Preaching peace by bonfire and graveside

Monday September 17 2007

In this second preview of her upcoming book, ZACHARY OCHIENG describes how Betty Bigombe used traditional Acholi approaches to communicate with and win the trust of the war-ravaged communities of northern UgandaIN HER PEACEMAKING MISSION, often Betty Bigombe took advantage of the Acholi practice of discussing issues around the wang oo, or bonfire. She writes: “In fact, my meetings in the camps were code-named wang oo.” Wang oo is one of the most important institutions of Acholi culture, and many regard it as an informal school of the Acholi people. It is at the wang oo that vital elements of cultural heritage are passed from generation to generation.

Wang oois popular during the dry season, when people do not have to worry about rain, most crops have been harvested, and there is little work to do in the fields. At the wang oo, the people of the village sit together in the evenings; folk stories are told that convey moral lessons, and other important cultural knowledge is imparted to youth. People eat together and every household in the village contributes food for these gatherings. Such communal eating caters for orphans and other disadvantaged people.

The wang oo is the place where elders and other cultural leaders teach younger children the history of the clan and chiefdom. Children who are in school read storybooks to the younger children. People share their experiences and tell stories about the day’s events.

News affecting the village, events, taboos, etc are announced at the wang oo. Bad behavior is censured; proverbs are cited; jokes are shared; songs are sung accompanied by local instruments like nanga, lukeme, or adugu; and young women and men dance to the music.

Above all, wang oo serves as a place for the resolution of conflicts or disputes within the communities. Fights between individuals in the same village or the next village, domestic disputes and disagreements between wives and husbands, between co-wives, are discussed and resolved at the wang oo.

Depending on the seriousness of the dispute, senior members of the families or communities involved are invited to participate in the discussions. On such occasions, young women and children do not participate (except of course if they are directly involved in the conflict). Village elders and opinion leaders usually convene the meetings to bring the whole community together with one common objective: to restore the broken relationship, agree on the measures to address the conflict, and start the process of reconciliation.


They bring together the fighting parties, witnesses, and other influential members of the communities. The wang oo then holds court-like sessions as part of the dispute resolution. The meetings can go deep into the night, and in some cases, judgment might not be passed until the next day.

Writes Bigombe: “When I arrive in the camps with my entourage, makeshift seats are made for us from logs and branches. Grass thatched mud huts are our sleeping quarters, and papyrus mats serve as beds. My meetings are preceded by some form of entertainment — dinner and alcohol are served and we usually dance traditional dances. This beginning usually puts us all in a relatively good mood. The Acholi people love to dance — almost all events begin and end with traditional dances, and they get upset if they are not given opportunity to dance. In some cases, people would rather forgo food than an opportunity to dance.”

Usually the camp leaders and the local councilors would call the meeting to order and start with prayers. Such an important event cannot kick off without calling on God to guide the meeting. Officials — including elected leaders, women and other community leaders, civil servants, and traditional leaders — were then introduced. The leaders give short speeches and provided updates on the security situation and hardships in the camps, including food shortages, lack of drugs, common ailments in the camps, and the erosion of cultural values. A long list of what was needed to make life slightly more bearable was then compiled.

Bigombe would then be given an opportunity to speak. In her intervention, she would make it clear that, although she was representing the government, her intention was not to preach to people to support the National Resistance government or to heap praise on it. Her speeches were usually short. A typical one would be:

“I am here in search of peace. I want to hear from you how we can end the war by peaceful means. I have not come to praise the government. I have not come to ask you to support the government. On the contrary, I would like to encourage open and frank discussion with you. I want to encourage you to let your anger out at the government. You are free to call the president names if you wish, and you are free to call me names if it makes you feel better. You can talk about your suffering.

“Nobody will punish you for what you are going to say in here. We have been devastated by the civil war. We are perceived as a region in despair, with no hope or future. The war is being fought in communities and on women’s bodies. It is you — the innocent civilians, especially the women and children — who are bearing the brunt of the war. We are the mothers, wives, sisters, fathers, brothers, and uncles of those who have picked up weapons to fight.

I KNOW THAT SOME OF THE Combatants have been lured to fight with false promises and that others have been forcibly abducted. I also know that some people are genuinely angry because of the treatment you were subjected to at the advent of the NRM government. There are other ways of dealing with the anger and frustration than armed conflict. It is appropriate that we are here to sit down to decide on how to put our house in order. I would like us to say not only that our region is in despair, devastated, and with no hope or future, but that we shall end the war and our region will prosper.

“This meeting is intended to make us all take responsibility but we need to discuss deeply and be able to agree on who does what. I am here to stay with you for a few days to ask you to reach out to our sons, daughters, husbands, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc, and persuade them to lay down their weapons, take advantage of amnesty, and come out of the bush. I will personally guarantee their security. There will be no prosecution or persecution. They will be resettled. You must know that the warlords who persuaded our children to fight are living overseas in comfort; their children go to school, they have access to medical treatment and are not dying or suffering like we are. Without our children going to school we are doomed?”

Bigombe deliberately used the expression “our” children, “our” husbands, “our” brothers in order to emphasise that they all shared responsibility. It was one way of identifying with the people, and getting accepted — she was one of them. Saying “your” children, husbands, wives, etc. would imply that she was accusing them of supporting rebel activities.

It was interesting that the real discussions started late at night. It was also interesting that it was the women who were frank and revealed to the negotiator what was going on, whereas the men chose to beat about the bush. It is not clear to her whether women chose to be candid because she was herself a woman.

In all, the meetings provided a forum for what had been said in whispers to be articulated aloud.

There were many accusations against government troops — almost as many as against the rebels. People accused the troops of supplying the rebels with weapons, of brutality and gross violations of human rights (including massacres of civilians, rape, and recruitment of child soldiers), and of deliberately trying to prolong the war for economic benefit.

THE MEETINGS USUALLY ENDED with everyone in a good mood and with some proposals. In some cases, I was informed confidentially of rebel collaborators within the population. People appreciated the fact that I stayed with them and listened to their grievances and that I ate, drank, and danced with them,” Bigombe writes.

Another strategy she used to connect with the people was to attend as many funerals as possible. And there was no shortage of these.

She attended these funerals irrespective of whether these were important people or not, irrespective of whether they died of natural causes or they were killed by rebels, irrespective of whether the family was friendly or not.

Doing so gave her the opportunity to talk about the importance of working together to bring peace to the land.

She went to sympathize with the mourning families and expressed her condolences and those of the government at their losses. She provided some help to look after mourners, which was very important.

“Generally in African culture, funerals, like other happier occasions, bring people together. There, even enemies get an opportunity to meet and talk to each other. During funerals, people lend support to one another. But the support that comes from the communities is no longer possible because people have lost everything during the war and have no means of livelihood.

The families were ashamed because they were not in a position to feed mourners, much less provide a decent place for the mourners to assemble,” Bigombe writes, “People were also traumatised. When they lost their loved ones at the hands of the rebels, chances were that they never saw the bodies; they never got to know whether the bodies were buried or eaten by animals.”