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on the road to find out
by john otim

We left Kampala, capital of Uganda, soon after dawn on the road to find out. We were on a mission to recover the lost childhood. Uganda suffered a violent and horrible past. Nowhere was this truer than in Northern Uganda where a brutal war, if war it was, raged without let or hindrance for upwards of twenty years. In the rich farmlands, just when the harvests were due, tragedy struck.

Men armed with automatic weapons, some in uniform, arrived in the village. Cattle, goats and sheep were driven away. Crops in the fields were torched, homesteads were reduced to rubble. Men women and children were herded into makeshift camps that lacked all amenities. There they lived for years, ravaged by famine and disease. A way of life was gone. Business as-usual continued elsewhere in the country. In the camps a generation grew that knew nothing but war. A few years ago the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland, visited the camps. When Egeland saw what had happened he called the situation the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.  James and I were headed there.

"on the road to find out"

on the road to find out

James and I had been to school together at King’s College Budo near Kampala with the best of the youth of Uganda. We came from all corners of the land. We arrived on merit and we created a fairyland universe. We and the school took great pride in what we achieved. The new country was proud of us seeing in us its own future. But the new El Dorado did not arrive. Looking back now it seems we lived our lives in a world that was not there. At the time Uganda was an independent State and a member of the United Nations but the school was white run. Management and faculty were white. So was the headmaster’s secretary, so was the school’s director of works.

"King's College Budo"

Kings College Budo

In the sanitized atmosphere of the postcolonial school we studied the American war of independence, we studied the French revolution, the two world wars, and of course Shakespeare. We enjoyed ourselves.  But the treachery, the violence and the upheavals we encountered in our lessons and on the pages of the history books, shocked us. Could men act like that? Was Lenin was Stalin was Hitler real? The legendary African Strongman was a shadowy figure in the distance. But within the space of a year our credulity would be tested to the limits. Macbeth sprang from the eternal lines of Shakespeare’s poesy and assumed material force. He drove in a motorcade on the streets of our city. He flooded the streets with his army; and they unleashed terrific violence and created a state of fear. But that was that. Worse was to come.

The evening before, we visited a popular Kampala resort. We thought to find there a face we might know who could give us some useful tips. We had been out of the country for too long. The place was filled with revelers but it had an undertone of tension. Men and women appeared stylized. Smiles and laughter was the hardest thing but drinks flowed. Presently we approached a group to see if someone would break from the mold but people just stared at us as though we were aliens. We approached a second group at the opposite end and met with no luck at all. . We left trusting in the Nigerian dictum – God dei. Meaning God is there.

"Chief's house"

here i spent my holidays

The next morning we were on our way, winding through dense city traffic on potholed roads, amidst exhaust fumes, morning smog, loud music when police escorts edged us out of the lane. We narrowly avoided an accident. James was relaxed at the wheel. I liked that in a driver especially on long distance. Presently he broke into a smile. You know what? All this will end. The slums will and the traffic will. It will be country all the way.

Ten kilometers out of town and traffic began to ease. Twenty more and we were the only ones on the road. The hillsides were green, sparkles in the morning sun. Here no hills were cropped. I remembered the towering magnificence of Old Kampala Hill where once we picnicked and played where now stands the Gaddafi Mosque – Gaddafi erecting a shrine for The Almighty.  In the years ahead Kampala landscapes were dug up and replaced by ugly structures. A sure sign, James said, of the absence of planning, evidence that people were surviving. When people do nothing but survive you get this kind of thing, short-term solutions that create long-term problems.

I studied the man now. He gunned the car. The old engine roared and flew. James had spent his years in exile teaching in America. I had spent mine teaching in Nigeria. America had shaped him differently. To his accomplishments as a scientist and a footballer James expanded and added new dimensions. He became a designer and builder of residential districts. He built his own house. He made his own furniture.  James was the kind of man you could throw into a desert wilderness and he would find a way to survive and to prosper. His Clemson home in the United States was a forest of books. Travelling with him now, listening to him talk and seeing his tool kits by the back seat I remembered Robinson Crusoe.

I too had changed and left behind the land of make-believe that I guessed still plagued our country and the people we encountered in Kampala last night. Nigeria with all its contradictions got me out of that mess. There was something about the Nigerian that told you I am real don’t mess with me. In Nigeria I was surrounded by smart people, go and get people. In the university whenever I doubted the course of action my colleagues were about to take, they would say “You no see”, “make you sit down there”. It was the invitation to get up and be part of the action. Where Nigeria includes Uganda excluded. The phrase “Federal character” enshrined in the constitution, made it obligatory for Federal and State supported institutions to reflect the diversity of the Nigerian population. You could not have a government department in which everybody came from the same tribe. The generals came all the tribes of the nation.

