The Road to Kitgum speaks

By Undine Whande (2012)

Unrelenting Kampala traffic, people, boda bodas, matatus, bicycles with heavy loads, building materials mostly, a heaving and roving sea of bodies around us. Where is the road to Kitgum? Inching our way forward, metal almost touching metal, bare. The open country finds us, finally.

Easy chatter is alive in the bus. Suddenly we hear the call to stop. A police road block: ‘let’s talk’, he says, entering the bus chest out, bright white uniform (why?) and black beret. ‘You, Madam and the driver.’ He points at me. ‘We’re gonna talk about the Queen’s Crown.’ Sideways on my seat, firmly glued, smiles. ‘Sure, let’s talk.’ We look at each other, an interested gaze. Eventually he sighs, steps out, points us to the Alligator Lodge for lunch. Not a day for the Queen today.

A group of human rights activists is travelling on a dusty track in Uganda. Many years of experience journeying north, to the central site of twenty years of conflict. Uganda, destination of so many migrants in the Great Lakes, neighbouring strive spilling itself into the region. Signages of War. No traces of grieving yet. Peace is at their heart’s mind. How to make peace, find peace, bring peace, to their own countries, their continent, perhaps even themselves. Should we remember? How to cross the threshold that seems to keep Africa from its well-deserved prosperity, how to make visible Africa’s less obvious inner wealth, which is there all along. Revellers on a dirt road, swallowing red dust particles, rubbing pothole weary backbones. Be ready. The burnt-out tanks have been removed but careful when you seek release in the bush beyond, for slumbering mines lie underground, not snakes in the grass. The Bishop’s wife died along this road. She was one of many. We brought you here so you can experience this road, the road to Kitgum. It used to be called: the road that kills.

A call. One of the busses has run out of fuel. Heading back to the petrol station we passed awhile ago. Skilled driver swerves around, narrowly avoiding the deep ditch beyond. Waiting. The heavens open in a majestic gush of rain. We stand in a makeshift shelter marvelling at the downpour, puddles of water mix with oil in shiny rainbow-coloured traces. Where are you from? Burundi. Congo. Morocco. England. South Africa. Germany. To the bus. Soaking wet. A few litres of fuel from a fellow traveller, kindness along the road to Kitgum. Chocolate biscuits with a strange mint taste, sugar crunching on the teeth. Quiet now, the bus.

Arrival, Kitgum. Where is the Peace Centre? Many people squeezed in a small space, but it somehow feels right, for what ever can you remember in a hotel room? A lot, it turns out, if it happens to be the hotel room in which you spoke to the LRA soldier five years ago, remembering a testimonial encounter. Slowly building trust. He was shot, lost his life because he refused to integrate into the army. This was a security zone, to be left only with bullet proof vest by the few who dared, our hosts among them. To be lived in only by those who payed the cost of being those for whom there were not enough vests.

How we approach the story of the survivor matters. Not head-on: Tell us what happened, actually. It can’t be told that way. Perhaps approached sideways like the crab scuttled along that got lost in the kitchen, jostling too close to the stove. When I was twelve I was taken to the bush. I was given to a man to be his wife. His name was Joseph Kony. I have two children.

The Peace Centre is inscribed everywhere: donated by the US Military Army. Every chair. Every table is engraved with those words, etched into the wood, the marks go deep. The same words are found at the front of the house, I trace the writing with my finger. It will wear of, Chris says next to me. My ear is sore. What is the meaning of traces? What are we tracing here in Kitgum? Signages of War, etched into people’s faces, eyes, bodies, buildings, the chairs we sit on. Just the soil is fresh, seemingly indifferent to all, sprouts forth, absorbs the blessings of rain.

Trees. I make friends with one on the hill above the Peace Centre, climbing up to get an overview and fresh air. His roots are thicker than my legs, the trunk is split in the middle, from the base, growing into two strong separate tree-gobblins, arms erect, overlooking the plains to the mountains beyond. The mist above the town into the distance, the green edges of the town melting into the yellow of plains. My heart stirs. Uganda, someone says later, was always two countries, north and south, rarely at peace. That’s why people don’t want to rock the current boat too much, even though oppression increases. 700 years of monarchy in the south. Nomadic eternity in the north, bound by cattle, love of life and a good fight. We have come to remember.

He is the father of my two children, that is how I know him. I applied for amnesty when I returned from the bush. I was given a hoe and a blanket. Go and start a new life. There were not many places to go for us. To listen to the young woman who lost the life she knew when she was twelve. Rebel soldiers came and took her. To be someone’s wife. When she mentions his name, there is a thickening silence in the room. The Prime Evil of Uganda, the Lord of the Lord’s Resistance Army. So what? Does that change anything? Suddenly cameras are clicking, what’s in a name? You can’t be serious. Where is our dignity? It is her story, not his. It is our ears and hearts, not victim fame that she seeks. Can you hear me? Confusion enters. Ear still sore. Kitgum speaks rather loudly beyond the road that killed.

Some people want to collect money to give to the young woman. Others oppose the idea. The survivor’s narration dismantles us, the sleek robes of academia fall away. The smooth practitioner has gone silent, not knowing what to do. I leave the room. Coward. Witnessing penetrates the coating of the heart, laying bare its pulsating fiery core. Emotions fly high. How did you end in the middle? – You don’t understand, it’s our African tradition to show empathy, that’s our culture. We give something, we give what we have. – You don’t understand, it is offensive to give money. She did not tell us about her life to get some small change. It is her story. – Patience with all the opinions voiced at me (why me), stand like rock, projections filtering through. You don’t understand. There are no easy answers how to engage the traces of war.

