Peace Moves and Strategies in War Ravaged Village

John Otim
John Otim, a nature enthusiast, composer, poet, writer and journalist. Studied literature at Makerere University, went to graduate school at Indiana University and taught at Ahmadu Bello University in Northern Nigeria. Favorite line – I pick no flower that wins the bee





For hours they trekked for kilometers in a situation that brought them close to danger.  Given what it was at the time in Northern Uganda, anyone could have shot them dead and that would be that.

Now cautiously the men were making their way to what used to be their village. In the solitude of the dawn hour the men had slipped away out of the refugee camp that was their home, which had been their home for years now. A great gustily clamoring of mud huts straight out of medievalism.

Vandalized property

The men were on a mission to reclaim their lives, to take it back. In the eighties when the war first came to Northern Uganda in a barrage of gunfire their lives had been shattered, entire communities uprooted, sent packing to camps far and near. Overnight otherwise thriving communities were reduced to destitution. In the years at camp they lost everything, crucially they lost the ability to make a living. By their loss the country lost something. In the squalor of camp life the good old mores of the village disintegrated and gave way to criminal ways. Now the ghosts of crime and the insanity of camp life were returning to plague the nation.

Years had gone and the war in Northern Uganda was abetting, peace was coming back but nothing was certain. So now the men had sneaked back to the village they used to call home to see what they could do. They were young men. They were the advance guard. If all went well on this mission others would follow. The advance guard would mobilize the people to return. The old vibrant life of the community would rise again. Perhaps in time the village would thrive again. It was better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven. Those thoughts again. For sure none of these men had heard of John Milton much less read Paradise Lost. 

Vandalized property

But now that they were here, back to the village after that long absence, now that they were back walking the same grounds they used to play on, the men felt their old energies return. They were connected. They heard the old drums beat again. But it was all a momentary thing. Now that their eyes were wide open and they could see fully, what they saw took the life out of them.

Returing to wreked homestead

The village was a total ruin. Farmlands once filled with rice and millet stalks were wilderness. Monkeys were returning in droves. But the teaming livestock once the hallmark of the village was gone. Cattle was the wealth of the sub region. The once neat homesteads where women lovingly bossed their men, the trimmed schoolyard where school children held mini Olympics, the roads on which roared old fashion trucks and buses, and the other village infrastructures, were wrecks of their former selves. The old railway, the lifeline to the North was no more.

Idle rail station

Despondent and despairing the men retreated to the veranda of the only store in the village, the spirit gone from them. “The time is out of joint! Oh cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right!” Hamlet. To be or not to be was the question. But it did not take long for an answer.

By their own efforts, with help from Ochan Self-help Alliance, the people of Opac were setting the times right. I saw it my self when I made the journey back to Opac this last Christmas season. Christmas is the harvest season in Opac. There is nothing to raise the spirit like the promise of better days ahead. Men are creatures of hope.  And in Opac as I found out, hope made all the difference.

It was Ochan Self-help Alliance that brought hope. The Maryland registered non-profit body connected the people of Opac to the world beyond their boarders and showed them what could be done even by people in their situation. At the time the people of Opac had nothing with which to begin the mammoth task they knew they had to do. The Agency mobilized resources, brought in equipment, and erected enabling structures, all for free.

help me if you can i ‘m feeling down
help me get my feet back on the ground
won’t you please please help me
(help lyrics)

 The people of Opac who had come face to face with death and raw brutality, saw now that good still existed in the world. Their spirits lifted and they drove themselves harder than they ever did. Men and women in the fields, kids in classrooms, had the fire burning in their eyes.

Fire in their eyes

Although these were the localities in which my own father first began his teaching career, places of which I heard him speak very fondly, I myself  was visiting Opac only for second time.  Since I first visited last May during the planting season when the land was lush, green and fresh. It was as if the evils you heard in the stories people told did not happen here, did not to these people!

If the progress I saw in Opac depended on one thing, it was the crop, sunflower. To see in the fields as I saw in Opac, the graceful yellow flower dance in the sun in field after field. To realize that for the village this meant good income was a wonderful thing. For me it was strawberry fields for ever.

Sunflower fields

Sunflower was the essence of the hope that Ochan Self-help Alliance had inspired in Opac. Where the village could find no crop seed to put in their fertile soil, no matter where they went and how hard they tried, the Agency like magic supplied them with free seeds. It secured on top a competitive market and free transport for their produce over forbidding road conditions.

It was the run up to Christmas. The big day was only days away. I stood in the fields in Opac and observed the women as they set upon the ready yields to bring home the harvest. The time was approaching noon. The women had been at it by dawn.  Where did their energies come from? Later that evening I saw by the common store, sacks upon sacks of neatly processed sunflower seeds and I knew the answer. There is nothing like hope even though Ssaka Ssali of the Voice of America by his over use has devalued the word: Keep Hope Alive.