In 2006 Barefoot Workshops launched A River Blue Arts Festival, an arts empowerment project for the children of internally-displaced persons camps in northern Uganda. One hundred children were brought together to participate in a music, dance, drama, and art festival. The festival was hugely successful, which prompted Barefoot Workshops to continue its support through a community development project called A River Blue Vocational Training and Rehabilitation Center.
Each year, twenty-six of the community’s most vulnerable youth are sponsored to attend A River Blue Vocational Training and Rehabilitation Center based in Alebtong, which offers a hybrid curriculum that mixes counseling, tailoring, agro-forestry, agriculture, animal husbandry, painting, MDD (music, dance & drama), English and basic business. An additional thirty-one youth are sponsored by A River Blue through a variety of outside programs including secondary school, catering/hotel management, and various other vocational training programs.
A River Blue started as an arts empowerment project for the children of Alebtong, Aloi and Amoro IDP (internally-displaced persons) camps in northern Uganda, funded and overseen by Barefoot Workshops, a non-profit, media-based educational and development organization.
A year later, the local government in Aloi sub-country donated a building, which now serves as a rehabilitation and vocational training center for the most vulnerable youth in the surrounding community. A River Blue gives these youth the opportunity to receive vocational training in a variety of subjects. The program also supports the students through psychosocial counseling that includes group sessions, one-one-one sessions and by expressing themselves through the arts. Counseling allows students to begin to heal themselves, which gives them the chance to reach out to the community and offer the same support.
Barefoot’s relationship with the youth of northern Uganda began in August, 2006 when singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur was invited to help launch the project with a music, dance, drama and art festival bringing together one hundred young people living in the camps to nurture and celebrate their creative vision and passion for the arts. During the festival, Joseph and the children recorded his song A River Blue from which the project takes its name.
Appalled by the news – and oftentimes lack thereof – about the scale of human suffering in northern Uganda, Barefoot Workshops founder Chandler Griffin contacted singer/songwriter and artist Joseph Arthur. Joseph’s song In the Sun, the proceeds of which benefited victims of Hurricane Katrina, had been a source of inspiration for Chandler who sensed that Joseph might be kindred spirit. The two decided to visit an IDP (internally-displaced persons) camp and witness for themselves the destruction wrought by nearly two decades of fighting between the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) and Ugandan Government forces and to conduct an music, art and drama festival for young people. The festival, they envisioned, would provide a means of creative expression to young people traumatized by violent events, the deaths – often witnessed – of loved ones, sexual violations and displacement from their homes and communities. The festival could give a voice to these young people and bring joy to them and the residents of the camps who would be the festival audience. “From that point forward, events moved quickly. Soon, Chandler and Joseph, along with filmmakers Cecily Pingree and Jason Mann were on their way to Lira, Uganda and the IDP camps into which the majority of the local population has been forced”. Before their arrival, however, an enormous amount of work had to be accomplished on the ground in preparation for the arts festival. Daniel Adams and Shane Gilbert from the Ugandan NGO Jangu Tuzine (Come, Let’s Dance!) spent many days meeting with local officials, preparing to feed and house the one hundred youth participants as well as the US crew, and arranging for the recording of Joseph Arthur’s song, A River Blue. Daniel went on to serve as a field producer for the festival. Georg Mawa, director of the Obangatek Orphanage, organized rehearsals of the music and drama pieces to be presented at the festival and became a key figure in the production and management of festival activities. Barefoot is deeply indebted to these people and everyone else who assisted in making A River Blue festival a reality.
The A River Blue Arts Festival took place in Alebtong camp in August 2006. By the end of the week, the one hundred youth participants had created approximately 200 pieces of artwork using supplies brought from the US and presented countless drama and choir performances; Joseph Arthur had recorded twenty songs and several versions of A River Blue with the youth choir; and the film crew had recorded forty-five hours of footage including interviews with forty of the one hundred kids. As hoped, the kids used these various artistic mediums to share their experiences and strength with one another and their community, exploring their pasts as a first step in beginning to look toward the future. While they have endured some of the worst hardships imaginable, these young people have the ability to survive, to overcome, and to succeed.
WHERE WE ARE NOW
It is impossible to bear witness to the suffering in northern Uganda and not resolve to continue in whatever way possible to help. While the festival was taking place, Aloi sub-county officials offered to donate a structure to Barefoot so that its involvement with local youth could continue into the future. This building never completed for its original purpose due to lack of funding only needed windows, doors, a concrete floor and a coat of paint. Barefoot Workshops raised funding to renovate the building which now serves as a rehabiliation and vocational training center; the former realized through counseling and the arts, empowering young people with a means of self-expression, nurturing their creative abilities as a way to heal, while the latter provides students with concrete skills that enables them to sustain themselves and work towards rebuilding their communities. A River Blue also supports thirty-one students outside of A River Blue Vocational Training Center in various schools which include secondary school and other vocational training programs that A River Blue cannot offer.