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Location? Perhaps a remote corner of the usually crowded market place, perhaps a lonely village road. But youth must and will always find a way. And now that they have and are there, they size each other, they let their eyes roam and wander and speak for them. Like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the thriller in Manila they circle each other. That’s Acholi love. At least that is the way it used to be. Before Kony and the Uganda People’s Defense Force, the UPDF, entered Acholi land and turned the world upside down.

Against the background distant drums and the song play of mating birds the youth pull and push; they pull and push. And the moment comes and it is time for a showdown.  They draw close, nose to nose, eyeball to eyeball, they wrestle each other. It may happen now and again that one or the other may miss a step and may fall or stagger. But he or she will rise again and the game will go on, till at last there is a winner. It may be that the boy will win; he usually does. It may be that the girl will win; she sometimes does and wins outright.

Acholi love is vigorous and prolonged. There is no quickie. It is not for the faint of heart. Not for the Acholi are the tender lyrics of Dona Summer’s sweet surrender or the melancholy of Kenny Roger’s We got tonight who needs tomorrow!

"Acholi Royal Dance
Acholi Royal Dance

But with the Acholi the idea of a love tryst is  that like that of a sporting event. The soul of the game is the maximization of touch; the purpose the prolongation of pleasure. Now you get it now you don’t; teasing is a big part of the game plan. Strength and valor is at the core of Acholi love and art of romance. Look at their dance. It is all there.

In love and romance there is talk, there is poetry. There is nothing like a silent tryst, an Indian girl once said. So here now in between the pushing and wrestling, the hiding and the seeking, there is talk and poetry.

An per amiti do laco ni. Awachi ne adegi do laco ni. Cit cen! wot cen! dok cen! (I don’t need you this man. I don’t want you this man. I told you I hate you. Go away, get back!)

In the place of sweet surrender are tough words. And it is now that the tough gets going. And from now it is sweet all the way. But after Kony, after the atrocities, after the UPDF, after the concentration camps, there is not that much flavor left in Acholi love or in Acholi land. But they say that time heals a broken heart. (I can’t stop loving you)

John Otim
copyright 2012

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story by john otim

Oh it was a night

Early last year I returned home to Uganda after years of teaching on a Nigerian campus. To my surprise I found that Nollyhood, the Nigerian equivalent of Hollywood, had taken over the local video scene. It was generating a lot of interest in all things Nigerian especially the Nigerian woman. Friends would stop me on the streets and ask. Are Nigerian girls that cute? How would you compare to East African women. Are they that sexy?

I told the story of my encounter in Lagos years ago. When at the arrival hall a uniformed official confronted me. It was my first time in Nigeria. Nothing hostile mind you, Nigerians are a warm and friendly people. Anyhow the official demanded my passport, whereupon I surrendered.

You are a teacher? She asked, as she scanned through my details.

Yes! I nodded. Whereupon she looked me in the face, straight and direct in the eyes as only a Nigerian can. She said or rather commanded.

Teacher! Teach me!

I was nearly put of balance but I considered the prospects. And for the first time I saw beyond the uniform. She smiled. I smiled. We exchanged personal information. And I thought no more of it. Weeks later at my new quarters at the Ahmadu Bello University up in northern Nigeria during the cold months of the harmattan far from steamy Lagos on the coast there was a gentle knock on my door one evening.

And there she was: my uniformed interlocutor at the arrival hall, adorned in national costumes, totally transformed, a more beautiful woman I never saw. The words returned to me. Teacher! Teach me!

John Otim
Kampala Nov 2011


intrigues and betrayal on campus
by john otim

By the grounds of Zaria Club the blue Mazda took off. Behind the wheel was Professor Patrick Wilmot of the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. The College is Nigeria’s foremost Academy. Before Wilmot could join the now scanty traffic on the leafy and usually busy Queen Elizabeth Road he cut the engine. He sensed he was followed and he wanted to make sure.

                At the junction he swung the car to the left instead of to the right which he normally would have done. He was headed home and that would have been the way. It was getting late. At home his wife waited. He needed rest and sleep and he could do with a cold shower. The heat of the day was overpowering. The next day he would travel hundreds of miles to represent the Ahmadu Bello University at a new college in the eastern city of Oweri. Oweri was once the site of a gruesome battle in the civil war that nearly tore Nigeria apart.  

