Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Hello Fabius,
I hope this email finds you well. I am very pleased to introduce you to Maisha Elonia, the University of Pennsylvania Law Student candidate we would like to send to Gulu to work with you this summer.

Maisha is very bright and committed to the issues in Northern Uganda. Interestingly, her family is from South Sudan, and so these issues mean very much to her.

Attached is her resume and cover letter. Please be in touch with her directly about logistics for the summer--the sooner the better as she will need to arrange and raise money for her travel. Her intention is to spend half the summer with you and the other half with an NGO in Kampala.

All the best, Alison

ps. The curriculum is coming together quite nicely.

Alison Stein
University of Pennsylvania Law School
Class of 2009

Maisha Elonai
[Address ommitted for privacy reasons]

Mr. Fabius Okumu
Centre for Conflict Management and Peace Studies
Gulu University
P.O. Box 166

February 17, 2008

Dear Mr. Okumu,

It is a joy and a deep honor to finally write to you in person. My name is Maisha Elonai. I am a first-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania working with Professor Burke-White and Alison Stein on our Uganda Committee. I would like to formally request the opportunity to visit Gulu University this summer in order to further assist with curriculum development.

My interest in international law and human rights work has personal roots. My father was forced to flee his home in southern Sudan as a young man, and since then recurring conflict has devastated our remaining family. Anything I can do to help others seek true, lasting peace would be more than educational to me – it would give meaning to my family’s survival. I hope both to learn from you and to do work that will ultimately benefit the students of Uganda.

I offer the Centre my developing understanding of law, any assistance that you request on topical research and curriculum development, and my professional ability in journalism and graphic design. I am prepared to stay in Uganda for ten weeks this summer beginning around June 1, and I hope to split my time between Gulu University and the Ugandan Coalition for the International Criminal Court.

Attached is my résumé so that you may review my professional and academic history. Please feel free to contact me at any time. I am most readily available by e-mail, but I can also be reached by telephone or by mail at the address listed above.

I look forward to speaking with you soon.

Maisha Elonai

Dear Alison,

Thanks for the information.

Unfortunately I cant open the attachments due to unforeseen technical problems
at the internet cafe.

I hope to open from our office since our internet failure is being rectified.
But we highly welcome her to our University.

Warm Regards.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


I am undeniably a United States citizen. Sometimes my father looks at me, and shakes his head. "How did you get so American?" he'll ask.

Sorry, Dad. You kind of made me here.

I was always aware of Sudan and this separate, foreign background, but my life is many other things.

The Gratuitous Autobiography

My first memory is going to the supermarket and getting a bag of gumdrops from the clerk. I wonder if she still remembers that, too. When I was a little girl, I used to pick up Eucalyptus leaves in our back yard in San Pedro and put them into a soda bottle to collect the smell. Eucalyptus is still one of my favorite scents, actually. I grew up wanting a dog, but for the longest time our family wouldn't get one. Dad wanted to save the money we'd be spending on food and veterinary care to send to our family in Sudan. You really can't oppose that, but the smaller pets we did wind up adopting -- mostly lizards -- just weren't the same. Finally, during my senior year in high school, Mom fell in love with a little golden Boxer puppy at a pet store, and that turned out to be the ultimate breaking point. Her Royal Highness the Princess Titania is a Labrador / Boxer mix, and she absolutely rules our family. Won't drink unless you turn on a water faucet for her. Won't sleep unless you tuck her into bed. But she has been enormously loyal and a fantastic playmate, and I think Tania is the prettiest thing on four paws.

What else should you know about me? In high school, I was a model student. On the varsity swim team, in the drama club, lots of volunteer work with the Methodist church across the street, straight As. I wound up going to UCLA where I discovered nightclubs, the Santa Monica pier, and (oh yeah) academics. My four best friends were a poet, a doctor, a dancer, and a 6'2" gay man who might have been a lion wearing human skin. I was pretty happy, then.

After college I went into journalism, as mentioned in my first post. Life as a copy editor and page designer mostly consists of sleeping until noon, schlumping in to work, working until midnight, gorging on In-N-Out cheeseburgers, and playing video games until oblivion's embrace at 4 a.m. In Philadelphia everything is roughly the same, except that there is no In-N-Out, and you neglect to go to jazz clubs instead of neglecting to go to the beach.

