Archive for the ‘People’ Category


After many months of hibernation, this blog is now ready to face the world again. If you live in Apac and you like writing, and would like to reflect publicly about all things Apac, Langi or Ugandan, why not become a writer for the blog???

Just write an email to apac.blog@gmail.com, and we will fashion you with a username so you can become a contributor to the blog.

With many good wishes,

The Editor


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Apparently – and this is difficult to understand – the warlord Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, the rebel movement which is killing thousands of civillians in the DR Congo and South Sudan and have turned his war against President Museveni into a regional conflict, has a son… called George Bush! Perhaps Kony named his offspring in honour of a fellow strongman whose name he heard all the time on his satellite radio in Garamba Forest. Or, he felt inspired by the fact that his rebel army was listed on the list of terrorist movements globally, which George W. Bush initiated. Or, he shares the Acholi love for grand history-making names, as described below. Or? You tell me.

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Ugandans have an affinity for grand names, whether of the famous or the infamous kind. High-profile members of the public are Livingstone Okello Okello, a Member of Parliament (Chua County/Kitgum District), Chairman Mao, the chairperson of Gulu District, Ethan Musolini, a motivational speaker and CEO of Success Africa, and Ronald Reagan Ukumo, also Member of Parliament (Aswa County/Gulu District). Imagine that Mao has a meeting with Reagan and Livingstone in Parliament, it must happen quite often as they are all three Acholi political leaders, Mao at the district level and Reagan and Livingstone at the national levels. Or that Musolini gives business tips to Mao…!

We are sure to see a lot of Barack and Michelle coming up soon. The other day I met a man, who had just become a father for the first time. His daughter was to be Sasha, after Obama’s second-born.

Other things are already named Obama. Across the country there are numerous Obama Supermarkets and Obama Hotels. And Apac has its own Obama Mudslide on the daily Apac-Kampala bus:

The new mudslide on the Felista bus that ferries people between Apac and Kampala

The new mudslide on the Felista bus that ferries people between Apac and Kampala

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In Apac and with few exceptions, male surnames begin with O and those of females begin with A. The names are Luo. The word, Lwo, has entered the vocabulary of many non-Africans in 2008. The year began with ‘ethnic riots’ between the Luo and the Kikuyu of Kenya, and ended with a certain Barack Obama, partly of Lwo lineage, winning the US elections.

In the immigrant country of the USA, it is virtually impossible to judging a person based on her surname. Is a Rice white or black, poor or rich? But in Uganda, the ethnic make-up of somebody is instantly determined on the basis of his surname: Anyone with an O-name is from a northern tribe, those with K-names are likely to be Baganda, and those with M, N, T-names are probably from western Uganda. The political history of colonial and post-colonial Uganda has contributed to the charged nature of surnames beginning with O, Luo names.

The British recruited Luos and other northern tribes into the army, and favoured the southern tribes with the education system and the civil service. The country’s first president (1966-70), Milton Obote, was a Langi from Apac, whose politics alienated many non-Luo people, particularly the Baganda. When Idi Amin took control of the state (1971-79), he eliminated many Luos in the army, to prevent a come-back for Obote. Obote did come back (1980-85), but was toppled by Tito Okello, who lost (or ceded, depending on your persuasion) power to Yoweri Museveni who remains president to this day. His rule has been challenged twice in insurgencies by Luo militants, led by Alice ‘Lakwena’ Auma and Joseph Kony. The willingness of Luos of different tribes to mobilise behind Obote, Okello, Auma and Kony has given rise to the perception that these tribes are inherently militaristic, easy to mobilise, fearless, strong and – dangerous…

The New Vision newspaper reported today that Ugandan MPs had celebrated the election of Obama: “Conspicuously, names of most MPs in attendance, started with the letter O. From opposition leader Ogenga Latigo, [to] Odonga Otto, Okupa Alijah, Otafiire Kahinda, they were all there. Others adopted the letter O, to suit the occasion. Deputy speaker Rebecca Kadaga became ‘O’daga, Igeme Nabeeta became ‘O’beta.”

It appears that there is such thing as the ‘Lwo factor’ in Ugandan politics; and in the political sphere, perceptions matter. Here in Apac, many feel that the national army could have eliminated the Lords’ Resistance Army if it had wanted to; and furthermore that it served the government to keep the Luo in check by its ‘own’ insurgency. (The counter-claim is that the LRA received financial support from Luo abroad.) Exiled Lwo Olara Otunno claimed in 2006 that the IDP camps in northern Uganda were so badly protected and serviced, that they aimed to eliminate the 1.5 million camp dwellers. President Museveni was among the first three heads of state to congratulate Mwai Kibaki upon winning the (disputed) Kenyan elections, defeating the Lwo opponent, Raila Odinga. And when the media earlier this year focused on the regional distribution of high-level state jobs, it emerged that ‘northerners’ occupy seven per cent of positions of power in the state despite constituting 19 per cent of the population of Uganda.

