Thursday, July 10, 2008


I've been traveling around Uganda and Kenya for a month and a half now, and I would estimate that 98 percent of the people I've interviewed so far have been men. I already was sick of it a while ago and now I am really sick of it. I am in Gulu now and I realize that women's rights are the most important and the most overlooked and underappreciated issue affecting Uganda as a whole, if not, you know, the entire rest of the world.

"Ugandan men are arrogant," Emma, a young student, told Gary and I at Embassy Bar the other night. I get the impression that "arrogant" is only one of the many of nasty adjectives you could use. Christine Okot, the Ugandan Government's Gender Officer for Gulu District, recently offered a couple others: "stubborn" and "big-headed."

I'm not trying to say that all men are bad here, nor am I trying to say that I truly understand the issue - because, of course, I can't - but it's become obvious: Women are like mules in Uganda. They are property. "A man has a right over the wife and everything the woman owns in the home," Okot told Hannah and I yesterday.

Ask any woman here and they will tell you that gender inequality is rife, that domestic violence is normal and, if anything, encouraged. The situation has become so much worse because of the war. LRA rebels used rape as a tool to destroy the lives of Acholi women. And after the Acholi community was crammed into overpopulated, isolated, dirty and dangerous IDP camps, where many people have lived for decades, rape and incest increased and gender roles changed radically.

"All the time you spend roaming around," said Michael Ojok, a 24-year-old resident of Acet Camp in Gulu District, who has lived there seven years. "You don't have your garden, you don't have crops." Living in the IDP Camps, Ojok and many others have told me, so many men feel helpless and resort to drinking. When they run out of money, they steal bicycles, land, or the food aid distributed to their wives, to drink more. Then they come home and beat their wives.

Meanwhile, the women take care of the children, take care of orphans, collect the seed from the World Food Programme, dig the gardens, grow crops, fetch water from the bore hole, and pretty much do everything else. "All the responsibilities are on the women," Esther Abwol, a mother who lives in Olwal Camp in Amuru District, told Hannah and I. "It is up to you to struggle and make sure your family is O.K."

Today, aid workers and camp residents said, now that people are free to return to their villages and tend their crops, the problem is still huge. Just look at all the drunks farting around in the camps on an average weekday. There were plenty at Acet Camp on Tuesday. Even the Local Community Leader of Odek Subcounty was falling-down drunk.

There are a number of aid groups that deal with women's rights, like Straight Talk and Boy Talk, which holds regular sessions for women and men about sex, health issues and how to stop domestic violence at home. Christine Okot, the Gender Officer, runs working groups that network with state institutions and aid groups to promote gender equality in development programs.

But Okot said that too many aid organizations here fail to address the underlying causes of gender inequality, domestic violence, rape and the spread of HIV/AIDS, which is intimately connected to these problems. "They tackle the symptoms," she said. "They think that drinking is the problem."

Women here, working women, students, aid workers and government officials alike, say that the true problem lies with culture and tradition. Girls just getting into maturity have been pushed into marriage. Women can't leave the house, even to go to the hospital, without asking their husband's permission. If women are raped, they are often blamed for it themselves. Some women worry that they are not good enough wives if their husbands don't beat them.

It's a matrix of issues - political, cultural, economic, psychological. How do you find a solution? Women here say that men need to be more deeply involved in promoting gender equality. And ultimately, the next generation of leaders need to be educated about gender equality and human rights. "Your children are still young," Okot tells the women of the community. "Train the young people."

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Holy Spirit Lives in Gulu

Gulu, Uganda. Sunday:

Hannah is going out on a wild motorbike ride through IDP camps with some people from UNHCR today. My frame is too large to ride on the back of a such a bike, while swerving through narrow and muddy roads. So I spend the day searching for the church of Severino Lukwoya.

Severino Lukwoya is the father of Alice Auma, the founder of the Holy Spirit Movement, a paramilitary group that brought together numerous militias with strong ethnic Acholi membership, after President Yoweri Museveni led the National Resistance Army to victory in 1986. She is otherwise known as Alice Lakwena (Lakwena means "messenger" in Luo), because she believed that spirits spoke through her and told her to eradicate the "sin" of her society. When she went into exile in Kenya in the late '80s, her father took over HSM. Meanwhile, Joseph Kony, who claimed to be Alice Lakwena's cousin, led a small rival movement. But it grew, eventually, it developed into the Lord's Resistance Army, a force of children who were abducted and ordered to maim and kill, supposedly to institute a government guided by the Ten Commandments.