                Now he swung the car as though it had been a piece of cardboard. It roared into the silence of the night waking up ghosts of the long dead. In this town where there had been a massacre during the civil war there were many ghosts. As a child Wilmot grew up in Jamaica watching tourist speed boats and ski artists on the blue waters of the Caribbean.

                He was an intellectual but he fancied himself a sportsman and a dandy. He loved life. Now he pushed the accelerator to the limits. But his pursuers rode more powerful engines and soon they overtook him. Fresh mint unmarked cars piled upon the Mazda like players on a rugby score line. Two cars raved and raced ahead to block his front. Another two raced the Mazda on the sides. They squeezed and boxed it in. The last car pulled in from the rear and blocked the last exit. It was a professional job done to precision.

                A dozen strange men armed with automatic weapons pounded on the top of the Mazda as if to break it. They shouted his name. Patrick Wilmot, Professor, come out!’ He heard their voices as if from a far as if in a dream.

                His car doors were locked, standard precaution from previous experience. He was going to remain inside his car. Let them break the glass, let them reach for him. But his lone front seat passenger, a shy and colorless man, probably scared out of wits, opened the car anyway. A dozen mighty hands reached for Wilmot. They ceased him and yanked him out of the car and threw a handcuff upon him.

                It happened so quickly. At first Patrick Wilmot imagined he and his friend had been set upon by armed robbers. This kind of thing occurred quite often. But from the handcuff he knew this was a government job. Now he indulged himself. Which was better, to be attacked by common armed robbers or to be set upon by government thugs? He could not tell.

                The next thing he knew he was squeezed between two huge smelly men armed to the teeth, at the back of a speeding car in the dead of the night, headed for God knows where. The smell of old sweat mixed with the odor of cheap perfume was nauseating. But there he was. Patrick Wilmot knew that his time had come. The common message inscribed on trucks that ply Nigerian roads, flashed through his mind, God’s case no appeal.

                He thought of his young wife waiting for him in their university house on the Ahmadu Bello University campus. The largest and some say the best school in the country. It was built by one of the founding fathers of the nation in the early days of independence when rulers still cared. There in their book lined rooms, his wife waited, longing for a husband who may never come home again

                He thought of his front seat passenger, a friend and old colleague he had known for years in the same faculty at the university. This was the man who had invited him out that night. Although the reason for the invitation had never been clear. But now he feared for him. If any harm came to the man it will all be because of him. Because the poor fellow had innocently been in his company and had witnessed his abduction and journey to certain death. Poor fellow, Wilmot felt sure they will eliminate him, to cover their tracks. Wilmot blamed himself. He felt sure these men who are now driving him manacled at breakneck speed on these dangerous roads in the dead of the night were taking him to his death. The certainty of death had a soothing effect. Only the handcuff bothered and hurt him. The brutes, they had fixed the chains too tightly. On a man that had taught in their university for years, a man who represented no danger, no threats to their nation. How could anyone run a modern state in this fashion?

"central campus"

central campus

                The car headed south towards Kaduna, the old seat of the old north, where once Captain Laggard held court and administered imperial justice. Today Luggard was still a hero in that city. Just before they could enter the city the car branched off on the lonely road to the airport. This long stretch of land was one of the least inhabited parts of the country.  Patrick Wilmot knew now beyond doubt that the men were going to kill him and dump his body in some groves for vultures to pick. Under the military dictatorship that dominated the country this kind of thing was normal.

                The thought of death melted away the pains on his wrists. His body grew numb, only his brain raced ahead with surprising alacrity. As if the brain knew it was making its last runs and filing its last accounts of life on earth.  He glanced out the window. It was blue dark; marvelous for the job at hand.

                His molesters began to light up. They started puffing in the kind of manner that thieves do just before a grand job in anticipation for the great rewards they knew would follow. The stink and the heat inside the car grew unbearable. In the glow of the cigarette he tried to study their faces. Better to know your enemies. Sweat trickled down their broad empty faces.