"James standing first from right"

James standing first from left

Now we were approaching Lwero, the lovely small town set on rolling hills. The kind of place you look at and say here I want to build me a university. Here I want to invite the youth of the world to frolic and to learn. But Lwero was a place whose name had become inseparable from our country’s history continuing brutality. But now as we drove through the land the brand new all brick cathedral of the Catholics rose up. A little while later the church of the Anglicans came in view, just as new just as magnificent. In Lwero you discovered that everything was new. The rubble of hostility was buried under the gloss of newness. Let the people get on with their lives. Get on with what!

"rebuilding life from zero"

rebuilding life from zero

On and on we drove, the lay of the land changed, so did the vegetation. We found ourselves running parallel with the River Nile as it pursued its eternal course. James who knew the location well said the river was a mere stone throw away. I imagined I heard its mighty roar. On the other side lay the object of our mission, the vast territory of Northern Uganda. We imagined we could see the blue hills of Payira and the mountain range of Otuke. For there come what may we planned to unearth layer by layer the lost world of childhood.  

"Koroto Rocks"

Koroto Rocks

From time to time we shot past the skeletal traffic on the road. We could not bear to allow any object even if it were brand new from the factories of Toyota or General Motors to stand between us and the lay of land. We delighted in everything and everything delighted us. A few drivers who thought themselves in smart state of the arts autos got mad at us. They could not bear the thought of our faithful oldie out gunning them. But the Nile seemed to draw us on. The forest grew exceedingly dense and magnificent. It was easy to lay back now and let your thoughts run to the beginning of times. In the beginning was the word. In the beginning was the big bang. It did not matter. Suddenly the river came at us, in a matter of seconds was upon us, in a roar of boiling surging foaming mass. It was the leap of an angry lion. Mercifully we were over and across the bridge in one big surge of the old motor. Welcome to Northern Uganda. The car music box played Bridge over troubled water. Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down.

The novelty of again entering the land where one first saw the light of dawn brought memories. I thought of songster Joyce Akpan singing the number we created together on the Ahmadu Bello University campus – In the first light of the dawn.  The next day we were en route to a place called Kalaki towards the old town of Soroti in Kuman land. In the fifties and sixties Kalaki was a big center of learning drawing students from a huge swath of the countryside. Over the years much smaller centers than Kalaki have grown into universities and colleges while Kalaki has shrank. James’ father began his teaching career at Kalaki. Here in the late forties James was born in a small house that still stood despite the violence. It and the old stone chapel were the only structures that survived. We longed to enter the old house but we could not. We were strangers in the land and the climate of suspicions was real! The thought occurred of Elvis Presley. Caught in a trap, can’t get out because I love you so much more.

"here James was born"

here James was born

The most vivid sign of decay as one approached Kalaki was in the condition of the eleven kilometer stretch of road that links the school or what remained of it to the brand new northern highway from Soroti to Lira. We had to navigate and negotiate our way inch by inch. It took us hours. So daunting was the challenge we took no photos. And so we approached at last Kalaki. It was a place I had not seen, but a place of which I had in the past heard much. Here as a young boy my father went to school and lived with a family of Baganda teachers from the rich and colorful kingdom down south. Here years later my mother began her teaching career. What confronted us now was a world that James could not recognize but James was glad at having made the reconnection to a past that though gone was still there.

On the third day as the town stirred we left our base in Lira. Lira was a town that refused to die. Five years after the massacre in which more than two hundred people were bludgeoned to death at the Barlonyo refugee camp the town was again in bloom Death came silently at dawn and caused a terrible stampede.

"death at Barlonyo refugee camp"

Barlonyo killings

We were on the Lira/Kampala road. We drove past Kamdini, the old colonial resort for chiefs and high officials of the colonial state. We made as if to cross the Nile again and confront again the guardian spirit of the river of which the ancestors spoke. We passed again through the dense vegetation of the Nile basin; always a place of awe. Just before we could cross the bridge we took a turn and hit the road that leads to Arua, Uganda’s northernmost city. We were headed for Anaka, the place where it all began. The landscape was splendid, it rose and fell and rose and fell; a panorama of lights and shadows. Finally Anaka loomed and I heard again the old familiar reverberations.

ka igal ikeng gin ma Lubanga oketo
ka igal ikeng gin ma Lubanga oketo

Drum beats throbbed, the arena shook, and voices rose in song. Ka igal ikeng gin ma Lubanga oketo. Do not delay. You will miss the Lord’s own delicacies. Do not delay. Wonders of creation rose in the mind. The dancers responded with a passion. The girls were as if they could fly and their faces were broad with smiles. Boys circled them. In swift subtle motions of the waist they made as if to claim at once their portion of the delicacies. Round and round they danced. Ka igal ikeng gin ma Lubnga oketo. The girls responded in like manner. Drum beats rose to crescendo. It was the larakaraka, Acholi courtship dance. Tourists hurrying back from nearby Murchison Game Resort crowded the arena on the spacious lawn by the chief’s house. They lit up the night with their filming. Dark clouds were gathering. Soon the storm broke.

