It was a cool night by Gulu standards and I knew I needed to take advantage of the temperature. I skipped dinner and put on my running shoes, stuck in my ear-buds and began running at a modest pace around the outer ring of our complex. Each lap was probably about one-sixteenth of a mile. Every five laps or so, I decided to stop on the side of the house and do a circuit of push-ups and sit-ups. During my second strength circuit I encountered who I thought was an innocent visitor…little did I know that this encounter would impact me greatly.
I did not notice the man at first as I was doing a set of push-ups As I slowly I looked up, breathing heavily, I realized he was approaching me. The man was dressed in a guard uniform and stood about five feet six inches tall. He was standing with his pump-action, twelve gauge shotgun perched on his shoulder.
“How many of those are you doing?” the man asked me with a smirk.
“25 each time I stop,” I responded short of breath.
“I will try, but I will not complete a program of 25,” he said as he sat down his gun and got in a push-up position. 25 push-ups later he was done. He stood up laughing and shook my hand and introduced himself as Oloya Fredy.
Fredy is one of two night security guards we have at our house. I had met him briefly before coming in and out of the complex but we hadn’t ever really talked beyond simple greetings and we had never exchanged names. He sat down on the step and we began a polite conversation which I was expecting to last only a few minutes. After all, I did have a workout to finish and the mosquitoes were starting to come out. Within a few minutes however, he started telling me details about his life and asking questions about mine. He initially hinted at the emotional impact of the 20 Year War against Joseph Kony and the LRA before he went into full detail of his abduction.
Mosquitoes quickly became the last thing on my mind. We talked for an hour and a half. Here is the story of my friend, Oloya Fredy:
Oloya Fredy was born in the year of 1988 in a village 12 miles away from Gulu. He was the second born of five siblings; the oldest being a boy and the three younger siblings were girls. An Acholi has both an English name and an Acholi name. The Acholi name is given at birth and usually comes from events which had happened leading up to the birth or during the birth. For instance, if a baby girl is named Atim Jessica, which is the Acholi name which was given to one of my colleagues, the Acholi name of Atim means one not from Acholi land. Thus, the girl may have been born in the bush or away from home, or in Jessica’s case, she is American. The name Oloya means failed to produce, which was a name started by Fredy’s grandfather.
Fredy was born two years after the 20 Year War between Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army had begun. His childhood, therefore, was completely molded by the violence and conditions surrounding this war. Fredy and his siblings were night commuters; children who would walk from the outer villages into Gulu town before dark because of the fear of rebel attacks. In the morning, they would get up early and walk back to their village for school. Fredy said that he and his siblings would stay in Gulu town with catholic nuns who would sometimes feed them and give them clothes. He told me that even today he still goes by there from time to time and thanks the nuns.
When Fredy was only a child, his older brother was shot and killed by the LRA rebels. The rebels had come to their village to abduct children in order to turn them into child soldiers and brides. Fredy witnessed his brother’s death first hand and it has taken an emotional toll on him every since. He told me that when his brother died it devastated him and left him feeling alone. The LRA took Fredy for a short time before he escaped his captors and returned back to his village.
After his brother’s death, Fredy had to step up and be the man who would take care of his sisters. He stayed in school until S4, which is about halfway through high school in America, and then went to Kampala looking for work. He needed to find a job so he could pay for his younger sisters’ school fees. He was hired as a security guard and went into three months training before he started actual work. His company is stationed out of Kampala and is used by Invisible Children. He had been working in the in Kampala ever since until he recently returned to Gulu to serve as the security guard for our teacher exchange program.
After telling me part of his story, Fredy began to ask me questions about America. One of his biggest inquires was about the feud between the East Coast and West Coast. He said that he had heard in rap music that the East hated the West and vice versa. He asked me if when they met if it was a huge war and everyone killed each other. Of all of the possible American media outlets, apparently many of the Acholi get their view of America from 1990s rap music. Fredy told me his favorite rappers are Tupac, B.I.G., JaRule, and DMX; he said that JaRule looks like Tupac but that they are not the same person, although he thinks Tupac is still alive. Fredy said that he likes all violent rappers and rap songs because he can relate personally to them and their struggle to survive.
Oloya Fredy also told me about many of his big dreams for the future. He plans to soon join the army and complete the nine month training program that goes along with it. Once he has finished, he will returned to his village for a month and look for a wife. He will marry and then be sent to wherever the army tells him to go. Currently, the Ugandan army has forces in Somalia, along the southern Sudanese border, and deployed throughout central Africa looking for Joseph Kony. He will use the money he makes from the army to pay for his three younger sisters’ university fees. Once they are all through school and he is back from his service, he will build a house. He told me once he builds a house, I am allowed to come back and visit him because we were now friends.
Meeting Fredy impacted me greatly because he was one of the first of the Acholi people who I had a real conversation with. His perseverance and resilience through the war with the LRA are unequivocal to anything I have ever heard. The fact that he is working so hard to put his younger sisters through school is equally amazing. His view on violence and his specific point to tell me how he wanted a job in which he was able to use a gun are, however, evidence that the war has had a major effect on the people of northern Uganda.
As I began to speak with more of the locals on a deeper level, I quickly realized that the Fredy’s story was not unusual or isolated; it was the norm.