                In his mind he saw them in the morning grinning and saluting their bosses and confirming the deed was done. In return they would get their petty rewards and go home to their fat wives and hordes of dirty kids in their crump quarters on the poor side of town. These were rural men, poor hungry men; men with little or no education, men who in this country as it is now, stood not a chance. They were men who had come to the city in the bid to make money but could not. They were men who had lost all touch with humanity. They were the kind of men the system seemed to breed in numbers, exactly for this kind of purpose. A few years ago this kind of men did not exist in the country.  

                A thought occurs to him. And he saw before his eyes, the storm troopers, well fed youths in perfect uniforms, admirable to look at, smartly marching down the streets of Nuremberg. These too were death squads. They too were the products of a desperate and degenerate system.

                Thoughts of imminent death receded. But the pains returned to ravage his manacled wrists, biting hard. Thoughts of his forefathers, at no point far from his mind, returned and overwhelmed him. Presently he saw his ancestors before him. So vividly he thought he could reach out and touch them. Men, women and children wrenched from this land, from their homes and farms, shackled and marched through the forests in chains to the coasts, bound for the slave boats and slave plantations of the Americas with no hopes of return.

                Today in this modern world he too was in chains. He too was being hurried to the coasts through the darkness of the night. The truth struck him. Power inAfricahad passed from the old colonial bosses to the children of the old slave brokers who on the eve of independence inherited the old colonial state. These modern men have learnt nothing and regret nothing. Their forefathers treated the people with contempt, using them as slaves and merchandize in exchange for beads and gun powder.

                These modern men treat their own people with equal contempt. They prefer to invest money earned from the vast oil and gas reserves of this otherwise great country in personal bank accounts and mansions abroad while the people remain without the most elemental of services. While institutions collapse, the rule of law disintegrates and corruption takes center stage.

                As the car taking him to his death wheezed through the silent night seemingly singing the song of death, everything came together within his mind. It was this degenerate impunity that put him in chains and now demanded his blood. He was not the only one. There were many in the county who daily suffered the same fate. His crimes had been to work in the interests of the young people he taught in the university. He had worked as diligently as a man could. He had tried to develop young minds and to cultivate in them the love of ideas. He had tried to point the way and to show them what they could achieve for their country if they applied ideas. In return the authorities accused him of subversion.

                Five hours had gone by since government thugs seized him from the leafy suburb of the northern city ofZaria. From that moment on it had been a maddening race through the night, and for him a journey to oblivion. The thought of his colleague who had witnessed his forced departure and who for his pains may now be dead, returned to plague him. Presently memories of those moments spent in the company of his young wife returned and soothed away all pains. Those happy hours that we once knew …   

                The car sped, singing the song of death. He looked out the window and saw the dawn hour slowly emerge out of the firmament; the most beautiful he had seen. The play of colors, of indigo, of purple, red and orange across the green valleys, over the simmering springs and streams of Africa, was breathtaking. The thug on the wheel stayed on the accelerator, oblivious to the burning beauty of the dawn.

                Despite the pains on his still handcuffed wrists, the life within him stirred, and he found himself enjoying the morning breeze. Silently he hummed a tune. No woman no cry. Yes good old Bob Marley. They approached Lagos, the amorphous and frightful metropolis where millions live in appalling conditions. They entered the teaming city of ten million. He knew now that here they will kill him and his body will never be found. It will disappear like a needle in a barn full of hay.

                Instead they took him straight to the airport where they paraded him still handcuffed, before the mid morning crowd at the departure lounge, in a bid to inflict maximum humiliation. Wilmot could see the horror in the faces of total strangers as they looked at him. Those that recognized him who knew who he was, including his old students from the university, were dying with shame, as only Nigerians can. Afterwards they bundled him on to a plane bound forLondon, tired, hungry and penniless after eighteen years of tireless service at theAhmaduBelloUniversity.

                In London Wilmot learnt he need not have worried so much about the fate of his front seat passenger. The shy and diffident academic, had been sent from Lagos where he now worked in a top Government job, specifically to lure him from his house to a spot where he could be quietly picked without anybody being the wiser.  

                That proposed trip Wilmot was to make on behalf of the Ahmadu Bello University to the city of Oweri had been a ruse. The University Vice Chancellor was aware Patrick Wilmot would be picked up on the eve of the trip. The Vice Chancellor’s role in the game plan was to make sure Wilmot stayed in Zaria to be picked. The year was 1988. Four years after George Orwell.

copyright john otim 2011


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


day by day in a war shattered village
by john otim

For hours they trekked for kilometers in a situation that brought them close to danger.  Given what it was at the time in Northern Uganda, anyone could have shot them dead and that would be that.

