Groundtruthing Uganda

Occasionally, the world turns its attention towards Africa. A viral video about Africa broke all records for viewership, and George Clooney challenged an African Government for its abuse of human rights and was arrested. In Northern Uganda, at a showing of the viral video, Africans threw stones at the screen.

I first visited Northern Uganda in 2003, the same year that Jason Russell and his friends Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole arrived in Gulu and began their sojourn as the Invisible Children nongovernmental organization. I saw with my own eyes what was depicted in their first video. I saw the commuter children coming into town at night to escape being kidnapped by Joseph Kony’s army. I also visited an internally displaced person’s camp. Close to two million people lived in such camps due to the war.

After two more visits to Gulu during the war, I was moved to do more. I gathered some friends and started a project to bring Internet by way of solar power to the remote displacement camps outside of Gulu. The project was named BOSCO (Battery Operated Systems for Community Outreach.) The project was originally conceived during wartime as a communication safety measure for those in the camps. While we were planning the project, a truce was negotiated, and we rushed the first deployment because I knew I would not be able to get American technical help in if war were to break out again.

Because of the efforts of a few great men, the truce became a peace. It has been my privilege to know the main player who has made a difference. His name is John the Baptist Odama, the Catholic Archbishop of Gulu. During those dark days of terrible hostilities in Northern Uganda, he went unarmed into the bush and confronted the rebels. He said to them, “Kill me if you must, but if you do kill me you will be killing your father.” With these words and the bold action of being willing to lay down his life for peace, a painstaking peace process began.  He came to the peace process without weapons, and his patience, humility, and long-suffering virtue enabled him to forge relationships of reconciliation among Christians, Muslims, and Animists in the cause of peace. His work with the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative. ARLPI is recognized the world over as a model of peacebuilding.

I fear those who come to Africa with weapons, but without the wisdom of this man.  It causes us to question the group of young people in America chanting for “justice” for Kony. They will have in mind a completely different narrative and outcome than an African peace negotiator who comes out of a traditional African religious and communal narrative of justice. The peace negotiator in Africa attempts to get warring communities to come together and celebrate their reconciliation by having the elders “bend their spears,” and drink the “bitter root” together, to join in common acknowledgment of the pain which war has cause both parties.

Archbishop Odama tells of a young man who escaped from the rebels –but watched from afar as the group from which he had escaped murdered his mother. Hours later, the Uganda Army arrived and placed all the child soldiers in repatriation camps. This young man was placed in the same repatriation camp as the young man who murdered his mother. When this fact was recognized, he was about to be placed in a different camp. But the young man spoke up and said, “I forgive, and know my Father will give me the power to reconcile. Vengeance will get us nowhere. We have all suffered enough. How can there be peace if we are not willing to live together?” And so they lived together.

I readily admit that Archbishop Odama’s call to radical reconciliation puts my own tepid American Christianity to shame. My American individualistic approach to “justice” fails when placed next to his willingness to lay down his life for his friends, for his enemies, for all people.

During happier days, when I first met Jason Russell at the Invisible Children’s home in Gulu, I coined a phrase about the experience of going to Africa. At this critical moment in Uganda, I ask Jason to remember my words: “After 9-11, we all live in Gulu whether we know it or not. Let us learn from Gulu how to live.” After some healing and reconciliation, after drinking together the bitter root, let’s learn from John the Baptist Odama how to bring peace with wisdom to my beloved Acholi (I am an honorary Acholi tribesman), to all Africa, and, please God,  to the world.

Gus A. Zuehlke, President of BOSCO USA Inc. (an all-volunteer American not-for-profit dedicated to bringing internet to isolated rural areas in Northern Uganda and South Sudan; www.bosco-uganda.org), lives in South Bend, Indiana.

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