I find the New Jerusalem Temple, Lukwoya's church, near Gulu's used-clothes market, off a dirt road and behind some houses. It is a modest church-house made of brick, with a smooth concrete floor and a roof made of corrugated-iron. Near the door, there is a twin bed adorned with a blue mosquito net. At the front of the room, a frilly banner made of tinsel reading "Happy Birthday" is strung across the ceiling - over a simple wooden pulpit and a table covered in a white lace cloth. The back wall is painted teal, but shapes are left in a background of stone: a cross with a sun on top, four stars, a moon; a shield with spears run through it; a triangular mountain, with a tree and a human figure sticking out the sides. Covering the mountain is a square painted in lush blue, making water.

Two men are plucking out a trance-like melody on adungus, stringed insturments that vaguely resemble boats. A woman is fluently working a flat, metal shaker imprinted with a red, white and blue "USA" logo. Another woman is tapping out a simple rhythm on a drum. They all sway back and forth, their heads tipped down, and sing in murmurs.

A dozen barefoot people are sitting and looking forward, while some oblivious children stand around. A few women sit on a bamboo mat to the left. The rest sit in short benches to the right. They finger small prayer-books.

And there Severino Lukwoya sits, over in the far right corner, at a small table with a white table-cloth on it. An ornate cross decorated with stars and a moon, and with the shape of a sun atop it, sits in front of him, along with a green bottle of holy water and a cellular phone. He is sunk into his chair and he looks lost in thought. He is a very old man, with deep wrinkles in his thick and charcoal skin. He has mangled and missing teeth. The puffy white hair on his crown is somehow imprinted with a cross shape. I find out later that his dark, penetrating eyes glow. That his voice silences the church-house.

I am still standing at the door when the young priest, Acaye Isaac, a man with a soft voice and gentle handshake, walks up to me. He invites me to remove my shoes and sit. He seems to know exactly why I am here. I sit at an empty bench as the day's mass continues.

Acaye Isaac and one of the adungu players take turns reading from their small prayer-books and delivering sermons. After each turn, the band starts up another swaying song. The congregation sings along. Everything is done in Luo, so I understand the amens and not much else. I think the day's services are nearly over when Isaac delivers a long sermon, standing at the pulpit and speaking soberly and seriously.

An adungu player plucks almost inaudibly as Isaac speaks. Heads hang down or look forward. Then Isaac finishes and there is a song. In the few moments of silence afterwards, an eerie metallic pattering begins on the roof of the church. They are sprinkles of rain. But when I turn around and look outside, I see no rain falling.

The service continues. There are more readings. There are more songs. There are more sermons. There are more songs. Because I understand basically nothing, I have time to think.

Then there is communion. Isaac pulls away the white cloth on the table next to the pulpit, to expose a bowl of some kind of paste and altar wine. The children line up first, then the adults. Isaac dabs a spoonful of paste in each of their hands, then presents them with wine from a goblet. The congregation finish the communion with a song.

Finally, Severino Lukwoya stands up to speak. I am urged to sit at the front of the church. Obina Hallan, a man in a suit and a tie printed with the American flag, sits next to me to translate.

It is not Lukwoya who speaks to me, he says, but the Holy Spirit. I am welcomed. I am urged to spread the word of the spirit across the word. "I know your father Abraham. I also know Jacob. I changed my name from Jacob to Israel. I am in Africa because I am the son of Cain. Now I work with the black people. I changed my name from Israel to Melta, which means Rock." He gestures to the stars, the moon, the mountain, the shield, on the far wall of the church. "I am the rock. I am all of this."

"The whole world is killing each other without getting tired. That's why the soldiers of God come down, to ask people to stop sinning," he continues. "And they stopped sinning."

Lukwoya gestures at Isaac, sitting in a chair behind the pulpit. "Look at his body. He is doing the will of the Father."

"Very many people poured their blood," Lukwoya says. "This shows that the lamb died. And they are saved with the blood of the sheep." I did not take communion with the church. He says that the holy water is still there for me to take. "It has the spirit and seeds of all these stars." There is a brief pause and I do not take the holy water.

He says that he is black because of Cain. He wants to get God's blessing, to be like the whites. But he is content with his duty here, to drive away the evil spirits in Africa.

Then he sits. He has finished his sermon.

