Uganda exhibit shows human tragedy
“He’ll have two pairs of clothes,” said Stephen Shames to the crowd at the Gershman Y, holding his arm out toward the photos against the wall. “And no shoes.”The crowd walks slowly across the room as Shames points out various pictures. He stops at a picture of a boy staring blankly ahead and holding a bowl absently in his hand.
“This is what kids look like when they come out of the bush.”
One photo portrays a young boy, sporting a bright blue flip-flop on his left leg and a crutch under his right arm. His right foot is missing. Another boy sits at a desk in a classroom studying; the lower half of his right arm is gone. On the chalkboard behind him he has written the words “no excuse.” A girl sits, doe-eyed, her hands clasped in her lap. She died of AIDS one month after the picture was taken.
Shames took the photos in his exhibit during his time in Uganda between 2001 and 2005. The pictures in this room are telling. They encompass child night commuters, who traveled miles every night to avoid being abducted from their homes, AIDS orphans and sufferers, and the former child soldiers who are slowly being rehabilitated.
The program and gallery opening were part of a program entitled “Small Survivors: Vulnerable Children of Uganda,” during which those in attendance had a chance to view Shames’ pictures and purchase prints. The proceeds from the sales benefitted the Y and Shames’ educational initiative the Stephen Shames Foundation, a Uganda-based organization partnered with Uganda’s Concert for the Future organization that places children in schools and pays for their education.
The Gallery walk-through was followed by a panel discussion about the history and progress concerning Uganda and its 20 year conflict. Prior to the discussion, the African music ensemble Swaray and the African Safari performed for the audience.
Co-chair of the Mayor’s Commission on African and Caribbean Immigrant Affairs and the Consul for Guinea Stan Straughter moderated the discussion. He spoke about the need for citizens to write their congressmen about supporting the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a bill that will, according to Straughter, allot $15 billion for AIDS into a global fund used for medical treatment.
Dr. Elliot Fratkin of Smith College began the discussion by stating an overview of the Ugandan conflict. After Uganda gained its independence in 1962, it suffered a number of political and military coups that left the government unstable. Then, in 1986 a woman named Alice Lakwena believed that the Holy Spirit had come to her and told her to overthrow the government. She gathered followers and tried to fight the Ugandan government’s army. Lakwena’s troops were defeated and her alleged relative Joseph Kony came to power in the group. He called his forces the Lord’s Resistance Army, and they began to kidnap children and force them to become child soldiers in their fight against the government.
The two sides reached a cease-fire and subsequent truce by August 2006, but Uganda is still in disarray. Dr. Joanna Corbin of Smith College spoke about the return and rehabilitation of child soldiers during her segment of the discussion. She explained the difficulty of reintegrating these former soldiers back into villages where they may have killed friends and family members, and she explained a Ugandan ritual that parents who mistakenly thought their children were dead must carry out on the child’s return. The strain of the war has caused many deeply rooted psychological problems for many of its victims, and it is only with the help of their family and communities that they will be able to recover.
Shames spoke about his personal experiences with the children in his educational program as a slideshow of his photographs ran in the background. Shames stressed the need to educate these children so they will not have to rely on subsistence farming to survive in the country as their parents and grandparents had before. His talk put a particular emphasis on a young girl named Sarah Nantyaal, who has overcome tremendous odds to become one of the brightest primary school children in Uganda today. Nantyaal and her sisters were orphaned as young girls, and the oldest sister, 12-year-old Rose, was put in charge of running of the family.
Straughter and Shames continued to stress the need for action by American citizens in order for changes to be made within Uganda. Straughter reiterated the need for the people to appeal to the government for aid and support, and Shames offered the audience an opportunity to become part of a donation plan for his education program.
On May 11, two Ugandan students from Shames’ program will be speak about their experiences in their country at the Gershman Y. The students will then tour Philadelphia to speak about their lives and Shames’ program. For specific details about the event visit Shames’ Web site at StephenShames.firstname.lastname@example.org
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