For two decades, Northern Ugandans lived a real-life horror story. Conflict between the Lord's Resistance Army and the government ravaged their districts, displacing whole villages and forcing children to become soldiers or sex slaves.
Now, three hard-hit villages are rebuilding -- goat by goat, loan by loan and flour sack by flour sack -- using strategies that also help restore shattered relationships.
One contribution to that effort came from Shannon Golden, a Ph.D. sociology student. The villagers, notwithstanding their trauma, had opened their homes and painful personal stories for her research into the conflict's impact on relationships that cement community cohesion.
Golden felt obliged to give something back.
"I realized how much I had taken from this exchange," she says. "I was getting material for my dissertation, and that was going to jump-start my career."
Thus began the quest for a thank-you gift.
"A great gesture"
That humane response reflected a central point of Golden's research: informal personal interactions are important factors in rebuilding war-torn communities.
From a Ugandan perspective, it "was a great gesture," says Lominda Afedraru, a Kampala-based journalist whose family roots are in the Gulu district where Golden did her field research. "People come to do their research, and after getting whatever material they want, they usually go away. This was unique."
The district's devastation was almost beyond comprehension, Afredraru says. "For a long time, these people were homeless, living in camps with terrible trauma. Their lives were miserable."
Death rates ran high in the camps, and children were often victims.
Two paths converged Golden's connection with Ugandans began in 2004 with a six-month internship in that East African nation while she was an undergraduate at Wheaton College. Africa grew on her, and over the years she found herself returning to pitch in on social service work.
Advancing to graduate school, she took an interest in how communities make the transition from war to peace.
"My two paths converged at that point, and Northern Uganda became my dissertation focus," she says.
In January 2011 she launched field research in three recently resettled Ugandan villages, observing daily interactions and interviewing residents.
"Everything was still in a state of flux," Golden says. Families were struggling to socialize young people whose perspectives had been framed by mass violence. Neighbors who had suffered the atrocities of war needed to rebuild the trust necessary for social stability. There were disputes over land ownership, which would be a significant factor in determining who had power and standing in the villages. And there were questions about whether the formal, international mechanisms intended to move societies from war to peace -- for example, the International Criminal Court -- could be effective in the local context.
As an uneasy truce took hold she wondered: Would community relationships contribute to stability and long-term peace? Or would they be characterized by tension and conflict?
It was some of both, she found. While villagers mended relationships they also wrestled
with tensions that posed risks for further cycles of violence.
During her 11 months of fieldwork, Golden attended community events and observed people in their homes. She conducted in-depth interviews -- 24 with local experts on post-war rebuilding, and, working with a team of interviewers and translators, 91 more with a random sample of residents and community leaders.
One of her primary findings was that while war and displacement deeply undercut communal life, in some ways weakening trust and unity, they also gave rise to a new type of unity, one based in small groups rather than the village as a whole. The war brought broad ocial changes, she explains, including a crisis in leadership and in the socialization of youth. These changes, in turn, resulted in a decline in communal work and the rise of small groups hat competed for resources. The net effect was less unity and cohesion.
Golden says that while sociologists have long studied the factors that bring people together, as well as those leading to conflict and animosity, research on how those processes occur in post-war societies was underdeveloped.
So she developed a conceptual model of the postwar transition from "fragile coexistence" to stability. Her model shows how the local context matters. In addition to formal institutions designed to help societies rebuild, daily social interactions create informal mechanisms that can facilitate the transitional process, and others that may block it. It can be applied beyond Northern Uganda, she says, although specific findings would vary with each case.
The model's fundamental virtue is that "it takes seriously the stage of fragile coexistence," olden says, "a period where survivors are renegotiating their communal life, engaging in social processes that either lead to long-term stability or toward renewed violence and instability."
She also points out that what happens at the local level matters, not only for the stability of particular villages, but for preventing broader regional or national violence. "Looking closely at this fragile stage is essential; too often violence is cyclical and broader national or regional wars or conflicts have deep roots in local social relationships."
Debt of gratitude
By September, with the research phase of her work complete, it was time for Golden to return to Minnesota. First, though, she wanted to settle that debt of gratitude with a thank-you gift. What could she give that would help rebuild relationships while also restoring livelihoods? Goats, said leaders in one village. Small loans, said another. A corn-grinding mill, said the third.
The requests were reasonable. The responsibility was immense.
"I went into it thinking, 'I'm just a student. I'm not an organization with a budget. I don't have funds to do this,'" Golden recalls.
Nevertheless, she began to work her personal networks at the University and in Washington County, where she had grown up. She sold tickets to a dinner cruise on the St. Croix River, and during that holiday season urged people to give a gift of a goat for $75. She credits the generosity of the people in Minnesota for the success of her grassroots drive, which
yielded $3,000 per village.
By April 2012, she was back in Uganda with enough money to:
» Purchase 45 goats for families in Lukodi village, with the understanding that the offspring would be distributed to additional families;
» Provide 20 loans in Awach village, with half of the repayments going back to the loan
fund and half to school scholarships; and
» Purchase a corn-grinding mill for Ajulu village, with profits going into community development.
Now, having just defended her dissertation this fall, Golden is a visiting research fellow at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where she is developing her research into a book.
The value of Golden's research goes far beyond East Africa, says sociology department
chair Elizabeth Heger Boyle. It provides "important lessons for those who want to help communities transition to justice and peace after war" -- an effort for which there persists, tragically, continued demand.
Sharon Schmickle, B.A. '81, journalism and statistics, writes for MinnPost.com and is a journalism mentor in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania. She previously reported for the Minneapolis Star Tribune from its Washington bureau and covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, National Press Club's Washington Correspondent of the Year, and won the Overseas Press Club of America award for coverage of trade friction