Isaac stands to deliver his own sermon. When he is done, the adungu player, a thin man with smooth cheek-bones, wearing a blue-striped button-up shirt and blue pants, stands to speak. He looks straight forward. "Very many people were killed, because they want leadership," he says. The New Jerusalem Temple is here, then, to cleanse the world of its evils.

"What we call sin is the struggle for leadership," he continues. "And that's why we call ourselves the descendents of Cain. Cain was the first killer for leadership."

"If your eyes look at good things as bad things, cut out your eyes," he says. "Our body is a temple of God. If you would like to kill your friend, it means you refuse Jesus and that you want to kill Jesus."

"If we live a bad life, animals rebel and also live a bad life," he says. "People who are going to live with God will live forever."

The adungu player is done and the entire congregation breaks into song. The hymn is slow. At the pulpit, he bobs back and forth in strange meditation. He gestures at Severino, the Father. "Here is truly the God," he says. "Our ancestors are here."

When he is done, he invites me to ask the Father questions. Severino is sitting at his small table, looking at me through the bottle of holy water, when I ask him when and how the spirit found him. Severino chuckles. "It is a long story," he says. "God has put me down as a promise."

Long ago, the Holy Spirit was born as a person. Then He became an animal. In 1928, Severino Lukwoya was born and the Holy Spirit went into Severino Lukwoya. In 1948, God made Severino's Bible catch aflame. A voice emanated from the book: "You are my worker."

Suddenly, rain comes pounding down against the iron roof. The deafening roar eats the church-house. Severino stops talking. I look around. Behind the pulpit, two congregants kneel down to pray. They face the wall, their eyes closed, hands together, and tilt back and forth, back and forth. Obina, my translator, asks me, "Are you scared?"

Obina Hallan is an economics and history professor at Gulu University, he says, and a volunteer for the local office of the World Food Programme. He says that the New Jerusalem Temple is an unpopular and controversial church among the Born Agains here. They do not agree with New Jerusalem's baptisms, but he asserts that this church is only following the word of the Bible. He smiles. "I don't know what God did," he says. "I just found myself here."

Thunder strikes. Several minutes pass and eventually the rain dies down. Severino, standing now, is talking to a little child. Eventually he turns to me. The interview resumes. I ask him what the stars, the moon, and all of the other rocks tell him.

"Their communication is all about peace," he says. "That is why I brought stars. I plant the stars into people. That is why I have the soil of rebirth, Melta... I have not come to talk like Abraham, to kill. I have come to give people peace. I am the God of life. I need life."

I ask him where the evil spirits come from. He points at his heart, then points at me. "It comes from inside you," he says. "It comes from the teaching of the whites." Their technology has created weapons. Their money has introduced the world to greed. "They possess all the evils."

"The Bible has been written with a lot of wisdom," he continues. And the world must heed the warning of his church: destroy all of the wisdom of weapons and greed. "Extend your network across the world," he tells me.

I ask him when his church began. He says that it ascended slowly, very slowly. "We are very few here," he says. "People go where there are riches."

When Americans come to other churches in Uganda, he says, they bring nothing but money. The priests use the money to fatten themselves. The congregants dance because they are getting richer. "They are doing all those evil things," he says. "They don't want the word of God."

If Severino Lukwoya is a charlatan, then he wants me to think that he is at least a very poor one. He says that he never accepts money from visitors. He goes about town with his pulpit, only to preach on the streets.

I ask him how there will be peace in Northern Uganda. Severino, speaking as the Father, says that people must convert to his word. "I heard people crying," he says. "That's why I descended down to help them."

The peace here at the moment, he says, resulted from his work: He went to Lake Victoria and removed the evils there. He removed a fire from the mountains. He convinced "the whites" to start the peace talks in Juba, South Sudan. "This is a country of peace," he says. "Everybody is at rest."

I have one more question, I say. I want to know about Joseph Kony. Do evil spirits speak to him?

"I do not communicate with him," he says. "I do not want to say anything about him."

He refers me to Luke, Chapter 10, verses 1-24, and Matthew, Chapter 10, verse 2, verses 12-22, 22-32, and 38-42. "If the people of Uganda do not want to repent," he says, "then there is suffering."

He says that Joseph Kony and Yoweri Museveni are the same and that they may both be the supervisor in the Garden of God. "All of them are doing the same work in the Garden of God. All of them have killed," he says. "If they are the Garden Supervisor, they have to repent."