I've never been good with relationships. I have a beagle and a condo. I think about things like book sales, or movie times. At my weight, the American Heart Association says I will die of cardiac arrest before I turn 75. I am relatively content with all of the above.

Open My Eyes

But there is always this extenuating factor in my life; always this memory of my father. I remember how hard he cried when we found out that Grandmother had passed away. I remember how, when my uncle died, dad stayed perfectly composed but lost most of his hair within a matter of weeks. I remember his stories about the barking lion, and the hippo that he once accidentally stepped on when he was crossing a river. And I want to fix things for him, want to go to Omar al-Bashir and work out some sustainable development plan that will unite and pacify the people of Sudan, will lead everyone to health and prosperity, or peaceable secession, or whatever is necessary to end the conflict that has now spanned generations.

Studying law might just give me the opportunity to indulge that fantasy -- at least in part. This semester I am taking a class in public international law, and after only four weeks I can already see direct, practical applications for our readings on self determination, the weight of regional custom, rights of indigenous peoples, and international systems of justice. What is more, my angel of an adviser has arranged for me to go to Uganda where I will be working with the country's coalition for the International Criminal Court, and then traveling north to a large refugee town called Gulu, where I will help a university implement a curriculum that a group of Penn students and I have designed.

It isn't Sudan, but it's darn close and much more manageable. Uganda borders the south of Sudan, and in fact some tribes in the southern periphery split across the border. The northern region of Uganda has been torn by civil conflict of its own for approximately twenty years, largely along ethnic lines. Before she was removed from editorial writing, my friend Carolyn wrote a truly fantastic series in the Philadelphia Inquirer that gives a simple explanation of the situation; you can read it here. To give a brief description, though, imagine thousands dead, more than a million displaced from their homes, children forced into slavery as soldiers and prostitutes, graphic acts of violence like amputating lips, and collapsing public infrastructure. I will write more about Uganda's situation soon, but at the moment I am rushing so I can get back to my homework.

The country is ripe for sociopolitical change. Not that I would have any particular influence, but I hope that working with the Coalition for the International Criminal Court will ultimately help to relieve municipal affairs. I've had a lot of fears about going to Africa -- malaria, land mines, isolation -- but the work, and my father, and the hope for any little change at all makes any other concern insignificant.

Still, you should have heard the call when I told Dad that I was going to Uganda:

"You're going alone?"

"Um, yeah. I mean, you could come visit."

"This is Africa. You know they have bugs in Africa, right?"

"... Yes, Daddy."

I love my father. He is the sweetest man alive. Always taking care of me. (And by "taking care" I mean "teasing.")

The preparations have already begun. I have to renew my passport, I have to get a visa. That is an adventure all by itself; I will describe that comedy later, too.

Some Girls Buy Shoes

Yesterday I went to Student Health Services and blew $260 on the six required immunizations that I didn't already have. Meningitis, polio, flu, yellow fever, Hepatitis A, typhoid ... Both arms are throbbing up and down; and yes, I do feel like a pincushion. An expensive pincushion. I'm still trying to decide whether or not to get the rabies vaccine; that's another $500+, and not something I can really afford on a student budget -- although I suppose I could apply for another loan. Oh well. I'll figure that out, later.

I also had a lovely discussion with the travel consultant about malaria pills, prices, and effects they might have on me in particular with my quirky history of clinical anxiety and depression. I have my prescription for multiple courses of antibiotics, too. Just call me a walking chemical treatment.

I worry about leaving my dog with Mom and Dad; I worry that the little guy will be depressed. I worry about money -- Lord knows I don't have enough to do this; I'm going to drop another $135 to expedite my passport renewal, and then I have to pay for the visa. The university granted me a fellowship, but that only covers $4,500, and I've already spent close to $500 of that without even buying a plane ticket.

