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I DREAM UGANDA:
THOUGHTS ON HELL, HOPE AND HUMILITY

Wednesday May 17/2006

 

Whereof we cannot speak,
Thereof we must be silent.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein

Note: see Uganda Rising, The Conflict in Northern Uganda, for a brief background of the conflict.

 

In July of 2005, I got a call from Jesse Miller, one of my closest friends, who had been approached by Alison Lawton of Mindset Media to put together a 50-minute film from footage she and her very able crew had gathered in Northern Uganda over the previous couple of years. Jesse in turn generously asked me to write and co-direct the piece with him.  So without ever having been to Uganda—I still have not been—and after a day or two of deliberation, I enthusiastically agreed to sign on.

In watching the original footage—which was at turns disturbing, beautiful, inspiring, shocking, painful, humbling and convoluted—two emotions overtook me. The first was simultaneous sadness and compassion for the ache and depravity of humanity.

The second was a compulsive desire to understand the historical context of Uganda and the African continent. For how else but through some sort of history can we even remotely come to comprehend the heinous, soul destroying terrorism of rebel leader Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army?

As it turned out, many of Kony’s horrific weapons of terror—for example the severing of limbs and heads, murder and the threat of murder, the kidnapping of people—have precedents all over the historical record of colonialism (and elsewhere, I am sure). A cursory glance at Belgian rule in the Congo and their madness for rubber would suffice, but why stop there?

It is and was everywhere, beyond and before colonialism. Why? I don’t know.

1961: VIOLENCE AND PROPHESY

In light of the darkness of Kony’s horrific violence and perverse alchemy with Christianity and the Ten Commandments, his communication with spirits and his probable psychosis, it might be instructive to read a passage from the 1961 preface (written by the famed French writer Jean Paul Sartre) of Franz Fanon’s African manifesto for independence, The Wretched of the Earth.

“If this suppressed fury [of the oppressed] fails to find an outlet, it turns in a vacuum and devastates the oppressed creatures themselves. In order to free themselves they even massacre each other.

The different tribes fight between themselves since they cannot face the real enemy—and you can count on colonial policy to keep up their rivalries; the man who raises his knife against his brother thinks that he has destroyed once and for all the detested image of their common degradation, even though these expiatory victims don’t quench their thirst for blood.

They can only stop themselves from marching against the machine-guns by doing our work for us; of their own accord they will speed up the dehumanisation that they reject.

Does this not feel like the Rwandan genocide, or Kony—who is an Acholi—killing and terrorizing Acholi civilians when it’s the government he means to overthrow?

By “us” Sartre means the settlers or the colonialists, but he could just as easily be describing the post-independent tyrannies of Idi Amin, Bokassa of the Central African Republic, Mobutu Sese Seko of what was Zaire and on and on—all of who began careers with their colonial armies.

“Under the amused eye of the [oppressor], they [the oppressed] will take the greatest precautions against their own kind by setting up supernatural barriers, at times reviving old and terrible myths, at others binding themselves by scrupulous rites.

Reading Sartre’s 1961 preface, it was as if Kony himself was being described—although Kony was not yet (or barely) born.

It is in this way that an obsessed person flees from his deepest needs—by binding himself to certain observances which require his attention at every turn. They dance; that keeps them busy; it relaxes their painfully contracted muscles; and then the dance mimes secretly, often without their knowing, the refusal they cannot utter and the murders they dare not commit. In certain districts they make use of that last resort—possession by spirits.”

Sartre describes the process of degradation: “Formerly this was a religious experience in all its simplicity, a certain communion of the faithful with sacred things; now they make of it a weapon against humiliation and despair; Mumbo-Jumbo and all the idols of the tribe come down among them, rule over their violence and waste it in trances until it is exhausted.”

One thing Sartre and most ideologues can’t seem to consider, however, is someone like Kony’s individual nature in the first place. This is vital because no matter what the circumstance, Kony is responsible for his actions.

