*This blog was written about events which occured on 7/20/2012, while I was living out my final days in northern Uganda. **All photos in this post were taken with my phone because I unfortunately forgot my actual camera.
The boda boda driver honked his horn furiously at the pedestrians on the side of the road as we zoomed past. We must have been going at least 50 kilometers an hour as our driver could taste the end of our long journey. After all, the four of us had been crammed on the back of the motorcycle for nearly an hour, following the same dirt road the entire way. Suddenly, the driver smashed into a large pothole and my body was momentarily dislodged from the seat. As I came back down my tailbone landed not on the cushion but on the metal handlebar in the back where passengers were supposed to hold on. Wincing in pain, I asked Fredy, “My friend, are we there yet?!”
Throughout the final two weeks of my stay in Uganda, I had friends and colleagues ask me to visit their homes and villages on a regular basis. It was to the point during the final days that I was struggling to fit everyone into the few days that were remaining. A few weeks prior, however, I had made a promise to our security guard, Oloya Fredy, that I would go back with him to his village (I previously wrote a blog about my first experience with Fredy and who he is which can be read by clicking here). The problem was that Fredy worked all night guarding our house and slept during the day, and the only I free time I had left was during the evenings. On Friday, my very last day of classes at Sir Samuel Baker, I decided to take the morning to visit Fredy’s village. I did not have class until after 1:00 PM on Fridays and Sarah did not have any Friday lessons so she came as well. We arose early, about 6:45 AM, I groggily threw on a t-shirt and then walked out to the guard station. Fredy had already changed out of his uniform and was excited for the journey we were about to embark on. “Shall we move?!” he asked eagerly as Sarah walked up behind me.
The three of us walked through town for a few minutes before we found a boda driver who Fredy thought was acceptable. The two Acholi men talked for about twenty seconds in Luo before Fredy turned to me and said, “He will take all three of us there for twenty thousand.”
“Wait,” I said as I laughed and the prospects of cramming four people on a motorcycle for a ride that could take over an hour. “All three of us are going to ride on one? Fredy, Are you sure that is a good idea for this long of a trip?”
“Big man, it is fine,” replied Fredy confidently with his thick accent.
Sarah jumped onto the back of the bike first, followed by Fredy. I looked up and noticed that the driver was practically sitting on Sarah’s lap, who in turn was sitting on Fredy’s lap. I was forced to sit on what little remaining seat was left, which was about four inches of pad and a medal handlebar. The driver asked if I was on the seat and I told him I was as good as I was going to get, and then we were off. We drove west of Gulu, remaining on the same red dirt road for the majority of the hour long trip. Though there were four of us on the boda boda, the driver reached high speeds as he elegantly wove between all of the potholes and pedestrians.
As we moved further and further away from Gulu, the area became much more rural; although the distance from town did not mean a lack of people. Along the road throughout the drive were many pedestrians. There were women carrying yellow water jugs on their heads and babies on their backs. There were children littering the roadside dressed in their school uniforms. We passed three or four primary schools along the way and several churches. Despite the pastoral land, this place still contained a high population
In many spots along the roadside, the bright green grass was so high that I could not see over the top of it. Fredy turned back towards me at one point and noticed I was taking in all of the scenery. “Even five years ago, you would not have seen any people walking this road,” he said. “It was too dangerous. The rebels would always be hiding right here in the grass, eager to kidnap or kill anyone they came across. I remember once I was brave and stupid enough to walk down this road,” he said pausing momentarily before he continued. “Maybe I got lucky…maybe God was looking out for me…but I was somehow not caught. I remember seeing hundreds of lifeless bodies lining the roadside…people dead where they lay, serving as a warning from the LRA for the rest of us.”
As Fredy finished his statement, his voice tapered off. I could tell that he was getting emotional. I did not know what to say, so I shook my head and said nothing. I was unsure how to even process the information I had just received. The very road that I was traveling down, presently bursting with school children, had recently been filled with dead bodies. I would come to find out later that most of these bodies were headless and limbless.