But you know, I can't wait. This was meant to happen. I will study criminal law and human rights; two of my favorite subjects at school thus far. And what a setting! Who knows what I will see and explore. Who knows who I will meet. I can't wait to explore Kampala, and I hope to make friends for life in Gulu.

But I won't do any of that well if I can't concentrate on my homework. Sigh. I guess I'd better get back to it.

Friday, February 15, 2008


If you know me, you have heard about my father. He was a boy in Sudan during the reign of Ibrahim Aboud, just when ethnic strains between the north and south were becoming severe. The teachers at his school, all northerners, requested a military presence to silence any dissidence from their southern students. Suddenly, my father's learning environment was occupied by armed men, soldiers who weren't necessarily gentle with the boys.

The Beating
One morning, a student came to class late. This particular child was a regular clown; he had a ready smile and, although it wasn't his real name, everyone called him "The Artful Dodger" for his ability to get out of trouble. But today the Dodger was tired, and when the teacher called him a savage for his tardiness he refused to accept the insult. Words were exchanged. The Dodger was furious. He hit his teacher.

Striking out was the last mistake the Dodger would ever make. Of course, nobody realized this right away, or the boys would have hidden their classmate somewhere safe. But when the fight began it was almost comical in nature. One of the Dodger's many talents was dislocating his shoulders, a trick that the adults hadn't discovered. So when the teacher pushed his student into a wall, the Dodger popped his shoulder and started screaming, just to make a point. The bewildered Arab saw the boy's pain and went white in the face -- he hadn't mean any real harm. So he grabbed the Dodger's shoulder and pushed the arm back into place before taking the next swing.

Perhaps it was the Dodger's yelling, or perhaps it was the other students cheering him on, but the noise drew attention. An Egyptian teacher passing by the classroom heard the ruckus and jumped through the window to come to his colleague's aid. Suddenly the Dodger was beset by two full-grown men and had to fight more seriously in his own defense. The other boys yelled more angrily in protest, and soon the soldiers realized what was happening. They did what they had been deployed to do. They stormed the room, beat the Dodger nearly to death, and threw him into a truck. The child with the ready smile was never heard from again, after that day.

This was the end of my father's life in Sudan. Peace had been dwindling slowly beforehand, but even his brothers' activities with the a nya nya, the freedom fighers, were not as real as the fear that paralyzed him now. Watching a friend come that close to death at the hands of the soldiers who stared at him every day ... how had his home come to this?

As a boy, my father had a happy life. There was no electricity in the village where he lived, true, but there were his friends, two loving mothers, brothers who saved him from bullies with their fists, and mango trees that would award any child brave enough to climb their branches with sweet, tart fruit. There were night-long dances, bedtime stories, goat milk straight from the udder, healthy crops, and dik dik with large, querulous eyes bounding about the water holes. It was a good way to live.

But times changed, and the people had trouble adjusting. When the British missionaries came they spread their Christianity, and soon my Grandfather was told he must cast off one of his wives or go to Hell. My father lost a mother and a brother that day; they went back to her parents' clan and did not return. And then the drought came, and the People went out into their fields with bowls and prayed to the British God for rain. It never came. The People became hungry, but even then, life wasn't so terribly bad. Grandmother would go to market and buy food for dinner, saving a little money so the children could have bananas in the midafternoon for snack. And when locusts ate the village, it was a feast for the villagers, too. They picked up insects one by one and roasted them over fires until the carapace popped, exposing the juicy meat inside.

But the changes that the British had made were slowly starting to create irreparable schisms in the society. When boys came of age, for example, the local medicine man would kill a chicken and sprinkle its blood over the new hunter's bow. The ritual was supposed to bring the young man greater skill, but it was frowned upon by the missionaries, who believed the only safe blessings came from God. And so the Christians were not allowed to blood their bows any longer, and young hunters began to make kills without the traditional blessing. Whenever they made a kill, the more traditional villagers were distressed by the witchcraft that they assumed the missionaries were wielding. How else could these unblooded hunters practice with such skil? The People began to distrust one another for the first time.

Like this ritual, the whole culture began to falter. Soon there was alcohol, and increased domestic violence, and discontent amongst the young people who wanted to practice the British ways. The People had guns now and could kill more animals than ever, until the animals began to die out or move away. It all happened very quickly, and the worst was yet to come.

