Previously, I had tried to summarise my reflections as far as the end of our first day in the town of Gulu, approximately half way through our visit to Uganda. In the eight posts prior to this one, I have written about my record of a single day - the visit to the Pagirinya Refugee Settlement, how I tried to capture something of the stories we heard in my notes and photographs. Those stories of the five people we spoke to and the wider discussions with the camp administration and Church leaders are still close to my heart.
The pictures I took that day were the first ones I worked on when back at my desk, and they have also been the ones I have spent most time looking at and showing to other people. The experience in the camp and that of meeting the individuals was not harrowing in itself, but as in those classic films, the emotion is best communicated by what is not seen or said. The expression in the eyes of the ladies we spoke to told us everything we needed to know. The exact details, therefore, were secondary. To have intruded uninvited further into their trauma, grief and imminent losing of hope would have been to desecrate the very stories we were wanting to record.
This day was by far the highlight of the visit; the hours spent in the camp came to be a rare and privileged time. The wonderful moments still to come on our tour would feel like they had been earned by the time spent being physically present and emotionally vulnerable in the settlement. My powerlessness to change the situation matched theirs, although I had the significant advantage of being able to go home afterwards.
One of the common complaints in the West is that of compassion fatigue. We have seen these types of images so many times they wash over us, but I am glad I am not a professional at dealing with the trauma of the refugees we spoke to because it allowed me to stay in that moment of being present long after I had left the camp and returned to my normality.
I want to ask myself where there can be any hope for Africa? Is there an inevitability of a cycle of violence as wave after wave of 'internal strangers' await their time to gain revenge, or capture power? As we were arriving back in the UK, news started to filter through of the arrival into Uganda of refugees from the DRC who had crossed Lake Albert. Even if the violence and refugee crises are solved then the incipient corruption would seem to leave the continent hamstrung.
For me, the hope for the future of Africa (at least in the recent history of Uganda and the current situations in South Sudan and the DRC) has to be its people. The age profile of these nations is hugely tilted towards the young. The pain in the eyes of the ladies we saw in Pagarinya was in sharp contrast to the light we could see in the faces of the boys who joined us in Opi Tiberius' small home.
This was true also in the determination and compassion we encountered in men like Francis, one of our drivers, and those who we had heard singing on our first full day from the AYF. Sadly we ran out of time to be able to go and see Francis' work in the slums of Kampala - maybe next time...
I had approached Pagirinya with a sense of bracing myself to record to the best of my ability whatever distress and suffering I found in that place. Yes, there was pain, but there was also a beauty - the servant-heartedness of the Church leaders, the dignity of the women and the resilience of the children.
In the month since my return my reading and the ongoing work of processing the photographs has forced me down different avenues of reflection and recollection, but the time in the camp is the memory that has stayed freshest; not because of the scale of the pain, but because of the simple humanity of the resilience we met face to face.