Update, 12/31/08: In late November, when a government ultimatum expired, Kony failed yet again to sign a final peace agreement that would end the war. A week after this article went to print, the Ugandan, South Sudanese and DR Congo militaries kicked off a renewed military campaign against the LRA. Now, reports are circulating (here, here, here, here, and elsewhere) that LRA fighters slaughtered over 400 villagers over Christmas in northeast Congo. The LRA denies the allegations. For more, check out the Ugandan dailies The New Vision and The Daily Monitor, as well as the great Ugandan news magazine The Independent.
Lucky Bosmic Otim, a popular musician from northern Uganda, is practically impossible to reach by phone. He has one, but it’s always turned off. The only way to contact him is through his friends, whose cell phones have invariably been turned off as well. When I finally met him last June, at his wife’s house a few kilometers outside the provincial capital of Gulu, he explained that his fame has attracted undesirable fans.
Bosmic was referring, of course, to the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel outfit that has terrorized the north’s predominantly ethnic Acholi population for over twenty years, kidnapping children, forcing girls into sexual slavery, training boys as fighters, and turning them against their own villages, neighbors, even families. But since the Ugandan government’s peace talks with the LRA ushered in a period of peace in this war-torn region two years ago, Acholis have begun to rebuild a society devastated by violence, poverty, disease, and mass displacement. And a fledgling music industry has exploded, with musicians like Bosmic rocketing to stardom.
While many hits sung in the Acholi language of Luo deal in love—like Jackson’s “Atye ii Mar” (“I’m in Love”)—a strain of popular songs by artists like Bosmic, Jahria Okwera, and Jeff Korondo are raising questions about the complicated, controversial issues that haunt Acholi life, like domestic violence and the return of battle-hardened child soldiers. “They’re all educative,” said Nicky Afaye, a producer at the leading Mega FM radio station. “They all endeavor to really speak about peace.”
For his part, Bosmic, a lean twenty-four-year-old with an intense, searching expression, is perhaps most famous for his reggae-tinged entreaty “Peace Return,” a chart-topper at Mega FM driven by a syncopated piano line and a synth flute melody. The song echoes a desperate refrain commonly heard in the north: “Peace return/To northern Uganda/It’s our prayer.”
Judging by Bosmic’s penchant for battle fatigues—as he sat on a grass clearing with his two-year-old in his lap, he was decked out in a grey camoflage jacket, green designer camo pants, small dreads with orange tips sticking out of a maroon beanie, and a wristband in Rastafarian green, yellow, and red, embroidered with a marijuana leaf—he addresses the subject with militant zeal. “They call me a freedom fighter,” Bosmic said. “But ours is not through guns. Our guns are the microphones. The mic is the biggest weapon.”
As with many others here, war and all of its attendant problems have dominated Bosmic’s life. He was born in Kitgum, a province close to the border of South Sudan, but his parents died in a civil war in the ’80s, when a southwestern Ugandan resistance movement led by Yoweri Museveni overthrew the government and established a de facto military regime with democratic flavoring—which Museveni still rules over today, still as president of Uganda.
After he was orphaned, Bosmic came under the care of the bishop at a Protestant church in Gulu, where he played a traditional stringed instrument called the adungu and sang for the church. “When I was in the church, others were already singing this ‘world music,’” he said. “But to me, they were not bringing out the message I wanted to pass to the world. Their music was full of obscenity, talking about love only. We have got so many orphans who need help in the world. We have got victims of war, wars around the world. So I thought it wise I should join, so that I also pass the message to the world.”
As he grew into his teens, Bosmic began writing lyrics loaded with Christian themes and political messages. Eventually, inspired by the late South African reggae artist Lucky Dube, he himself took on the name “Lucky” and produced a string of Afrobeat-style songs using the music programming software FruityLoops, the inexpensive, easy-to-master backing band of most northern Ugandan singers.