The British abandoned them. They just left one day, and to keep good relations with Egypt, they put the northern Arabic Muslims in charge of the whole territory. The colonizers had thought, at first, to split the country in two, or perhaps merge the south of Sudan with Uganda, where people were more ethnically and socially similar. But there was oil in the south, and teak, and Egypt protested the split, and so Britain left the situation as it was.

Then hell began. The north began to exploit the resources in the south, destroying the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of pastoralists. The southerners rose up in rebellion, and began to kill any northerner who arrived on their land. But the southerners had comparatively fewer guns, and largely fought with farming implements and passion. The northerners crushed the rebellion and began a campaign of killing that lasted for twenty years. The freedom fighters went into hiding in Uganda and resorted to guerrilla tactics to make their presence known. Untallied numbers of people were displaced by the violence, or died, or starved. The infrastructure in the region, which was limited to begin with, was completely destroyed. The one operating hospital in the whole of the south overflowed, and people went there to die rather than to recover.

The Strike
This was the environment that my father lived in when the Dodger was taken down. His older brothers left home to join the a nya nya. His father had been beaten more than once. Other children had been arrested, too, and rumor had it that they were tortured before they were executed. So when the Dodger disappeared, that was truly the end. My father couldn't learn, anymore.

The boys at school considered what to do. A small group decided that, since education had come to a halt, they should write to the military junta and request the soldiers be removed from school. My father wrote the letter himself, being most proficient with English, and twelve other boys signed. They threatened to strike if the military leaders did not comply with their request -- perhaps a small protest, but schools were rare, and the children who attended would go on to become southern leaders and generals in the army.

The junta did not respond favorably. Instead, they shut down the school and sent all the boys home. My father lived a two-day walk away, and he stopped one afternoon to visit an uncle in a different village. He returned home a day late to a terrifying vision. The soldiers were there. They had one of the other boys who had signed the letter, and they were hitting him and hitting him. Grandmother saw my father, and she rushed him into her hut and told him to hide. He watched from the crack between the wall and the roof while the soldiers picked his classmate up, just like the Dodger, and threw him into their truck. And then they came looking for him.

"He is not back yet," my grandfather insisted, and he distracted the soldiers by insulting them, and they beat him, but then they left. My grandmother came back into the hut and did perhaps one of the hardest things she had ever done in her life. She told my father to leave. She was doing this to save his life, but at the same time, she was losing a son. Grandmother told my father to go to his brothers in the a nya nya, they would get him out of the country. He would have to start a new life somewhere else -- maybe in Uganda.

The Phoenix Cries
That is exactly what happened. The story is long; I do not have time to tell it all today. But father crossed the border on foot with a group of other refugee boys, and they nearly starved in the jungle until they were picked up and interred in a camp for men in Bombo. Life was barely better, there. Anyone who stayed at the camp long enough became malnourished, and eventually developed night blindness. The older boys molested the younger, and no one was allowed to leave. My father lived like this for years before circumstances changed so he could escape. And then he walked to Tanzania and nearly died again, except for a church that took him in and helped him gain an education. One good thing about refugee camps: there is nothing to do. Dad spent a lot of time memorizing books to keep his mind sharp, and it aided his studies so much that he earned astounding marks on every test. A friend of his by the name of John Garang recommended him for a scholarship program, and a young teacher took the advice and made the nomination. My father had two choices: Go to the U.K. and learn to be a farmer, or go to the U.S. and learn to be a doctor. The idea was that he would eventually return to Sudan and help his people. I think Dad still wants to do that, today. I worry he'd get killed, if he went back. Mom and I try our best to keep him here.

Broad Stripes, Bright Stars
"Here" is the United States. That's what he chose; agricultural studies sounded too familiar a skill, but medicine was a mysterious art. And so my father was sent to Pennsylvania, where he went to Lycoming College and eventually Temple Medical School on scholarship. He met my mother, a Norwegian-American who had lived in Algeria during the civil war, and understood so much of what he had endured. She shared a peanut butter sandwich with him, and he knew that it was love.