Now cautiously the men were making their way to what used to be their village. In the solitude of the dawn hour the men had slipped away out of the refugee camp that was their home, that had been their home for years now. A great gustily clamoring of mud huts straight out of medievalism.

"two million lived in this condition"

two million lived in this condition

The men were on a mission to reclaim their lives, to take it back. In the eighties when the war first came to Northern Uganda in a barrage of gunfire their lives had been shattered, entire communities uprooted, sent packing to camps far and near. Overnight otherwise thriving communities were reduced to destitution. In the years at camp they lost everything, crucially they lost the ability to make a living. By their loss the country lost something. In the squalor of camp life the good old mores of the village disintegrated and gave way to criminal ways. Now the ghosts of crime and the insanity of camp life were returning to plague the nation.

Years had gone and the war in Northern Uganda was abetting, peace was coming back but nothing was certain. So now the men had sneaked back to the village they used to call home to see what they could do. They were young men. They were the advance guard. If all went well on this mission others would follow. The advance guard would mobilize the people to return. The old vibrant life of the community would rise again. Perhaps in time the village would thrive again. It was better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven. Those thoughts again. For sure none of these men had heard of John Milton much less read Paradise Lost.

vandalized property

vandalized property

But now that they were here, back to the village after that long absence, now that they were back walking the same grounds they used to play on, the men felt their old energies return. They were connected. They heard the old drums beat again. But it was all a momentary thing. Now that their eyes were wide open and they could see fully, what they saw took the life out of them.

"wrecked homestead"

returning to wrecked homestead

 The village was a total ruin. Farmlands once filled with rice and millet stalks were wilderness. Monkeys were returning in droves. But the teaming livestock once the hallmark of the village was gone. Cattle was the wealth of the subregion. The once neat homesteads where women lovingly bossed their men, the trimmed schoolyard where school children held mini Olympics, the roads on which roared old fashion trucks and buses, and the other village infrastructures, were wrecks of their former selves. The old railway, the lifeline to the North was no more.

"idle rail station"

Despondent and despairing the men retreated to the veranda of the only store in the village, the spirit gone from them. “The time is out of joint! Oh cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right!” Hamlet. To be or not to be was the question. But it did not take long for an answer.

By their own efforts, with help from Ochan Self-help Alliance, the people of Opac were setting the times right. I saw it my self when I made the journey back to Opac this last Christmas season. Christmas is the harvest season in Opac. There is nothing to raise the spirit like the promise of better days ahead. Men are creatures of hope.  And in Opac as I found out, hope made all the difference.

It was Ochan Self-help Alliance that brought hope. The Maryland registered non-profit body connected the people of Opac to the world beyond their boarders and showed them what could be done even by people in their situation. At the time the people of Opac had nothing with which to begin the mammoth task they knew they had to do. the Agency mobilized resources, brought in equipment, and erected enabling structures, all for free.

help me if you can i ‘m feeling down
help me get my feet back on the ground
won’t you please please help me
(help lyrics)

 The people of Opac who had come face to face with death and raw brutality, saw now that good still existed in the world. Their spirits lifted and they drove themselves harder than they ever did. Men and women in the fields, kids in classrooms, had the fire burning in their eyes.

fire in their eyes

fire in their eyes

Although these were the localities in which my own father first began his teaching career, places of which I heard him speak very fondly, I myself  was visiting Opac only for second time.  Since I first visited last May during the planting season when the land was lush, green and fresh. It was as if the evils you heard in the stories people told did not happen here, did not to these people!

If the progress I saw in Opac depended on one thing, it was the crop, sunflower. To see in the fields as I saw in Opac, the graceful yellow flower dance in the sun in field after field. To realize that for the village this meant good income was a wonderful thing. For me it was straberry fields for ever. 

sunflower fields

sunflower fields

Sunflower was the essence of the hope that Ochan Self-help Alliance had inspired in Opac. Where the village could find no crop seed to put in their fertile soil, no matter where they went and how hard they tried, the Agency like magic supplied them with free seeds. It secured on top a competitive market and free transport for their produce over forbidding road conditions.

