Northern Uganda Halting the War is Just the Beginning.

This is the second of a two-part series by Patrick Kabanda about his trip to Uganda this summer. Like Rwanda, northern Uganda has had its share of political upheavals. On my recent visit there, I was eager to see the country’s developments since I last visited in March 2007. I took a bus along bumpy roads to Gulu, northern Uganda. The war of over two decades between the rebels’ Lord’s Resistance Army and the Uganda People’s Defense Forces has left the region devastated. In an outrageous instance of masking politics with religion, the rebel force, which has committed atrocities such as rape, abducting children, chopping off peoples’ lips, ears and noses and axing people to death, has the word “Lord” in its name and uses the Ten Commandments to justify waging war. While the war has halted, millions are still living a life of unspeakable hardship. Chris Ocowun, a journalist for the New Vision (one of Uganda’s two national newspapers), took me to the Unyama camp for Internally Displaced People. With hundreds of grass-thatched huts stuck close together, Unyama resembles a garden of giant mushrooms. At this site, covering an area as far as the eye could see, our guide, Honorable Nyeko Andrew Acia, the camp’s Defense Secretary, decried the daily problems people face, such as the lack of an adequate water supply. And in a place where a fire extinguisher could easily be mistaken for an explosive device, it takes just seconds for flames to engulf dozens of huts. Fires may be an occasional hazard, but what about the constant lack of privacy and adequate hygiene? The conditions of life in these camps and the difficult transition from camps back home are topics about which books could be written. I also visited the Holy Rosary Nursery School, Gulu University and Laroo Boarding Primary School for War Affected Children. The common motif at all these institutions is the shortage of resources necessary to support a first-rate education. A first-rate education may be an unachievable goal at this point, but is the right to live a simple, decent life too much to ask? SUVs roam Gulu, and lofty walls surround some offices and residences. But most of these belong to those working for foreign NGOs, not for locals. “These people,” one Gulu native vented, “are here to help, and we’re grateful, but it seems they are disconnected from us. Look…look at those walls. I understand they provide security for those agencies, but what about us? It doesn’t seem right, but what can we do? Can we instead rely on our government?” The government that took office in 1986 portrays itself as strong, but one wonders why it has done such an abysmal job of improving the situation. Considering the discrepancies and inequalities in Uganda, one is led to conclude that kleptocracy reigns. The Mayor of Gulu municipality, Mr. Christopher Acire, started a brass band that I had the chance to hear. “These kids,” the mayor said, “teach themselves.” Without teachers, books, or other needed resources, the band still makes music. A savvy businessman with a flourishing microfinance institution, the mayor hires out his brass band to play for local functions. When word got out that I was a musician, the Gulu District Speaker, the Honorable Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, suggested that I meet the Hotel Pearl Afrique Band. What was meant to be a drop-in visit became a workshop and training session for two evenings. We worked on improvisation, voice training, basic composition techniques and so forth. The instruments are poor; the books are scarce; the teachers are absent. But it was inspiring to see young people using what little they have to make music. And while we live in two different worlds, I felt connected to these people through our common language of music. Back in the world of plenty, where more is success, bigger is better, security is a right and not a privilege, it seems I survived my trek through some of the darkest corners of the earth. Yet a thought lingers in my mind: as we face economic tribulations, sub-prime mortgage crises and global warming, can we, like those in Rwanda, Gulu and many other places, learn to live with limited resources? Can we learn to cope with uncertainty? My odyssey was crammed with powerful lessons: just as our own children deserve a first-rate education, so do the children of the deprived. As we crave security, so do people across the oceans. As we thirst for a cup of clean water, so do those in dry lands. And since “humankind is created equal,” a long, long journey awaits this ideal as we seek to transform our global village to a better place for everyone. This is a task for no one except ourselves. Patrick Kabanda, a native of Uganda, is the School Organist and an Instructor in Music.