Saturday, November 14, 2009

Festival of the Acholi Martyrs

It has been almost a month since my last post. I was in a motorcycle accident in northern Uganda, and have been laid up for a bit. (Motorcycles and SUVs are the only ways to get back into the villages.). The roads are dirt, pothole-ridden, and rough. I am fine, though – mostly soft-tissue damage with a couple broken ribs. I will be back on the road soon.

I promised to report on a festival of the Acholi martyrs, who died in the early twentieth century. The festival is indicative of the Acholi spirit in that a sorrowful event is recognized by celebrating the life that continues. In this way, the gathering is as much about celebrating life after the recent war. Also characteristic is that the Acholi draw from whatever traditions are available – in this case both Christian and traditional African – to express both their sorrow and their joy (see photos).

People slept outside on the ground – and I joined them (see photos). I continue to be struck by how the Acholi are knitted together as a people by various bonds of family, clan, and friendship in a way that make hardships into shared experiences and therefore somehow less burdensome. One group of elderly women walked for four days to make it to the festival.

The Acholi work hard, but they also know how to celebrate. People danced late into the night, awoke literally at the crack of dawn on the official day of celebration, and began dancing again (see photos). They wore their best clothes, and somehow – unlike myself – managed to keep them clean. People feasted – slaughtering goats if they had them – and shared what food they had (see photos). Somewhat like a football bowl game, the official activities were only one part of a larger festive gathering where the informal moments are the most salient of all (see photos).

Thursday, October 15, 2009

15.October.2009 - Our Pilot Project

Today I go from Gulu to Kolongo, a small trading center in the northeastern part of the Acholi region of Uganda.

On October 20th , the Feast of the Acholi Martyrs takes place in Wipolo, just a few kilometers from Kolongo. The feast commemorates two of the first Acholi Christians, killed in the early 20th century, but given the effects of the war, it also serves as a remembrance of all who died in the recent conflict. There are dramas, music performances, and gatherings of friends who have not seen each other for a long while. I will post photos when I return.

I promised that I would discuss the work of PeaceHarvest in this entry, and the best way to do that is to talk about our first pilot project in March 2008. We selected Lokung and Madi Opei Internally Displaced Persons camps because they are close to the boundaries with other political and ethnic groups. As I mentioned in the first blog, one of the aims of PeaceHarvest is to develop economic and other relationships across borders as a means of reducing the likelihood of conflict. First, however, we had to establish our main bases. Lokung is just a few kilometers from the border of South Sudan, and Madi Opei is near not only to the South Sudan border, but also to the Karamojong region of Uganda to the east. The Karamojong people are cattle herders, and their practice of raiding cattle runs afoul of the Acholi farmers. In future iterations of the project, we plan to help establish more cooperative relationships between the Karamojong and the Acholi. There are precedents for such cooperation in the peoples' own histories, so we know that violent conflict is not a given.

We began the pilot project in Lokung because that is the IDP camp where I had lived longest and knew the people best. Farmers organized themselves into teams of five per team of oxen. The Acholi regularly practice group ownership of things such as land, so the shared possession was not a new idea for them. If each farmer has a family of six (an average and even small size for a family in the region), then each team of oxen feeds thirty people. We brought five teams (ten oxen), which means the feeding of 150 people. One of the great satisfactions of the oxen approach is that we get to see tangible benefits by the next growing season. One of the farmers told me when I returned the next year that he made enough from selling extra produce to send three children to school.

The first thing we did was introduce the people to the oxen and vice versa (photo). The farmers give the oxen short and easily remembered names, often after people they know – so, yes, there is an ox named "Todd" in Lokung. I am not sure who is the more stubborn and difficult to train!

Oxen, like any animal, work best with people they know. For the first day or two, then, the farmers and the oxen familiarize themselves with each other. The farmers stand in the corral with them, stroke them, and lead them around on walks with a short rope.

In the afternoon, when the sun is high and the air is hot, training moves indoors to the classroom, where we cover such topics as the construction of the yoke and the plow (photo: You will notice, by the way, that the teachers are Ugandans. Our practice is to teach local people and, in time, make ourselves unnecessary. We prefer this to creating any kind of permanent dependency on us.). In the photo, the writing on the blackboard says "Theory of Yoke Making."

One question that sometimes comes up from people in the United States is, "Why do the farmers need training? Haven't they been doing this for a long time?" We always begin with the knowledge and wisdom of the people, and do not operate under the assumption that we are the only ones with knowledge. We operate under the assumption that no one has all knowledge. What we try to do is share with the Acholi people the knowledge we have gained from others around the world who also work with low-technology agriculture. In the pilot project, we teamed with an NGO from the United States, Tillers International (, which has done similar projects all around the world in countries such as Senegal, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Mozambique, Honduras, Costa Rica, and more. In addition, Tillers invited an Acholi man to their farm outside Kalamazoo, Michigan to train and to learn from the Amish in the Midwest.

