Up country: widows, ‘tribalism’ and class

One of British colonialism’s minor legacies here in Uganda is an odd way of talking about travel outside the capital city. Londoners, if they go away for the week-end, always go to ‘the country.’ Could be Berkshire, Devon, Norfolk, doesn’t really matter, if it’s not London then it’s just ‘the country.’ (Come to think of it, New Yorkers talk the same way about ‘upstate.’) Ugandans too have adopted this cosmopolitan, syntactic mannerism. New inhabitants of the steadily expanding capital soon learn to divide this complex, multi-ethnic country, with 32 million people speaking 30 different languages, into just two parts. There’s Kampala and then there’s ‘up country.’

Last week I went up country—to Lira District in the mid north. This seems to have settled down now after the long rebellion by the Lord’s Resistance Army and the government counter-insurgency campaign. My main interest on this trip, though, is in what is happening to Uganda’s farmland, the country’s primary, and almost sole, natural resource. But war and its aftermath are the ‘back-story’ that keeps jumping to the fore.

I had arranged to meet James Ongu, a regional programme officer for the NGO ActionAid, in the small, rather down-at-heel but seemingly relaxed town of Lira. Over a breakfast of chapatti and chicken in a pleasantly neat little café by the bus station he told me how the local peasant farmers became what are known in the aid trade as IDPs, ‘internally displaced persons.’ (Appalling, these ‘politically correct’ acronyms—PLWHAs for ‘people living with HIV/AIDS;’ PWDs for ‘people with disability’—as if such clinical language can smooth away suffering and confer dignity, whereas I find that in fact it erodes and denies their humanity.)

The insurgency began further north 22 years ago among the Acholi people (of whom there are slightly less than one million.) The rebels were ostensibly aggrieved about Uganda’s regional inequalities and the North’s lagging share of national expenditure; yet their own, well-documented atrocities against local people were more suggestive of warlordism. The violence spilled outwards into neighbouring areas, including Lira and surrounding districts inhabited predominantly by Langi people (c. 1.5 million altogether). Some with relatives or connections in Kampala or elsewhere migrated away from the area. Less fortunate rural people, James says, sought safety in times of danger by clustering at their nearest “trading centre,” the name given to roadside, ribbon-development villages with a few general stores.

In 2002, after rebel activities intensified, the government gazetted more than 20 ‘Internally Displaced Persons’ camps in Lira District alone (which comprises some 7,000 square kilometres—roughly the size of Devon—and 750,000 people.) The camps, guarded by government troops, each held up to 10,000 people living mainly on relief aid. Those whose land was within walking distance, became “night commuters:” going out by day to tend their “gardens” and returning to the camps at night. It’s women who do the farming here, the hard work anyway. Many men, James says, left their wives and children in the camps and remained in trading centres or migrated to Lira, trying to find “small jobs” or set up in “petty business.” Quite a few have stayed on, swelling the urban population. James adds that “Most of the men resorted to drinking, nursing their frustration with alcohol, and became alcoholics. They even start drinking in the morning.”

It’s a tragic story, but perhaps not as tragic as that of the Acholi people further north, who bore the main brunt of the chaotic violence. Starting in the mid ’90s, the government concentrated the peasants in camps, ostensibly for their own protection but also to clear the ground for counter-insurgency operations that, in the event, took many years to ‘stabilise’ the region (with the rebels eventually driven across the borders to Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.) Critical voices, easy enough to find, allege that government troops also committed atrocities against civilians suspected of sympathising with the rebels. Some, depressingly, have even alleged government-perpetrated “genocide,” a word whose growing currency I deplore. In Kampala, I have several times heard quite ordinary people (like taxi drivers, the old hack’s standby for the vox populi) suggest with breathtaking casualness that the LRA and Ugandan government both stood to gain from a prolonged war and were in no hurry to end it. I am a newcomer to the fog of this conflict and in no position to offer an opinion.

But in Lira District at any rate, according to James, 95% of the ‘internally displaced’ people have now returned home, leaving only the very old and “double orphans with both parents dead” behind in the camps. A new kind of normality is taking shape.

The exterior walls of the neat little café are painted bold pink—advertising Zain, one of the telecoms operators that now provide, in tax and licence fees, a large chunk of Ugandan government revenue. Many houses alongside the national highways are painted the same way. Others are painted in the red and blue of rival operator, Warid. Orange has just entered the Uganda market and we are standing by for an efflorescence of new colour.