It was the run up to Christmas. The big day was only days away. I stood in the fields in Opac and observed the women as they set upon the ready yields to bring home the harvest. The time was approaching noon. The women had been at it by dawn.  Where did their energies come from? Later that evening I saw by the common store, sacks upon sacks of neatly processed sunflower seeds and I knew the answer. There is nothing like hope even though Ssaka Ssali of the Voice of America by his over use has devalued the word: Keep Hope Alive …

John Otim
Suncolor Media Consultants
Kampala Uganda

copyright 2011 john otim


hope and despair on the postcolonial campus
by john otim

Although Africans were among the the early makers of human civilization the modern African university owes nothing to African genius. It is distinctly the creation of the colonial state.           

          In the contemporary world Africa lags way behind in development regardless of indices we may choose to use. The writer and broadcaster Ali Mazrui has likened Africa to the Garden of Eden in Decay, a place that once had it all but that now has lost all, a king only yesterday but a pauper today.

            Yet in numbers alone, African universities have grown tenfold, churning out thousands of graduates. But numbers though important are not the game here. African universities as they are today betray little of the vibrant traditions that once animated the continent. Despite the poverty and the backwardness these traditions still animates rural Africa today. Take the case of the Acholi of Northern Uganda.

            The emergence of the African novel at Ibadan and the rise of the modern African art in Zaria, both events occurring in the middle of the last century, occurred because the colonial students that shaped the moments found a way to reconnect to their African past and from there drew strength.

            The African university today, whether Senegalese or Malian, has routes not in the rich traditions of Africa, but in Africa’s immediate colonial past. This is the problem.  Because the colonial past is the past of despair. It represented a period when Africa had lost the initiative was clueless.

            Unlike ancient Timbuktu or medieval European universities, the colonial university was not an organic institution. It did not rise out of the land. It could not offer a basis for the flowering of culture and learning.  It was limited in scope and scale. It admitted few students, offered few carefully selected courses, taught by colonial professors. The colonial students were cultural refugees, cut off from the treasure house of their heritage.

            There was little to distinguish between the colonial professor and the colonial administrator. Both were steeped in colonial culture. In colonial times you could not as a white person, live in Africa except as a colonizer. Colonialism as the life of Karen Blixen in colonial Kenya demonstrated, was a collective thing. It was a lived experience that sucked in all persons from the metropolitan countries that lived in the colonies.

            The colonial university however was a complex thing. There was little doubt about its mission, namely the reproduction of the colonial state and the promotion of colonial culture. In Africa there is a tendency to equate colonial culture with European culture. But colonial culture was not and is not European at all. Europe excepting only a few spots already had democracy.  In Africa the European colonies were heavy handed dictatorships, the type you encounter in many African countries today. 

           The colonial university sprang out of the milieu of the debilitating condition produced by colonialism. The colonial university could never have been a marketplace of ideas in sense Oxford, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne were and still are. But within its framework, the colonial university functioned admirably. Immaculate facade bestowed the grace of a metropolitan campus, radiated serenity, civility, and wholeness. Within its four walls the contradictions that were imperialism seemed far away.

            On the eve of independence the postcolonial state inherited the colonial university, little understanding its complexity. The inheritance was its most prized possession. So acute had been the hunger for knowledge and learning and so limited the opportunities. Chinua Achebe has remarked that the colonial university was the only good thing colonialism did in Nigeria.

            In the immediate post colony, the new President became the new Chancellor of what had become overnight the national university, but it was national in name only. Nothing pleased the President more than when he appeared in full academic regalia and presided over convocation ceremonies. Viewed as a symbol of prestige, the colonial university in its post colony stage was sliding towards outward appearance and further away from substance. During colonialism proper the institution knew exactly its purpose understood its mission and acted accordingly. Now the new managers of the place did not comprehend the dynamics at work but acted as though everything was alright.

           By the powers conferred upon me I confer upon all those whose names have been read the degree of Bachelor of Science. By the powers conferred upon me I confer upon all those whose names have been read the degree of Bachelor of Arts. Those became the litany of the postcolonial institution. Everything in the end became hinged on that. And so was entrenched the regime of marks.

