Times journalist Rachel Campbell Johnston went to visit our projects in Uganda. Read her travel diary here:

Kony 2012 was in one way a massive success. A film about a crazed rebel leader who for years had been kidnapping children in Northern Uganda and forcing them to fight for his brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has so far been watched by some 200 million viewers. That makes it one of the most widely seen internet videos of all time.

But its release was immediately followed by a backlash - and not just because of the millions spent on marketing and reports of a bizarre naked rampage by its maker. This film suggests that there is one simple solution. Take Kony out of play and everything will come right.

It doesn’t take a trip to Northern Uganda to tell you that the truth will be rather more complex. No one knows where Kony is – or even if he is still alive. But the damage that he left behind remains the nation’s main problem.

I travelled to northern Uganda under the umbrella of Send a Cow to spend five days interviewing villagers, recording their life stories, listening to their accounts of what had happened to them during the days when the LRA ran amok in the lands where they farmed. Many of them had never told their stories to an outsider before, often not even to the Send a Cow extension workers who were living in their communities. But it was only because of the trust that these extension workers had gradually established that they spoke to me.

Tuesday 15th May

Left Heathrow on an overnight flight from London to Entebbe. Sitting next to me on the aeroplane was the daughter of Idi Amin’s former Minister of Justice. Amin had often come round to their house when she was a child, she told me. At the time it felt a bit like saying that you had met some fairy tale baddie – that you had had tea with the big bad wolf. I felt uncomfortably close to the horror stories of Ugandan politics. But over the next few days I was going to come an awful lot closer.

Wednesday 16th May

I am met at the airport by Amos, the Send a Cow driver, and taken to the Send a Cow offices in Kampala where I am introduced to Aggrey, a Ugandan journalist who works for Send a Cow, who will accompany me throughout the trip. We leave immediately in a pick-up truck, travelling northwards into increasingly lush territories where the red of the road is so rich and the green of the vegetation so vibrant that it feels as if someone has turned up the TV contrast too high. The cattle are fat and sleek. The long rainy season is drawing to its close. And everything looks so vivid that it’s hard to imagine that within a few months' time all this emerald brightness will all be a dusty brown.

I spend the night in the town of Gulu, once bang in the middle of the no-go rebel territories – “you would see LRA commanders drinking in the bars at night” I am told. But now it is considered perfectly safe. And though on the first night I am too nervous to venture very far – I have read too many scare stories about the LRA – I soon realise that the whole of Gulu is crawling with people working for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and one more foreigner wandering about looking pink and bemused will stir no particular interest.

Thursday 17th May

I go out to visit a Send a Cow project a couple of hours north east of Gulu along roads built by the Chinese in return for great tranches of land. We pass the Chinese workers’ encampment, a corrugated iron fortress. They don’t interact with the local people. We pass through a massive coniferous plantation. The trees are not native and the whole forest is an ecological desert, Aggrey tells me. We pass all the little signs that label schools, churches, plantations, cultivated plots as the projects of some charity or another. The whole place starts to feel like a counterpane: a patchwork of aid programmes.

The village we are heading for is deeper into former rebel territories than any other NGO has so far ventured. The extension workers come to meet us on their motorbikes. These three young women are graduates who have read development studies and are now living with the villagers helping to re-establish communities. They have the trust of the villagers and are my 'passport' into their lives. Known as 'the girls on bikes' in a country where usually only the men ride, they make a strong stand for women.

