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Archive for December 2010

Pre War Life in Northern Uganda
by john otim

Acholi love is a game in which two young people of the opposite sex encounter and engage each other in a series of mock battles. They size and eye each other. They circle each other as though they were two prize fighters in the ring.

They pull and tug and push. They pull and tug and push. And finally they come up close and wrestle each other till the first falls to the ground, and rises again to carry the contest forward, or is finally subdued. Acholi love is vigorous and prolong. Here there is no quickie. Acholi love, wrote the poet Okot p’Bitek, is not for the faint of heart. Not for the Acholi, Dona Summer’s sweet surrender. Oh I surrender! Oh sweet surrender.

For the Acholi, for that matter for the Langi, for the Karamojong and for the peoples of northern Uganda, the idea of a love tryst is nearer that of a sporting event in the ring. The idea is the maximization of touch. It is the celebration of youth. Strenth and valor is at the core of love.

In love there is always talk. There is nothing like a silent tryst, a robourst Indian girl once boldly proclaimed. And here too there is talk but it is tough talk. “An pe amiti do laconi. Awachi ne adegi do laconi. Cit cen! wot cen! dok cen!” (Who said I needed you Mr. Man. I hate you Mr. Man. Go back! Get back! Get lost!) In the place of sweet surrender is tough challenge flowing like honey.

Yes tough is the word. If I were asked to put it all into lyrics in the manner of Dona Summer or Diana Ross, it should turn out something like: Oh oh oh I challenge! Oh oh oh tough challenge! Here the challenge comes not so much from the tough talking language of the girl. As from what as a matter of fact the girl is, in the eyes of the boy. Very much in a  manner like the Beatles themselves once put it:

Something in the way she moves
something in the way she woes me
attracts me like no other lover
I don’t want to leave her now
I don’t want to leave her now

Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye once put it this way. You are everything and everything is you. The Acholi drummer boys put it this way. Ka igal ikeng gin ma Lubanga oketo, oh oh, ikeng gin ma Lubanga oketo. (If you delayed you will miss what the Lord has created).

Halt! Who goes? A strong male voice breaks the silence star lights. In the distance, royal drums roll, dancing feet beat the dust off the earth. All roads lead to the chief’s compound where tonight the mok dance (the dance of courtship) is already underway. Halt!

Yes I halt! and who are you? It is a feminine voice, but equally strong. A challenge met by a challenge. Not for the faint of heart is Acholi love. Throbbing drums play to the tensions. There is magic in the air. To night I celebrate my love for you.

She stops erect like a fighter in the ring awaiting the bell. Really there is not one, but any number of ways of issuing the challenge. The idea is to call attention and to demand it in the most commanding way. The challenge once issued cannot be ignored. You can’t walk away. You can’t live to fight another day. It is now or never just like Elvis Presley once said.  Anyone could issue a challenge, the boy would, the girl could.

Once at school campfire I committed the stupidity. In the heat of the evening’s fanfare I smelt the hair on my head burn. Was I on fire? I was scared. But really it was no big deal, some loose strands briefly set alight. That was all. But I was shaken and the offender was all smiles. Come on, she seemed to say. It was a command.

I came close to swallowing her. But instead I escaped, I walked away, in double quick motions. I believe I broke the sound barrier. But soon I paid for it. From my former position as a high flying kid I became overnight a joke throughout the school. Mr. Wouldn’t, everybody called me.

In the wrestle and the play, at the end of the day, the boy may and could walk away with a token. A necklace or a bangle, a string of beads, bestowed by the angel, a declaration of love as a matter of fact.

In reality very often the boy walked away with nothing at all but the smiles on his face. But he carried away something more precious – the  sweet sensation of having been a part of something holy. Often he probably won, but not necessarily. Girls could and did win. In this the northern girls come very close to their Nigerian sisters, sweet sturdy Amazons. Look out! Northern girls are coming.

Once when I was home on holidays at Dokolo, in the small town where my father taught. I watched a young Indian confront the challenge. Will he walk away, will he escape like I did? Did he know it was a challenge? Yes he did.

Indians in small towns and rural areas were better integrated with local communities. They were familiar with local customs. They spoke the language as well as any one did.

They did not go to the local schools. They had their own schools, a colonial legacy carried from the British. Policies that the new authorities and the Indians should have droped like untouchables upon the approach of independence but they didn’t.  It turned out a big mistake.

So I watch now the young Indian ponder the challenge flung at him by the young African girl. For the Indian the situation was delicate even critical.

Here he was surrounded by a group of his young African employees, age mates and pals really. The Indian was deputizing for his father or some uncle or grand father. Even more than Africans Indians lived in large communal groups.

Now the Africans teased and baited him in the way only Africans could. The Indian did not disappoint. He rose to the challenge. But he was no match for the sturdy local girl.

