewhere, sharing the challenges and successes of helping people return to their homes after years of living in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).
A smile in a rainstorm: my week with Jackie begins
Jackie arrived March 13 in New York in a gusty, wild rainstorm, and I met her waving a UUSC banner. She had a huge smile on her face, and it was a joy to see her. We drove through flooded streets to Manhattan, where Martha Thompson, manager for UUSC's Rights in Humanitarian Crises Program had just given our Uganda presentation at the All Souls congregation.
Sunday morning was Jackie's first presentation, at the UU Church in Summit, N.J., a congregation that has embraced UUSC's Oxen Project and led the way in raising funds. After the presentation, one extraordinary man came up to me and said, "I'm so glad Jackie was here to explain your project. I want to buy a whole ox," and wrote a check for $500, the current actual cost of one ox in Uganda. The congregation raised over $6,000 for UUSC work in Uganda, using a unique four-week approach that culminated in Jackie's visit, which seemed to turn the hearts of many in the congregation to give even more.
I gave people my business card and told them not to worry about my title — Senior Associate for Major Gifts — since sometimes people can become wary about being asked for money. One young woman joked, "No, it's different. You're kind of like Santa Claus."
To ask is to give: listening shapes everything we do
In my job, I meet a lot of different people and I start by thanking them for being donors to UUSC. No donors, no UUSC. And, for me, it's all about giving back to our donors. When the young woman called me Santa Claus, I thought, "Yes. That's exactly it. I'm here to give to our supporters," paradoxical though it may seem.
Part of giving is listening; I listen to donors' needs, their interests, and their feedback on UUSC — I want to serve our donors in the best, most dignified ways possible. Listening is the UUSC way.
What does it mean to listen? As Jackie tells us, in the case of Uganda, as in all UUSC projects, listening means getting to understand the people and respecting their culture; it also means helping people learn to ask questions. UUSC calls this an "eye-to-eye"partnership, in which we recognize individuals as full of the capacity to take charge or their own lives, rather than vulnerable victims who need to be taken care of.
When Jackie began to work with UUSC in 2008, she met with villagers in IDP camps and developed their trust over time. Not only did she ask them to think about what they needed, materially, to begin life again at home, she asked them, "What is important to you about going home?"
The resulting discussions and community dialogues led to action and decision making by the Acholi. They performed traditional burial and cleansing ceremonies. Family members and communities that had been ripped apart by the atrocities of the war reconciled. Young people built houses for the elderly and wounded, and in return, youth received dancing costumes and books, essential for their cultural expression and education. People developed and implemented solutions for planting and harvesting. A sense of community developed. The act of building something brings people together — an essential component of returning home. "Change begins in people's hearts," is a quote much heard at UUSC. And, "When people's hearts change, their feet follow."
Since Jackie's work began, 14 villages (6,000 people) have been resettled, and much healing has taken place. As people have reintegrated into their villages, they said to Jackie, "We are so glad you listened to us. That is the one thing that makes you different from other NGOs."
How UUSC embodies UU principles in action
In Summit, N.J., Jackie told these stories. She told these stories over and over — to congregations in Devon, Pa., and Bethesda, Md. In Washington, D.C., we briefed State Department officials from the office of Melanne Veveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, and aides from the offices of Senator Barbara Boxer and Senator John Kerry. We also hosted a lunch for other nongovernmental organizations interested in our work at the offices of the Enough Project. After this whirlwind of meetings and presentations, Jackie took a well-deserved day off, spending Thursday sightseeing with friends.
Since coming to UUSC in November, almost daily I have been impressed, inspired, and humbled by the generosity of our supporters, without whom there would be no UUSC. This generosity clearly demonstrates a belief in the first UU principle, to affirm the worth and dignity of every human being. And from all the connections we made this week, I also saw other UU principles in action: a sense of commitment to world community and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Thank you to everyone we met this week and to everyone who helped in small ways and large in our travels.