Gulu’s Post War Urban Youth: Where is their Future?

A dusty road leads me to Pece Primary School on the outskirts of Gulu town, a city in the northern Uganda. Just opposite the school, is a signpost that reads: “Gulu University Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies [IPSS].” It points towards a sizeable block sitting on an enclosed acre of land. The building’s cream walls and green roof have greyed due to age, dust and rust. This is where Dr Stephen Langole, the director of the institute, told me to find him.

Langole is a social scientist, who has studied different aspects of post war life in  northern Uganda. This time we are going to talk about his PhD thesis, UrbanYouth in Post-conflict Northern Uganda: Networking Livelihood Resources.

Gulu was the nucleus of a two-decade long war in the northern Uganda, which started in the early 1980s. The war forced people to relocate from their villages into towns for safety. Many of these refugees were kept in Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) camps. In 2006 they were told by the government to return to their homes; that the war had ended. Relief support was subsequently cut so even the most hesitant had to leave. But there were those, who had been born and raised in camps and towns, especially, the youth. These groups had no idea how life in rural Uganda, which largely involves tilling the land as the main livelihood activity, was. Many of them remained in the towns where they had been relocated. In 2011, with support from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) through the Enhancing Research Capacity in Developing Countries (ENRECA) programme, Langole started studying the trajectory of this youth group for his PhD.

“I was interested to know whether these young people, who were now used to staying in town, were connected to their villages. Most of their parents had returned but they had remained in town. How were they eking out a living? What hope did they have to access things like land when they were now based in town?” Langole reveals.

By following the lives of five young men and five young women, Langole found three very critical issues in his PhD dissertation: One, the impacts of social distortion, as caused by war, can be far reaching. Two, historical injustices based on gender in regard to land leave women highly vulnerable. Three, access to land is a central factor in the livelihoods of people in northern Uganda.

Langole concludes: “Land is a key determinant of whether post conflict urban youth in northern Uganda will remain stuck in town or resettle in the country homes; young men are more privileged as far as access to land is concerned because of their patriarchal rights; for females to access land it should be through marriage, and getting marriage partners for women in Gulu town is a big challenge.”

Living in town

The post conflict youth of Gulu is more likely to engage in petty businesses, such as roadside vending or working in a salon. Boys may also ride boda boda [passenger motorcycle] or wash cars. The youth may also join the local entertainment industry. “Of course the incomes are not enough so you find them struggling through with life,” Langole stresses.

Connection to the village

The males are more likely to connect with the village because they are traditionally entitled to land. The females, on the other hand, will likely be stuck in town.

“Some two boda boda riders whom I studied kept on commuting to the village for supplies. They had gardens there. [This connection proved beneficial] as they had no prior experience with agriculture. The women were not [as] connected,” Langole tells me. “They only return to the village when there is a ceremony or during festive seasons, such as Christmas. They take small gifts like sugar, [or] soap, and return with something, [which] may be millet. That keeps them connected, sort of, but the men have stronger roots because they have access to land.”

Interestingly, Langole relates that young women have more flexibility in where to be buried. They can be buried at their ancestral place or at their partner’s place if they get one. “They get more accepted when they are dead,” Langole states.

I asked Langole if any of his correspondents got involved in risky behaviours as a consequence of staying around town.

“Some of them yes. One of my respondents admitted to stealing petty items. With that kind of behaviour I followed him up to their home. He is taken with a lot of suspicion already. They thought we had gone with him to buy their land. We had to explain ourselves. Such male may also end up stuck in town because they are not that accepted in the village,” he says. “Interestingly, this young man has also hooked up with two young women, but he has also failed to stay with them. He keeps visiting them and he [continues to have] children with them.”

“The woman’s extra burden”

The post war youth’s income in town is hardly sufficient. While the young man may supplement his income with some activities in the village, such as farming, the woman doesn’t have that option. A young man can beget, accept paternity, and give his child to his parents or relatives to look after, something that is well accepted. The opposite, however, is unusually welcome. Some young men have children and deny paternity and the women are, thus, stuck to raise the children alone. Many of the young women are single mothers, a factor that also makes it difficult for them to get future marriage partners. “When you ask them ‘where do you think you will [find] marriage partners in [the] future?’ they say, ‘I am just a woman, I don’t know’,” Langole narrates.

