Last Tuesday, Burney MC and I woke up at 6:30 AM, jumped on a boda boda to town, and boarded a bus North to Gulu. Gulu is infamous for being the district where many children were abducted to be child soldiers for the Lord’s Resistance Army and 90% of the people have been displaced. I urge you to research the war in Sudan, but in short, it’s Christians verses Muslims, the government versus the rebels. Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, is from northern Uganda and so kidnapped his people, the Acholis, to fight for his cause. As I’ve said in an earlier blog, there has been peace there for over a year, and my main informant about the area’s life is Benson Mwaka aka Hoppy
Hoppy Benny and Burney in Kitgum
Benny. His family is in Kitgum, which borders southern Sudan.
The bus was relatively empty, enough that Burney and I were able to lay down and get some rest. Having spent much of my childhood on the road, moving from state to state, my father had my sister and I well trained on finding the source of any slight disturbance or rattle in the vehicle or in the cargo we carried. Unfortunately, this keen sense of listening to a rattle can border on insanity when riding in a 10-15 year old bus with the window next to me unstable enough to believe it will fall out at any moment. I now have tuned my wheres-the-rattle-coming-from sense into this-is-part-of-the-background-noise sense. As it turns out, life is full of music if you can only listen. With a slight breeze blowing fine red dust into our faces, we watched small town after small town fly by. There was a minor disturbance on the bus when an older man couldn’t pay the fair and couldn’t speak about where he was going, so a large, verbal woman who knew the man tried to talk to him. After a few minutes of trying to converse with the man she says he must have been chloroformed or poisoned somehow and went back to her seat, the conductor going back to the front of the bus and we continued on. At a police check point, we stopped and the two conductors and bus driver came back to inquire into the man’s destination once again. Apparently, there were three women on the bus who knew him as they were all charcoal merchants so they were able to call his wife. The police escorted the old man off the bus, and the three ladies were told to leave as well. The conversation was a mix of Luganda and English, but I understood, “All the thieves must leave,” and so the bags of charcoal were unloaded from the bottom of the bus, the three ladies and feeble old man left on the side of the road to find another mode of transport.
on the bus
A highlight of the seven hour bus ride, or any bus ride in UG, is the side markets where we often stop for refreshments. Not leaving the bus, there are men, women and children running to the windows selling water, juice, meat on sticks, cassava, roasted bananas and chipatti (fried bread), this being the ultimate meaning of fast food. After maybe three minutes of intense selling and buying, the bus rolls off to the next town. There was a construction zone that consisted of one mile of speed bumps. Yes, one mile. As soon as the back wheels had cleared the first one, the front wheels were going over another one, and so on, and so on…..We laughed as we bounced out of our seats for what seemed like forever, being thankful when we were on level ground again. We passed Karuma Falls, where the Nile river flows vigorously towards Egypt and baboons sit along the road watching the world go by.
Burney in Gulu
Arriving at the bus park in Gulu, tired and sweaty, we had a box of mango juice each, then boarded the next bus to continue on to Kitgum. Burney and I were blessed again to have a bit of space in the back of the bus, however we refrained from laying down as the road was not paved and pot holes are the size of craters. Not to mention the driver takes turns at Mario Andretti speed so I felt as though we would tip over at almost any moment. The scenery changed from cement and plywood buildings to mud huts with thatched roofs, which are Internally Displaced People camps. The IDP’s are the people who fled their villages to escape conflict and abduction. Arriving in Kitgum two hours later, my friend Benny and his father
Parwech Alango village
were there on their motorcycles to give us a lift ‘home’. The family stayed in government housing in Kitgum town when they left their village of Lumak in 2002. It is a cement building with a sitting room, kitchen and two bedrooms. Stacy (from Washington DC) had been there a few days already and welcomed us with open arms. She thought she would enjoy working in the field, but after three days of shitting in a hole and washing her face from a bucket, she decided the field may not be for her. Ha. Of the two days I was there I did not bath my entire body, only my arms and legs, and well, if I was there one more day I would have been a redhead from all of the dust in my hair. I tried to avoid looking in a mirror and when I did, my eyebrows were red like a clown and so I laughed and put the mirror away. I really admire rural Africans as they always seem clean despite the lack of electricity and running water.
Our first night in Kitgum, we went for pork dinner (of course) and I was amazed at how quiet and peaceful the town seemed. Of course I was always looking for a rebel soldier to come from the bush with a large, American machine gun, but alas, they never came. We retired early, Burney sleeping in two chairs, Benny on a sofa, and Stacy and I on two mattresses laid on the kitchen floor and covered with a mosquito net. Despite Stacy screaming about a mouse running next to her and the dreams that seemed to take me on a journey, we rested well.
The next morning, Benny took me to meet his sister Sharon and her twins, Obama and Michelle. While Sharon was very friendly, Obama and Michelle cried at the sight of a white person. Ha. We’ll see how well adjusted they become with time.
