YSN Student Fighting Uganda’s ‘Culture of Silence and Fear’

Last summer, Yale School of Nursing doctoral student Rose Nanyonga Clarke retraced a 32-mile journey on foot that she had made 20 years before at age 17, when she was disowned by her family and scorned by her village in Uganda for refusing to participate in witchcraft.

That first walk was lonely and frightening. She had no company and few options. As she headed from her home village to the remote village of Kiwoko, her only hope was that an Irish couple starting a hospital there might offer her some way to support herself.

“I felt like I was walking toward nothing,” says Nanyonga Clarke.

Her trek last July was dramatically different. Supported by sponsors in the United States, United Kingdom and Africa, Nanyonga Clarke — now the adopted daughter of the Irish couple — made the 10-hour walk from Bamunanika to Kiwoko accompanied by some 70 other people. Her mission was to raise $25,000 for two charitable causes and to bring attention to the Ugandan witchcraft ritual of child sacrifice, a practice that led her to renounce her family’s spiritual traditions two decades earlier.

Nanyonga Clarke recently spoke with the Yale Bulletin & Calendar about her commitment to help end child sacrifice in her home country. Here is what we learned.

A chosen one: Born to a polygamous father and a mother who died in childbirth when Nanyonga Clarke was very young, the Yale nursing student was selected by elders in her family to become a witch doctor and began training for that role when she was just 6 years old.

“Basically, the tradition of ancestral worship that my family followed involved having a medium — a witch doctor — who acts as a go-between for people and spirits,” explains Nanyonga Clarke. “This is a common tradition in central Uganda, and witch doctors are highly revered. The tradition involves a lot of incense and the offering of sacrificed animals. Blood would be drawn from the sacrificed animals and offered through the medium. It is intended for the family to make peace with its ancestors.”

In their desperation to win favor with spirits, some Ugandans have murdered or mutilated children to bring their body parts as sacrificial offerings.

While Nanyonga Clarke never witnessed a child sacrifice, she says that during her years of training she was exposed to various “dark” practices that were terrifying to her, including having to lie in the blood of sacrificed animals.

Spiritually challenged: Around the age of 16, Nanyonga Clarke had an encounter with Christians who were preaching in her village. Determined to challenge their beliefs, she instead began to question her own after reading the Bible and attending church.

“I was curious to know why compassion and grace were so important to the Christians, who spoke out against the life I had always known,” she says.

Learning of her new interest, her father locked her up for three weeks. Family members pleaded with her not to dishonor their traditions.

Later, at a gathering of family and community elders, Nanyonga Clarke was given the choice of continuing to practice witchcraft or to be disowned.

“When my father asked me for my decision, I told him that I loved my family and didn’t want to leave,” says the Yale student. “I had always been an obedient child and respected my family. I was scared of the prospect of being without them. But I told my father that I had made a decision to stop practicing witchcraft. He stood up and said I am no longer a member of the family, that I could never come back or go near his grave after he passed away. I had to walk away.”

A new family: The day after Nanyonga Clarke arrived in Kiwoko, she met the Irish couple, Dr. Ian and Robbie Clarke, who hired her at their hospital as a nurse’s aide.

“I was basically a damaged child,” says Nanyonga Clarke. “I was pretty reclusive and had trouble with social interactions. They gave me a safe place to begin healing, and asked me if I would be interested in going to school. In essence, they planted pictures of a future.”

In time, they also adopted her.

Having long dreamed of being a nurse, Nanyonga Clarke earned her nursing certificate and began working at a small clinic her adoptive father set up in the city of Kampala. She soon began volunteering at several orphanages, working with many children whose parents had died of HIV/AIDS.

She later came to the United States, earning her nursing degree at Arkansas Technical University and a master’s degree at Baylor University. When she returned home to Uganda, she set up a nursing school at another hospital her adoptive father had founded. She then became director of clinical operations at the International Medical Group in Kampala.

No turning away: Since coming to the Yale School of Nursing in 2008, Nanyonga Clarke has remained dedicated to helping those who have shared her childhood experiences: orphans, Ugandans living in poverty and children who are victims of witchcraft.

“It would be so easy for me to be on the sidelines of an issue such as child sacrifice, which is so strongly embedded in witchcraft practices, but I don’t think I could live with myself,” says the Yale student.

While the media reports that several hundred children a year are murdered, mutilated or reported missing (presumably abducted for sacrifice), Nanyonga Clarke believes that the number is actually higher.

“What fuels witchcraft in Uganda is a culture of silence and fear, which stops people from reporting these cases,” she says. “In the hospital I met one little boy named George whose private parts were cut off. When I held him, I kept thinking: ‘What brings us to this point of uncaring — where a man would take a machete and cut a child and leave him for dead in a garden?’

“My life turned out all right,” she continues, “but I could have been George.”

Walking the walk: Nanyonga Clarke says her walk last summer helped give public voice to the problem of child sacrifice. She has been interviewed by the BBC and other news outlets about the issue. She notes that a distinction must be made between witch doctors and natural healers in her country, as some healers are being persecuted unjustly by anti-witchcraft activists.

Nanyonga Clarke’s walk raised $15,000 for Hope Ward, a hospital unit that serves the poor, as well as scholarship funding to support the education of two Ugandans at her nursing school.

But its benefits were also emotional ones for the nursing student, who — in addition to her Irish parents — was accompanied on her walk by three siblings who had once spurned her.

“I made a decision to pursue reconciliation with my family at any cost,” she says. “Some of them have spit on the ground when they see me, but I am a tenacious person and I will continue to try to repair these relationships with education, grace and compassion.”

Nanyonga Clarke managed to see her own father three days before he died of HIV/AIDS in 1995, and says the two were able to forgive each other.

She will retrace her walk for a second time in the summer of 2011.

“When I walked the first time 20 years ago, it was to run away from something,” she says. “My third walk — like my second — will be to take care of issues close to my heart: to raise money for Hope Ward and to support even more nursing students in Uganda, and to continue to break the silence about child sacrifice. I believe this is a human rights issue and a political issue as well as a public health issue, and calls for the effort of the collective community of Ugandans and others around the world to end it.

“In my own life, I have been lucky,” Nanyonga Clarke adds. “But every child deserves to live without fear and to have hope.”

— Susan Gonzalez

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