Brilliant, hilarious Godfrey Aballaa was stolen as a child by the Lord’s Resistance Army, the guerilla group that has ravaged Uganda for 20 years. He hid in a hole in the ground and escaped with his arms and legs intact, but admitted to new friends at Willamette that he’s still plagued by nightmares of running. Brenda Namirembe, whose mother died of malaria, was gleeful: Her school chose her even over the boys. Precious Munyambabazi, at 15, was the youngest. His father sold parcels of land to buy his son new clothes and a passport for the trip to America. “I feel precious indeed,” he says.
Nine students and three teachers from Uganda tried out their first hot running water and sharpened skills they needed for engaged citizenship in their fragile African democracy: freedom of speech and freedom of the press. They were on campus in September as part of Willamette’s Critical Thinking Across Cultures Project, funded by the U.S. State Department and sponsored by the International Debate Education Association (IDEA) and CRY-Uganda. With headquarters at Willamette and in New York City and Amsterdam, IDEA teaches debate skills to youth in more than 40 emerging democracies, promoting peaceful conflict resolution and the free exchange of ideas. “Debate is the tool of democracy,” says Robert Trapp, director of IDEA at Willamette and professor of rhetoric and media studies.
More than 700 Ugandan teens vied for the honor of coming to Willamette’s debate forum; nine were chosen based on outstanding public speaking and debate skills. tools of democracy Ugandan students and teachers learn debate skills to unite people of 40 languages in pursuing one goal: free speech. Though Uganda is home to numerous ethnic groups speaking 40 languages, English is a common language for many, and the students’ differing tribal backgrounds didn’t keep them from quickly connecting on the 22-hour flight to Oregon.
Once here, they practiced citizen journalism, writing and posting their thoughts online. They met with judges and sat in the governor’s chair. Between work sessions they played soccer on the Quad, hosted a reception for faculty and students, and shared stories and dances with Willamette students at the Bistro.
But mostly they debated, polishing speaking skills and grappling with both sides of questions that hit below the surface: Is racism inevitable in a society with multiple cultures? Is a free press needed to prevent government corruption? Should traditional culture be preserved even at the expense of economic development? Should government provide free public education? “Debate helps one understand issues from both sides,” Patrick Bongo says. Their debate responses betrayed an underlying anxiety about the lack of peace in their country. The largest tension, they say, comes from land disputes. “You can survive if you have land,” Christine Nimusiima says. Many Ugandans don’t and encroach on neighboring tracts, creating intense conflicts. And villagers are on edge about the slaughter and rape brought by the self-declared prophet with his army of ragged child soldiers and militiamen. “If you go back to the history — how you lost your brother, your sisters, parents — you will start crying,” says student James Eboku. “From the time you are born in Uganda, all you are seeing is blood,” says Ibrahim Kawooma. “We’ve never been in peace. The only thing to do is to find solutions, which are debate and conflict resolution.”
Willamette debate students agree, and they have helped organize IDEA forums in Africa, South America, Europe, China, East Asia and the Middle East, reaching more than 70,000 young people. The first debate society west of the Mississippi won the National Sweepstakes Award three of the last 10 years, but many Willamette debaters find their most profound satisfaction comes from traveling the world as emissaries of free speech. More than an academic exercise, debate forums cut to the heart of the political and the personal: Jewish and Palestinian students debate whether hate speech should be a crime; Serbian youth debate the importance of human rights.
IDEA is active in several Sub-Saharan African countries, but the continent poses challenges. “There are health risks, there are numerous tribes and languages, and there’s a lack of infrastructure,” Trapp says. “Even Uganda’s capital city is plagued by intermittent electricity, and transportation is most often a ‘boda-boda’” — Trapp’s last taxi-motorcycle lift took him onto sidewalks, between lanes and against traffic. Perhaps the most critical problem is that public education is out of reach for many children, whose families cannot afford public school tuition; they are growing up illiterate. Even fewer families have resources for college, leaving a nation unprepared for the 21st century.
The visiting Ugandans are doing their best to turn that around. They returned home after three weeks, some to straw and mud huts in the refugee camps or families displaced by war, most to the familiar hunger in their stomachs. They’ll take their chances with malaria (all have had it) and HIV/AIDS, which has decimated their families, and they’ll try to stay clear of the “divinely inspired prophet” on his violent rampages. With any hope, the resilience they brought to Willamette will allow them not only to survive, but also to become the seeds of change their country needs. “In our homes we don’t have computers, but we shall live the role we can,” Kawooma says.
“So many in rural areas are far from reach,” says Nimusiima, who wants to invest her education in helping impoverished villagers. “Even if that man is corrupt, you know he won’t get in your pocket, so you just go on planting crops and caring for your children. But people with education care.”
“I would like to be a window of hope,” Bongo says. “Change is not achieved in one day. It’s a gradual process.” Like the others, he hopes to pursue his education. Willamette debater Danielle Stevens ’07 says IDEA is working to find sponsors for them to finish high school and make contacts with people who can help provide them with the opportunity to attend college.
“It’s not just nine students we’re helping,” Trapp says. “We give them a vision, and they go home and mentor communities. There’s a spin-off into the tribes.” Bongo is hopeful. There’s no debate, he says. “Big things come from small ideas.”