The Nineth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2007
Berkeley Prize 2007

Sara Navrady and Erica Moore

The Oput Centre: From the Tree of Reconciliation to the Architecture of Healing

On the way to Sudan, they forced us to kill many people. One morning a young boy was brought to us. We were told he had tried to escape. They had killed him. His body was swollen and cut from many beatings. We were told to chop the body into smaller pieces. Boys were given the heart and liver to eat. Girls were told to cook and eat the rest of the body parts. We did as we were told.

- O.R., fourteen, abducted in February 2003

When the Sun Sets, We Start to Worry... (UN OCHA, 2003)

For two decades, the Lord’s Resistance Army has made this nightmare a brutal reality for over twenty-five thousand children in northern Uganda. Padibe is one of numerous towns in the Kitgum district that has seen the children of its surrounding villages snatched in the middle of the night. Predominantly of the Acholi population, these children are tortured, beaten, raped and drugged into submission as obedient killers or sex slaves. In the period of one night, concepts of family, home, and childhood are transformed and replaced by a brutal nomadic lifestyle; violating their bodies, their emotional sensitivity and impressionability.

Recent peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government offer hope for the release of these young soldiers. However there is little for them to return to; the village that was once their home lies in ruins with its remaining villagers evacuated to Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps in the wake of destruction by the LRA. Farmland has overgrown, camouflaging the charred remains of torched schools and homes. Many of Padibe’s child soldiers were forced to participate in the destruction of their own community, and even the murder of family members. Upon their anticipated release, they will return with the fear of being outcast, harbouring shame and anger towards a community that was unable to protect them, a community that has its own wounds to care for.

The Acholi people are uprooted trees, unable to take sufficient food from degraded soil lacking in nutrients. As a result, the tree fails to prosper, produce leaves or bear fruit. We propose to build a vessel in which Padibe’s broken community can recover its unity. In its most fundamental form as an institution and enclosure, architecture creates permanence and security, providing individuals with a sense of place. The Acholi culture of reconciliation is embodied in this beacon, the Oput Centre.

The Oput tree is the traditional symbol of the reconciled Acholi community, its deep roots fixing its position in the landscape. The primary event of Mato Oput, an Acholi ceremony of atonement and forgiveness, involves drinking a bitter drink made from Oput leaves. Committing to swallow all bitterness for the sake of restoring harmony, it is a symbolic gesture to re-establish balance in the community. Given the grave nature of this tragedy, this ceremony alone is not enough to restore social balance. However incorporating Acholi rituals such as Mato Oput is an important part of helping the former soldiers and the rest of the community to begin to come together again. The Oput Centre provides a broad architectural threshold to enable this difficult human transition.

Forged by the hands of this community and adapted to their specific needs, we foresee the Centre to include medical services, rehabilitation for former soldiers, education facilities, and spaces to engage in community activities such as traditional music and dancing, theatre, and sports. As designers, we play a critical role in the healing process through our response to the mental and emotional conditions of the child, and how that affects our approach to the programmatic and spatial structures of the Oput Centre.

And now let me take you back, back to the moment my innocence was stripped from my body, to when my fingers learned the sharp, cold ridges of the gun, and my ears tuned to the wail of painful death…let me lead you into the darkness of that night.

The purpose of the rehabilitation facility is to restore physical health and reclaim innocence while transitioning from a soldier to a child. A key aspect of this process is the sharing of experiences; a healing of memories. Many don’t know how to grieve or forgive, and they risk falling into uncontrolled aggression, anxiety and withdrawal. To provide a place to confide, heal, and resolve we will create spaces that encourage interaction. Here the children form a ‘family’ that provides support until they are ready to join their own families. Like an average Ugandan family, 6 to 8 children live in a home together with one or two counselors, who provide additional support and security. In conjunction with therapy sessions within and around each home, the children bond as a ‘family’ in their everyday routines. Conducted individually or in a group setting, they engage in drawing, sports therapy, dance, music, drama, and tutoring to prepare them for their return to school. Learning through play encourages the restoration of childhood, providing an opportunity to begin to regain a sense of morality. Often this has been critically impaired by the twisted empowerment of a machine gun trigger or machete handle.