The more I discussed the war which took place for 20 years in northern Uganda, the more apparent the atrocities and sheer volume of death became; the more apparent it also became that I actually understood very little about the motives of the LRA. I finally worked up enough courage to ask a question. “Fredy, I know that Joseph Kony is of the Acholi people,” I said as I took a deep gulp. “I guess I have still not been able to quite understand why he would be kidnapping, ravaging, and killing his own people when he claims he is at war with the government. Do you have an understanding of what motivates him? Are you getting me?”
“I am picking you fine,” he responded after another brief pause. “Kony is a mysterious and magical man. When I was a kid, I actually got to see him preach and I could tell something was different about him then. He is not human, he is a spirit…a spirit sent from God to punish the Acholi people.”
I was shocked and confused. Fredy’s description of Joseph Kony seemed eerily similar to Lord Voldemort, except that Kony is not a fictional book character terrorizing Hogwarts. Furthermore, Fredy was telling me that he believed Kony was sent by God after telling me a few moments before about all of the dead bodies lining the road. “Wait, you think he has been sent from God?” I asked trying to keep the shock out of my tone. “Why on earth would God send such a terrible person here to kill the Acholi, Fredy?” Even though I could not see his face I could tell he was having a difficult time figuring out how to put his beliefs and thoughts into words.
“He is punishing the Acholi people,” said Fredy sternly. “God is punishing us for the actions and greed of our ancestors. As you know, the Acholi have always been a fierce fighting group and a violent people. It is now our turn to hurt for all of that violence, so Kony is here to cause that pain and suffering. He has been here now for more than 20 years, and he will continue to be until all have paid.” I looked at the back of Fredy’s head in pure astonishment as I listened to him make a final statement about his stance on the rebels. “In a way, it is a cleansing of our people,” he said.
Our conversation tailored off after Fredy’s last comment because I did not know what to say. I sat in silence pondering the information that I had just received. I had never heard another Acholi speak of Kony in such a manner, nor would I for the rest of my time in Uganda. However, I had done some reading which had hinted at such attitudes, especially in the rural parts of northern Uganda. These comments also shed light on how Kony was still able to recruit and brainwash people into fighting for him. In the villages which are on the far outskirts of Gulu, there is an interesting marriage between the local Animism religion of the past and the recent wave of Christianity. Because in some cases, and in some villages, the religions have combined into some hybrid form of Christianity, a person like Fredy can truly believe in witchcraft, and yet God at the same; Fredy can, and in a sense does, believe that Kony is truly a man of God.
After what seemed like more than two hours, we finally reached a point where Fredy asked the boda boda driver to stop. We walked about another quarter of a mile on a small path which wove between fields of maize. When we reached the end of the path, we approached three huts. Two huts were on the left side with a massive tree in between, and the third hut was to the right and looked as though it been landscaped professionally; it was surrounded by several beautiful bushes and green grass. This third hut was Fredy’s home and he was the professional landscaper.
As we approached the huts, Fredy stopped us as the large tree which towered over the thatched-roofs. “Do you see this tree here,” he said softly. “This tree is where the rebels brought everyone after they had raided the homes of this village. It was at this tree where they shot my uncle to death, and many others.” He paused for a moment before he said, “It happened right in front of my eyes. I was over there to the right, watching from my knees.” Sarah and I both stood in silence as we observed the tree. It represented so much pain and death; there was so much blood and tears shed at this very location, yet Fredy and his parents chose to build huts right next to it. As I studied the tree a little longer, I realized that it also represented strength; it was a reminder of the strength of Fredy and the Acholi people and how they have carried on through such hardships.
Fredy left us momentarily and I made sorrowful eye contacted with Sarah, but neither of us said anything. When he came back a few moments later, he told us that lunch was not yet ready and he wanted to take us to the lake. We walked passed all of the huts and headed for another path which wove between green maize fields. As it turned out, these fields were planted by Fredy and his mother. When the path came to an end, we were on another narrow red dirt road. We continued down the road, stopping momentarily as we passed a group of three pigs. They eyed us nervously as we passed, wondering if we meant them any harm. After walking another five minutes we finally arrived at our destination.