James is planning to take me to the village of Barlonyo, a former ‘IDP’ camp an hour’s drive away. I had heard about this place while strolling round Lira’s half dozen central streets the day before and chatting to men sitting outside grocery stores nursing a bottle of beer or a plastic sachet of gin (500 shillings, US 25 cents, for a tenth of a litre.) Barlonyo was the site of a massacre in 2004. Everyone seems to agree that the LRA were responsible, torching shelters and riddling them with bullets, but the number of deaths is disputed. The central government claims that 121 people died but everyone I speak to in Lira insists that it was more than twice that many, around 300. I cannot get to the bottom of this discrepancy, about which people evidently feel strongly. Maybe the government wanted the atrocity acknowledged but understated, lest it seem they were out of control; or maybe it’s more complicated than that.

We zip in the ActionAid pick-up along red earth roads past sparsely populated land where crops are growing illegibly among fruit trees; landscapes I cannot read, so different from the intensive, orderly allotments I am used to seeing in China.

Seven kilometres before the village we stop to look at a large and now deserted open space lined with pits from former latrines and a row of rough, concrete classrooms where ‘internally displaced children’ used to study. They have all gone now, leaving only families who were originally local to this area. A couple of kilometres further on is the local school with dozens of children running around outside, in pink uniform (but lighter than Zain’s pink: I guess they haven’t got round to school sponsorship yet.)

We arrive at the village proper. Its homesteads are thatched, mud-walled huts but the centre of the community has a few brick buildings—a small shop and a store that is used for a ‘collective marketing’ project that ActionAid started to help people get a better price for their surplus maize and sesame. (People here, I am told, mostly sell at the farm gate to travelling buyers and receive less than half what their produce could command even in nearby Lira.) I am introduced to several villagers—all men, though some women show up later—who ActionAid has trained as community ‘facilitators’ of ‘Reflect circles’ that “link adult education to empowerment.” Quinto Okello, Barlonyo’s ‘lead facilitator’ of the process, has prepared a programme and takes charge of me.

He takes me to the outlying fields to meet Anna Akello who, barefoot, is using a long-handled spade with a spit as thin and bright as tinfoil to clear grass and weeds from a four acre plot that has been lying fallow. It’s a job that will require many days of hard labour before she can plant her maize and cassava, but she is at least happy to have access to the plot, which she obtained only after a long struggle.

Anna’s husband died in the massacre, leaving her with four children, aged between four and twelve. Her husband’s older brother then took over her land allocation, believing, she says (through Quinto as interpreter), that “women are useless at managing land.” She appealed to the clan elders, who allocate the land, and then with the help of the ActionAid facilitators to the sub-county government; and in the end her plot was restored.

Silveria Agugi, another widow, is working with borrowed oxen and plough on a field that she is renting. Her family’s ten acres were taken by the government to billet troops. Maybe as much as one of those acres was then used for burying the victims of the 2004 massacre, and the rest earmarked for a new school and training centre that the government has promised but not delivered. Silveria has not received any compensation. Her oldest daughter, who is herself now a young mother, and a widow too, has come home to the family for the little support it can afford.

Quinto tells me that President Museveni, who unveiled a monument at the site of the massacre a couple of months after it happened, has made too many pledges and now can’t keep them all. The current Minister for Land comes from a village not too far from here, he adds. The villagers have petitioned the Lira District government for compensation for those who have lost land. Local politicians are sympathetic, Quinto says, but he expects that any settlement will, at best, take many months to negotiate.

Alucy Awon, another widow whose land was appropriated by the government, survives by day-labouring in other people’s fields. If she works all day, she says, she can earn 1,500 shillings (US 75 cents.) I am taken aback to discover that she and Silveria Agugi are widows of the same man. Silveria was “the core wife,” according to Quinto; Alucy, presumably, a later, younger match, though you wouldn’t guess that to see her now. Did Alucy lack the entrepreneurial imagination to rent land and plough, or did she just lack some social status that core wives have? I didn’t ask but I wonder now. The two widows and their numerous children share a “compound”—a cluster of huts with no visible boundary—just across the track from where the mass graveyard is marked by an inelegant circle of raised concrete enclosing the monument that Museveni unveiled on the land the widows used to till.

