Monday, March 17, 2008

Film: "Uganda Rising"

I saw a film the other week, “Uganda Rising”, at an evening organised by Kalabash Uganda. For more info about this film, visit

The main reason why I wanted to attend the film show was that I know so little about what is happening in Northern Uganda. I was aware that children were being kidnapped from their homes in villages and being forced to fight for a rebel army and commit atrocities against each other. I was also aware that, as a result, many children were walking for miles every night into the cities so that they could sleep in safety.

I was subsequently told that at least one Acholi woman has told people to boycott this film because it is slanted to present President Musaveni in a favourable light. However, I found that the film does criticise Musaveni to some extent.

I have recently met two young Acholi women whom I will soon interview about a Ugandan project they are involved with, which supports women and children.

Most of the information that follows comes from the film, and a bit comes from other sources.

There were negotiations between President Musaveni and various different rebel leaders in the 1980s, but these broke down when Musaveni said he was tired of negotiating. At that time, although Joseph Kony’s forces were wandering around with guns, and with their fingers on the triggers all the time, there was no violence. Everything was peaceful until the negotiations ended.

Kony subsequently formed the Lord’s Resistance Army. Their activities seem confined to terrorising the Acholi people of Northern Uganda. This despite the fact that Kony is himself an Acholi.

Kony attacked people and abducted many children from their homes in villages, forcing them to fight for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Part of their army training involved shooting each other and many of them died in this way. A lot of their activities involve mutilating people. One woman described how LRA people cut off her lips, leaving her permanently disfigured. An ex-LRA member spoke of how he and his comrades were ordered to cut off a woman’s hands and feet before killing her.

The LRA would raid the villages at night, so parents were forced to send their children into the cities at night. The film showed children sleeping in shelters. One UN observer stated that she saw many children walking towards the city at night and, as it got darker, they didn’t walk, they ran.

Museveni’s government moved the majority of the Acholi people into camps supposedly for their protection, but did not provide adequate military personnel to protect them. Most of the people in the camps are women and children. Moving them into the camps just made it easier for LRA members to rape the women and abduct the children. Plus, the camps lacked basic provisions such as food and medicine.

So the children still have to leave the villages and camps every night and head into the cities for their own protection. They sleep in shelters, in churches and on the street. I was told by a young Ugandan woman that, even when she visits her family on holiday, by nighttime they have to be out of the village.

The children stay in the shelters without adult supervision. Some of the older ones are having sex with each other, with the inevitable consequences of pregnancies and STIs. Although Uganda is often portrayed as an African success story in terms of treatment of HIV and AIDS, the rate of infection is higher in this part of the country.

The film also depicted many children in child-headed households. Children have to care for their younger siblings and grandparents, run a household and try to get an education. I have seen pictures like this before, e.g. from South Africa, where there are so many AIDS orphans. These Ugandan children have been orphaned, not by disease but by conflict.

The children are desperate for education. The film showed children in the shelters, studying via the light of flashlights.

The Ugandan government now has a policy of extending amnesty to ex-LRA members, excluding Kony and his senior officials. LRA personnel who come out of the bush and surrender have to confess to their wrongdoings and make restitution to those whom they have harmed, and/or their surviving family members.

I was particularly pleased to see that they also perform a public ritual of cleansing. I am pleased to see them drawing on their ancient traditions, although the ritual involves cutting an animal in half, which is obviously very cruel. I would like to see them substitute a modern equivalent which did not involve the taking of more innocent life.

On the one hand, I am glad many people are leaving the LRA, coming out of the bush, making restitution and being reintegrated into the community.

But the people in the camps are not as fortunate. They are still highly vulnerable. I think of the woman with no lips. She has been offered no compensation or support to get on with her life.

I also think about the children having to travel into the cities night after night, just to be safe. Just to get a good night’s sleep. I wonder what kind of future they are going to have.

I also think of the many children who have been born in the bush, fathered by Kony and other LRA men. What does the future hold for them?

Unlike some other conflicts, we don’t get much information about the situation in Northern Uganda. It is not on the news or portrayed much in the media. This conflict has raged since 1986. A million and a half Acholi people have been displaced.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Kenya's Colonial Past

I recently watched two historical films about Kenya, in a showing by the 100 Black Men of London.