This narrative of deliberate marginalisation or silent persecution is alive today, in the north. Such feelings are often felt most strongly, and articulated most frequently, by those in the diaspora. Yesterday, a letter from Canada to the editor of New Vision, thus argued that “Over the years if you were of Luo background in Uganda and Kenya you were likely to face this silent hatred, cynicism and even ridicule because of your Luoness. After the overthrow of Obote I, some people had to change their Luo names to make them look non-Luo. For example from Okobel the name was changed to Kobel to remove the ‘O’ to protect such a person from easy identification… In East Africa, the election of Barack Obama brings home a revolution to not only all citizens, but particularly to those who are Luo who had felt despised for no apparent reason, except that they are Luo. Barack Obama’s election should be significant and therapeutic to all, especially the Luo in Uganda and Kenya who had been suffering from the trauma of being invisible and isolated.”

Obama’s ascendancy brings hope, to some, of a Luo revival. While the election of Obama was made possible by a sense of nationhood in the US, in East Africa the event is interpreted through the lens of ethnic or tribal differences.

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This morning, the radio read a statement which highlighted Democracy Day, a recent addition to the long list of international days. In 2007 the UN Generally Assembly apparently adopted the day, defining democracy as a

“universal value based on the freely-expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems, and their full participation in all aspects of life.”

The statement was translated into Lwo by the newsreaders, who were apparently struggling with the vernacular terms for some of these words. The influx of new concepts from without seem to have taken place too quickly for leb Lango (the tongue of the Lango) to adopt. So the news piece was about elections, a small part of the wider notion of democracy, rather than about an opening up of the political space and the participation of citizens in local decision-making. These things happen. The word for Treasurer in Lango, for instance, translates into ‘keeper of the money’… a rather misleading term, particularly when one considers the fact that there is so much corruption here.

Across the globe, meanwhile, American keepers of the money either filed for bankruptcy or flagged their warning signs. But the global village was not so global as for this news to travel all the way to Apac where life went on as usual, and people called the radio with comments and lamentation. It shall be interesting to see if the shocks of a global financial crisis are felt here in this seemingly isolated part of the world.

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Is it because Uganda has been a donor darling since the early 1990s? Or because the civil society is marked by poverty of ideas? Or perhaps because everybody wants development and nobody wants change (see previous post).

Whatever the reason, the civil society sector in Uganda can be summarised by one word: workshopping. Or ‘workshop hopping’. Civil society activists hop from workshop to workshop, at their regional capitals or, mostly, in Kampala:

To be consulted on a particular issue, such as the new NGO Amendment Bill or the indictment of the LRA leadership by the International Criminal Court. To be sensitised on a value that is deemed important, such as rights-based approaches to development or gender equality. To discuss issues that confront their own sector, such as NGO accountability. To have their capacity built in, say, decentralisation policies or stakeholder analysis methodologies. To be briefed about a new funding opportunity such as an EU development programme. To engage with the local or central government in ‘dialogue meetings’.

This culture of workshopping has generated three challenges:

  • The need to translate workshop knowledge and ideas into real work, at desks and in fields across the country.
  • The need to follow up the resolutions and ways forward generated at the workshops; to see how far things go once the participants leave the hotels, conference centres and community halls.
  • The need to de-monetarise knowledge and skills. At the moment, workshop participants get, expect and rely on transport refunds, per diems, out-of-pocket facilitation, allowances for accommodation and dinner… you name it.

The other day, a Head of Department at the Apac District administration lamented that his department cannot get community members to attend his meetings, sensitisations and workshops because he does not have a budget for the various forms of ‘facilitation’ which they expect. Farmers leave the meeting on, say, new farming technologies or value addition once they hear that there will be ‘no facilitation’ such as a transport refund or an allowance. It is a real problem.

During most workshops, the first session will concern ‘Expectations and Fears’. It is common to hear participants list ‘transport refund’ as an expectation and ‘not enough facilitation’ as a fear, after which the workshop organisers will have to explain which levels of ‘facilitation’ their budget allows.