The young women have started a beading project. Good quality. The smiles are on when the evening is over and profits are stowed away, made in the torchlight of a power failure, customers delighted at feeling their way through the wares in the semi-dark.

In the course of the week, several people injure their left foot. In the late night darkness of again no electricity available, we hustle through the rain, tired. I slip on the stairs, my sandals rip, blood gushing from my toe. A deep sprain, I feel it still today, just a slight alteration in the bones, one of those things. Limping, I meet Moses in the morning with a bandage on his foot.

On the road again. The bus drivers are experienced, our sores had just about disappeared. Keeping a steady pace into the night. Stories begin to whisper as we drive along in the dark. This one gone. That one dead. Others still around, with a limp or the occasional dent in the soul that gets drunk that next evening, yelling our challenge to the politicians on the podium. They assure us they care somehow. The Bishop and the Dean keep steady in all the emotion, what have they not seen? Perhaps we each take a silent vow to their humility.

Someone hands me a paper, from the Bishop, a note, formal, addressed to the German government. Please note how our children from the north are systematically excluded from educational opportunities. Do what you can do. Dancer abound suddenly, in the dark around the pool, movements more felt than seen. Can’t be still within the drum. It’s urgent and eternal. A call to prayer. A call to action.

‘When I was twelve I was taken to the bush. I was given to a man to be his wife. I have two children from this man.’ ‘I had to apply for amnesty when I returned from the bush. I was given a hoe and a blanket. Go and start a new life. There were not many places to go for us.’ – How we approach the story of the survivor matters. Not head-on: Tell us what happened. It can’t be told that way. Perhaps it can be approached sideways, like the crab scuttles along.

A group of human rights activists is travelling along a dusty track in Uganda, journeying north, to the central site of war. Peace is at their heart’s mind. How to make peace, find peace, bring peace, to their countries, their continent, perhaps even themselves. Revellers on a dirt road, swallowing red dust particles. The burnt-out tanks have been removed, but beware of landmines when you seek release in the bush beyond. The Bishop’s wife died along this road. It used to be called: the road that kills.

Stories begin to whisper as we drive along in the dark. This one gone. That one dead. Others still around, with a limp or the occasional dent in the soul that gets drunk that evening, yelling challenges to the politicians on the podium during voting season. The Bishop keeps steady in all the emotion, what has he not seen? Perhaps we each take a silent vow to his humility.

In Kitgum the novel Peace Centre is inscribed everywhere: ‘Donated by the US Military Army.’ Every chair, every table is engraved with those words, etched into the wood, the marks go deep. What is the meaning of traces? What are we tracing here in Kitgum? Signages of War, etched into people’s faces, bodies, buildings. Just the soil is fresh, seemingly indifferent to all, sprouts forth, absorbing the blessing of rain.

‘When I was twelve I was taken to the bush. I was given to a man to be his wife. His name was Joseph Kony.’ – When she mentions his name, there is a thickening silence in the room. What does it mean: to be someone’s wife? Later, some people want to collect money, others oppose the idea. It is her story, not his. It is our ears and hearts, not victim fame that she seeks. The survivor’s narration dismantles us; the sleek robes of academia fall away. The smooth practitioner has gone silent, not knowing what to do. Witnessing penetrates the coating of the heart, laying bare its pulsating fiery core.

Travelling through a week of stories. Bones that speak in Zimbabwe, whisper of comrades still standing, still angry, still seething, of blood spilt in South Africa, unforgotten, unavenged, of making witness in the Congo, can you see? Tales of betrayal from Namibia. – ‘We were buried deep in the pit of the earth, and yet we are still alive.’ – Alive. Pay tribute to the survivor. Fall silent, do not speak. – ‘My daughter is called Survivor. My son is called Victor. My lastborn is named Innocent. Life is lived forward.’ –  We are called by ancestors as we walk backwards into the future. Looking each to our own answers, in Kitgum, in Rwanda, Congo, Morocco, in Bosnia.

The group falls silent. A rift has opened, as always when you dig deep for things. Some feel disillusioned, excluded. Suffering cannot be measured, it is my experience. The postcolony and its racial make-up haunt us. We form a circle. In between those walls are fragments of words, connections. We sit on ancient rocks in a ring. Thin silky threads of conversation, woven like precious fabric, envelop the Peace Centre.

The group falls silent once more. It has taken time to arrive in the survivor’s reality, in Kitgum. Who is to tell, to claim that name, to suffer in silence, to cry out. There is not judgement, only a path to walk. Though we may think we know, we do not. It is a private reality, the survivor’s

The week in Kitgum, we travel on, through more stories. Bones that speak, whisper of comrades still standing, still angry, still seething, of blood spilt, unforgotten, unavenged, of making witness, can you see? Tales of betrayal, so deep they reach the pit of the earth and yet we are still alive, alive. Pay tribute to the survivor. Fall silent, to your knees. Do not speak. The rough gate of humility leads onto the path of reverence. Searching for what, transformation. Healing? Solace. My daughter is called Survivor. My son is called Victor. Life is lived forward, as we are called we walk backwards into the future. Looking each to our own answers, in Kitgum, in Rwanda, in Bosnia.

In closing, a circle, we sit on ancient rocks in a ring, the slaveborn Fort Patiko with its colonial history and plaque, it really needs to brush teeth. Patient rock, a good place to end. We gather together to bid farewell to Kitgum, the road now inside us.