When Dad graduated, he decided to stay in the United States for a little while, to earn money for his family at home, and to pay back his student loans. Eventually I was born, and he named me Maisha, which means "good life" in Swahili. I changed things for my parents. They fully intended to move with me back to Sudan, but when I was just turning five, Dad went to check his home -- it was the first time he had been back, and the last. There was disease everywhere. The village was so poor. Education levels had not improved, and there were shellings and shootings. It was no place to raise children; not when access to U.S. schools and health care was an alternative. My brother had just been born some months earlier, and he was much too fragile to live in such circumstances. My father left -- just barely; he had to bribe people to get out of the country, and his return was delayed by a month -- and when he came home, he applied for U.S. citizenship. I know, sometimes, that he still dreams about climbing mango trees.

Close My Eyes
I grew up watching my father drift further and further from home. We always send money, but our gifts are frequently intercepted in the post, and any delivery system we try to employ fails, eventually. Trustworthy friends start pocketing thousands in their own times of need. People die. Banks close.

When I was a young woman in high school, my mother took me aside and explained to me that we were going to adopt one of my cousins. His name was Emmanuel, and my aunt in Sudan was terrified that he would be conscripted into the military. That would have been particularly bad, because the government could have forced him to fight against his own people. So my parents thought about it for a long time, and decided to bring Emmanuel to the United States. It never happened, though, because right at that moment adoption standards tightened, and the United States stopped allowing Sudanese into the country. An immigration lawyer suggested that we bring him over illegally and then try to get him refugee status through legal channels, but my father lost all his fight, at that point. It had been so hard for him to escape, he didn't want to put another child through the same emotional nightmare.

Emmanuel has done well, actually. He is applying to study electrical engineering at the University of Khartoum. So far, none of my cousins have actually been conscripted.

Not every story has turned out so happily. My grandfather developed tuberculosis in his old age. The one hospital in the south could not take him, and every effort that we made to send medication was intercepted. He died.

The village that my father lived in was bombed, one day. It doesn't exist anymore. Our surviving family scattered to various refugee camps. At first, no one could find my grandmother. They thought she might have died in the bombing, but everyone held out hope. Later they found her in a camp, sick with malaria. We tried again to send money and medicine. Malaria can be treated. But the only parcel that actually reached my grandmother carried nothing but a blanket. My uncles buried her in it.

I try not to think about these things very much. My dad does the same, to a lesser extent. I mean, what can you do? The sadness becomes so absolute, you can't feel it anymore. It seems like there is nothing that anybody can do to help the situation. For me, escapism is especially easy. I'm an American. I was raised on food, folks and fun, magic kingdoms, and beautiful days in the neighborhood. I'm fat and happy, and I don't even speak Swahili. Sometimes, my father looks at me and marvels that we're related. And it's easy to ignore Sudan for long stretches of time. It's much easier than to think about it at all.

Only I can't really forget. The suffering is always out there. It's not just my people, either; it's the femicides in Guatemala, the forced marriages in China, the beaten monks in Myanmar, the torture camps in Russia. Sometimes an overwhelming sadness hits me at the strangest times, for no reason, and I have to hide and cry for a little while. I could be watching commercials during a sitcom and have to flee the room.

The Scintilla Standard
I decided in high school to major in English. I thought that maybe, just maybe, if I learned to use the language well enough, I could start telling the story of refugees. I thought that if only people knew how bad things were, they would rise up in action, overthrow governments, change the world. Ah, idealism.

When I graduated from college, I actually did manage to finagle my way into journalism. I learned very quickly that the U.S. media could care less about foreign affairs. The current trend in newspapers, anyway, is to emphasize local news. We all care about who moved in next door; but nobody wants to know about the 200,000 people displaced in the last bout of violence in Darfur. I'm sure the public reacts the same way that I do -- how can we change anything, at all? And most people have less incentive than me to try.