I thank him for his time and exit the church, entering the damp afternoon day. As I walk back to the market, crowds of children flank me, screaming, taunting, laughing. I stare straight forward as I step across a rickety bridge over a small and muddy channel. A few blocks away, I reach my hotel.

Update, 5/2009: It may seem from this post that I believe that Severino Lukwoya is actually the Holy Spirit. I do not. That was not the purpose of this entry. In hindsight, I suppose that I could have discussed this controversial church more objectively.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Bwola Dance

Gulu, Uganda. The Saturday before last:

An Irish woman is sitting near Hannah and I at Kope Cafe. She gets up to do something that wazungu often do in Gulu Town: complain.

"I ordered my food over an hour ago," she barks at the man behind the counter. "Is it coming or not?" He assures her that it is and, a couple minutes later, out it comes.

A few minutes pass and the unmistakable rumble of a parade rounds the corner. Hannah and I, along with everybody else in the restaurant except for the Irish woman, gather outside.

A banner proclaims: "Manchester United Fans."

A rag-tag marching band slams out a boom-chuck beat and fills the air with triumphant brass.

Following them, a man in a red Manchseter United jersey, the uniform of the British football team, yells into a microphone, riding atop a white pickup truck weighed down with giant speakers and fans waving Manchester flags. One of them holds up a poster of the great footballer Nani.

All around the truck, men in red jerseys chant and dance, going forth with their knees bent low.

The parade passes. Hannah, myself and everybody else return to the interior of quiet Kope Cafe. The Irish woman is enjoying her smoothie, no doubt, but she has a sour expression. I read The Saturday Monitor. Hannah reads The Independent. Two hours pass and we are served: an omelette for Hannah, pancakes for me. We eat, pay, exit and then proceed down Gulu's main drag.

Gulu is abuzz today. The parade is up ahead. The weighed-down white pickup blasts the indestructible beat of Acholiland: a driving kick, a shaker going double-time, jaunty tom-toms.

Hannah decides to fetch her camera in our hotel room. I am equipped with notebook and pen. Thematically, but not on purpose, I'm wearing bright red Ray-Ban knock-offs. We chase the parade.

We merge with the crowd as we enter a wide, dusty field. Hannah branches off to ride on the hood of a car. I'm just behind the weighed-down pickup. The fan on board looks around at the crowd and yells, over and over, "Mansester fan! Mansester fan!"

Men in red jerseys are everywhere. Some of them walk up and ask me if I'm a fan. No, I say, I'm a journalist. Accordingly, I try to make sense of what's happening. Did Manchester win a game today? Yesterday? Will they play tomorrow? Has the season opened or closed? They give vague and unclear answers. Later, Stella, a student at Makerere University, explains that Manchester won the season and brought their shining cup to Kampala for a stupendous celebration. That was last May, she adds.

So, then, it's just a celebration.

Sammy, a gaunt, red-jerseyed fan with a huge smile, shakes my hand. He tells me that the parade has just visited Gulu Hospital. Now, a contingent of fans will present boxes of laundry soap to the inmates at Gulu Government Prison.

"You should be friendship to everybody," he tells me.

It's right over that way, he says, gesturing off to the left. Henry Kaija, a prison officer, a rather young and gentle-looking man with a generous expression and a "Rooney 10" jersey, red of course, bids me to come along. Already Hannah, taking photos a few yards away, has been invited by some other fans. We look at each other and agree to go to prison with them.

The police in Uganda wear khaki fatigues and tote AK-47s. The cover story of The Independent this week is about the Inspector General of Police, Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura, and how the police force is building its muscle as the strong arm of President Yoweri Museveni and his party, the National Resistance Movement. The police used not to play the army's role - and in fact most police did not support Museveni - but now, apparently, it does.

In early June, the police raided the offices of the Democratic Party. Then, two opposition MPs were thrown in jail after staging public demonstrations. A few days later, Kampala District MP Nabila Sempala was touring her district when police dragged her off to jail, all the while tearing at her skirt. In protest, on the day of presenting the 08/09 National Budget, opposition MPs walked out of parliament.

This is bad, but the Independent investigation team expects much worse by the time of the 2011 parliamentary and Presidential elections.

Taking all of this into account, you might expect the police of Gulu Prison to be fearsome types, all scowls. Not true, with all these Manchester fans filling up the reception room. The khaki-fatigued cops are all smiles and handshakes.

Everyone checks their cell phones and Hannah and I check the camera, my notebook and our bags. The group counts itself out, to 21, and without further ado the big door to the prison courtyard opens. Hundreds of young men's eyes greet us.

