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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


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

 Story of  Opac Village
by john otim

Formerly of
Ahmadu Bello University
Zaria Nigeria 

After years of despair at the internal refugee camps of war torn Northern Uganda a war shattered community returns home to the ruins that were once their village, with nothing more than bare hands to work with they start to build a new life                                                                                      

True North
We left the city of Kampala late. We crossed the River Nile at sunset at the Karuma Bridge. Here the mighty Nile is a raging torrent surging over rocks past narrow stone corridors before plunging one hundred and thirty feet down below a few kilometers away at the Murchison falls. The roar, the splash, the sprinkles, in the fading rays, is a scene to behold. Here a young British colonial officer once paused, and admired his country’s new imperial possession, unable to believe what his own eyes saw. Here now, two hundred miles away from the city we entered the north proper. The irony did not escape us.

"agless nile (pride and majest)"
beauty in motion

Northern Uganda had been trapped in the throes of a brutal civil strife which lastedfor years, twenty to be precise. Despite the desperation to bring things to a close the war went on year after year till finally it drove social life in this otherwise fertile land to a standstill. Now in the aftermath are traumatized people that have lost the gift of laughter. Many of the kids born during this period are young men and young women now. Today they are the majority in their communities. With over seventy percent of Uganda’s population under the age of 30 the country has the youngest population of any place in the world.

Ochan Self-help Alliance
We drove steadily over bad roads in an old truck and hours later arrived at Opac, a village located in the east of the Lango Sub region. In the local language, the name itself means that which is scattered. Now Opac was among the communities most scattered by the war. To say Opac was a place where laughter had died may sound like exaggeration but sadly it is not as we soon found out.

We arrived like marauders in the night. In the lightless universe the village clinic was the lone exception. Its unblinking solar lights burned like a beacon at sea. The clinic and the lights as were other projects in the village, such as the construction of houses for the most needy, were the works of Ochan Self-help Alliance;, a civil society organization based in far away Maryland in the United States of America.

The entrance of Ochan Self-help Alliance into the life of the village is a story that has been told. … One hot afternoon a retired professor of the City University of New York holidaying in Africa stumbles upon a group of desperate men trying to return home after years in forlorn internal refugee camps of Northern Uganda. The men had to start from the beginning.  They had to erect new houses, plant new crops, harvest them, feed their families, and slowly rebuild their communities; a daunting prospect.

Insecurity in northern Uganda was still rampant. The men had nothing with which to accomplice their mission. They had no money, no resources, and no equipment. The only thing the men had was their belief in the goodwill of Western charity. It was the lesson life had taught them. In their long years at camps it was Western donor agencies that had stood between them and outright starvation. Now that peace was returning, no matter how tentatively, it was time to reclaim their own lives and live again the life they once knew. But how were they to do this? Who would help them?  To make an intolerable situation even more desperate a severe draught hit the area. Enter Ochan self-help Alliance.

In the eye of the storm
At the height of the war Opac had been in the eye of the storm. Its communities uprooted, torn and flung to the four the winds. It was here the final battle between government forces and the insurgency had been fought. Long before trouble came, Opac and the surrounding villages had been rich in cattle and farm produce. For years the peasants practiced mixed farming. A railway ran through their locality. Twice a week it ferried produce including cattle to markets further south in Kampala and beyond. The railway line is defunct now, has been so for years. The small Railway Station that once functioned as the hub of village life and village commerce is no more.  Here hungry travelers once bought roasted nuts and local brews. Here

"disabled rail link to northren uganda"

Once vibrant lifeline to northern Uganda

village youth staged their dances.

The prosperity of the area such as it was, had attracted marauders. In neighborhoods we traversed people pointed to the spots, often door fronts, where victims had been slain. Bayoneted, shot and left to die. Cattle, goats and sheep marched away, houses torched. Even the lowly chickens did not escape. The village and the surrounding communities were systematically bled dry. During the long years of camp existence the people lost what little they still had and grew steadily dependent on the charity and the goodwill of Western donors. At the filthy crowded refugee camps, long held customs and social mores broke down; normally preventable diseases became killer scourges, many villagers perished, the sense of community disintegrated like a lump of snow in the hot sun.

 "the village railway station"
once trim lawns of the railway station 

A new spirit among the people

The smell of rain was in the afternoon sky. Great circling clouds turned a shade lighter before our eyes and grew liquid. Winds broke. Little girls tracking from the new village water pumps with buckets of water on their heads quickened their pace. I absorbed the horror stories. My mind reeled.

Suddenly I remembered John Wayne and his Hollywood frontier movies that I once loved to watch. I shared my thoughts. My companions look at me. I quit the comfort zone of my dream world. There were no parallels, there were no comparisons. Here in Opac those dark days there were no good guys, here were merely the bad, the ugly, and their victims. Here was a story without the possibility of redemption. That is until Ochan Self-help Alliance stumbled upon the scene and recognizing the emergency and the determination of the people, moved swiftly to extend a helping hand. Now the village was moving again. But it would be a slow uphill task.

We arrived at Opac deep in the night. Early the next morning we woke with the birds of the air and were at the village church as the sun fought with approaching storms that mercifully in the end held off, at least for now. I had this image of us trapped in the deluge, and attempting to wash and clean without success in the disused village dam, whose sparkling waters once fed the teaming live stocks of the area.

"weed chocked village dam"
weed chocked village dam

The service began as soon as we arrived. Using drums and other hand crafted musical instruments long known in the area, the okembe, the nanga, the village ensemble breaks into music. It was the traditional song of Christendom: nearer my God to thee, nearer to thee. The assembled congregation went into animation. The ancient song found a new life and a new meaning. I look around me. Everyone was smiling. There was a new spirit in the village. I thought of Louise Armstrong’s song: what a wonderful world’  

You got talents I got talents
When the sermon arrived it was charged. It was energetic. It was a celebration of the individual. I thought of the Generals of Pyongyang and of the other great men of iron and steel that span all of history. But I heard the voice of the preacher man. By now he shared the stage with someone from the audience. But he didn’t mind. I heard his words:

Each individual has talent. God saw to that. The individual bares the responsibility to use his talents in the service of the community. Talents left unused were riches cast to swine. No, it wasn’t new. But this was a roller a coaster all the same. The preacher and the congregation were in concert. As if to add color, carefully selected songs and readings from the Scriptures were interjected apparently spontaneously. The Good Samaritan had the gift of empathy with the sufferings of others. He gave care and succor to the victim of brigandage. You got talents, I got talents … everyone got talents. Discover yours today … put it at the service of the community. Amen.

As abruptly as it began the service ended. The church became a social club and a marketplace.  People exchanged information. People bought and sold produce. The church was replacing the old Railway Station of early Independence as the new village hub. Here too the youth danced. After more than twenty years away from the church, living and teaching at Ahmadu Bello University among Islamic communities of northern Nigeria I was pleasantly surprised by my experience in Opac. I got talents, you got talents. Everyone got talents.

John Otim
Suncolor Media Consultants
Kampala Uganda

October 7 2010