I met Okot Patrick one night when I went out for a Nile Special Lager with a few people. Sarah, Jessica and I were meeting Dana and Ocitti David. I had been briefly introduced to David, an Acholi, a few nights previous at a restaurant called, Café Lorem. David had brought along his friend, Okot Patrick. I immediately noticed how well-spoken and educated both David and Patrick were. I did not talk to Patrick much at first, but once it was mentioned that some of us were teaching at Sir Samuel Baker, he began telling many stories about the school. I decided to move closer at one point so I could hear him more easily. Here are a few stories from the life of Okot Patrick:
Patrick was born in the town of Kitgum, which is northeast of Gulu. His parents named him Okot because the liquid from his umbilical cord was shiny like rain. After his primary school, Patrick moved to a boarding school for his secondary studies. This school happened to be Sir Samuel Baker, the school where I was teaching in Gulu. He loved the school and said one of the buildings there was the most beautiful building in Gulu. The building, which was built by Americans, burnt down during the 90s when the students rioted and has since been rebuilt by the Belgian Government; the current building however, is not up to the standards of the previous building, according to the Acholi.
During Patrick’s S3, about 15-years-old, one of the most tragic events in the history of Sir Samuel Baker School occurred. The year was 1996 and the war with the LRA had been going on in the north for ten years. Students at Sir Samuel Baker would find places to hide when they slept because they feared being abducted by the rebels. Patrick said that even when it was time to sleep no one ever did because of the ongoing fear. The school itself lies on the outskirts of Gulu town, but is far enough away to have been very vulnerable to LRA attacks. Even with the threat of an attack, there were no soldiers left to guard the school and the students stayed committed to their studies. One night, it became apparent to the students and staff that the LRA had surrounded the school and could attack at any moment. The teachers gathered the students in the dining hall for protection, but Patrick and one of his friends did not feel safe there so they decided to hide in their dormitory.
Patrick said he and his friend hid up high in the rafters of their dorm when they could hear the rebels nearby. He would find out later that the rebels had captured one of the teachers and were making escort them to the dormitories. At first it seemed like the rebels might pass by their hiding place, but one of the boys accidently made some kind of noise, and they came back to search. Instead of waiting to be found and captured, Patrick made the decision to jump down from his hiding place and he actually landed on one of the rebels. The rebel shouted at him to sit down or he would shoot but Patrick refused to sit.
With a gun pointed at his back, Okot Patrick was forced out of the dormitory and onto the school grounds. It was dark outside and Patrick knew the grounds better than most, so he decided for one last desperate attempt at escape. He walked towards one of the uncovered pit latrines as his captor followed closely behind. As they reached the deep hole in the ground, Patrick jumped over it and ran; the rebel behind began to give chase only to fall into the uncovered hole in the ground. Patrick sprinted towards the bush and hid for the night.
The next morning, the head teacher at Sir Samuel Baker School began ringing the bell so that all of the students would assemble and he could get a count on how many were abducted. Patrick and the others were reluctant to go back because it could have been a trick by the rebels; they all eventually made their way back to school however. While walking back, Patrick and his friend were forced to dodge a landmine which the rebels had left. He told me that same mine exploded a few moments later because someone behind them had stepped on it. When the boys made it back to the school and a count was finally done, they heard the devastating results: 39 boys were abducted by the rebels. It would be these same boys that would perform the mass abductions on the Aboke Girls at St. Mary’s College only three months later. The abduction of the 139 girls was made famous by Els De Temmerman’s Book, Aboke Girls.
Another close call Patrick had with the rebels came at the end of one of his holiday from school. For holiday every year, he was able to go back to Kitgum and visit his family and stay in his home village for a few weeks. After the break was over, he and many other students needed to report back to boarding school in Gulu. They all loaded onto a bus and began driving on the only road connecting Kitgum and Gulu. For safety, there were 12 Ugandan soldiers on the roof of the bus, although Patrick knew that this small number of troops would not be sufficient if they were ambushed. Sure enough, the bus got stuck behind a slow moving, blue trailer but was able to pass due to the narrow road. Suddenly, Patrick heard a shot and saw the blue trailer in front of them explode.
The LRA rebels had shot an RPG, a rocket propelled grenade, at the trailer. The driver of the trailer lost control, crashed and died instantly. The LRA then focused their attention to the bus, opening fire at the soldiers on top of the vehicle. One soldier was shot and killed, and the other eleven ran into the bush in order to escape death. The fire fight had left the bus on fire as well as its driver dead, so Patrick made the decision to jump. He dove headfirst from the window, landed awkwardly, and dodged many bullets as he sprinted towards the bush. He said that many kids broke their legs when they jumped and were left for dead along the road, only to be saved by members of the Red Cross. Five died in the ambush, four civilians and one soldier.
Patrick told me he could sit down and tell me many more stories similar to the two above. Sitting in the Acholi Inn listening to this 33-year-old man tell of the ordeals in which he faced growing up was both heartbreaking and inspiring. Okot Patrick recently graduated from university with a bachelor’s degree in business. He has many ideas for shops and plans to start his own business soon, once he has the appropriate funds.
As I sit in the Coffee Hut in Gulu and look out the window, I see the faces of the people of northern Uganda. I see the memory of a war that lasted far too long and a pain that is all too familiar. As I look at the window however, I also see inspiration. I see resilience. I see perseverance. These people are strong. The fact that this war tore apart northern Uganda for more than 20 years and the Acholi are still able to go about life, go to school, and be successful is nothing short of amazing. These people are also some of the warmest I have ever met. I wonder if the citizens of many first-world countries could endure such a war today and come out of it as gracefully and dignified as the Acholi have done.