I should at this point have asked to meet some of the more prosperous villagers who are renting land and hiring labour, but I am too slow-witted and absorbed in what I have already heard.

Reflection and prayer

Instead, I am invited to a meeting of the ActionAid facilitators conducted, for my benefit, mainly in English. It takes place in a recently built church, long and narrow, earth floors, mud walls, thatched roof, the only internal adornment a black cross painted on one wall. We sit on stones. I am invited to introduce myself so I try to explain my interests.

The great majority of Uganda’s farmland is under “customary tenure”—collectively owned, divided by clan elders, who also mediate in disputes. The government wants to codify and modernise the tenure system, introducing individual and transferable land title certificates. But some people defend the old ways. I am thinking here of Judy Adoko, who I met in Kampala: a rural researcher and the energetic founder of an NGO called the Land and Equity Movement of Uganda. Customary tenure, she argues, may not work well under the bruising impact of war, but at least it entails community recognition of responsibility for all members of the clan, and so is their main safety net. If there are disputes, the elders have a duty to mediate—not, as in a court of law, declaring one party the winner and the other a loser, but making sure there is a compromise that meets everyone’s needs. Also—this is not Judy’s thought but mine, based on following essentially the same debate for many years in China (which, late last year, made it formally possible to trade household land contracts)—if the land is permanently divided between families, effectively privatised, and a formal ‘land market’ created, might this not very soon increase landlessness, as some people sell parcels to better-off neighbours when they need to pay school or medical bills? So, what do people in Barlonyo think? And what alternative would there be here if people did lose their plots? Have they much experience of migrating to look for work? What else is there?

I have rambled and the facilitators are looking bemused. James summarises the main points in Langi. The last, most concrete question draws some response. Barlonyo people are so poor and uneducated, says one of the facilitators, that if they go out looking for work the most they can usually find is labouring on the few, large commercial farms. On sugar plantations, wages start at 35,000 shillings (USD 18) a month, he says. People don’t come back rich. James seems a bit uneasy about the broader questions and suggests they have a more detailed discussion next time. I wander outside taking snapshots while they talk about other business.

It’s way past lunchtime but, to my relief, no meal has been proposed. People are evidently too poor to offer hospitality. According to James, no-one eats breakfast. The women work in the fields until about one in the afternoon and then come back to cook. In better times, there will be another meal in the evening, but in the hungry season people postpone their lunch until four in the afternoon and that is the only meal.

Next item on the programme is watching a ‘Reflect circle’ in action. This is led by another facilitator, Moses. A couple of dozen women and babies, gathered under a tree, listen to a talk he gives on different kinds of landholding and informal exchange. I can’t understand a word that is being said, so wander away to watch a man burning off stubble—is handling fire usually a man’s job?—and return past a turbid stream where women and children are drawing water.

Both the facilitators’ meeting and the Reflect circle opened with a prayer. When, years ago, I first heard about the Lords Resistance Army from Western media, I took it to be some exotically crackpot aberration, led by a man who claimed the mission of “government by the Ten Commandments” but who, according to the reports, also abducted minors to serve as child soldiers and sex slaves. It made for richly ironic copy, with a final para reminding us that this was the country that earlier produced the crackpot dictator Amin. My few months here have helped me see that “Lord’s Resistance” would not sound crackpot to local ears. You don’t have to look far to find an intense religiosity of a kind that is seldom evident nowadays in the European countries that started exporting their religious rivalries to Africa 150 years ago.

Back in the village centre I buy from the brick-built shop a round of sweet, fizzy drinks for the facilitators—the most luxurious item in stock—and pose them for a group picture before I leave.

Unite, divide and misrule

Zipping back to the relative luxury of Lira’s 14,000 shilling a night Garden Inn, I quiz James about the LRA. To exist at all, surely they must once have had at least some popular support? Was that never the case here? No, he says flatly. Milton Obote, Uganda’s first post-independence president, who enjoyed a five-year renaissance after Amin was deposed, was a Langi. His second term was ended, in 1985, by an Acholi military coup that installed Tito Akello (who lasted only a year before Museveni’s National Resistance Army seized power.) The LRA, having emerged from the Acholi could never be supported by Langi. “People don’t talk about it but it’s there” James says.

