In 2009, in Alebtong, Northern Uganda, I collaborated on an art and photo workshop with students at A River Blue, a vocational training center for youth who were displaced by the Lord's Resistance Army conflict. The students photographed their daily lives in the village, and each day we wrote and drew pictures in journals. At the end of 8 weeks, each student painted two images and two texts from their journals on the wall, making a group mural. We assembled the photo mural on the opposite wall.
What follows is a creative reportage / travelogue of my time in Alebtong, and some of the stories the students shared with me.
BEHIND THE MIRROR
“Africa is the mirror in which the West sees its big belly.” ~D. Scroggins
LRA leader Joseph Kony is a former altar boy and spirit medium from the Acholi tribe. In 1986, Yoweri Museveni overthrew Acholi General and then-president Tito Okello and installed himself in State House, where he still presides. The Acholi were enraged, and many of them joined Kony to take back control of the country, however, Kony’s vicious tactics: rape, torture, theft, and pillaging, didn’t bring him much popular support, and the numbers of willing fighters dwindled. Kony began abducting children to fight in his makeshift rebel army.
It is estimated that around 60,000 children were abducted by the LRA, and nearly 2 million people were displaced by the conflict.
SSABASAJJA AWANGALE! MAY THE KING REIGN FOREVER!
OR, HOW SARAH AKAO ESCAPED THE RIOTS BY PRETENDING TO BE PART OF THE RIOTS
If she saw rioters, she held up two fingers in the symbol of the FDC, a government opposition party.
If she saw government soldiers, she raised her two hands up, palms open.
At a roadblock, she encountered a group of rioters hauling branches and plastic bags into a trash fire, and dropped a log into the fire so she could pass. She walked from downtown to Kawempe, about 25 km, trying to get to her brother’s house, “I footed the whole way.” At one point, she hid in a church with about 25 other people while army soldiers pulled suspects from their houses. She kept walking; “I saw hooligans snatch bags and food from people.” She made it to her brother’s house in Kawempe after walking all night. She stayed inside his house all day; there were many stray bullets whizzing past, one of the bullets broke through the bathroom window as Sarah was bending down to pick up her towel, and it just missed her.
Sarah told me this story while we sat in the White Coach waiting to leave for Lira, inhaling fumes from idling buses in the crammed bus park. “I am telling you the what? I am telling you the truth,” she said. A few windows had been broken in the riots; smog filtered in. Kampala throbbed and heaved in the red dust, a fug sulked above the petrol station as the muezzins called from Ghaddafi National Mosque, the minarets gleaming white and copper behind the screen of haze.
“When does the bus leave?” “When it’s full.” On the ground near the bus, a woman was cooking fried eggs, sizzling meat, and a pot of rice over smoking coals. She had small rags in her hands to protect them from the hot pans, later she scrubbed the pans in cloudy water, with grit from the road and shreds of plastic bag. Kids sold peanuts wrapped in paper twisted into little pyramids, hair bows and barrettes, plastic jewelry.
Two hours later, the White Coach was full and we left Kampala. We headed north and crossed the Nile into Northern Uganda at Karuma falls, ice foam on the rushing water. Kids got pelted with rain through the broken windows though they held up a wooden board to the metal frame. Mosquitoes flooded in and dangled in the air. We passed villages of thatched huts with clothing drying on the roof.
I arrived in Alebtong and immediately put down my bags and walked over to A River Blue with Sarah. Until the 2006 ceasefire, Alebtong was the site of a large IDP camp; over 6,000 internally displaced people lived in tents and huts, dependent on food aid from NGOs and the international community. As we approached the training center, the students greeted us; they performed kiri and abuda, dances for celebration, and also ikoce, meaning spears, which is a warrior dance. We started working together the first day, planning our Polaroid photo project. I handed out the notebooks, pens and art supplies I had brought, and we sat in the classroom at rough-hewn wooden tables and chairs, carved with initials and names. We put our heads down and wrote, the room was silent with our concentration, broken only by Emmanuel’s voice as he laughed and ran around us and climbed in and out of Colline’s lap.