And what is to be learned if perhaps all “souls” similar to Kony’s nature (wherever they exist in the world) will respond to oppression, prejudice or religious domination in some variation of this Ugandan madness—in the past, now, and in the future?

Sartre continues: “Colonial estrangement” goes “one better in religious estrangement…” and the two reinforce each other.

“Thus in certain psychoses the hallucinated person, tired of always being insulted by his demon, one fine day starts hearing the voice of an angel who pays him compliments; but the jeers don’t stop for all that; only from then on, they alternate with congratulations. This is a defence, but it is also the end of the story; the self is disassociated, and the patient heads for madness.

Or forms a church or leads a rebel group or commits suicide. Who knows? But the result becomes us all: shames us, degrades us, scares us, infuriates us, detaches us, controls us and sometimes kills or maims us. This is but one horrific aspect of humanity’s invisible yet undeniable interdependence.

Sartre finishes his thesis this way: “Let us add…that other witchery of which I have already spoken: Western culture…Two worlds: that makes two bewitchings; they [the oppressed] dance all night and at dawn they crowd into the churches to hear mass; each day the split widens. Our enemy [the oppressed] betrays his brothers and becomes our accomplice; his brothers do the same thing. The status of ‘native’ is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among colonized people with their consent.”

Although Fanon’s book is a penetrating analysis of the time bomb anger of the oppressed, I found his answers curiously aligned with the violent techniques of oppression.

Fanon leaves out (perhaps unavoidably in this case) the possibility of beauty or joy as the true nature of a human being—perhaps just as leaders like, say, Museveni and Bush are unable to see beyond military devastation as a means to resolve odious situations.

For Fanon, violence is not only inevitable, it was and is the answer to the African regaining his dignity and manhood. Anger and righteousness notwithstanding, I cannot believe that to be purely so.

DO UNTO WOMAN

Many religions have a variation on the golden rule that implores humans to see the world as ourselves, ourselves in the other—and love accordingly. Jesus was not writing for Hallmark when he said, “No longer love your neighbour, love your enemy.” Surely this doesn’t mean without discernment. It is a cry for inner work, for deeper understanding, for wider vision.

I know how hard this is. I feel not enough about the plight of others both locally, globally—so little about the possible ravages of global warming, for example. Why is this? I am not sure. Am I too comfortable? I literally have to practice remembering, expressing more love. How does a person expand compassion?

Noam Chomsky says in the film, “These things do not happen in one place. You know we tend to mislead ourselves by studying Africa and Vietnam and Haiti and so on—which is fine, we should study them. But the main thing to study is ourselves. There is a centre of power—not one, but several centres of power. And the things that are happening in Latin America and Africa and India and so on are often very similar because they’re all being pretty much organized from the same centres. As long as we just sort of look at it as something out there, it’s very convenient, but it’s much more sensible to look in the mirror.”

So many writers of revolution and politics, be they the oppressed or the oppressor, seem to write almost exclusively as if women do not exist—or if they do, they are insignificant to affecting change.

In short, in a Darwinistic world of survival—which seems self-evident in the context of depraved power systems—women (and children) are literally under the gun, and are not involved in change—yet they are being changed.

I don’t know how to exactly describe this, say, feminine principle, but seeking to embrace and protect it may be essential to lessening violence. Are not the protection and exaltation of women and the listening to women intimately connected to tolerance, to the exaltation of beauty and an awareness of the astounding miracle of existence? Is sustainable change possible if the female voice/essence remains unexplored? Is it seen within Kony’s sickness? Museveni’s aggression? Within the military bluster of poor George Bush and his advisors?

In the film it was written this way:

“Twenty years have passed, but who can say when or where the conflict really began? Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl once wrote that under brutality the best will not return.

But life itself is hope.

Who will protect the joyous spirit of the child, the healing spirit and beauty of the woman? Who will defend the men who defend these ideals?”

The feminine principle is more than the rights of women, although those rights are inherently within this principle. The feminine principle is nurturance, beauty, listening, embracing, protecting—whomever possesses these instincts. As writer Maya Angelou puts it:

“The sadness of the women's movement is that they don't allow the necessity of love. See, I don't personally trust any revolution where love is not allowed.”