I didn’t want to hear that. Obote was hardly a great leader, and I am reminded of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (perhaps apocryphal) remark about the Nicaraguan dictator and stooge of Washington, Anastasio Somoza García: “He’s a son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch.” And also of a recent, critically acclaimed book by Michaela Wrong, It’s Our Turn to Eat, which chronicles the courageous but unsuccessful exertions of Kenyan anti-corruption tsar (as the tabloids would say), John Githongo, now living in exile in London. The point of the title being that, as one reviewer puts it, in Kenya “it was generally accepted that the ruling group—the tribe, or coalition of tribes—feathered not only its own nest but also the nest of its ‘people’. . . and this was tolerated by the other groups as long as they thought they would get their go when the next election came round.” This cranks up the global view of Africa as a place riven by primitive ‘tribalism’ that just won’t go away.

To my unpracticed eyes Langi and Acholi people have much the same dark, broad-faced good looks and, I am told, they speak mutually intelligible dialects of the Luo family of languages. But it is of course more complicated than that. According to the website of the Lira District government:

“The origin of the Langi is somewhat obscure but it is generally held by a responsible majority [a phrase that invokes ‘irresponsible’ counter voices] that they originated from Abyssinia in Ethiopia . . . It is generally held that the last swath of the migration took place between 1800 to 1890. Apart from times of wars when some sort of cohesion was achieved under one or more war leaders, the Langi before the adventure of British administration were divided into many small groups or clans each with its own leader, holding the office of the Chieftain.”

The Acholi, by contrast, are “generally held” to have migrated into the area, centuries ago, from southern Sudan, and perhaps this is enough to satisfy ethnic nationalists of some profound difference, despite the many similarities in their past forms of life and more recent history.

The political historian Samwiri Rubaraza Karugire talks of these groups’ pre-colonial “fundamental philosophy: the belief and practice that all important decisions affecting the community could only be arrived at, not by a single person, but by the consensus of the elders representing the different clans constituting the community.” (A Political History of Uganda, 1980, Heineman, Nairobi and London, p. 11.) This consensual approach to government, which Karugire compares to the city-state democracies of ancient Greece, naturally limited the size of their communities. Rather than unitary states their nations comprised networks of autonomous clans over which nominal chiefs “reigned but did not rule,” led from below.

Then came “the adventure of British administration.” (I suspect the original draft of the Lira government website originally read “the adventure of British colonialism” but was politely amended in light of the fact that Her Britannic Majesty’s taxpayers are dishing out GBP 75 million per year in aid to our former protectee.) When the British arrived with the offer of Queen Victoria’s ‘protection,’ Acholi and Langi neighbours suddenly found themselves lumped together with distant peoples who had coalesced into (relatively small) kingdoms: Ankole, Bunyoro and, pre-eminently, Buganda, after which the entire colony, and later the independent nation, was named. (Imagine the whole of Europe suddenly being named ‘France.’) The British were much impressed by Buganda’s centralised administration, which greatly facilitated ‘indirect rule.’

However, while Buganda enjoyed (and continues to enjoy) special status and privileges in several ways, and comparative wealth, it was also necessary to contain Baganda nationalism. One way was recruiting the military from other areas, notably the north. This colonial pattern continued beyond independence—causing friction between Acholi and Langi, who vied for control of the army.

Uganda’s most powerful national military and political leaders have largely been drawn from outlying regions, away from the Buganda heartlands; the country has never had a Muganda president. (Confusingly for Europeans, ‘Muganda’ is the singular of ‘Baganda,’ meaning the people of Buganda, whose language is ‘Luganda.’ One can see why the British dropped the first letter when naming the territory.) The Baganda are the largest single ethnicity in Uganda, although comprising only around 17% of the population. Among some of them there is a strong strain of ethnic nationalism, indeed supremacism. For example, a book on sale in the Kampala tourist site of the kingdom’s royal tombs baldly states in its Introduction that “the Baganda are known to have the best morals across the African continent.” (Nicholas K. Ssewanya, The Legendary Kingdom, 2007, [no named publisher,] page v.) Best cuisine, best drumming, best football team; all of that might pass without comment; but “best morals” is scary. And so ‘the Buganda issue’ and, more generally, maintaining a balance of power between Ugandans with different mother tongues, remains at the heart of much national politics.