The arrival of the Send a Cow pick-up, bouncing along narrow dirt tracks between fields, is marked by excitable shrieks and ululations and singing. Everyone is waiting – apparently if you are late for a meeting you have to pay a fine. Special chairs are set under the mango tree for the visitors to sit on. Traditional dances are performed. Speeches are made. Lunch is cooked: maize paste dipped into a chicken broth – no doubt the bird was killed specially for us. I am shown round the village and learn for the first time how an Acholi village is structured: the cooking hut, the boys' hut (from the age of about 12 the boys are separated), and the main sleeping hut all set on a hard-packed, clean-swept patch of red earth from which little paths lead through the fields to the neighbours' aggregation of huts. I am shown the Send a Cow improvements: the Beatrice Akello with her pit latrine, the energy saving stoves, the compost gardens, the beehives, the cows (small but strong local cows with sweeping horns rather than the higher-producing but more difficult to keep Friesians). I am particularly struck by the cleanliness of the village, by the state of repair of the huts, their well maintained thatch and their little sofas and cupboards built from clay.These thatched dwellings - cool and clean - look so environmentally harmonious to me but most of the villagers seem to long for a corrugated iron alternative.

I begin the interviews. It is much harder in this village than it will be in future ones that I visit, firstly because I haven’t “felt” my way at all into their world yet. I ask the wrong questions and follow the wrong approaches. I have yet to learn that, for instance, food and what, when and where you eat, becomes a central focus of all stories. But also because the people of this village are very wary. Until a few years ago, this was deep in rebel territory. No one could afford to trust too much. In June 2010, when a Send a Cow project was first mooted the people here had not wanted to have the outsiders near their homes and had agreed to meet only at the side of the public road. The men had turned up drunk at 10 o’clock in the morning. The women had been silent and watchful. They had been very surprised when Send a Cow came back a second time to continue discussing the project and when they turned up a third time they apparently said: “Tell us what you want so that we can give it to you and then you can go away."

The three people whom I talk to from this village do not once look at me as they speak. They stare at the ground, at the wall, they brush the flies from the baby’s skin, they fiddle with the fringes of their wraps. They speak in low, flat, toneless voices when they speak of what happened to them under the LRA. They recount the most heart rending details with a matter-of-fact understatement. Often the most painful and traumatic events seem to slip out as mere asides. It takes two to three hours to get even the bare bones of one life story. I start to feel numb. They tell me about killing and brutality, abduction and rape.

I get my first sense of how widespread the atrocities have been. An entire society has been affected. The Acholi tribe are known as proud, warrior-like, perhaps arrogant people who prefer to fight than simply put up. But they have been torn up by the roots. Throughout the years of the war I realise, their lands have been all but abandoned, left to the foraging rebel army and the avenging government forces. The villagers fled for safety to displaced persons camps, making dangerous forays back to their land to try and tend to and harvest their crops.

As we drive back to Gulu that evening I look at the jungly landscape through the window. This was the stageset for what must surely rank among the world's great tragedies. 

Friday 18th May

I visit a World Vision sponsored project in Gulu: the Ugandan Children of War Rehabilitation Programme which was established in 1995.

On return from the LRA the child soldiers were taken to the army barracks. Many of them would have been abducted aged eight or nine and spent as many years again with the rebels. Radio messages to their families would be sent out and then the children would just be left in the town squares for families or relations to pick up. It was appallingly traumatic, the director of this project tells me, so this centre was set up to receive, rehabilitate and reunite children with their communities. The children are offered counselling and therapy as well as vocational skills training and medical treatments (many have bullets still lodged in their flesh). I am shown the pictures that they do in art therapy.

After about three months at the centre they are sent home after which they are followed up for a further six months. Adults in the community are trained to recognise symptoms of returning depression etc.

This centre has been gradually closing down over the last months. The Gulu camp is now all but empty. They are thinking of turning this once packed tin hut encampment into a museum.

Saturday 19th May

Visit to a Send a Cow sponsored community of Kica Ber, which means literally 'Mercy Good'. It is a village established in 2008 by people who, returning from the displacement camps, had nowhere to go because they were HIV positive. They were no longer wanted by their communities. “Why should we give you food, you are already dead?” That I am told by one woman is what her family told her. Helen Alwoch from Kica Ber with carrots “We are called ghosts,” she said. There are 52 members in Kica Ber of which 16 are men and 36 women. They made friends and forged links with each other in the internally displaced people’s camps. In each other’s company they no longer have to hide the fact that they have this disease for fear that they will be shunned. Some are too sick to come to the meeting. But the others enact a little drama they have written – an educational play about the need to have blood tests (men typically refuse), to live healthily, to care properly for the children. "If a mother is working in the fields a man can even cook or bathe the children," I am told.