“My conclusion was that it look[ed] like more of the women [would end up] stuck in town, than the men. Unless something happen[ed] to the women [or] maybe they [would] get married and access land through their husbands, buy their own land through their endeavours, or when their own children buy land, then they will [find] where to settle because in most cases they will not be entertained in the villages,” Langole says.

I asked him what he finds most captivating in his study and he, basically, replied that it was the summary of the study:

“The difference in trajectory is by gender: Females have challenges getting partners. Much as they want to transit from youth to adulthood and get children, they get stuck with their children, [as single mothers,] and they [have] challenges looking after [their children]. The male youth, who beget [children], can also deny paternity. Then somehow the males have a way of [sustain] their children, [who live] with the relatives, but the females are sort of stuck with the children. The women were sort of lost.”

The patron amidst scarcity

Although Langole completed the study in 2016, his respondents are still very much part of his network. “Being an elder they look at me as a patron. One just called me and said she had managed to get a piece of land and she was building. She wanted me to help with some iron sheets, but I didn’t have [the] money. They remain my friends. I am still following them up to now. Two males have completely relocated to the village. That is testimony that they were connected and [later] they would [move] back,” Langole says.

Development relevance

Langole’s study is relevant in pursuit of the National Development Agenda, especially vision 2040, as well as in achieving the SDGs for this community. But Langole thinks its main beneficiaries so far are the respondents themselves. “I discussed my findings with them and also discussed how they could be helped. It has, particularly, worked for the two men who relocated to the village,” he tells me. Langole has also presented his findings at different forums, especially, within the university and during a conference at the University of Indiana in the US.

Has your research influenced policy at any level? I inquire.

“That [has proven] a bit frustrat[ing]. [and] I will not [be able to] say for certain. I wish we had produced some policy briefs, called the community together and discussed [it] with them. That could have been more impactful.”

Career benefits from PhD

The PhD spurred Langole to seek career opportunities as a senior lecturer and director of the IPSS institute. He would love to continue to contribute to academia with his research, but that might not be a possibility for much longer. “My energy levels have gone down. Age, poor health… PhD is supposed to help you get promoted to senior lecturer, associate professor, [or] professor, [to] continue contributing even on contract, I don’t see that happening with me,” he says.

Langole, however, still has to oversee certain changes at the IPSS. In 2015, the National Council for Higher Education sent out a circular regarding accreditation of PhD programmes. The IPSS lacks the necessary facilities. “When we started, the circular had not come. You could mount any PhD by research and make sure you [were given] good supervisors to take the students through, but when we were already on the programme the issue of accreditation came in,” he tells me. The IPSS runs two masters programmes: Master of Arts in Conflict Transformation Studies and Master of Arts in Governance and Ethics. The PhD programme awaiting accreditation is PhD in Peace and Security Studies. The university now requires of the institute to start a bachelors programme; Bachelor of International Relations and Security Studies are already in advanced stages.

Experiencing Uganda and Denmark

As we wind up our conversation, I ask Langole about his study life in Denmark in comparison with Uganda.

“The Danes are friendly and forthcoming. If you need anything they rush and give it to you; they are [ready] at hand. Of course at the end of the day it is just about work. Everyone is focussed. Here [In Uganda] things are more relaxed. The culture is very different. There [In Denmark] you are given a big office, facilities, [and] you keep on interfacing with your supervisor. Where business is concerned, Denmark is far ahead, you can’t compare to our situation,” he tells me. “Here the kind of bureaucracy you go through can be frustrating. There everything is programmed. Maybe we lack the experience.”

Langole says he learnt a lot about work culture from the Danes but finds it difficult to practice this knowledge in his local environment. “Our context is different. Here you have to attend to relatives, parties, funerals, you are obliged. So we end up not being focused. But there you can even say ‘I am busy’ and no one will take offence’,” he says.

Recommendations for the cooperation

The IPSS lacks infrastructure capacities and resources, which is one of the main reasons its PhD programme is yet to be accredited. The university has financial challenges, as well. Langole suggests that in the future, such support is included in the cooperation. “We need to work hard and get these things accredited. If some of these project [funders] could also get to know our problems and say, ‘this is where we need to support in order for our project[s] to succeed’, then they would also be helpful”, Langole states.