Erin Baines, who has done extensive research in Ugandan IDP camps—at great personal risk—explains how, ironically, even demasculinization enforces oppression of the feminine.

“When the camps were created, it completely disrupted the gender division of labour, because men could no longer work, and they certainly didn’t have a political voice in things. What happened is you had men become completely disempowered, lose their identity not only as Acholi, but also as men. The only way they could continue to feel they had any kind of power was vis-a-vis the women. So they could at least say this is my woman and you will do this for me. All of this is compounded by the fact that in order to fill their day or despair, men have turned to drink. And there is a high prevalence of alcoholism in the camps—which women brew. Which intensifies the level of anxiety and agitation that men feel, which is then again unleashed on women and children in the form of violence.”

The horrendous phenomenon of non-protection of women and children seems to be most terrifyingly present where women are uneducated and impoverished—and, perhaps for those reasons, unheard.

This feminine aspect was (and is) also a significant part of the spirituality of many indigenous cultures. Worship is focused on the earth as a living entity, filled with invisible beings.

This concept is absent (and heretical) in the Middle Eastern religions, where God is Male and his prophets, relations and chosen ones are largely the same. Angels are more likely to play the harp in heaven or prepare virgins for a believer’s arrival than be the essence behind the gift of water or the lungs of trees. What a curious world we live in.

In putting the film together, I was frustratingly unable to find either the space or the understanding—or even the interview subject—to adequately explain the extent of damage done to a culture whose spirituality, their very soul, has been ripped out from beneath them (nature) and from within them (the connection to nature). A glance at Africa today may at least offer a partial answer.

This destruction is evident in the indigenous people of Canada today, where residential schools in the mid 1900s sought to decimate native language, religion and culture as evil, and almost did so. What remains cannot be fully rebuilt in a world ideology of market share and ownership of land and resources.

All of this does not necessarily explain the sickness of Joseph Kony, of course—what does? Who can understand the mind-workings of the leader behind the abduction of some 25,000 children (or more) and 20 years of random terror against his own people? Or the continuing hell in the Congo, with its four million deaths in ten years, in Darfur in Sudan, or Rwanda’s neglected genocide of 800,000 people in 100 days a mere twelve years ago?

But perhaps the past is a beginning.

Where will I stake my hopes of understanding life and self? In the political, the economic, the historical, the spiritual? In silence, in love, in anger, in despair?

PRESIDENTIAL PRAGMATISM

On the other side of the conflict (between the two are the people of Northern Uganda), President Museveni’s military response has often led to more immediate misery than hope.

But perhaps Museveni’s biggest and most pervasively damaging move was ten years ago, in 1996, when he implemented Internal Displacement Person Camps as a means to protect the Acholi population.

This has led to over 1.5 million people (over 90% of the Acholi population) living in camps that lack the most basic necessities, unable to grow crops, often surrounded by barbed wire, dependent on the World Food Program for survival, and still relatively unprotected from rebels.

James Otto of Human Rights Focus said in the film, “The camps have become a one-stop centre where the rebels could do whatever they choose. They could loot, they could rape, they could kill. So the government, without perhaps intending it, has made the work of the rebels easier.”

By 2005 it was estimated by the Ugandan Ministry of Health that nearly a thousand people a month were dying in the camps, far more than have been killed by Kony’s terrorist Lord’s Resistance Army. In the words of Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani, “…by any standard this is a crime against humanity.”

In short, outside of loving more, seeing myself in another, always protecting women and children before power or profit, and raising awareness, I don’t know the answer,

The government’s premise of annihilating terrorism through military action has proved to be both insufficient and deadly for the civilian population. Remember in the first place that more than 80% of the Lord’s Resistance Army are abducted children.

Secondly, the idea of relentless military annihilation of terrorists carries the insane assumption (at least to some of the public and perhaps a few dim-witted political yes men) that terrorism can be confined to a definable, finite group of individuals.