            The ceremonies were conducted in a postcolonial culture saturated with the music and the culture of modern pop. Modern pop was suddenly the new power in the land.

            In time the neo colonial state proceeded to multiply its most prized possession. So acute was the hunger for knowledge. There was a need for men and women of learning in all manner of fields. There was a need for all manner of technical skills. In the postcolonial state everything was in short supply.

            The state genuinely longed for progress and desired development and prosperity for the people. But at the old colonial university, it was business as usual. The old colonial professors continued to do the same things they did before.

          Even as it routinely graduated students the post colony university faced the crisis of identity. What did it mean to be a university? What does it mean to be African? On the post colonial campus the crisis was deep but these questions were not asked. For a society emerging out of colonialism and in search of its own routes and place in the modern world, the program of learning and research at the postcolonial university were laughable. In the late sixties at the postcolonial university in Nairobi it took a fight by determined young lecturers led by the then young Ngugi wa Thiongo, to get African and non European literature on the curricula.

            Five decades on since independence the old question acquires now an urgent tone. How have African universities faired since independence? What goes on there? Is it true what Olugesun Obasanjo  once said according to a Nigerian daily? That all that the professors were interested in were drinks and beautiful girls?

            In the mid nineteen seventies a famous African Statesman famously declared at Addis, during the Summit of the Organization for African Unity, that Africa had come of age. But throughout Africa even as he spoke, it was the age of the coup de tat. He himself had earned his way to Summit by means of the gun.

            How could Africa come of age without its universities? Was that the example of Japan? Is it the example of the new China we saw at the Beijing Olympics? Without its universities where would Europe be? In Russia and Poland the intellectual tradition were well entrenched.

            About the state of the postcolonial university there is a little known novel called Marks on the Run.  It was published at the Ahmadu Bello University (where I taught) in 2002. Written by an Ahmadu Bello university lecturer, the book provides a rare insight as to what does go on in African universities. It is of course a Nigerian book but one can assume that it represents generally the African reality.

            Although its author is far from being a great man of letters and in many ways lacks the gift of a writer, Marks on the Run does manage to let one into the world of the postcolonial university in a way that gives the experience akin to that of an on the site observer.

            The old colonial campus is no more. No tears. In its place stands a huge edifice, hurriedly put together. Hundreds and thousands of students attend but many have no idea why they are there. The old colonial professor is gone; nobody there talks any more about spears, bows and arrows!

"ahmadu bello university" ahmadu bello university

            But there are lecturers and professors on campus who know next to nothing about their disciplines, who represent no body of knowledge, that are void of any trappings of culture. to be sure there are exceptions. Living conditions for students are appalling. Rented accommodation in town is worse. Really how anyone could study and learn under those conditions beats imagination.

            The old colonial mission of “for the glory of empire” that in the past guided learning and the curricula, is gone. But nothing has been put in its place. In the vacuum, the regime of marks and grades, and the final certificate at the end takes center stage. It is wielded through the combined dictatorship of lecturers and professors who invoke out of context, the African thing about deference to elders. “Where are your manners?” is a constant refrain on campus.

"ahmadu bello university students" ahmadu bello university students

            The university has become big business. Fake businessmen haunt the corridors of learning hunting fake contracts to deliver fake equipments and disused reagents. A growing number of lecturers find here a place for marking time and making quick dough. For the majority of students the university has become a place for picking easy grades and unearned diplomas, a far cry from the rigor and discipline of the colonial university. “Where has the good time gone?”

            Not long ago, a professor of the Ahmadu Bello University said to me. Here, no one earns their degrees. We dash them. He pointed to a group of his own graduate students lolling under shades in the heat of noon. They included some of his younger colleagues who were pursuing the PhD. Now, to dash in Nigerian terminology is to give away for free.

             In the novel, learning and things intellectual take a back seat; money and sex get to replace ideas as the real mode of academic exchange. In real life you see this imprinted on the face of the postcolonial campus through the attention paid to material possessions and the general lack of reference to academic work.

            But don’t go away, not all is lost on the postcolonial campus. There is present there a band of gifted professors and scores of talented and determined students – young people in love with the idea of a modern and prosperous Africa. There is a battle raging there between the good and the bad. Marks on the Run by Audee T. Giwa is a report from the frontlines.


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.