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Staff Insights

Progress for Northern Uganda, Progress for Clients and Staff

Published May 17, 2021
Gulu front office with CVT logo displayed on the wall with three chairs below.

Ben Lakony is a counseling supervisor at CVT Uganda.

In my work with survivors of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) war in Northern Uganda, many clients tell me of the suicidal thoughts they have. Here, almost all of my clients’ stories are related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), memories from the war. I find that suicidal thoughts are the most common symptoms I hear, and not everyone finds help. In 2019, in one sub-county of 1,500 households, there were 26 suicides. Today, CVT works in only three districts here – I wish we could expand. This work is very important, and we work hard to bring care to as many survivors as we can. But much more is needed.

And now we are facing the COVID-19 pandemic as well. As it has spread, we have changed our work with clients to ensure safety, reaching out to them via phone and internet. Some clients report difficulties coping with life during the coronavirus outbreak. So this necessitated changes to our processes for client check-in sessions, and for safety and stabilization sessions – we transitioned to remote counseling sessions and also to daily clinical supervision (tele-counseling). This recent strategy of therapy keeps me confident, satisfied and assured of the result of my work to many clients outside. We are now able to meet clients in person again.

The work we do with clients helps bring about internal changes. When clients come to us, they are dealing with deep trauma, but over a short time, I can see that they are beginning to feel some stability. This makes me happy because I’ve learned that when a client begins to make this kind of internal change, other changes can easily take place.

Our clients have faced serious trouble in life. It makes them jumpy and anxious even though those experiences are in the past. They are trying to deal with the urge to commit suicide. But when they begin the internal change, I can work with them as they continue to heal.

As an example, earlier this year, I met with three former clients to get their feedback about our program. One man said, “Because of you coming here, I think I feel alive again. I would have been dead. Before I had suicidal thoughts – or even homicidal.”

Our clients have been dealing with these difficult feelings for years. They often come to us struggling with anger and stressful emotions. I work to create a relationship, helping them learn to manage their stress and their memories. I find that it works. Talking through the counseling helps them to connect with others. It’s really touching – these are my brothers as I am from here. We are Acholi people. They were abducted and forced into a life they did not choose. Their situation is very complex. But they find the way to work through it.

Before I became a counselor, I worked as a radio presenter and administrator at a station. I enjoyed this work, but I was interested in the social sciences. I went to the University, where I studied community-focused disciplines and did developmental studies. I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Development Studies and then worked in a number of humanitarian organizations which had been mandated as part of efforts to bring peace in Northern Uganda. These agencies worked with the internally displaced persons (IDPs), which numbered five million people after the war. I worked in the IDP camps, helping people prepare to go back home, doing psychosocial mediation, dialoging and counseling with children, 8-12 years old.

I continued my education and got a diploma in counseling psychology. I worked with organizations especially promoting education for IDP children, working with the children but also with their parents, caregivers and teachers.

I sometimes worked with people who were fresh combatants from the LRA war, just returning to a normal world. This is a transition that takes them straight from war to a place that is helping them to once again make meaning of life.

This work was very touching for me – seeing someone fresh from the battlefield and helping them make an internal change, when they are still so raw from recent trauma, this change demonstrated for them that they could have a different future.

I appreciated the opportunity to help professionally in the community. Then when I saw a counseling psychology position open at CVT, I decided to apply in order to conduct direct professional counseling and work in an organization that has an interest and program that will promote my own capacity. I also appreciated CVT’s counseling supervisor model, which allows me to receive clinical supervision as well as continue my role in counseling.

As I’ve moved into my role as a counseling supervisor, I find that CVT is home now. I like the opportunity for professional growth, and I’m currently pursuing my Masters of Science in Counseling Psychology degree on the weekends in Kampala. Now I’ve got a pathway.

A psychology program of care like ours is a long-lasting investment in Northern Uganda. The war took place over 20 years: 1986-2006. But the after-effects of war take many years. So this work is hopeful for me. I also appreciate that CVT is investing in other international programs – I believe in our world efforts, not just our efforts in Uganda. Sometimes I think if I need help in this program, maybe a CVT colleague from the U.S. or Kenya can help me. I also know that if I leave, they’ll find others to keep doing this work for me.

This creates a lot of hope for me. I see the need for so much expansion. There were five million people in camps here for 10 years. We must expand our service to people- we can’t even handle half of the need on the ground. We must expand. Then I will be at peace.

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