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jeremy akin, uganda, 2010-2011

Fulbright Year: 2010-2011
Country: Uganda
Proposal Type: Research/Study
Field of Study: Land Dispute Resolution Studies
UGA Undergraduate Majors: International Affairs
Graduation Date: May 2010
Hometown: Savannah, GA

For Jeremy Akin, it all came together the moment he met Immaculate.

Akin, a 2010-2011 Fulbright Fellow in Uganda, felt the significance of his land dispute resolution studies as he sat with the girl he had sponsored since he was in high school.

“She was 10 years old, and I was 16 when I first decided to sponsor her,” he said. “All I knew before we met was that she was burned in a house fire. I had never heard her story before, and it rocked me when she told it to me face to face.”

On the night of the house fire, Immaculate was visiting her uncle’s home in a village of mud and grass huts. Her uncle had been mediating a domestic dispute between a husband and wife, and that night the husband set fire to the hut where Immaculate and her family slept. Everyone escaped except Immaculate, who was stuck under a sack of millet that fell from the rafters.

“It took her longer to escape, and she was burned severely. She instantly became ugly and unloved in her own eyes,” Jeremy said. “When muscle burns, it contracts, so her hands became gnarled, and she had serious scars from head to toe. Her parents thought she would never hold a pencil or go to school, but through the sponsorship she was able to get basic surgery.”

Immaculate, now 17, sat in front of Jeremy and talked about her good grades, ability to move onto secondary school, and goal of becoming a nurse. She wants to help others the way she was helped.

“Here I am doing a research project on mediation in Uganda, and mediation is what affected her life the most,” Jeremy said. “It was amazing to see how our stories were intertwined across such time and space.”

Akin, who graduated in May 2010 with a BA in international affairs, received a research grant to work with leaders in dispute resolution and land issues in Uganda. From their wisdom and in-depth field study, he compiled an index of best practices for local mediators that they can then use when addressing land dispute cases.

“For the first six months, I did everything I could to learn the issues and the laws, make contacts, and adapt to the culture and language,” he explained. “I was finally introduced to a consortium of NGOs that are the leaders in land issues and land policy reform.”

When the Northern Uganda Land Partners Platform met to set priorities for 2011, Jeremy was pleasantly surprised to find land dispute resolution at the top of their list. He was then asked to present a proposed methodology for a study of best practices, which received overwhelming support.

“After the presentation, one of the NGO directors asked why I was trying to convince them of something they already believed in tremendously,” he said. “That really put things in perspective. They wanted to do this research whether or not I was there, and it was going to be done. For some reason, though, I was the one who got to be there and be part of it.”

During a three-month field study, Jeremy interviewed and observed key players in villages across Northern Uganda and identified 17 different actors who are at work trying to resolve land conflicts. One organization, Land and Equity Movement in Uganda, provided an interpreter named Martin and a truck for him to travel across the country.

After seven weeks of research, someone broke into the vehicle and took Jeremy’s backpack containing his laptop, interview notes, memory cards, and signed consent forms. With only a few spreadsheets saved to e-mail, Jeremy and Martin tried to recreate the data from memory. After seven days with no response from police or radio pleas, Martin followed a lead from an anonymous informant who took him into a hut, supposedly to retrieve the materials.

“It’s a recent conflict zone. Anything could have happened. Men seated along the wall of the hut demanded money and played tricks with him before handing over the books,” Jeremy said. “The electronics were gone, but I now had the original notebooks and handwritten notes to complete my work. Martin had already become such a great friend, but in that moment he risked his life for me.”

Jeremy presented his findings at a second consortium meeting, where the members of Northern Uganda Land Partners Platform discussed his ideas and set additional goals for the year.

One of the biggest –and perhaps most fascinating– findings was that land disputes have personality, Jeremy explained. “The parties may have an honest disagreement about where a boundary line falls or what rights someone has to the land in question. That dispute would be considered genuine,” Jeremy said. “On the other hand, someone may be maliciously trying to take advantage of a vulnerable person by using power or influence to forcibly occupy the ‘weaker’ person’s land. Cases like these may not even be disputes at all, but rather criminal attempts to grab land. Mediation requires parties to be sincere and willing to work out their differences, but this process breaks down when people don’t participate in good faith and see no incentive to live up to the promises they make.”

Different findings corroborated that this “land grabbing” is very prevalent in Northern Uganda, he said.

“So is mediation the best way to address it? I don’t think it’s a panacea or cure-all,” he said. “Things can change, but today Uganda doesn’t have enforcement of court decisions at the local level, and police don’t want to get involved. Land grabbing is inherently criminal, and you can’t sit down and talk out those issues unless you have a reliable system, like a court, to back you up.”

The consortium is moving forward with the idea that the limits of mediation demand a fuller approach to land injustice.

“People have told me that, because of this research, they finally have words to express what they’ve known all along, and there’s qualitative and quantitative data to back it up,” he said. “This invigorated my passion for social policy and taught me that mediation needs an enabling environment. Otherwise, it may be used as a veneer over deliberate abuses or as a Band-Aid over wounds inflicted by others.”

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