One day, I gave a lift to Kampala to four workshop participants. We reached the conference centre earlier than planned; the invitation had just told up-country participants to register in the evening, so as to be ready for the morning session on the following day. They complained that the workshop organisers probably only had booked dinner for them, and not lunch. That now they would have to meet the cost of the lunch themselves. Perhaps they forgot that if they had been in Apac, they would have had to buy lunch for themselves; or that my lift had saved them the transport cost, since they would get a transport refund at the end of the workshop.

Their thinking, it seems, indicate that in Uganda there exist a culture of workshopping, a particular set of seemingly self-evident practices and interpretations of life and the world. It is so central to the whole NGO set-up of this Equatorial country, that this blog will explore its many aspects over the coming months.

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The Danish philosopher and father of religious existentialism, Soeren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), once wrote that “everybody wants development – nobody wants change”. Somehow this observation fits life in Apac quite well.

People want developments such as tarmacked roads, rural electrification, adequate water sources, higher agricultural yields; but not at the expense of ‘rocking the boat’ – even if this boat is manned by a self-serving crew. Upsetting the status quo is not allowed; even if the status quo is bringing suffering to the ordinary person in the form of hardship and poverty.

But perhaps this observation has a temporal aspect. Perhaps change is indeed accepted, if it takes place over a long time. The status quo of today is different from that of five years ago. During the time in between 2003 and 2008, some things must indeed have changed – even if it seems as if they did not. In 1985, when President Museveni came to power, Apac town only had two permanent buildings. Today it has perhaps 200. So change has happened; the status quo has changed.

Kierkegaard’s ‘change’ entailed transformation. For Apac to develop, a degree of transformation is necessary; and transformation does entail a departure from the status quo. But the nature of this transformation is paramount: it has to be non-confrontational. In Apac, confrontation is seen as the worst thing, and people go to great lengths to avoid such ghastly situation. Instead, they make use of mediators, brokers, counsellors. When a couple weds traditionally, the community assigns a third-party (male) counsellor to them; the husband or wife can then involve him if he or she has a problem with the spouse and he shall try to assist its resolution.

In the context of the modern state which in Uganda is decentralised, who shall be the third-party councillor if the citizens feel aggrieved? If their lack of water, electricity, education and health care makes their life hard and kills their children? In Uganda, the idea is that the district council, which is politically elected, performs the necessary checks on the district administration; but the council is a part of the local government and cannot therefore also be the third-party. Therefore, massive resources (mainly of foreign origin) go into the civil society. The question remains: can the civil society be the counselor that assists the couple in looking for a solution, without being seen to rock the boat, challenge the status quo, or confront the powers that be?

Contributing to development without effecting change is perhaps possible only if one takes a long-term perspective; but the agencies which fund the civil society want to see change and impact in the short term. As with most other aspects of life, this challenge is one which, here, has to be negotiated.

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The months in Leb Lango – the tongue of the Langi – are named after their number in the conventional calendar year. January is ‘Acel’ which is also the word for ‘one’, February is called ‘Ario’ which also means ‘two’, March is ‘Adyek’, ‘three’, etc.

But June is also called ‘Odunge’ which means ‘squeezed’ or ‘tied tightly’. June is the month where people are squeezed, tied: they are hungry. The wet season begins, roughly, in March every year; by June the farmers will have finished their stock of previously harvested produce. They will have neither a lot to eat, nor a lot to sell at the local markets. They feel squeezed by the conditions of their life, their subsistence farming.

Odunge’ is a contextual name for June; it makes more sense than the decontextualised ‘Abicel’, ‘six’, which implicitly refers to someone else’s June: the Gregorian calendar year which was adopted by Pope Gregory VIII in 1582 and introduced to Uganda by European missionaries and colonial administrators. The establishment of January as the first month is ultimately an arbitrary idea.

May also has an interesting name, or nick name. It is called ‘Okwang Mak Me Anwong’. In Lwo, these four words constitute a whole sentence: ‘Get Okwang for me so that I can tie him’. Okwang is the name of a person, a Mr Anybody; the month of May therefore is represented by nature or life saying, ‘go and get a person so that I can tie him’ with June being when Okwang is tied.

June this year began promisingly, but for the past one-two weeks there has not been much rainfall. Various crops, particularly the widely planted beans, groundnuts and sesame, are beginning to look thirsty. If another week pass by without rain, these crops may not survive, and June will squeeze the farmers even more.

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The said District Councillor (see below) is apparently on a mission, and is rumoured to move around town with a pair of scissors..! He attacked another lady wearing trousers last week, this time a mature woman and not a school girl. The incident took place near Apac Hospital, which was not such a strategic venue as there are always many people in and around the only hospital in the district of Apac (population: ca. 490,000).