The rehabilitation process will be different for each child. In response, a variety of informal spaces within the home complex is required. We achieve this by overlapping the volumes of the rooms, to create pockets of space in different sizes that can open to the outside, have an elevated ceiling with a skylight, or be painted with calming colours to form special places. In visiting quarters nearby, parents and family members can stay overnight to encourage the rehabilitation process, and start the re-adjustment to family life. Once all of the children have made the permanent transition back to living with their families, the homes at the Centre will be used by children who were orphaned during the war. The complex could also be adapted to serve young mothers who need additional spaces for taking care of the children they conceived while in captivity. Areas in between the homes become gardens for growing food or courtyards for dancing, while deep verandahs enable cooking, eating and gathering outdoors. With various gardens, groves, football pitches and play-spaces, nature is re-introduced as a healing presence in contrast to the unpredictable threat it presented while the children endured long days and unprotected nights in the bush.

Whether held in the captivity of the rebel army or in the confinement of IDP camps, the children of Padibe have also been deprived of basic, adequate education. The primary, secondary and vocational training schools of the Oput Centre branch out to the community, providing an opportunity for all of the children to reintegrate through their shared desire for knowledge. Instrumental in countering stigmatization, this helps to reintegrate the child soldiers with their peers in the community.

It’s her first day back in a classroom – she hasn’t voiced “Good morning, teacher”, in over two years. Will all eyes penetrate her body and see the murders she has committed and the rapes that still pervade her dreams? Entering the room, her body tenses as she searches for threats and possible escape routes if danger appears. A concealed skylight within a vaulted space floods the room with light and draws her into the center. Warm rays wash the far ‘canvas’ as it extents beyond the room, leading her out onto a terrace space. Several classmates have already gathered beneath a bamboo trellis and sunlight filters through vines and flowers to fall across their faces. Her teacher catches her gaze and his smile reassures: she can rediscover her place beneath these branches.

To foster an interactive setting for learning, we can manipulate the spatial hierarchies of the typically frontal-focused Ugandan classroom and create a more centrally focused room. As an alternative to the standard row of rectangular boxes, clustering or staggering a group of classrooms allows us to work with the six faces of each room. For example, subtle changes in floor levels enable different work stations including group discussions, small groups and individual study, while maintaining the ability to use the room as a whole. Vaulting volumes within the room invite additional natural light and effectively trap and release heat. For a child experiencing post-traumatic stress, the typical scenario of having only one escape route will bring feelings of confinement and even panic. To relieve these fears, a gradual transition from the exterior to the interior on multiple sides can be achieved by ‘pushing’ and ‘pulling’ sections of the walls. This in turn alters the classroom space and produces outdoor teaching areas. The resulting kinetic spaces encourage children with poor concentration by keeping them engaged.

As new ideas and concepts are shared within the school, the traditional ways of the Acholi culture must also be shared. The gathering banda is available to each member of the community, becoming an important place of passing on knowledge and traditions between generations. Also a setting for spiritual worship, it is a source for collective memory. Inspired by the traditional Acholi hut design, this gathering space is an elongated ellipse covered by a conical shaped roof. Light washes over two main structural walls curving to embrace each other, like two hands about to engage in a handshake. When shaking hands here in Uganda, both greeters take their free hand and hold their own elbow as a sign of respect, or they may take the other’s hand with both hands as an added layer of affection, deepening the relationship. Physically, the banda is composed of two layers of walls that form both halves of the ellipse. The main interior walls also extend outwards in both directions, and progressively disappear into the earth. The outer walls envelope the building on both sides, like the left hand, creating secondary spaces and entry thresholds that dissolve through the creative use of decorative vent-block. A slipping and overlapping of curving walls replaces doorways, while the absence of other openings promotes an inward focus. Symbolically, the gathering banda works as a coherent whole, composed of layers that represent the deepening of a relationship between all members of the community. Should a suffering child become defiant towards the elders in the community, this gathering space acts as a sanctuary for discussions; re-instilling in the child the value of traditional ways and important aspects of the Acholi culture, of which he or she will carry forward to the next generation.