With cheap cassettes of his music sold in the market, and his songs playing on Mega FM, Bosmic quickly took on a devoted following, mostly in the Acholi districts of northern Uganda. He incorporated English lyrics into his songs to reach a wider audience, and became something of a regional icon when the low-budget music video for “Peace Return” showed up on YouTube a year ago, boosting international awareness of this often-overlooked war.
There is a telling contradiction between the stark messages of Bosmic’s lyrics and their backdrop of reggaeton beats, squeaky-clean instrumentation, and uplifting melodies: His music bursts with hope, but songs like “Suicide Drinking” are also dogged by anger and frustration about a broken Acholi society.
Gulu, a small town where hundreds of international aid organizations and local, small-time NGOs are headquartered, is full of bars and clubs. In the three weeks my traveling partner and I spent there, a party scene thrived. Scores of locals and expats alike spent long nights drunk on Ugandan beer and liquor, shooting pool and grooving to Bob Marley, American R&B, dancehall covers of songs like Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” and Acholi crowd-pleasers with relentlessly fast beats.
Music and dance are cornerstones of culture in Acholiland, the central districts of the north. Norman Okot, a music and dance trainer at Health, Education, Literacy, and Sports (HEALS), a Gulu-based nonprofit for war-scarred children, told me that the Acholis have a dozen traditional dances, each geared toward a specific activity: the Bwola, or royal dance, for the coronation or death of a king; the “war dance”; and the Laraka Nraka and Ajere, courting rituals for boys and girls. “Anything to do with life in Acholi, whether life, or death, or pleasure, is always accompanied by dancing,” Okot said.
So it is with northern Uganda’s contemporary music. The north’s nightclub scene, locals told me, often serves as a venue for dancing and drinking away the horrific memories of war and the difficulties of everyday life. “If you go to my village, there is a dance hall,” said Stellah Akello, an Acholi college student from a village near Gulu. “If you go to my mother’s village, there is a dance hall. People are tired of war. They want peace of mind.”
Yet the happy excesses of the clubs sometimes mirror the more poisonous excesses of the men who wallow in the hundreds of Internally Displaced Person camps scattered across the region. An estimated two million people have been displaced during the war. Many of them were forced to move into these unsanitary camps of crude mud-brick huts, starkly different from the lush forests of trees, elephant grass, and corn and cassava crops that surround them. Traumatized and unable to work their fields because of the LRA rebels stalking the bush, many men in the camps turned to alcohol. Today, aid workers and camp residents say, lots of men still laze away their days drinking locally brewed beer, while their wives take care of the family.
Alcohol, aid workers and residents say, fuels the gender-based prejudice, domestic violence, and rape endemic in Acholiland. Sometimes, aid workers and residents say, men will even steal the food aid their wives pick up from the World Food Program in order to buy more alcohol.
In “Suicide Drinking,” Bosmic blasts the widespread use of alcohol as an escape. “They are trying to drink off their lives,” he said.
It may be peaceful in northern Uganda these days, but the war isn’t over yet. The LRA has continued attacking villages and abducting children in villages near rebel hideouts in Central Africa, destabilizing the region and stoking fear. In Uganda, thousands of IDP camp residents have no means to go home. By all accounts, Ugandans will only believe the war is finished once Kony has signed a final peace agreement. But he failed to show up for the signing last April, and rebuffed negotiators again in late November. The Ugandan military has considered taking on the LRA in a renewed military campaign, but Acholis will only be able to fully restore their society after the war ends, international aid workers and Ugandans say. And reconstruction is, itself, an extremely daunting undertaking. “Where do we begin? Educationally, we are nowhere. Economically, we are nowhere. Politically, we are nowhere,” Bosmic said. “We are crippled. We don’t have legs.”
To Bosmic, the Acholis’ only remaining wealth is the thick greenery and fertile soil of the land, which they have depended on for survival for hundreds of years. Last June, he pulled out a notebook with lyrics scribbled on the lined pages, and showed me a new song he was about to record.
The song is called “Kakana,” Luo for “My Tribe,” and it sends a sobering warning: “Don’t sell off your land.”
This article ran in the December/January issue of The Brooklyn Rail.