I want to be a doctor. I am the one who take care of the children because my mother is too weak. She has HIV. She cannot do anything. I have to struggle and take care of them. Once I dreamt I was at a hospital and putting on doctor’s clothes. Then I stay working as a doctor. During LRA war… we faced a lot of problems like diseases: diarrhea, cholera, malaria, gonorrhea, HIV, especially HIV/AIDS because war kids have to sleep in the shelter house and they start practicing sex and this increases the rate of HIV. Next our property was destroyed. Our houses were burned.
What is your strongest memory of life in the camp in Alebtong?
I remember when we were in the camp, the LRA would come any time and once they come, then you need to run to save your life. So I remember that very much because they just come anytime and they just ambush you, so you need to struggle to escape. That is a strong memory that I have.
Where would you go?
We would just go anywhere.
Just get away?
People just run just random like that as long as you save your life.
Was the camp protected by officers or soldiers?
Yeah, soldiers were there.
Were they Ugandan government soldiers?
Yeah, the soldiers of Uganda, the UPDF.
And they were protecting the camp?
Yeah they were protecting but sometimes these rebels they are funny they avoid the soldiers and get inside the camp they are funny.
What are some of your other memories from your time in the camp?
We had a problem because in the camp we lack food because there was no way we could go and eat. Even if we had some cassava that we left in our garden there was no way to go get it because once you go out you are risking your life. You need to stay in the camp, wait for what the NGOs would bring and that was very serious because we suffered a lot. We didn’t have enough food to eat.
What did you do on a daily basis when you were in the camp?
We would try to go and maybe look for money to dig in people’s gardens, those who had money. Because you know in the area there was work worth doing, so you had to go around and beg for it, even fetching water for money. We did those things for money for survival for something to eat.
Is there anything else that you wanted to mention about your life in the camp or about what you want to do now or what you are doing now?
So the life in the camp was not all that easy and I pray that if possible lord almighty should save us as now we have a little peace. And I pray that the rebels should not come back. And what I would like to do is I would like to continue with my studies. After A River Blue I would like to go for further studies so that in the future I will also be somebody who gets money…I would like to become a civil servant. Yeah. I would struggle so much if I can only get somebody who can sponsor me for further studies. My plan is that if I complete these 7 months’ training I will go for a 2-year course in agriculture. But all along it can only be done when I get money. Without money I cannot do it.
PATRICK AND THE GUAVA TREE
I dreamt about many rebels. I went from home to hunt for some wild animals. My hunting dog began to chase after. I ran following the dog and where I was going there were many rebels. I ran home very fast and found my sister. We ran very fast to the bush where there were bushes everywhere and where we met a guava tree. We got some fruits from the guava tree and we ate. And that was the end of my dream.
In the yard there are 10 hens, 9 baby chicks and 6 teenage chicks. Josephine says the chickens with the yellow legs are the best. She wants to start a chicken operation with 300 birds, to raise them and sell their eggs, but she doesn’t have the money. Josephine and George have four kids: Daniel, Selly, Walter and Betty, but they take care of (and pay school fees for) 15 children in all.
Josephine Ongom is a nurse, and she is working night shift at the hospital. During the day she works in the garden, tending to the cassava field or weeding around the simsim (sesame) plants. On her day off, Josephine took the extensions out of Selly’s hair, a 12-hour marathon of unbraiding and combing. It was after dark when they shampooed it in the silver light of the LED lantern and the stars.
Josephine said if she met Joseph Kony she would say, Come home now. She would forgive him, though his rebels destroyed her home and buried thousands of weapons in her yard. George took me to their home in Oloo, his native village, about 12 km from Alebtong, and we sat in front of the house where he was born, the house that LRA Brigadier General Sam Kolo commandeered for three months. The rebel leaders lived in this house and wrecked their other house nearby. There were 3000 armed rebels in the area; George’s sister Esther and her husband and kids were living in that house and they were able to get away. At the time, Josephine and the family were living in Hoima, where George was working for the forest service. George reported the matter to President Museveni, and his army, the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) deployed helicopter gunships to Oloo. Sam Kolo later turned himself in, crossed over to the UPDF side, went back to Oloo and dug up the weapons on George and Josephine’s property, effectively confiscating them for the government, riding away with a full truck-load of guns.
