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 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; www.ochanalliance.org/, 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
johnotim@yahoo.com

October 7 2010

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