After getting pineapple at the town market, Stacy and Burney got on Benny’s motorcycle and I jumped on Geoffrey’s (step brother to Benny, his father having 2 wives), happy that I was on the faster one. However, Benny didn’t have eye protection and so Geoffrey and I remained behind the bike of three. After 15 km down a dirt road, through fields of cassava and various other flora, including a sunflower patch, we arrived in the village of Parwech Alango in the mother camp of Kitgum Matidi with a not so thin layer of red dust on our white faces (Stacy and I anyway). We were welcomed into the thatch roofed mud hut where various family members came in and out to greet us. We talked with the leader of an agricultural youth group that was started in 1998. Once at 30 members, the group remains with 11 girls and 9 boys. This is quite a feat considering their livelihoods had been threatened by rebels and the surrounding war for many years. They raise crops such as sorghum, cassava, maize, mangos, and various other crops, but the coolest commodity is bees. They sell the honey, but want more training on what to do with the beeswax, such as making candles. So on my trip to the internet today, I am going to research how to make candles and when I return to the North, I will train to the best of my ability. We had a tour of the bee boxes and surrounding crops, which has been a slight struggle to keep up since having their bulls stolen by the rebels. After a brief discussion with the two leaders of the group in their office, under the mango tree, we jumped back on the motorcycles and off we went to see Benny and Geoffrey’s land. Somewhere down another long, flat
on the road to the village
dirt road, we made our way through burning fields of bush. Because of the dry season, the people burn the dead shrubbery to rejuvenate the soil and allow grazing for the cattle. After a few kilometers of scorched earth, we came across a fire near the road. Stacy started screaming about the unpredictability of forest fires and Burney being a city boy and unsure of village danger, we stopped moving forward so Geoffrey could extinguish the flames with a few large, green leaves. We jumped back on the bikes and headed onto the family land in the village of Lumak. The Mwaka family left the land in 2002 and so the brick huts have been reduced to rubble. Four of Benny’s brothers were abducted by rebels and two have returned. We met Peter, who was abducted while tending the ‘garden’ (fields). He was marched into Sudan where he remained for roughly nine months. Him and four other boys escaped one day, saying they were going to the fields and just started running. He was open about speaking about his experience and it was acknowledged that former abductees have been accepted back into the community peacefully.
somewhere in Kitgum Matidi
On our return back to the family for dinner, the fire had nearly covered the road. Benny in front, stopped and turned to Geoffrey asking if we could proceed, Geoffrey said no, but Burney just said go fast. And so we flew through the fire, feeling the heat on our flesh and me being only slightly concerned about my hair igniting in flames.
After a dinner of posho (corn), sweet potatoes, greens, cabbage, peas, beans, and various other things, the mother and many other siblings, including two mentally disabled brothers, aunts and cousins, gathered around the hut as we asked questions and they asked questions, having Benny translate it all. I could tell he was exhausted by the time the conversation was done, but it also gave him an air of confidence and dignity to have brought these worlds together. Benny’s mother gave the three of us names, Stacy is Abey, meaning beautiful. Burney is Otim, meaning a son born in a foreign village, and I am Amiro, meaning I want, or to meet, or to love…..I’m not real clear about it as every time I asked someone I got a different response. Ha.
We headed back to the town of Kitgum as there was a karaoke night that Burney and Hoppy were going to host at Club Shower. As we flew down the long dirt road, the landscape was alive with burning fields. Acholiland has been dubbed ‘the land of fire’ and for good reason. Tired and dirty, we had a few beers and watched a UK soccer match, which was too much competition for karaoke. We were thankful to be home and Burney began snoring shortly after arrival to confirm that joy.
The next morning we went to Holly Max studios, where Burney recorded a verse in Luganda, Benny a verse in Luo, and Stacy sang the chorus in well, English. I got to speak with the emcees and producers involved with the studio and found that they just want to put Northern Hip Hop on the map. After a few hours at the studio, we headed into town for one last pork meal then onto to the Gulu Express bus, which was packed like a New York subway car at rush hour and was by no means an express. Two bumpy, dusty, and sweaty hours later, we arrived at the Gulu bus park once again. Stacy’s friend Jimmy, who works with Concordia Universtiy in Canada, took us ‘home’, which is a nice house on a big property and surrounded by mud huts. After a well deserved shower, we ate yet another feast.
The next day, we met with Remnant Voice, a Gulu based Hip Hop organization. After many questions about Northern Hip Hop, we walked into town to meet with Kidega, a professional boxer and coach. Again, more research about sports and life in Gulu, then off to Mega FM radio station to meet with an organizer to help me get End of the Weak started in the North. There was a slight detour for some Nile Specials (beer) and then a productive meeting with Jummiah the promoter. He wanted to run the MC Challenge this weekend, but I’m too busy getting the next Challenge running in Kampala. But, EOW Gulu will soon arrive.
We chilled at Jimmy’s house, watching movies on a flat screen TV and sipping yet more Nile. It was a good last night in the north of Uganda.
The Kitgum Crew
Up early to catch the Post bus back to Kampala, we thought we would have space to sleep, but the bus was so full even the aisles were taken by children sitting on luggage. The young man and two child siblings next to me had a chicken they were bringing to the city as a gift. She stayed relatively quiet, only squawking when dropped or disturbed by the mile of speed bumps. I had a difficult time staying awake, only keeping my eyes open long enough to buy food at the road side markets.
We arrived safely back to the land of thieves, aka Kampala. Ah, city life.
I could keep writing for days, but long story short, I find village life to be a struggle as much if not more than city life, but much more peaceful. Guess it comes from my father never wanting to live in a neighborhood, and so growing up in the country has spoiled me. The Acholi people are tall, dark and resilient as hell, much like the Zulus in South Africa, but when smiled at by a muzungu, they giggle and walk away shyly.
I look forward to returning to the North again very soon…..