To collaborate with Shelter for Life (SFL) on this project is an obvious choice, as their mandates reflect the intentions of our project – empowering a community with the tools to emerge from tragedy stronger than before. As exemplified by the schools built in Afghanistan, SFL can train Padibe’s residents how to apply improved building methods as they construct their Oput Centre and re-build shops and homes. In addition to providing self-supporting skills for the people of Afghanistan, SFL also repaired the local infrastructure. While repairing the overgrown roads that link Padibe to rural towns, SFL can teach proper drainage, rainwater collection and irrigation techniques to prevent erosion during the rainy season.

SFL’s programs extend beyond the built form, understanding the community’s overall well-being to include emotional health, economic development, and capacity building. This is demonstrated in resettling the people of Tajikistan, where in conjunction with their shelter and infrastructure projects, SFL is providing community members moral values teaching, health education, and business training. This can provide the Oput Centre with resources for training teachers in trauma-counseling and guidance in utilizing their new classroom spaces effectively. Also, advocacy and conflict resolution training can assist families and the community in learning to solve their own issues.

Deforestation is a major environmental concern in Uganda. Resulting in erosion and poor soil quality, it also reduces the profitability of agriculture, the country’s largest sector. The Survey for War Affected Youth, conducted by UNICEF in September 2006, explains: “The Acholi are an agrarian people; land, crops and livestock are tied not simply to an income, but also to manhood, social status, and an entire way of life”. SFL is capable of initializing the training programs in the vocational schools to teach effective farming practices and re-plantation programs. In turn, this will strengthen the roots of the community, reconnecting them through their most valuable possession: the land.

Through partnership, SFL receives generous funding from large organizations such as UNHCR and USAID. SFL also seeks partnerships with local agencies, such as their partnership with the Indonesian humanitarian agency Peduli Bangsa. The Kitgum District Concerned Women’s Association (KDCWA) is a local NGO dedicated to supporting formerly abducted children. Following a resolution to the conflict, they aim to improve the community through sustainable projects. By partnering with KICWA, we can not only “build [their] capacity to meet the needs of the community”, as SFL enforces, but they can help refine our design.

Through the new Sudan program, SFL is presently exploring projects in southern Sudan and Uganda. They are familiar with the region, geographically and politically. Combining their knowledge of the area with their aim to improve from experience, we envision this intervention of the Oput Centre as a prototype to be repeated with modifications across northern Uganda.

In partnering with Shelter For Life, we as team members will participate through development research, design, and construction of the Oput Centre. Whether we join the line of people transporting bricks by hand, sit alongside the women and weave bamboo screens, or test out the new football pitch with the children, we want the community to understand that when they engage in this rebuilding process together, they will succeed.

In the wake of tragedy, building takes on new meaning as a metaphor for reconstruction. Newly restored walls and roofs give rigidity and stability to a structure, and also form the building blocks of rebuilding the soul of the family, the community and the child. The walls of the Oput Centre bring help and hope to a people who are ready to build; ready to move forward. Scarred deeply by the tragedies they have lived through, the children and youth are nurtured and educated; moreover, they are given the ability to empower their community, become integral leaders in their society and evoke change.

The rhythm of the drum resonates from deep within the gathering banda. It is a sound that wells up from the very depths of the soul…with innate meaning it finds its voice once again. Like a heartbeat increasing in strength, it calls to all who are around to “come with your song – come with your dancing – come, arise and greet the new dawn”.

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Sara Navrady and Erica Moore, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
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