The first one, “A Country for White Men”, depicted what happened from the time the British arrived, in the early 20th century, until they left in the 1960s. Although I knew a lot of what the film depicted already, I didn’t know the details.

The British arrived and started grabbing the best –quality farmland for themselves, as the Europeans did in South Africa, Zimbabwe and presumably many other countries as well.

They massacred hundreds, if not thousands, of people in order to steal their land. At one point, Winston Churchill expressed concern about how many African people were being slaughtered. He also said that, if the House of Commons got wind of what was happening, the British plans for Kenya would have to be scrapped.

Kenyans who were interviewed in the film said that they only had spears against the guns of the British, so although they fought back, they could not win. One man said that if the British had come with swords rather than guns, it would have been a different story.

The attitude of the British was that they were bringing British values into what would become a ‘new country’, and they considered this to be a good thing.

Those Kenyans who were not massacred by the British were made homeless and forced to do menial jobs for the white settlers.

We heard one white person remarking that the Kenyans had never done any work a day in their lives until then. So what were they doing on their farmland for all those generations before the white settlers arrived?

This reminds me so much of what happened in the Americas. The white people arrived, slaughtered the original people and stole our land. My father, who is part Cherokee, told me this story from the time I was a young child. But although I knew it happened in many parts of Africa as well, it was useful to be given specific information about what happened.

Teddy Roosevelt, when he visited Kenya, described it as a ‘playground’ and said that the people who did well there were the same people who had done well in the Old West forty years earlier.

During the First World War, Kenyans were forced into the British Army where they again did menial jobs. Hundreds of them died of starvation and disease. They were told they were fighting the Germans, who were occupying a neighbouring country which bordered with Kenya, and that they were fighting to secure their own country. But after the war, they were still confined to menial jobs and continued to be ruled by the British.
For many years, the Kenyans formed political parties to fight the British, and petitioned the British government, but their needs were ignored by the colonial rulers. At one point, members of one Kenyan political party were slaughtered at an anti-colonial demonstration. The Kenyans’ political parties were outlawed by the colonials.

Eventually, after many years of trying to achieve their aims of independence and self-determination through nonviolent means, the so-called Mau Mau were formed, which used violence.

I have seen another film about the ‘Mau Mau’, in which one man explained that, if a Black man were walking down the street and saw a white man, the Kenyan was supposed to stop and say ‘good morning’ and tip his hat. If the Kenyan failed to do this, the white man would beat him. And if the Kenyan defended himself, he would be arrested.

At last, after more than 60 years of colonisation, the British left Kenya to independent rule.

The next film was called ‘Mau Mau’.

The first thing this film clarified was that ‘Mau Mau’ is a term that means nothing in any Kenyan language. It was a term that was made up by white people. The Kenyans called themselves the Land Freedom Army. Clearly, if that had been widely known outside of Kenya, there might have been a lot more international support for the Kenyans’ aims and criticism, if not condemnation, of the colonial rulers.

After many years of killing people and displacing Kenyan people into what were effectively concentration camps, there was a scandal when some of the people in the camps were taken out into the bush by British Army personnel who tried to force them to work, digging ditches. I had seen a film about this before. The Kenyans refused to do this work – their attitude was, “We are not slaves, why should we work for the British?”.

The soldiers were then ordered to beat the Kenyans with their rifle butts, which they did. Some of the Kenyans died as a result of their injuries, and others were badly injured. The British then put out the story that these Kenyans had died as a result of drinking bad water.

Charities sent helicopters to airlift out these Kenyans who were supposedly ill, and found that they had injuries which were not consistent with having drunk bad water. When what really happened came out, it was the beginning of the end of the British colonial occupation of Kenya.

After the second film showing, a Kenyan man gave some up-to-date information. He explained that the people who run the safaris and make a lot of money from tourism are white people who live in Kenya (as I have been told, these people consider themselves to be Kenyans).

Again, I thought what he was saying was obvious, but it probably is not obvious for some people, so it’s useful to be told this information. We see similar situations in South Africa and many other places that were colonised by European powers.

When we see these stories in the news of the instability and unrest in Kenya and the violence around the recent elections, it is important to have a historical perspective. The instability of the country can be traced back to the fact that it was invaded and occupied by the British for many years, and they took people off their land, which destabilised the local economy, displaced Kenyan people, killed them, forced them to do menial jobs and denied them any kind of political voice.