Tag Archives: the west wing

Voices of Uganda & Hollywood, Part Two

The media has a disheartening habit of bombarding us with minutiae about celebrities whose primary goals appear to be conspicuous consumption and making bail.

That’s why it was so refreshing meeting actress and activist Melissa Fitzgerald, who behaves the way you wish every celebrity would act  in real life.

Melissa made a name for herself on television by playing Carol Fitzpatrick for seven seasons on the enormously popular and the critically acclaimed television series The West Wing.

She comes from a privileged, politically-connected family in Philadelphia who always preached the value of “giving something back.” She took the message to heart and has been involved with an impressive list of humanitarian efforts dating back to 1995. In that year she co-founded Voices In Harmony, a theater-based mentoring group that partners professional actors in L.A. with economically disadvantaged at-risk teenagers.

Today, we talk more about the time Melissa spent volunteering in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Uganda in the second part of an interview that my wife Kimi and I conducted.

DD: Tell us about the play you put on at the camps.
MF: We designed a specific curriculum to implement with the teenagers in one camp where they already had a drama club. We worked with fourteen teenagers and took along a professional playwright with us who helped them write two plays on any subject that they wanted to talk about. They chose HIV/AIDS and peace building and reconciliation, which are things that really affect them.

When it was time to perform the plays, we built a stage inside the IDP camp and about 1000 people came to see it. It was incredible.

DD: That must have been incredibly inspiring for them.
MF: It was incredibly inspiring for them and us! The thing that was so moving was that these plays were fun, and funny, and entertaining, but they also had a message to them. One of the boys who performed told of how both of his parents are HIV-positive. He said, “I am going to be an orphan, and I don’t want other kids to go through what I am going through.”

These kids were there from 8:30 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon volunteering and working very hard just to tell their stories. And every day, this one boy in particular showed up in a pressed shirt. Do you have any idea what it takes to iron a shirt without electricity? He had to have a heavy piece of iron and then heat it up in a fire just to press his shirt.

These kids were so sweet, kind, and loving, and many had been abducted by the rebels and forced to do horrific things, yet here they were on the other side of it saying, “I want to help my community.”

DD: What is the best way that people in the West can help in this situation?
MF: A great way to help is to go to the website www.resolveuganda.org and get on their alerts which will let you know when to contact the members of congress on behalf of northern Uganda. I have seen it work. I have been in their offices and they have told me, “I want to help, and it is great to know that the people in my district want me to do this.” You can also reach them from our www.voicesofuganda.org website, where you can see a trailer from the film.

DD: Do the tireless efforts you make on behalf of the Ugandans ever get overwhelming?
MF: Sometimes it’s kind of hard, because we have been working really hard on this project for well over a year. We have decided not to get paid so we can put everything into the project and our advocacy efforts, and I have basically put my acting career on hold. And there are times when I sit in my apartment and think, “I’m so tired, and I have no social life, and we don’t have enough money to finish the film,” and then I think, “Wait a minute. I’m in my apartment in Santa Monica, and no one is shooting at me, and I don’t have to worry about getting cholera or malaria.”

And then I’m reminded of the people in the camps. They have been suffering unspeakable horrors and most of the world has no idea what has been happening to them. It’s like they’re screaming and no one can hear them, and I can’t imagine a worse thing.

If we can have even a small impact in letting people know what is happening to them and asking people to take action to bring it to an end, how can I walk away from that opportunity? It’s a privilege.

DD: Does any single memory stand out from the camps?
MF: There was this group of little kids that I met who were so sweet, and they wanted to give me something. They had very little, but they gave me what they had. They ran over to me as I was leaving, and with big smiles on their faces, they gave me pebbles. It was beautiful.

UPDATE: In 2010, President Obama signed legislation aimed at ending the LRA’s reign of terror. Despite this effort, Joseph Kony continues to wage war in Uganda and neighboring countries.

Voices of Uganda & Hollywood, Part One

As anyone knows who has ever sung along to Pride (In the Name of Love) by U2, today is the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.  (“… Early morning, April 4, shots ring out in the Memphis sky … .”)

In remembrance of this man of peace, for the next two days we will honor another peacemaker by reprinting excerpts from an interview my wife Kimi and I conducted with actress Melissa Fitzgerald.  (This article was first published a couple of years ago in African Vibes Magazine.)

Melissa would never call herself a celebrity, but seven seasons playing Carol Fitzpatrick on the popular and critically acclaimed television series The West Wing made her one. But rather than simply trying to keep her face in the tabloids, Melissa uses her fame to help bring about peace in an overlooked area of the Third World.

After The West Wing ended its run in 2006, she journeyed to Africa and spent several weeks working in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps in northern Uganda. Over a million refugees have been herded into these camps due to one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts – a 25-year struggle between government forces and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which is led by religious leader Joseph Kony. Melissa later chronicled the plight of these refugees in a film called Voices of Uganda.

We spent part of a beautiful Santa Monica morning with Melissa discussing the problems of far-off Uganda over iced teas and Arnold Palmers. It’s hard to imagine a friendlier or more approachable person, or a more dedicated advocate for the Ugandans – a  people who pronounce her name “Militia,” a term with which they are sadly familiar.

DD: How did you first get involved with helping Africans?
MF: I was a volunteer with an AIDS organization a few years ago in South Africa and had been very moved by that experience. I think the thing that got me to want to do that was that I had just gone through a very painful divorce, and a friend suggested that I write down three things every night that I was grateful for; three simple things, like: I have a car, I have gas in my car, I have running water. And that exercise was really great for me in terms of having gratitude for what I did have, rather than for what I was losing. And I thought that I wanted to go where those simple things that we take for granted are not a given.

DD: Why did you choose Uganda?
MF: Uganda really spoke to me because of the situation there. At that time they were in the middle of a 20-year struggle in northern Uganda which was especially hard on children. As a matter of fact, the rebel army there is made up of between 80 and 90% abducted children, and this conflict has the highest rate of atrocities against children. And since I had worked with teenagers here in Los Angeles, this situation just spoke to me.

DD: When did you first go there?
MF: 2006. I was there for almost a month, mostly in northern Uganda. Then I went for a short time to a camp in the southwestern part of the country and worked on a sexual- and gender-based violence prevention program for the refugees there, who are mostly from the Congo.

DD: In 2007 you went back to Uganda to film “Voices of Uganda.” How did that come about?
MF: I think the situation in northern Uganda has been allowed to continue because of lack of knowledge in the West. Since it’s not an international conflict, and not in the news, it has been a forgotten war.

When I came back to America, I felt it would be great to go back over with a real camera crew, and not with just my own video camera that I had bought for a trip to Italy (laughter). So, I talked to a bunch of my friends who are actors and filmmakers, and we agreed that if we were to go back and do this, we wanted it to be used. We wanted to inform people about the situation there and to use the film to end the war.

DD: Was the situation in the camps better or worse than you imagined?
MF: Over a million people live in these camps, and over 1000 die every week. In the beginning, these camps were set up by the government to protect the people, but no one ever imagined that the war would be going on this long. They are overcrowded, unsanitary places that have themselves become a danger to these people’s lives.

Yet, in the face of these inhuman conditions, I also couldn’t imagine finding such hope, kindness, and generosity. It made me want to really do more on behalf of the people there.

(The article continues tomorrow.)