The lady who suffered the humility of having her trousers torn by a politician, was nevertheless not so easy to intimidate and she reported the incident to Apac police! The Hon. Malakwang was thereafter arrested, but is out on a police bond.

As the first ‘trouser incident’ was only the first of a string of assaults, it has become clear that such leg wear carry a great deal of symbolic weight. Claiming that he is fulfilling the wishes of Won Nyaci, the Langi Supreme Cultural Leader, Hon. Malakwang’s actions – like many revolutionary or reactionary ones before – might be said to represent the negotiation of a certain transition. It does not matter so much how the Won Nyaci actually judges the wearing of trousers by women; what matters is that the Won Nyaci represents the weight of tradition.

Many developments in Africa have been described within the dichotomous paradigm of tradition-modernity, and most of them have been pretty unhelpful, describing all that Africa is not and failing to understand what is. But The Trouser Incidents of Apac are so obviously, to me at least, about a transition from a patriarchal society which defined a ‘Good Langi Woman’ in terms of subservience, modesty, domesticity and motherhood, to a patriarchal society where women are relatively more independent: educated and earning an income while still mothers.

Trousers symbolised also in Europe all the masculine values of strength, intelligence and independence; and were therefore out of bounds for women. Karen Blixen, whose conditions of life on her farm in Kenya had made her a very independent and atypical woman, reflects upon the changing role of women in Europe in a letter to her mother in 1924:

I would like nothing but to become subservient to a Man whom I admire, but for a Pair of Trousers in themselves I do not harbour any holy Awe, and I think that it is good that they, like Geizler’s Hat, have come off their high Ground. They were perhaps once a holy Symbol, and that was perhaps happier and better Times, but now – nobody knows any more what it was they once symbolised.

(Letters from Africa 1914-1931, p. 241)

Trousers – ‘once a holy Symbol’ – had come off the pedestal in Europe, as women became more economically independent. During the First World War, hundreds of thousands of women had to earn a living independently of their husbands, conscripted or dead. In that context, and in the context of the next world war, it was difficult for the men to resist this development. But in Apac, it is being fought: with scissors. And, perhaps, in court.

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After the previous post was written an incident took place in the town of Apac. This incidence is the illustration par excellence of my argument below that new ideas rarely come to Apac because of its geographical isolation and that a bridge over the Nile would transform gender inequalities more than any amount of civic education.

Here is what happened. In Apac in a bar or social hang-out one of the councillors of the district council of Apac is enjoying a drink, probably a soft one given the profile of this particular male. He eyes a young girl who is wearing trousers, the latter being, according to eye witnesses, not particularly tight fitting. Seeing a young Lango girl wearing trousers – a symbol of modern gender views, women’s independence and Western feminism – the politician runs over to the girl and tears her trousers off and tear them into several pieces! The girl, probably 13 years old, is left without leg wear but fortunately her sister, who is next to her, is carrying a bag with some clothes or cloth. A business woman rushes over to assist the girl. The councillor laments at women’s lack of respect and modern ways but eventually resumes his socialising with his fellow men while the girl at the centre of the incident is accompanied home, embarrassed, humiliated.

Stories, events and rumours run fast in Apac and before long the women of Apac were silently outraged. The following day many wore trousers in a quiet protest. The politicians continued his work, the District Council or its Chairman has not officially reprimanded their reactionary member, The Honourable Malakwang, Councillor for Apac Sub-County.

He is knows for his traditionalist and religiously purist views; according to some he is ‘tolerated’. However he is of course elected by the people of Apac Sub-County (which is not the same constituency as the Apac Town Council). And some people say that he is planning to run for Parliament of Uganda in the 2011 general elections.

The interesting bit about the incident is the fact that the girl, who was attacked by one of the relatively powerful men of Apac, is studying at a secondary school in Kampala, the capital city. Thereby she is exposed to new ideas, she is educated in a multi-ethnic setting and she is probably used to wearing trousers (when not wearing a school uniform, mind you), just like many women of Kampala.

The Apac Anti-Corruption Coalition, on their fortnightly talk show on Radio Unity of Lira, has received many calls from outraged citizens. However, neither the student nor her parents has lodged a complaint with Apac police, which would have enabled it to question the ‘big man’ over his un-constitutional practices. Gender equality in Uganda is actually constitutionally enshrined. But as with many post-colonial societies, there is a huge gap between the country’s body of legislation and policies, which is all very politically correct and liberal, and the conditions of life on the ground. Policies were not developed from the bottom up, but from the top down.

It does however seem like gender discrimination has left The Lango Sphere of Non-Issues and entered that of Unofficial Issues in Lango.

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