I can mention one concrete difference that the pilot project made in the agricultural practices of the people in Lokung. The traditional yoke that the Acholi use for farming is a straight cylindrical beam, with no shaping or tapering, that rests on the backs of the necks of the oxen. The plowing oxen are called Zebu oxen, and feature a significant hump of hard fat between their front shoulders. When the farmers plow, the yoke beam gets purchase by pressing back against the hump. The farmers cut holes in the beam on either side of the neck of each oxen and drive straight rods into these holes so that the beam does not slide from side to side. That's it: a straight beam with rods driven through it. The problem is that the beam presses against the hump on the back of the ox, forcing the ox's head up when it pulls. It works, but is not very efficient.

We taught the people of Lokung how to make tapered yoke beams to fit around the tops of the oxen's necks and how to make oxbows instead of using the straight rods on either side of the animals' necks.

It took some ingenuity to fashion the oxbows. The farmers were not sure whether they had a wood that we could steam and bend and still retain strength, and it was important that we use materials readily available to the farmers. So we fashioned oxbows out of pvc pipe (available in the town nearby). We heated the pipe over a fire (photo), and when it was soft, we bent it around a template sized for the necks of the oxen (photo). We put sand inside the tubing during this process, so that the tubing would not crease or collapse. When the tubing hardened, we drove dowel rods down the sides of the bow. The result is a strong oxbow that can do the work it is intended to do. When tapered beam and oxbow come together, the result is a more efficient yoke that uses the full surface area of the oxen's chest and shoulders, and does not just rely on the hump (photo).

There is more I can tell you about PeaceHarvest – about the blacksmithing training and the peacebuilding – but I now need to go to Kolongo if I am to get there before dark. It is several hours of rough dirt road. I am going by dirtbike and need to arrive by dinner if I am to eat tonight.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

8.October.2009 - About the War

I arrived in Gulu, northern Uganda late yesterday, and am getting settled quickly.

In my previous post, I promised to give an overview of the war and its ultimate cessation that led to the need for the work of PeaceHarvest. Like I mentioned last post, the war led loss of well over 90 percent of the cattle of the Acholi people of northern Uganda. I have attached a photo of a woman who worked with a hoe because she had no oxen. It takes a week for multiple people to clear a field that would take half a day for a team of oxen. How did it get this way? What follows is an overview. Skim or read in detail in light of what you find helpful.

The current President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army/Movement (NRA/M) began their insurgency in 1981 on the grounds that then president Milton Obote rigged the 1980 elections that brought him to power. The fiercest fighting was in an area called the "Luwero Triangle," north of the capitol, Kampala. When Museveni took power in 1986 after overthrowing a northern ethnic Acholi, Tito Okello, he directed his troops to follow Okello's retreating forces. These are the conditions – stunning defeat and loss of livelihood – that faced the Acholi in 1986. Many Acholi then joined Alice "Lakwena" Auma's Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) because it offered the only politically viable option of resistance. In 1987, she and her troops reached to within sixty miles of the capitol.

The NRA/M defeated the HSM in November 1987, and Alice Lakwena went into exile. The Acholi political resistance was without a leader. Joseph Kony then became the figure through whom many Acholi manifested their grievances. Like with the Holy Spirit Movement, many Acholi at least initially joined what was to become the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) more out of the sense that it was the only viable avenue of active resistance to the Museveni regime than as a result of any commitment to the worldview Kony espoused, and elders encouraged youth to join. Still, the fact that these two spirit mediums – Lakwena and Kony – were the only figures around whom the Acholi could rally was already evidence that the Acholi world was under extreme stress.

By the early 1990's, Kony's LRA managed to control much of the rural area of Acholiland. 1992-1993 brought a relative lull in the hostilities, and it looked like the LRA and NRM were approaching a negotiated settlement in 1994. However, there seemed to be little trust between the two parties. The talks broke off and a new stage of the conflict began.

Although Kony carried out abductions of Acholi as early as 1989, the extent of killing and abduction of Acholi on the part of the LRA grew significantly after the failed peace talks. Kony believed – and he was largely correct – that the local populace no longer actively supported his efforts. They did not see the original political objectives as any longer achievable through force. Kony charged the elders with abandoning him, and in 1996, when two elders came to negotiate with the LRA, he had them killed. On April 22, 1995, the LRA massacred over 300 people in Atiak; in January1997, they killed over 400 in Palabek and Lokung.

The aim of the LRA became that of "purifying" the Acholi such that the latter would be made worthy of rulership, and it is this that motivated the LRA's killing and mutilation of Acholi civilians at this point in time. Political scientist Adam Branch has argued, rightly, that the aim of the LRA attacks on civilians of its own ethnic group was, "an attempt to eradicate the external enemy from the inside of Acholi society." Indeed, at this stage, virtually none of the LRA attacks are on government forces.

Acholi village people began fleeing their homes in advance of attack and congregating in trading centers which would become Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. In 1996, the Ugandan government made it official policy that the people in the North must live in these camps, and even organized new ones. The conditions in the camps were and are horrid. A 2005 World Health Organization study in partnership with the Ugandan government, after careful analysis of the situation on the ground in comparison with "non-crisis" levels in the camps in the Acholi districts of Kitgum, Pader, and Gulu, found that there were almost 1000 excess deaths per week due to malaria, AIDS, malnutrition, diarrhea, violence, and other causes. About ninety percent of the people in these districts – over a million and a half people -- lived in camps at the time of the report. I have attached photos I took of housing in these camps.