Unfortunately, this is untrue, as has been evident with George Bush’s shameless yet never-ending War On Terror and assault on honesty. It is today the non-violent civilian population—Iraq/Afghanistan/Northern Uganda, anywhere—and mostly women and children who have to pay the cost (both monetarily in the States and in despair elsewhere) for terrorism and terrorist response to that terrorism.

Finally, as has been said so many times before, the effect of trying to annihilate terrorists seems to breed not only increased terrorist response (against civilians) and the creation of more terrorists (to kill civilians), but also entrenches those doing the annihilating towards greater violence. Yogis put this in spiritual terms: we become like that upon which we meditate (or try to annihilate).

I must confess other uncertainties that possessed me during the making of the film. As much as the evidence indicates the Museveni government has been woefully inadequate in providing protection for Northern Ugandans, either physically or emotionally, I recall at times being unable to sleep at the thought of the President’s predicament.

The layers of problems facing Uganda were and are extreme: a pre-historical language barrier between the North and South; an historical politicization and split between the North and South imposed with the divide and rule strategies of British colonialism; a civil war in the post Idi Amin era of the early 1980s, largely between Museveni’s Southern-based supporters and rebels from the North—with wide-scale massacres carried out at a place known as the Luwero Triangle, leaving great bitterness and loathing between different groups of people; and of course crippling debt to international institutions.

When Museveni came to power in 1986, the rebel groups that remained fighting against him were and are from the North. When those groups started to abduct and kill their own Northern kin to build up their rebel army, Museveni was unable to fully protect those Northern civilians. At the same time, as Amnesty International pointed out, Museveni’s troops continued to intimidate and sometimes brutalize and kill the local Acholi population.

Even if Museveni wanted to protect the North, his dilemma was huge. Firstly, the Ugandan army doesn’t have the soldiers to offer full protection. The second option would be to arm the Northern civilian population against the rebels. Now, what Southern leader would arm a group of people who traditionally have been opposed to the South, recently fought against the South, with massacres committed, and really dislike said leader? What leader would gain power in a country (Uganda) and then call in international aid (the UN) for support, thereby admitting having lost control of the country just subdued through a brutal civil war?

My final thought related to the stress of the job: imagine suddenly having leadership of a post-colonial African country—with colonialism, indirect rule, Milton Obote and Idi Amin as your predecessors.

Whether the leadership was obtained through political or military means, and regardless of the intelligence of the leader, I do not envy the role. Perhaps the only thing worse than inheriting the leadership of an African country is to be subject to the leader of that country.

In the end it is the government’s responsibility to protect their citizenry. But the people of Northern Ugandan have been randomly terrorized for twenty years, and displaced and confined to IDP camps for ten years—losing a generation of production and culture.

So if we can conclude that aspects of this nightmare have been brought forth by the ills of slavery, colonialism, tyranny, neurotic religion, chronic debt, deprivation and so on, Uganda’s plight then becomes not the purely tribal problem of a few savages killing each other (once again—see mainstream press), but questions and statements upon human nature as a whole.

This then brings all of us into the story, into the discussion—for it is a human question, answerable only with the help of the female voice, and with the understanding that we are all somehow related.

The question therefore may be: why are humans like this? The statement may be: given enough brutality this sort of hell will arise.

SOUL CONSIDERATION

Despite being a hard-hitting documentary, it is the complexity of Uganda that made us stress the importance of love in the healing of Uganda—and ourselves. It was not an easy artistic choice, for we knew it could appear abstract or, even worse, trite.

But in the end, it seemed to us that love, resilience, hope and family, the need to protect women, the need to support men who support these ideals and so on, were the least of all abstractions—and it is the masculine idea of control through annihilation that considers love to be trite.

Human nature, by its nature, cannot be solved—though through intellectual debate, or the imposition of ideology, be it political or religious, we keep trying. It seems we are all uniquely under the same dilemma, the same ignorance, even if the circumstances vary—and they clearly do.