"war shattered schoolroom"

war shattered classroom

By the end of the sixties Anaka was on its way. It was the gateway to a great game reserve comparable to Serengeti. It stood on the road to the Sudan. It had two secondary schools, a technical school, and a modern one hundred bed hospital. Now as we approached the school where I once studied, I saw nothing that resembled what I remembered what I knew. The orchards were gone. The enchanted groves and brooks of Agago where we kids loved to play were a shadow of what they once were. We drew near. A group of boys playing on the lawn saw us. They took cover and were gone. We were the guerrillas. We were the army. We were the enemy. Not in their action. Not in the appearance of the place was there anything that resembled the old Anaka I knew and loved where my family lived. As we drove away I realized that perhaps no one could ever come home again.

"author at ahmadu bello university"

author at ahmadu bello

John Otim
formerly of the Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria
 now with Suncolor Consultants in Kampala Uganda


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


King’s College Budo Schooldays
by john otim

I was in the Upper Chamber devouring international publications, British really. They included Boys Own, fine adolescent adventure stuff. They included the Illustrated London Magazine, Filled at the time with glossy pictorials of British elites and their European cousins. The London Times was there as a matter of course.

"Budo's Upper Chamber"

popular student hangout at king's college budo

            Time Magazine and Newsweek, were not officially there. But once in a while some young American on the faculty brought in a few copies. At times he threw in copies of Sports Illustrated for good measure.  Sports Illustrated was typically American. Its contribution to sports’ photography is a story. Its marvelous photos of sportsmen in action, gave the Illustrated London Magazine a run for its money
            The lone Indian teacher at the school had not the resources to showcase the sub continent’s rich heritage. He was a proud man nevertheless and enjoyed nothing more than to rattle a few nerves among the majority English on this White enclave on the shores of Lake Victoria.
            As students we were on our own. There was not a single black face on the faculty. And this was a prestige school. Today King’s College Budo on the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda still ranks among the best. Further south in Malawi, President Hastings Banda was yet to create his dream school, the Kamuzu Academy that would rise to rival our school if not surpuss it. On th President’s orders the school when it got going would be staffed exclusively with holders of the masters’ degree from Oxford and Cambridge. People laughed at Haistings Banda. But in today’s Africa Banda’s model is hot cake and they cost a fortune to attend.

         
"Kamuzu Academy"

Hastings Banda's dream school

            The British authorities at our school were smart. They distanced themselves from the former colonial authorities of which they had been a part. They won a lot of goodwill. While firmly maintaining control they appeared not to insist on anything. They did not verbalize it but they were saying. We are part of the new Africa. We are Africans really. They lined up a coterie of Africans from downtown who came to the school to talk to us. They were young people and immensely successful. They had studied in Europe and North America. They were the inheritors of the colonial state. They talked no revolution. There was no need, independence was won. They were saying. The future is now, you are lucky fellows. Get on with it. Don’t make noise. Look at us.
            One day I was in the Upper Chamber. Named for the room in which Christ and the disciples had the last supper. It was a large upstairs room, wooden floor, large mahogany tables, shelves of books and magazines. The room made you feel good. Here boys and girls converged on Sunday afternoons. You came washed and dressed. For girls these were precious showcase moments.

            Here I was one Sunday afternoon when a stunning young woman made her way. Followed by a crowd of students I knew were members of the Christian Union. This was a group whose membership proclaimed themselves the inheritors of Christ. Now they created a stir. There was nothing to it, the evening was at an end. I stood up to leave. A girl grabbed my hand and bade me stay. I spent the evening receiving the message of Christendom, streaming from the lips of the starlet.
            It turned out the babe was a Makerere University student and had graduated from our school a few years back. Makerere was big stuff. Clearly someone had brought this girl over to dazzle us. I had never seen a woman that lovely. The organizers of the evening for sure had class. Huray! Boys and girls stayed on, nobody left. There was quiet in the room. The young woman began to speak.
            Look around. You are gathered from all corners of this country. You are the best. But you are also lucky. How many of your primary school fellows do you see around? You must be thankful. You are the cream of  the world. We are the cream! What did that mean?
            The theme of duty and of responsibility was absent. You are not here. Luck is not with you. You are not smart. You are excluded. The system said. Exclusion meant neglect. It was demanded of the excluded, that they offer their services in the interests of the lucky ones. Nothing was extended in return. Exclusion degerated into abuse. Primitives, good for nothing. Abuse brought conflict. African education systems such as it was, such as it is, set the course and now provides feeds.

John Otim
Formerly of the Ahmadu Bello University
Zaria in Nigeria