A little background….
Patongo is in the remote and neglected corner of northeast Uganda, which for more than 20 years was devastated by brutal conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan People’s Defence Force. Thousands were killed, millions were displaced, and the LRA abducted more than 30,000 children, forcing them to be soldiers, porters and sex slaves. Traditionally a small and successful farming community of 6,000 people, Patongo swelled in size to 65,000 as war refugees flooded in. With scant infrastructure to support this influx, Patongo society was tested to the breaking point. Alcoholism, sexual and domestic violence, early pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression are rife.
The social workers
Our local partners have created the groundbreaking Patongo Counselling Community Outreach (PCCO) programme. This programme transforms people’s lives by alleviating the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and its associated social and economic problems. Carefully selected community members take on the role of social workers and receive in-depth training in counselling skills from volunteer psychologists Dr. Barbara Bauer and Shelley Evans. Once trained, they work in pairs (one woman, one man) counselling trauma victims in Patongo and outlying communities. Travelling from village to village on their bicycles, they transform the life chances of thousands of people, giving them opportunities to rebuild their lives and communities.
Rose is a social worker in Patongo. Like many women across Africa, she wakes at 5:30 am to fetch water for her family, she makes breakfast, and gets her two daughters ready for school. She then does an hour of domestic work and puts the food for the day on the fire to cook slowly while she is out at work.
At 7:30 she leaves for PCCO, a 5-kilometre walk. Once there, she spends half an hour talking to other social workers about the day ahead. Then she’s off to her first outreach group. Rose spends about three hours with each group every day (except market day), offering counselling and reviewing their savings associations’ progress. She says the community understands the benefits of counselling and people tell her they are grateful for her efforts. “The words of counselling are better than the tablets [anti-depressants], and the community appreciates us for that,” says Rose.
Apart from group counseling sessions, Rose also has 10 individual clients whom she sees regularly. Many of these clients initially came to her at the PCCO offices expecting to be given something tangible, but Rose explains that counselling is a process. She utilises many techniques she learned from Barbara and Shelly, the American volunteer psychologists who trained the PCCO social workers. For instance, Rose uses their teachings about sympathy, comforting words and active listening. She also uses relaxation therapy and “safe place” methods to help treat trauma survivors. She is careful to let her clients know what her role is and what she’s doing so that they are equally open with her.
Most of her clients are female, and she has helped them with a number of problems including sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), which is a big problem in Patongo. One patient came to her in the middle of the night after being attacked and raped in her own home by a drunken man. Rose counselled the woman, helping her to calm down, and then took her to Kalongo Hospital where she was given crucial medical treatment, including PEP (medicine to prevent HIV transmission). The perpetrator was later arrested and is awaiting trial. The woman, a widow, continues to come to Rose for counselling and has grown very close to her.
Another woman came to Rose in tears because her husband had kicked her out of their home for using birth control. Rose met with the husband, chatted with him to put him at ease, and then introduced the more serious reasons for her visit. She pointed out that he was very lucky to have a family, but that children need school fees, medicine and a mother in their lives. She used herself as an example, explaining that she has used family planning for two years. She also reminded him that family planning can improve familial relationships, especially between husbands and wives, and allows parents to space out their families.
The husband considered her points, then acknowledged them and said he was sorry for beating his wife. He said he loved his wife and wanted to apologise to her. Rose then brought the couple in for a joint counselling session. The husband explained to his wife that he was angry that she had hidden her contraception use from him, not that she had been using it. He wrote his wife a letter apologising, and she continues to use contraception. The husband is now a strong advocate of family planning, and teaches other men about the importance of having fewer children with longer gaps between each pregnancy. He stopped by the office recently to thank Rose for her help and counselling.
Rose says that her job makes her “happy from my heart. Being a counsellor is like a doctor doing an operation on clients that always has a good outcome.”
The PCCO office is supposed to close at 5 pm, but Rose and the other dedicated social workers often see clients in the evening. To them, this is more than a job. As Rose says, it is an opportunity to “work on people’s hearts to make change.”