July 2, 2016

By Matthew Sebastian

One of the enduring legacies of the war in northern Uganda is the experience of protracted internal displacement. Initiated by the Government of Uganda as the culmination of a new counterinsurgency strategy, forced encampment became an act of triage: the Ugandan military (the UPDF) announced that any person found outside of the camps would be considered an LRA combatant and dealt with accordingly. If you were a civilian, you were expected to stay within the bounds of the camp and security from both the LRA and the UPDF was an ongoing concern. Most reports estimate that over 90% of the population was living in internal displaced persons camps at the height of the conflict – over one and a half million people in total – and many stayed in the camps for well over a decade.

DSC_0040Livelihoods here have long depended upon agricultural production for subsistence and for income. To be forcibly dislocated from your land meant that you were also unable to maintain any sense of continuity among your family and community obligations.  Despite the abundance of now-unoccupied land outside of the camps, the WFP was providing the main source of food for over 1.5 million internally displaced people in northern Uganda by early 2004. In a cruel irony, agricultural training programs became common for many NGOs operating in the networks of camps spread across the region. As Chris Dolan has written about at length, the lack of access to land was the problem, not skills.

It is in this context that many young people grew up without the same agricultural experiences that their parents had prior to the war. After most of the camps closed, many youth-focused interventions focused on building agricultural skills among a young population that was presumed to be both unskilled and disinterested in farming life. Many of the same generational anxieties that circulate around “global youth” – those who came of age at the turn of the century, particularly in contexts where forms of work look fundamentally different from that of their parents – are heavily at play here. Land is perhaps the most contentious issue in northern Uganda today, and the supposed disinterest in farming among youth is a recurring topic of conversation.

DSC_0103Yet, I have found precisely the opposite in the many conversations I have had with young people on the subject. For this blog post, I’d like to share just one such example. Last week I was speaking with a young man who works as a private security officer – an acikari (askari). At the center of my research are questions relating to post-conflict security and the young men and women who gain employment in this industry, particularly those who guard the compounds of NGOs whose programs might otherwise include them as potential beneficiaries.

This young man is in his mid-twenties and before working as an acikari he briefly worked as a police officer until he was forced to resign after a supervisor refused to put him on the government payroll unless he paid him a substantial commission (an illegal but quite common practice). When he turned in his resignation letter, his supervisor condescendingly suggested that if he leaves he will be without work and be stuck on the land, “just like a mzee.” A mzee is an elder (usually a man) but the implication here is that to return to farming is to return to a time and way of life that no longer belongs to him. The sort of idleness a mzee may be allowed isn’t appropriate to the expectations of how a young person should spend their time and energy, how to properly be a “modern youth.” To work without pay is better than to stay on the land, he was told, and so he better not resign (although, importantly, he ultimately did).

As we continued the conversation it became clear that this was actually his preference. When we began talking about the land his father left him with the directive to plan for the future, I asked him how he plans for the future. “Ah, you have to dig! … if you have a hoe, you will not sit only. You have to dig, rearing animals, growing crops – that one is the life! … Farming is very important, so… buying crops, buying something to eat in the market is not easy. Maybe something…. maybe sometimes you don’t have money, if you don’t have money, where did you get the food from? So food that is there in the market is for money only, yeah. It’s better you buy yours, you grow yours, you dig yours, and you grow and after harvesting the thing is ready in the sack, you continue with eating that thing.” This young man is married and has two children and so his primary focus is in being able to consistently provide for his family. Despite being regularly employed – a feat of which few young Ugandans have the benefit – the future, and any prospect for dependably supporting his family, for him, lies in the land.

DSC_0123It’s in conversations such as these – rarely about land or agriculture from the start – that I’m finding young people articulating a vision of the future that, while perhaps amenable to some intervention programs, undermines many of the assumptions upon which they are based. What would an agricultural support program look like that didn’t presume a level of disinterest that few – not the least of whom those who electively participate in such programs – actually espouse? How might the discourse of idleness and of (un)employment read differently if articulated by those youth themselves? These are some of the questions that are continuing to inform my research.


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