Beware the unintended consequences of well-intentioned ideas. This is a cautionary tale about the spread of alcoholism in a community that was battered by war. But it has a hopeful ending, so please keep reading…
There is a consensus that micro loans can empower poor people to create small businesses. A tiny loan that buys a goat or a sewing machine provides opportunities to break out of the cycle of poverty, illness and ignorance. We see it in our projects in Africa every day: the women we train use their new skills — hairdressing or cooking, for instance — to make money, and with their earnings they send their children to school and buy health insurance.
But consider the downside, when someone uses a loan to brew alcohol. The town of Patongo in northern Uganda became a squalid camp during the 20 years when Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army rampaged across the region. In Patongo, sixty thousand people from subsistence farming families suddenly found themselves crammed together, far from their livelihoods. Many, especially the men, lost their sense of identity, and turned to drinking. Home-made alcohol was freely and cheaply available in the camp because several budding entrepreneurs thought it was a good business idea. The knock-on effects were immediate and predictable: an increase in domestic violence and rape, and malnutrition and illness because any spare money was diverted from the family to supporting drinking habits.
Joseph Kony’s war has now shifted elsewhere, but his legacy is a ruptured society struggling to revive traditional coping mechanisms. Our local partner is called the Patongo Counselling Community Outreach (PCCO). Over the years since the violence ended, we have trained dozens of resourceful local people to become counsellors. They offer support and therapy, visiting villages weekly, helping people cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, and other byproducts of war. They also run a drop-in center/centre and give advice on a radio show for people who live far from a town or village.
The combination of wide-spread trauma and freely available, inexpensive alcohol has led to huge social problems. For instance, 80% of our counsellors’ cases now involve sexual and gender-based violence, known as SGBV. But there is hope: with counselling, and by using admirable local role models, it is possible to help the perpetrators of SGBV to confront their actions.
Recently, one of our PCCO counsellors has helped a 32-year old woman who came to us after her husband attacked her with an axe/ax and a knife. After regular sessions with the PCCO counsellor the husband has pledged to avoid alcohol and the friends who encourage him to drink. So far, so good.
There are other less obvious consequences of alcohol, such as being too inebriated to remember to take antiretroviral medicine (used to combat HIV).
The counsellors report another positive aspect of Network for Africa’s work in the Patongo area: we train people in improved agricultural techniques, and when men return tired after a long day farming their land, they are less given to drinking or violence.
Your support makes the work of the PCCO counsellors possible. Please click the arrow on the right side of the page to give. Thank you.