Fredy, Sarah and I were staring at a muddy colored pond, very similar in size to the pond which I grew up with in the backyard of my house in Indiana. The pond was deserted except for two boys who were standing next to a small boat. Fredy spoke to them briefly in Acholi and then turned and looked at Sarah and me. “You may each take a turn in the boat,” he said with a grin. Sarah went first as the older of the two boys sat in the back of the boat and paddled her around with his hand. After a few minutes, they came back and I switched places with Sarah. This time, the boy paddled me all the way over to opposite end of the pond. His hand started to become an ineffective ore, so he pulled of a sandal and started using it to push the boat.
As we turned and started moving back towards the shore which held Fredy and Sarah, I noticed that two more men were standing with them. We inched closer and I began to notice that Fredy and one of the men were involved in a heated discussion while Sarah and the other man listened. I started to help the boy paddle the boat as I anxiously wanted to get back to shore to see what the commotion was about. When I finally reached the shore, I realized that the two men were demanding money from Fredy for allowing us to go out on the pond.
“It is not fair, you see, to bring these strangers here and use our lake without notification,” said the man heatedly. “You must pay the price for your wrong doing, now. Are you picking me?! Do you get me?!”
I looked over at Fredy to see him shaking his head as his mouth curled into a slight smirk. The looks that the two men arguing sent towards each other reminded me of looks I see when children and parents are in a disagreement; the elder individual looked at Fredy as though he had no respect for tradition or life, while the younger Fredy glared back with contempt as he felt the old man had no understanding of the younger way of life or present culture anymore.
“Okay…fine,” replied Fredy as he pulled out his wallet. I saw him open it and take out everything he had, 2,000 Ugandan Shillings, the equivalent of less than a dollar. He handed the money to the man and then we walked away, back towards Fredy’s village. I asked what happened but as Fredy tried to explain I was not really following the dispute. Apparently, that lake was operated or run by a group of villagers, and to use it without their permission is strictly forbidden. I pulled 2,000 Shillings from my pocket and handed it to Fredy as we made it back to his hut.
When the three of us arrived, we were greeted warmly by Fredy’s mother and father, who were carrying all sorts of food; mandazi, maize, tea, and some other kind of African donut similar to mandazi. We were also joined by two other men who claimed to be two of Fredy’s uncles. As we sat and ate, we shared many wonderful conversations with Fredy’s family. Neither his mother nor his father spoke English, but that did not stop us from really enjoying their company. They asked us to take several pictures together, and forced us to eat well past the point that our stomachs were full. Finally, as we were getting ready to leave, Fredy’s mother walked out of one of the huts holding a live chicken by the legs. I looked from Sarah to Fredy, confused as to what was about to happen.
“She would like to take this chicken as a gift,” Fredy informed us.
I looked wide-eyed at Sarah who seemed at a loss for words. “Fredy,” I said. “Please tell your mom we feel extremely honored by her offer, but we truly cannot take it. We are leaving Gulu tomorrow for good and have no way of cooking it or eating it tonight.” I knew it was rude to turn down such a gift, but we really did not have a place to keep a chicken, not to mention any room on the back of the boda boda during our journey home. I could see the disappointment in his mother’s face as Fredy relayed the message to her in Acholi. I felt terrible, and looking back on the situation, I wish we would have taken the chicken and then given it as a gift to one of our Acholi partner teachers.
We said our final goodbyes and began walking away from Fredy’s home. “We have one more place to stop before make our final journey together to Gulu,” he said. “My younger sister and cousin are at primary school just down the road.” We walked only for a few minutes down the red dirt road before we found the school. There were more than a few hundred young children outside with their instructors, probably in the middle of a lesson. As soon as they saw Fredy approaching with two munus, chaos was unleashed. The kids sprinted and surrounded me. I looked back and Sarah was also surrounded by a massive group of young Acholi children. I pulled out my phone to take a quick video and when the kids noticed that they could see their friends through the screen, they erupted with laughter. Each child looked at the screen of my phone with astonishment followed by laughter as I video around the circle (watch the video below).
Soon the instructors were yelling at the students to come back, and I knew we had probably overstayed our welcome. I could not help but smile, however, as I watched the innocent children laughing and grinning. Those smiles are how I will always remember the Acholi people; so full of life and beauty…so full of hope.
Below, watch the “Munu, Bye!” video and the video that I described above. They are cute!