"Acholi girls"

Acholi dancers

She soon floored him and when he rose to try again floored him again. A small crowd had gathered. They were hilarious. The Indian smiled bravely. In his defeat he seemed to triumph. His companions saluted him, a reward for his perfomance. It is all about valor.

The girl walked away from the scene, a goddess followed by her train, her feet barely touching ground, at that moment she was the most beautiful girl in the world. Pretty woman walking down the street, pretty woman I am in love with you … pretty woman. I sang with Roy Orbison as I cycled away in the direction of the setting sun towards the marshlands and fairyland of Aminkwach.


poetry by john otim


Have you seen her

there by the market gate
there where children play
where beggars seek alms
where men relieve themselves

there where the swamp
and the stench
in the heat of noon
could overpower

there one cool evening
as the glory from the east
sprayed golden rays
and dazzled the world

Read the rest of this entry »

poetry by john otim


Angel of the morning

In the middle of a perfect afternoon
his head was a mess of greasy locks
his breath was doused
with the aroma of stale alcohol

he glanced at the glory by my side
she shot back and saw now
the woman by his side
they hated each other instantly

we hurried away and the girl said
what mean folks!
can’t even pay simple bills

for their home was in a mess
sans water sans power
overrun with garbage
and litter

the next day on the corridors of learning
he accosted  me
what did you see in that ugly girl?

that evening I looked again
at my new girl
the angel that came to me
in the morning

and I saw again those lips
those eyes
angel of the morning
john otim

the saga of a continent
by john otim

A figure from out there
In the placid days of our innocence when everyone high or low rode bicycles, Teacher on his bike was a distinctive figure on the land. Teacher was unmistakable in his neat white sleeves, khaki shorts, matching khaki stockings smartly pulled up. There was about him the look of a man in uniform.
               Teacher was a presence on the land. To wide eyed kids playing ball on the plains, kids for whom the world was heavenly, teacher was a hero. To the local community dancing in the soft lights of the moon, tending fertile plains by the day he was a figure from out there that they revered, that they consulted on all, on everything. Teacher was Teacher. 

"class in session"

wide eyed kids

               Those placid days a great African leader took for himself the title of Mwalimu, which in Swahili meant teacher. But Teacher was Teacher before the Mwalimu became the Mwalimu and the President of his country.

Let Peace Reign
There was a magical quality about the land in its green gentle contours. In the conical dwellings peasants lived in. In the song of the many rivers that crisscross the land. The colors of the morning, the peace of noon and the reveries of sunsets were sublime. No one said let peace reign. Peace just reigned. Where did peace come from? Who took peace away?

               When independence came and white people left did they cast a spell that one day brought war? Who stole the peace?
               Teacher said that if you looked closely at the stories from before, you discovered there was nothing like the Congo, like Darfur, like Somalia, like northern Uganda. These pathologies were new pathologies. Where did they come from? Who crafted them?
               The white man that once ruled the land could drive from one end of the country to the other end. He drove alone without body guards. No armed escorts no sirens heralded him. But a man there was those days that had the habits of sirens. In all likelihood he invented it.
                A colorful chieftain dying for attention, the man imagined himself a king. He had men with buffalo horns sit in the front of his huge American limo. In ceremony the men blow the instruments whenever the limo approached a trading post or a market town.
               From his corner the great chief stirred, waved joyfully to cheering onlookers. This was theatre. Today sirens on the roads are something else, part of a growing culture of intimidation. I will deal with you. I will teach you a lesson. 

Where did Peace go?
Elders in the villages remember how the local white representative of the white ruler walked the land freely unmolested. He charted with locals along the way. He gathered intelligence. He filed reports to the Center on the abundance of the land waiting to be tapped and evacuated to the Center. Little kids joined him, they made fun of him. He was zestful and energetic. The kids loved him, he was friends with them. They taught him the language, they taught him many things, he learnt fast. Well, he was young himself, barely a kid out of college.
               The local white priest from the Veronica Fathers did the same thing. His color like those of the white boy, gave him standing, conferred upon him the stamp of authority. Under empire color was everything. You are everything and everything is you. Diana Ross once serenaded. But it was of love the goddess sung. But really in the colonies color was everything.

            In his white robs, for he was young too, the priest walked from village to village, tireless, winning hearts, gathering the faithful. The local trader was Indian but sometimes Arab. The black color of the people set the Indian off as white. He sold his goods, made what profits he could, minded his own business. Not for him authority. He did not seek over lordship. He filed no reports. But he benefited from the color bonus. In the colonies it mattered if you were black or white.
               Where did the peace go when the white people left? They said the Congo burst into violence the day after independence. Today in Africa leaders move in armed convoys like mafia bosses. Armored limos, personnel carriers, tanks, all are on display. I will deal with you. You don’t know me.
               The local trader does not ride his car except he is in the company of hired thugs armed to the teeth. Walls and barbwires have taken over the green belts of the commons where once kids played. People say there are guns and armies behind those walls, armies ready to go on the rampage at the lift of a finger. We will deal with them. Just say the word, Bwana. We will saw them. We will bomb them back to the dark ages. Once an army commander confessed, we did horrible things there. 