The major colonial legacy of ostensibly melding all these peoples into one pot, named after just one of them, thus conceals the wedges that colonial policy drove between them, even between culturally close neighbours like the Langi and Acholi. Pointing this out nowadays, I am open to the accusation of being a bleeding heart liberal wracked with colonial guilt. Noli contendere.

I don’t believe it is impossible for Uganda to overcome this unfortunate legacy; but I don’t see how it can be other than hard, even with the relatively steady economic growth of the last decade that, as in China, although very unevenly spread, seems to be providing just enough opportunity to just enough people to keep most of the country stable. It’s the new class formation I don’t understand, how this overlaps with or transcends ethnicity, and whether it implies the emergence of a new kind of national politics. And that question is intimately connected with the ownership and use of land.

Loose ends

Back in Lira I want a drink to wash the dust away. The day before I had chatted on the street to a genial Kenyan buyer of sunflower seeds—good money here, for the middleman; and he doesn’t even need to go out to the villages as there are local buyers who make a living from doing that—who commended the Galaxy Bar and Rest House as a fun place. Finding it, I am pounced upon by a man who worked for several years as a logistics officer for an international NGO with a (US government, if I remember correctly) contract to dig wells. He was recently laid off and needs another job. He is one of the most irritating people I have ever met. Within ten minutes I know his entire life story but the only thing he cares to know or ask about me is my name, cellphone number and email address. It’s as if he hopes these talismans will, through some mysterious process of white power, advance his chances in the job market. He then insists on displaying me to his friends, a pair of couples who are drinking in a room at the back and don’t seem to welcome the extra company. It’s an unpromising situation and I head back to the Garden Inn.

On the street, I bump into David, one of the men I had met outside the bottle store the day before, and he now tells me that he works for an NGO that helps unemployed youth: would I like to come and see it tomorrow? I decline.

Lira is veritably stuffed with NGOs, international and local. I am sure that some, perhaps many, of them do great work (and they are without doubt providing significant local employment.) But I find it hard to believe that this is the most efficient way to deliver either services or ‘empowerment’ to a rural population that desperately needs both.

Yet money that goes through government is hardly safe. There was a big scandal recently about diversion of grants from the Global Fund to Fight AIDs Tuberculosis and Malaria. (Actually this involved a fake NGO set up for the purpose.) In the roads sector the corruption take-off is reportedly huge and routine. And the army’s war chest is widely believed to be raided regularly by senior officers: hence the claim that they are major beneficiaries of the war, with a vested interest in seeing it continue.

In China, seizure of peri-urban land by local governments—buying the peasants off cheap, then using their cheap labour to build expensive real estate—was a major driver of capital formation for a nouveau riche that emerged from or was well connected with the state bureaucracy. Is it possible that here war has served a similar purpose, with the war chest surplus funding the ongoing Kampala construction boom? I don’t know; but that is what I am starting to hear some people say.

In the morning I visit some of the town’s suburbs, where the urbanity of the small centre gives way to quite an extensive, villagey periphery, and there I meet a young woman called Daisy who claims to speak Chinese. I don’t believe her, so test her with a sentence or two and—guess what?—she can, after a fashion. Turns out she works for a Chinese couple who have had a market stall here for eight years, and a son who speaks fluent Langi and runs about like a wild thing. Right now, alas, they are away in China. I would have really liked to meet them. There are several Indian families in the town, running the somewhat better appointed general stores and shops out of colonial-era (but more functional than elegant) parades. The sprinkling of new buildings remind me strongly of those in Chinese county towns—cheap but flashily assertive, tinted windows a must—and I am curious to know if there is Chinese investment here or if this is just the universal architecture of bargain-basement developing country modernity. There is so much to learn.

Six hour bus journey home in the afternoon: not one of the better buses, my knees under my chin most of the way and my nose not far from a fellow passenger’s armpit. At the half-way stop, the bus is besieged by roadside snack vendors, all wearing white lab-coat style things with blue numerals on the back, creating the effect, as they raise their arms to wave speared chunks of roast meat at the windows, of a curious flock of birds. I get out to stretch my legs and and take an idle snapshot of the scene. A young vendor demands money for his role in the image. “I’m photographing the bus, not you” I tell him. “You think we are fools who don’t have eyes to see?” he snarls back, then spins on his heel to return to the fray of the market.

Nick Young
Kampala, April 23, 2009