If one doesn’t feel love, compassion or outrage on behalf of his fellow brothers and sisters—indeed if we don’t see each other this way—what will possibly motivate action? And what could motivated action do?

Uganda and Africa remain haunted by the past, and still hammered today, as we say in the film, by “…racism, religious domination and the continued scramble…” for her resources. Love is needed. An activation of the human heart is needed—I know this because mine is hard to activate, and I am a loving, caring person.

But what activates the heart? Can images and film push the heart to act? Or does action awaken the heart? The answer again is unknown and individual, but both contribute. If I waited for my heart to break to do something, I would never act. This project fell onto my lap—the opportunity to do something.

It is thought that the first anatomically modern humans emerged (whatever that means) in Africa some 200,000 years ago (given present day bone findings). So when did this conflict really begin? 1986? During the 1970s with Idi Amin’s abominable regime or the imposition of strangling World Bank and IMF policies? Independence? Colonialism? Slavery?  Two hundred thousand years ago? At the moment of the Big Bang? The argument is tautological. The truth is heartbreak. The fact is human condition. The hope is love.

In the April 2006 Harper’s magazine, an article on the forgotten horrors in the Congo by journalist Bryan Mealer, and entitled Congo’s Daily Blood: Ruminations From a Failed State, he writes, “Dave [his fellow journalist friend] and I had a joke we liked to tell the aid workers and the U.N. flacks after we’d had too much beer: that there wasn’t a single person in the Congo who had any idea what was really going on. It wasn’t a joke anybody laughed at but it was one we both could agree on, and it offered a little relief. No one had the slightest clue, top to bottom.”

In all humility, I don’t know what is going on in Uganda (having never been there) or, for that matter, in Canada (having lived here most of my life)—where life is for many so easy. What seems clear is that there is some system, some force that for as long as history has been written has put things—be they resources, money or power—before humans. My unknowingness is part of the reason I would like my next documentary to be on the nature of the soul.

The truth is, humans—scientists, scholars, activists and theologians alike—don’t know what it means to be human. We are utterly mysterious and ignorant; we shine, we fade, we reappear—or do we? How does a human being work? Are we souls? Are we a series of synapses firing according to impulses from without? Are we eternal? Are we temporary? Why is violence wrong? Why is love right? Where do we find our authority? Are we all just cogs in Darwin’s theories of unconscious change and Herbert Spencer’s survival of the fittest?

In Hinduism there is the concept of asuras. These are souls that are attracted to darkness, that choose to go deeper into matter. They live off people. Known as demons, or followers of Satan in Christianity, or perhaps the negative jok in parts of East Africa, we see them everywhere: Joseph Kony in Uganda, political leaders or CEOs who mindlessly plunder the environment or exploit human beings as slave labour for maximum shareholder benefit.

Of course, this is also exalted on Wall Street—which makes life very tricky indeed. Is the survival of Africa a fight against years of bad luck—from Third World Dictators to famine to AIDS—or against an all-pervasive ideology of unsustainability, exploitation and death that has no fixed address?

We can also see these asuras—or whatever it is—in ourselves. They are attracted to the smell of hate, aggression and arrogance. What is that unstoppable pull away from listening that one feels in the midst of heated argument?

It was a good month for Harper’s magazine. Curtis White in another article wrote: “It is an astonishing irony that many of these religious anti-Darwinians [the Christian Right] are in their politics and economics the most uncompromising Social Darwinians, with a naïve and self-defeating assumption of the virtue of competition.”

Of course, millions, perhaps billions of decent human beings would disagree with what Curtis says. They would say competition is virtuous, or necessary anyway—or at least unavoidable.

It is as if human souls—thus human beings—have both collective and infinite lineages, energetics, natures. When these given natures arise in a given cultural or political milieu, they attach to an ideology of that culture that matches their nature, and take on myriad other likes and dislikes and then call that conglomeration of desires and beliefs self. This self then calls all those choices free will. But what do we really choose?

