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A Ugandan Steps Out of Powerlessness

Far from home but embraced while walking the Guluwalk.

Juliane Okot Bitek 11 Nov
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Every night, hundreds of Ugandan children follow an invisible pied piper that leads them away from their homes and into Gulu's city centre. This is no fairy tale. I saw them during my last visit home to Northern Uganda. These children have been walking every night, for three years, in order to escape the threat of sex slavery or forced-soldiering for the Lord's Resistance Army, which has been fighting the government of Uganda for nineteen years.

On October 22nd in Vancouver, another group of walkers gathered. We met at Trout Lake on a cool afternoon under threatening rain clouds. The event was part of a Guluwalk, an international action designed to raise awareness about the plight of the night commuter children and the war that has ravaged Northern Uganda.

Among the crowd of 400 people, there were only a few Ugandans. Some had left before the walk began, citing back problems, shift work and other responsibilities. There were only a handful of us left in a sea of well-wishers, most of them young, idealistic and non-African. And even though I was grateful to be part of the crowd that stayed to walk, I was frustrated that more Ugandans weren't on the forefront of raising awareness about the war in a region called Acholiland.

The passionate Massey Lectures by Stephen Lewis, the UN special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa, elicit the same feeling from me: a gratitude that is mixed with regret at the powerlessness and lack of voice that has held many of us captive since the war begun in 1986.

Do we lack the will and creativity to get things done?

Adrian Bradbury and Kieran Hayward, two Canadians, started Guluwalk. In July, they walked 10 kilometers every day to sleep at the verandahs of Toronto's City Hall. Every morning, they returned home, on foot, mimicking the nightly walk of the children in Gulu. As they walked this summer, they garnered interest from other Canadians and people across the planet. In one month, Bradbury and Hayward managed to inspire more than 15,000 people in 40 cities worldwide to walk together -- something that we Acholi have failed to do for nearly twenty years.

When I see the impact of these two men, or of Stephen Lewis, I can't help wondering if we Africans lack the will or creativity to get things done. After all, I have known about the situation in my homeland all this time. I have written letters to politicians, signed petitions, spoken with a high-ranking army officer in Uganda, watched short films about the war, listened closely to every bit of news that comes out of Acholi and engaged in discussions online with my fellow Acholi worldwide. Every month, I support Medicines Sans Frontiers because I know that they are on there on the ground, doing something for my people. I have even prayed. But it has not been enough.

Back in Uganda, people have also taken action. Our Acholi leaders have united their voices in order to get world attention. For years, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI) has encouraged the government of Uganda to talk to the rebels. Local and international parties have applauded their efforts, but they haven't been able to end the conflict.

Our Paramount Chief, Rwot Acana II, went to the United Nations to plead for assistance, where bureaucrats informed him that the United Nations can only talk to national leaders. And so the leaders who speak for me and for our children in Northern Uganda have had their voices stifled.

The children's eerie quiet

I have tried to focus on what I think is important: holding down a steady job, going to school, raising decent children, exercising and fundraising for breast cancer and the like; but I cannot get Acholiland out of my head.

In Gulu every night, some children carry ragged blankets, some carry books and some carry their own siblings, half their size. There is no children's laughter. The air is dank with heaviness. There is a stark difference between the children and the adults about. The kids are unsupervised, but they are serious and quiet. The noise comes from the adults, honking their horns, ringing bicycle bells and hawking goods in the last minutes before nightfall. On one hot July night in 2003, I watched the children pace their final steps into the city for the night, I found their quiet to be eerie and heartbreaking.

I asked my grandmother, Ajak, who lives in town if she is afraid. "If any rebel comes here, I will slap his bum and send him home to his mother," she said. This isn't just bravado: some of the rebels are her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And some of them are in the Ugandan National Army. For her, as for thousands of Acholi parents, this conflict is not as simple as "us versus them".

According to a survey done in 2002, about 1.4 million people -- more than 90 percent of the Acholi population -- were forced by the Ugandan government to live in camps for "internally displaced people." These camps are rife with disease, violence, high unemployment and death. The appalling situation is compounded by lack of sanitation. But despite the supposed protection offered by these camps, UNICEF has reported that over 20,000 Acholi children have been abducted in the last 19 years.

Where else in the world can 20,000 children go missing and life goes on?

Words that must be spoken

Acholi is my cultural inheritance. I am Acholi. Gulu is my hometown. And the commuter children there are mine. So where is my voice? Perhaps it is the lack of expression. I was shocked to discover that I could relate to a quote from the Nazi Josef Goebbels who wrote in "Die Zweite Revolution" in 1926, "A time of brutality approaches of which we ourselves can have absolutely no conception." Often times, the situation in Northern Uganda has left me speechless. In Acholi, we have an expression that translates into: some things cannot be spoken about with the mouth. But if we cannot speak, what can we do? We must bear witness.

In a recent article in the Globe and Mail, Wendy Glauser called Guluwalk a "feel good walk that would not counter the complex problems of Northern Uganda." But I felt like we needed the comfort in knowing that there were other people who were aware and wanted to do something. It wasn't just the walk participants; we were encouraged by people on the street and passing drivers honked their support. (Some probably thought we were supporters of the BC Lions, who were playing that night, because of our bright orange Guluwalk t-shirts and toques.)

We arrived at the Vancouver Art Gallery as the sun set and watched a 13-minute film made by Tim Hardy of MindSet Media that narrated the horrors of my homeland in the voices of the commuter children. There was a cool breeze as we huddled together on the steps. As people talked and hugged and congratulated each other on completing the walk, I thought about the children who, by then, would be asleep.

I felt at peace that night. I was surrounded by people who wished us well. And for the first time, I felt I could honestly say: my children, you no longer walk alone.

Juliane Okot Bitek is a Vancouver writer who was born in Kenya and raised in Uganda. Her writing has appeared in several literary magazines including Arc, Whetstone, Fugue, and Room of One's Own. Her short story "Going Home" was an award winner at the 2004 Commonwealth Short Story Contest and was featured on the BBC and CBC.

Thanks to Tides Canada Foundation for sponsoring our Making the Connections series. Tides Canada is a national public foundation that offers professional giving services to donors who share a concern for social justice and environmental issues - locally, nationally and internationally.


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