I made a few efforts. When news broke in Sudan, I sometimes urged our national-foreign news editor to put it in the paper. Usually he argued that there wasn't enough space for stories so low in priority. I freelanced a couple of columns about Sudanese refugees, stories that were rejected wherever I tried to submit. It's not my writing. I might not be the best writer, but I've published before. In fact, an editor friend used to call on me now and again to write about comic books and video games. I even had one piece on Blade Trinity that syndicated all the way out to Malaysia. So why can't I publish anything about issues that are vastly more important, provided I back up my work with news pegs and research and interviews with qualified human rights workers?

Answer: We don't care enough, here. Global problems are too overwhelming, or too distant. That scintilla of hope we bear for world peace -- we all know that is just a dream. I bury my head in video games and science fiction movies and try to pretend that people still fight for noble causes. There is a certain morbid twist to this; here in the United States we have so much entertainment that revolves around the idea of self-sacrifice, persistence, and valor. Look at Star Wars, look at Rambo, look at Schindler's List. So many of our movies say the same thing: Believe in yourself and do what is right, and you can change the universe. But if you ask a person to pay one extra tax dollar, or to sign a form letter to their representative, or to support immigration legislation, well, God forbid. That is asking too much.

Bloody Pictures
The irony in my frustration is that I was just as bad as everyone else. I sat, quite literally, in an office in an ivory tower drawing pages full of budget reports and obituary notices, forgetting my promise to combat real suffering.

And then one day, I met a man named Brian Steidle. Brian is a former Marine captain who was stationed as an observer with African Union troops in Darfur. He was only allowed to observe and report on the atrocities that he witnessed, and for a long time he lived with his eyes taped open. Captain Steidle watched villages burned. People shot. Babies cut open. His reports became desperate pleas for help to which nobody would respond. Eventually, Steidle refused to just watch anymore. He left the Marines and took pictures of his observations home to the United States, where he confronted the media and senators and churches, anyone he could make pay attention.

I met him at an interview. Columnist Trudy Rubin decided to write a story about Steidle's tour, and it was my job to search through his bloody pictures and find one or two that could illustrate the copy. The photo had to meet U.S. media standards -- that is to say, it had to be exemplary of the crisis in Darfur, but there could be no blood. That was an interesting request, because most of the bodies in these images were so mangled, you could barely tell what they were. I would spend a lot of time staring at a photo, just to make sure the broken bowl in the picture wasn't actually a shattered skull. Usually it was. The images that disturbed me most were the babies left to rot in the fields. After the janjaweed rode through and killed civilians, they would hide in the brush and pop off any family member who dared to come collect the corpses for burial. Eventually, people just fled without picking up the bodies. To see a little infant naked and lying on its face in the trampled sorghum, back peeled open to the spinal cord ... oh God, I had nightmares for weeks. And I was furious with myself, too. Here Brian Steidle was not even remotely related to these people, and he gave up his entire career to travel the country and do something about the problem. And these were my relatives, and me? I was going home each night to cheeseburgers and my xBox. I knew exactly how Hamlet felt when he said:

What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears. Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing

Hamlet, Act II, scene ii.

The longer I worked, the more the feeling compounded. One writer covered Uganda for a while -- even brought a young Acholi woman to the United States for reconstructive surgery after she was burned alive by soldiers from the Lord's Resistance Army. And our Sunday opinion section covered NGOs, desertification, microlending, international health care. We ran all sorts of things. But the newspaper was sold, and sold again, and many of my friends were laid off in budget cutbacks, and our travel budget evaporated, and our foreign bureaus closed, and our owners turned the paper's view more inward than ever in a desperate bid for survival. It was time for me to strike out on my own.

And so I have quit working at the newspaper. It's not that I don't love newspapers. I miss my old work deeply, and the people in it. But my interests have diverged, and now is a very good time to do what I never had courage to do before. I am going to study human rights. This fall I started law school at The University of Pennsylvania. I don't feel smart enough to be here, but admissions graciously let me in anyway -- I work all night and am still at the bottom of the curve, but Lord knows I work hard. And for the first time in my life, I am in a position to actually practice in some of the areas that matter most to me.

But all of this is a different post. Right now, I have to leave. I promised my friend Nanda that we would meet up and work together on a project for a human rights clinic in Uganda. It's very exciting, I'll tell you about it soon!