We do not choose—at least not as far as we can tell—what we’ll look like, what we’ll be attracted to, sexual orientation, parents and so on—let alone where we will be born or where we will arise.

Surely if certain natures (take, say, the general nature of those who become fundamentalists—in whatever field) were to be born in Saudi Arabia instead of America they would be just as fundamentalist, but Muslims—or whatever.

If I was born years ago (say 1960) in a country (say Uganda) that had forced upon it a religion (say Christianity or Islam), took away my religion (say a nature worshiping religion), here’s a guess of who I might be, due to my nature, my body, my mind, and what it can digest.

1) I think I would be slightly more mentally agitated by these controls and disruptions on my thought process (then I am by the controls on my thought process today here in Canada) and would probably have chronic colitis as opposed to the bouts I had while playing junior hockey.

2) I’d be inclined towards the mystical side of my culture’s nature-religion and trying to somehow find common ground between it and Christianity—straining to keep the ecumenical conversation as wide open as possible.

3) I’d be potentially capable of medium courage or I’d be a shattered man, spirit broken—depending on the pressure applied by outside forces.

4) I would probably kill if I had to, but I probably would not lead or even follow an uprising of violence

5) If I went to university I would probably study multiple religions and/or diverse paths of psychology focusing on conflict resolution.

6) My studies in five would probably not help.

In short, I would still like underdogs, wordplay, songwriting and women and my spirituality would be personal and devotional in its essence. That is the best I can guess. The worst would still be the worst of my nature—anxiety, fear, paranoia—dressed in different clothes.

(Heck, I have a wisp of fear, anxiety and paranoia writing this essay right now—but mostly love, and the desire to love more.)

If there is any answer to be found for me, the only hope of tracking it down is through deeper and deeper humility; a straining to listen; a cry out to myself, to the heavens, for the deeper understanding that we are all acutely limited, controlled and manipulated by the human condition. When the world is insane, material things are more important than people.

How can I listen more deeply to the people within this family circle, on my street, in my city, my country, my world—all across this remarkable breathing globe of life, hurtling towards God knows where and for God knows what reason? What is behind the cosmos? What is inside the cosmos? What resides in my heart, and how do I refine it towards beauty?

Martin Luther King said: “Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies…or else? The chain reaction of evil— hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars— must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”

This begs the even deeper, unmentionable question: could there be forces in the world today consciously or unconsciously desiring the destruction (and control), in part or in whole, of vast amounts of people (the people of Africa, for example) while others try to bandage the injury? If so, who might that be, and why?

This may sound insane (and it is), but if colonialism or slavery or the Rwandan genocide were intentional—and weren’t they?—what about famine or AIDS?

I’m not actually sure human nature is so collectively similar. Some people enjoy violence, enjoy war. Anyone can look at Kony, or countless others, and see this to be true—and if this is true for a psychotic madman rebel, why not government leaders or CEOs of world financial institutions? The global military and arms trade make up the world’s biggest business. Not food. Not education. Not health care.

So as much as I desire so-called world peace, I don’t believe it to be possible. But I do believe less war, less violence, is very possible. That would be so beautiful, and in every moment we can fight for that. Countless heroic people from all walks of life—even ones I seem to have been criticizing—do fight for that.

As I write this, I have heard rumours of IDP camps being slowly disassembled, so maybe there is hope. Days ago, Kony sent a message to President Museveni, seeking peace—which doesn’t say a lot for the word, but could still hasten the end to this dark segment of violence.

I like to dream of Ugandans tilling their land without fear, going to school without fear, loving without fear. I like to dream of men free to be poets. I like to dream of women and children living without fear. I like to dream of beauty.

Making Uganda Rising, even without ever having been to Uganda, was a remarkable opportunity—a remarkable process of trying to remember who I am, and who I might become. I may have no answers, but the answer to what I was trying to do with this film is exactly the answer I get in my meditations when I ask, “what should I do?”

That answer is always the same: love more.

 

Photo: Chris Wayatt

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copyright 2006 Pete McCormack