Teacher and his friends
On this landscape once so placid, where love once grew, Teacher rode his bicycle from one end of the country to the next. He covered miles, one day at a time, resting wherever nights took him. As he moved he felt the wind and the breeze around him, he heard the wheels of his own cycle sing. On every branch will blossom, dreams for me and you. A tree of love stays ever green, if your heart stays ever true.
               But it was the voice of Cliff Richard, the dark boy from Calcutta, who moved to the Center and became a star. But not before he fended off taunts from school mates. Where are your bows and arrows?
               Teacher found ready welcome in the homes of other young teachers. On rough chairs crafted by local carpenter, around steaming cups of sweet tea and salted nuts they gathered. They chatted and argued till dawn. Love and romance was in their hearts. But they talked of India, the land of the free; they talked of Japan, of Russia and of America. They talked of Jomo Kenyatta and of the Mao Mao. They imagined a future in which a black man would one day rule and the people live free and in peace. They had a dream. “Japan Japan kum wu gum, Ikare man ducu an aparo pwonyere na” their students sung as they marched joyfully to class.
               In their reverie the teachers enthralled about ongoing preparations for the various inter school competitions, especially football and music competitions coming up in the capital. They felt their lives were charmed. The gods of their forefathers were alive, were smiling on them. Jo jok amalo. Everyone felt their own school would win. Had they been Nigerians they would have said God dey. God is there.
               It annoyed them that a village music teacher and his remote school won the music prize year after year. How did he do it? The football trophy by comparison lay wide open. Today this school, tomorrow another takes the glory. The games produced great brilliance, showed up great talents. Today’s football greats would smile on these kids. They surely would.
               The year before several of the teachers were on the national squad that toured England. Teachers were young those days. Straight from hot Africa they came and played bare foot in wintry conditions. They upset not a few metropolitan clubs. Metropolitan newsmen paid them back. They mocked the hell out of them. But the journalists did notice something. The chaps approached football the same way they hunted lions, in groups, in formations. They were a team. The lion never knew from which direction the spear was coming. Watch out man, the natives are coming.

Moments in the woods
Teacher was a sportsman from beginning to end. One day as he was fond of doing, Teacher was on his bike. This time he was in the company of two other teachers, young men like him. On their brand new cycles ridding through the land the three teachers were a sight. They approached the bridge on the river. It was  a most scenic spot.
               In the morning mist, dimly through the morning light, the young men saw emerge three wholesome figures wearing rows of colored beads round their shapely

"youruba girls"

market day

waists. Just about all they wore. The girls laughed and waved and laid their bets. Huge African butts in the sun, the wind came howling. The robins sang on the trees. On every branch will blossom, dreams for me and you … I love you so, don’t you know that it’ll be true till the leaves turn blue, on the evergreen tree … on the evergreen tree.

The girls laughed and teased and made fun. They were irrepressible. Now each maiden laid a claim on the teacher of her choice. Tonight I will celebrate my love for you. The young men dismounted … were led into a wonderland. They lost precious hours. The journey before them was long and the weather uncertain. But who cared?
               For years Teacher would recall those moments in the woods. He remembered the sounds of the frothing river. He remembered how they could not tear themselves away. The encounter reminded him of the Illiard. The ship of the good king took a turn on the Aegean Sea. They come upon a bevy of maidens in their morning rituals by the waters. The men are immobilized, would not move.
"River Nile at Karuma"

the frothing river

Where have all the young men gone?
Years later Teacher set off again across the land on the same old bike he used to ride on, still wearing white sleeves, khaki shorts and khaki stockings. But times had changed. The land had a strange look, as if it was a new country. Nobody smiled anymore.
               Many of Teacher’s old comrades were in Parliament in the Capital. They were surrounded by luxuries they never dreamed of. But they were not smiling. Half dozen of them were in the new cabinet, lead by a young smart trade unionist. A war raged across the boarder. Columns of troops were on the move. Everyone that was anyone was recruiting and assembling an army. There were sounds of distant fire. There were rumors of a coup in the Capital. People talked in whispers. They hurried, they carried long faces.
               Teacher rode across the land, fearful now for his life and for the lives of those around him. A storm was brewing over the great inland ocean. Over the roar teacher heard the wheels of his old cycle sing again. But it wasn’t Cliff Richard. It was the voice of gentle Marlene Dietrich, transmitting the desperations, the frustrations, the pains of the new age. The flighty dreams of Cliff Richard, the dark boy from Calcutta, were gone.

where have all the flowers gone?
long time passing
where have all the flowers gone?
long time ago
where have all the flowers gone?
girls have picked them every one
when will they ever learn?
when will they ever learn?
Marlene Dietrich

John Otim
Suncolor Consultancy
Kampala, Uganda