The first thing I see is a man with no legs wearing a yellow shirt and matching shorts. (Later, I wonder, how does a man with no legs get thrown into prison?) We walk to a canvas tent in the center of the courtyard. I look around at perhaps 400 men in matching yellow shirts and shorts, sitting on the dirt ground, waiting, staring forward. A man with a sinister gaze licks his lips. Another, his eyes buried beneath a brow so furrowed that it looks frozen in place, glares forward. Some of the inmates look soft. Others are shirtless and menacing.

There are some large, metal, steaming bowls at the other end of the courtyard. There's what looks to be a shower area that has been hit by a rocket. There are about eight wide rooms with nothing in them but inmates. And I gather that this decrepit prison contains nothing other than this incredible amount of people, all crammed together and watched by a handful of Kalashnikov-toting cops, penned in by some crusty walls and a very long length of barbed wire.

The fans offer Hannah a chair at the very center of the tent. I sit to her right. The fans place four heavy boxes of soap at the edge of the tent. The deputy warden calls up a skinny, older man in his yellow uniform to translate what's going on from English to Luo. Then, each of us introduce ourselves. The fans all yell something, wait for the response of the crowd, then give short, bombastic speeches, presumably about football.

Then comes the "royal dance," the bwola dance, to entertain the guests of the prison.

The bwola dance used to be performed only in the courts of Acholi chiefs - during their coronations, during special ceremonies, after their deaths. Now the bwola dance goes on in competitions, festivals, at schools, at prisons. Norman Okot, a music and dance trainer at Health, Education, Literacy and Sports (HEALS), a lifeskills program for children, tells me later that bwola is a very special dance of Acholiland.

A man sits on a drum before the tent of fans. He taps out a beat with wooden sticks onto the two drums in front of him. Twenty men in shorts and t-shirts are lined up in two rows off at the other end of the courtyard. A man stands at the lead. He yells out a nasally call, a long and oblique statement in a form of Luo that, some say, doesn't make sense to many Acholi. The men call out a response, deep and guttural.

In unison they kneel down, elbows elaborately placed to their sides, and then move forward, the shells on their ankles jingling. Their arms arc around and each of them hits a small drum in their hand. All twenty of them pop together.

Standing behind them, a man in a ragged shirt slams on a giant drum. The call is still oblique and nasally, the response deep and guttural. They all creep forward in short and majestic stride. The cycle continues and then, without warning, everything comes together.

Now they are in yaro, the true shape of bwola, a fierce and ornate circle that consumes the man at the drum. The two drummers converge and make a galloping beat. The circle is swift. Lean male bodies gleam with sweat. Vigorous but ornate, synchronized perfectly, their shells jingling at their ankles. The arms of the prisoners arc around in unison and hit twenty small drums. Pop.

Hannah sits at the center of the tent, one leg crossed over the other. She tells me later that the experience felt colonial. The men, she said, seemed to be dancing only for her.

A cloud of dust swivels around the dancers as they reach acura, the climax. The Manchester fans around them join in the dance, angling themselves to widen the circle, kneeling down and trotting forward, clapping their hands in unison. A hefty fellow in a red jersey blows into a flute made of animal horn, an obute, wiggling his fingers. There is a loud, high-pitched, two-tone cry.

The Manchester fans invite me to join, but I turn down the offer. Sammy tells me later that he is disappointed in me. He is a man, he tells me. He dances the bwola because that is what men do.

The galloping of the drums slow and eventually stop. The circle breaks apart. The bwola has come to an end. It is time to leave the laundry soap for the prisoners.

After the inmates give a ceremonial clap as a thank you and goodbye, the fans, Hannah and I exit the courtyard and head back into the free world. The sun is beating down and a crowd awaits us all. Hannah and I, as newly-coronated Manchester fans ("You're a Manchester fan?" countless people ask, to the point that I get sick of explaining myself and just start saying "Yes.") are strongly urged to join the parade in a march towards the hotel at the other end of town. There will be a feast to finish off today's celebration.

Hannah and I are being separated by more and more delighted fans. I wonder about going to the feast - if we will be hit by an inertia of meeting and eating that will spiral off deep into the night, then into next morning, then into God knows when. We break through the crowds and reunite, then slip away and head back to our hotel.

And the parade - banner, marching band, weighed-down pickup truck, indestructible beat of Acholiland, red jerseyed Manchester fans, and all - continues its journey through the day.