PATRICK AND THE SERVANT OF GOD
I dreamt that I had joined people that were praying and fasting for three days so I met a woman reading a bible. I came into the church through the window and fell into the room, then I asked the woman who she was. And she said she was a servant of god. I asked her what she had come to do. And she said that she had come to do some bible work. I asked her which books these scriptures were from. She says the scriptures were from Corinthians, Colossians. She said that I should ask as many questions as I can. Then two images of mad people appeared in front of me. The two mad people told me to strip off my clothes if I was strong enough to become a catechist. But I refused and would not strip off my clothes. And that was the end of my dream. Each time I remember this dream I don’t feel so fine because I was told to strip off my clothes and that is disgusting for me.
Dreams help me find where I’ve gone wrong, maybe, sometimes help me to renew myself, sometimes I have a vision through these dreams.
MAN ALIVE SALOON
It is raining harder than I knew it possible to rain. On the sheet metal roof, on the red, red roads, on the waxy green slivers of mango leaves. I can't help but feel I've been here before. The sky is grey yellow with purple lightning. Children in blue t-shirts walk on the red road, a clambertrap pickup truck speeds by and the kids scatter. I've been looking at life from behind glass until now but no more. Chickens hide under the corn hut, a tiny kid rides a gigantic bike from one side, sticking his leg through the triangular bar in the center. Each evening I walk through the bush to a low rock hill near the papyrus swamp and make pictures and sit and listen to the frogs and crickets. I stop and talk with Ivan who uses a slingshot to keep birds out of his rice field.
I’m sitting where I sit everyday on a small wood bench in the last scrap of shade near the evangelical shed, hard sun in my eyes. Have I been here before? The goats on the horizon are multiple exposures. The known world is goats, grass, and gospel. A goat eats grass. Have I met this goat before? He stares at me with his horizontal eye, a thread of plastic hangs from his ass. He sings the gospel according to Mark. Christ, even the goats around here are evangelicals. I try to tell him to leave me alone, but my tongue is too lacerated to form the right sounds. Therefore, he stays right by me. My head hurts. Adrenaline buzzes in my hands. The ground rises up to meet me like a benediction. The cement floor on my face is cool.
BOSLUNG HOTEL, LIRA
The courtyard is all shards of sun, red and blue buckets filled with sharp sun. The sun hangs from the wire clothesline next to shirts and pants, and it pools on the cement steps; sun like prayer in the damp, hanging mist.
Inside the hotel the shift to darkness is a shock. Men crowd along the walls and at the brown tables, stacking up bottles of Nile and Tusker beers, some sit two to a chair, eyes lit by the staccato light from the Premiership on TV. I’m one of three women in the hotel and the only one not on staff. The lock on my door is a bent nail.
I was born on 9 October 1988 in Otingluk village, Lira district. I am an unmarried student since I am not able to reach my future expectations and my academic level of education. I had struggled and obtained the Uganda Certificate of Education at Amach Modern Secondary School. I could not continue my studying to Advanced Level because my father was killed by LRA rebels in 2003, but now I take part in Agroforestry at A River Blue Vocational Training Centre. I really like leadership, soccer, music, dance and drama. I dreamt that I was mixing music at Radio Lira 95.3 FM Loud and Clear. When I woke up I prayed to the Almighty God as he was the one sending the holy spirit to talk to me through the radio. Also I would wish to serve orphans and counsel youths and those who are infected with HIV. Now I am heading our family of 6 children with support from my mum, at the same time I am a student.
It’s my last week at A River Blue and Emmanuel and I are finally friends. Emmanuel is Colline’s son, he’s nearly two and half. He feared me for the first few weeks, running away whenever I came near. Then he would smile at me and hide his head in Colline’s lap. Then he would come up to me and say, Jenfa! and run away. Now he follows me everywhere and we hold hands and when I say, Emmanuel! How are you? He says, I’m fine, with his scratchy squeaky baby voice. Then we high five and low five and give the thumbs up.
George said the rains were late that season. The night I arrived in Alebtong there was a wild storm; we woke to the detritus of banana leaves and armies of confused fire ants. Over the weeks in Alebtong, George began calling me Akot, Born in the Time of Rain. “My daughter, Akot,