Quinn: Letters home provide window into research

For the last 11 years, Western Political Science professor Joanna Quinn has been sending notes home to family and friends from her field research on transitional justice in Uganda “mostly to let them know that I’m not dead yet, and so on, but also to tell them about the kinds of things I’m seeing.” Recently, the director of Western’s Africa Institute organized the popular dispatches into a blog, Greetings from Uganda.

This is segment from a recent entry:

I’m back in the Pearl of Africa; this time for a short 33 days. … In so many ways, it’s good to be back. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. … Driving from the airport in Entebbe to Kampala, it looked so familiar. And yet the landscape looked very different in other ways: The half-built, vacant buildings that had sat for years have finally been completed; there are even more cars on the road (which I wouldn’t have thought possible) and lots of them are ‘luxury’ cars like Range Rover, Mercedes and so on. …

One of the things I noticed right away is how absolutely modern —and not just by Ugandan standards — everything has become. Lots of girls are walking around in trousers and jeans and wearing very modern, short dresses. Everyone has modern eyeglasses. And state-of-the-art mobile phones.

In all the shops, receipts are no longer hand-printed in carbon-paper receipt books; now, there’re cash register tapes and electronic tickets scanned on UPC scanners. We noticed this afternoon that the big South African Walmart-esque department store, Game, will even accept MasterCard and Visa.

… The other major change I’ve noticed is that the international NGO community has all but abandoned Uganda, and Kampala, in particular. It used to be that I couldn’t walk down the street without seeing a glut of other bazungu (white people). Yet now, even the cafes that used to be crowded with white people are filled only with Ugandans. And the streets themselves that used to be jammed with white Land Cruisers and other 4×4’s painted with signs from the UN, World Health Organization and so on, are empty of them. Even Ugandan colleagues with whom I’ve worked over the last decade have either moved on to other agencies or are in a different line of work, none of which seems to be relief-related.

Contrary to the Kony 2012 hype, the world seems to think the crisis in Uganda is over.  Even the Canadian government has no one either here or in Nairobi working with the Justice, Law and Order Sector, or with any of the Ugandan government agencies. And yet the humanitarian struggle is far from over, even though the world has walked away.

… We had our first interview yesterday. I’m still working on the same project, looking at customary practices of justice and acknowledgement. On my other trips, I’ve interviewed different stakeholder groups, including conflict-affected women, formerly abducted child soldiers, traditional cultural leaders, government officials, religious leaders and so on. This time around, I’m talking to local NGOs, to see what their ‘take’ is on the use of customary practices of justice and acknowledgement in conflict resolution. My hunch was that many of them are just talking the talk that donors want to hear, in order to get the funding they badly need, without completely understanding the implications of using customary practices.

I also wondered whether local NGOs had ever been asked what they think, or whether international agencies and actors had simply assumed they knew what was best. And in that one hour yesterday afternoon when we met with Ali, he confirmed everything that I had been thinking, with some really quotable quotes. I found myself thinking that I’d pretty much got what I had come for and what was I going to do with myself for the next few weeks.

Needless to say, we’ve got a bunch more interviews scheduled for the next couple of weeks, and I’m really excited to hear what the others are going to say.

All that to say it’s been really interesting so far. I’m so glad to be back.