In August 2006, after a month and a half of talks, the LRA and the government both signed on to a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement – the first bilateral accord ever between the two parties – and over the next twenty months, representatives of each met to work out an agenda for peace and reconstruction in northern Uganda. By early 2008, the parties had signed all five major agenda items: 1) the cessation of hostilities, 2) comprehensive solutions to the war, 3) reconciliation and accountability, 4) formal ceasefire, and 5) disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. The impact on the ground in northern Uganda was remarkable. Abductions and killings by the LRA in Uganda became virtually non-existent. By March 2009, about thirty percent of camp residents returned to their original villages, while another forty percent went to intermediate "satellite" camps where the conditions are not quite as cramped and squalid.

One of the factors in bringing about the cessation of hostilities is that, in 2005, the International Criminal Court handed down indictments of the LRA's top five leaders. Kony has feared prosecution at The Hague ever since, and the indictments served, at least at first, as an inducement for him to negotiate. However, the warrants were also a key factor in Kony ultimately pulling out of the talks. The continuing threat of prosecution kept Kony in the bush.

In the meantime, civil society organizations and a range of religious communities have called for a rejuvenation of the traditional Acholi reconciliation ritual of mato oput as the most promising means of ending the conflict and returning to normalcy. The ritual has the accused and the offended (or a representative of the offended) jointly drink a liquified bitter herb (mato oput "to drink bitterness") out of a single bowl to signify their "swallowing" of the bitterness in their hearts. One of the strongest advocates of mato oput was and continues to be the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, a consortium of Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Muslim religious leaders. Part of the argument for mato oput is that the punitive approach of international law as exhibited by the ICC is not representative of the more restorative approach to justice in the Acholi tradition.

In April and again in November 2008, Kony failed to show at arranged meetings where he was to sign the final peace agreement. The government of Uganda responded with airstrikes against the LRA's primary base in the Democartic Republic of Congo in December of that year. The LRA, in turn, went on a rampage, slaughtering an estimated 900 civilians in DRC and South Sudan over the next month. Three characteristics stand out as at odds with previous LRA modes of engagement. They attacked on Christmas day, they attacked churches while people were inside worshipping, and they carried out a campaign of rape. The LRA has changed. The LRA is still abducting, but now in DRC and South Sudan, and the rationale is no longer to "purify" the Acholi. It is simple warlordism.

The aim of PeaceHarvest is to build up the community of the people in northern Uganda through agricultural development and peacebuilding training so that further conflict in the area is less likely. We work on the basis of the fact that improved economic livelihood and community relations decreases the likelihood of conflict. In my next entry, I will talk in detail about PeaceHarvest's last project in northern Uganda.

Friday, October 2, 2009

2.October.2009 - Introduction

This Monday, October 5, 2009, I leave on my eleventh trip to northern Uganda since 2005. I began going as a part of my research on armed conflict and extreme poverty (I am a professor at the University of Notre Dame). The war in northern Uganda, about which I will say more in my next entry, has since abated. The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels and the Ugandan government came to a cessation of hostilities agreement in August 2006, and although the LRA has been active in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the western part of South Sudan since then, Uganda itself has been without conflict.

Seeing the devastion wrought by the war, I could not continue to go to northern Uganda and simply do research. I had, as any decent human being would, to help the Acholi -- the local ethnic group -- get back on their feet. I used my research trip to ask an additional question: What do you need to get going again? The reply I heard time and again was, "We need oxen." The Acholi lost 98% of their oxen during the war. Now the people do not want handouts, they want the opportunity to work again as they have always worked.

When a benefactor heard of my work in northern Uganda, he gave me a $5,000 check and said, "Here, use this in any way that you think will help the Acholi." I gathered together a small group of people who have also spent time in Uganda, and the meeting gave birth to PeaceHarvest.

We raised enough money to do a pilot project in March 2008. We brought oxen and donkeys to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps of Lokung and Madi Opei, and did two weeks of training in each camp.

We are now planning to do another iteration of the project, this time inviting residents from South Sudan to join in the training. One of the aims of PeaceHarvest is to establish relationships across political and cultural borders so that people are less likely to resort to armed conflict to resolve disputes.

One of the key aims of my trip this time will be to do the groundwork for the next PeaceHarvest project.

I have attached two photos. One is of me in one of the huts in Lokung IDP camp, where I first began my research and asked the people, "What do you need." The second is of a young boy in Lokung during PeaceHarvest's first project. Although the armed conflict has died down, hunger and malnutrition continues. The boy's thin arms and legs are obviously from lack of food. The distended belly is from lack of protein. I do not post this photo as a means to alarm, but to visually inform you of the ongoing need. Please help. You can donate diretly through the website.

Wanen (Acholi for "See you later").