The village is beautifully kept with flowering hedgerows planted along its pathways and the women – most notably a rumbustious character who appears to be known as Mama Carrot and is wearing a confection of pale blue satin – have put on their best clothes. They discuss the “cornerstones” of Send a Cow – “nutrition”, “environment”, “gender and family”, “sharing and caring”, “training and education”, “passing on the gift” etc. After decades of hardship, there is a tentatively optimistic feel. One of the women I speak to - orphaned as a child by the LRA, mother of four children born to a man (now dead from an Aids related illness) whom she says was a “good husband” although he would never introduce her to his family and had many other women and refused to be tested for HIV – has called her two Send a Cow cows Lucky and Hope. She has saved enough to buy a bicycle so that she can pedal to hospital to get her medication. It now takes her two hours where before it took all day. She is currently looking after a little girl who has HIV and so been left by her family. She is counselling her and teaching her how to live.

Sunday 20th May

Interviews with people who have never left the internally displaced people’s camps because they have nowhere to go. At the height of the insurgency the camp I am visiting had around 20,000 people. They had to queue all day just to get water. Even to go out to get firewood to cook was to risk being ambushed and caught by the LRA. Many many people I spoke to were killed or abducted when they returned to their fields to plant or to harvest. But without enough food in the camp they had to take the risk. Others have lost their land completely. Widows and children are robbed of a livelihood by a dead husband's relations. In this village I sense a particular desire to tell their stories. They seem to long for someone to listen to them. One mother is talking but all the while her daughter hovers at the door of the hut and when the moment comes she says “I was abducted too”. And then tells her own tale.

Monday 21st May

Interviews with a group which was formerly known as the child mothers but is now called Waroca Kwowa – “we renovate our lives”. There are 45 mothers in the group and five older women brought in as mentors – to Child mother Franca Appio with her sontake the advisory role which village elders would traditionally have taken. The children of these women – fathered by LRA soldiers, often when the girls were barely teenagers – are not accepted. They are “Kony children”. Their mothers are faced with a choice. Abandon the babies born of rape or be driven out of their villages. One baby boy is named Moses Ayella – which means “they are stabbing me” because his grandfather was so cruel.

Now the women all work together – paying a membership fee to be part of the community which cultivates the crops, saves money, offers training in reading and writing etc and meets to dance together. One woman is pointed out. “She used to be sickly and lonely and sad, now she is leading the dance. We thought she was sick but now we realise that she is only sick at heart.”

Tuesday 22 May

Travel back to Kampala and then Entebbe for flight to UK.

Northern Uganda has so many horror stories, so many tales of atrocities recounted with such understatement. “It’s my fate” one woman said simply after telling me a story that, with its many twists, would have sounded more like a Hollywood film script had it not had such a sad ending.

But I was left deeply impressed by the projects which Send a Cow has initiated. What struck me most was the fact that no “handouts” were given. These were grass roots projects which, once kickstarted, could then run on their own without outside intervention. Send a Cow does not try (as so many other charities seem to) to stamp its identity upon its projects, to put its sign post up. Its aim is to return farmers as far as possible to their traditional village structures and way of life – but with improvements that encompass not just the practicalities of agriculture or hygiene but wider and more subtle social and environmental concerns.

This “quietness” of approach felt to me particularly important. A week in northern Uganda was probably about enough for me to start to understand quite how much I didn’t understand, quite how complicated this society is and how delicate a process its rebuilding will be. To hand this task over to the people themselves can surely in the long run only be to put it in the safest hands.

Rachel Campbell Johnston