In once-dreaded north Uganda, beauty grows from horrors of long war
The air was thick with anticipation and a little menacing in the northern Uganda city of Gulu, on the night of December 31, 2022. There were very many young people, and even children, milling about the streets. Everyone seemed jittery. The older folks out on the streets were mostly police and soldiers, in large numbers.
My driver, who had witnessed the spectacle about to unfold several times in the past, parked the car on the side of the street, and said, “wait for it”. And then it was midnight. There were fireworks all over the city, screams, and then it happened. The young people broke out in groups, some numbering over 50, running frenziedly in all directions, ululating, blowing whistles, screaming, banging on store doors, jumping on street signs, waving leaves and sticks. They ran past our car and slapped it violently on the sides, though they didn’t damage it. I feared the worst.
After about 30 minutes, the scene quieted down a little, replaced by merry-making, drunken shouts, and loud music. I had never witnessed a New Year celebration like that. “These people have been to hell and back”, my driver said, “they have to celebrate New Year like people who survived many deaths.”
Haunted by brutal war
Gulu, in the Acholi region, remains haunted by the brutal 20-year war led by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA and its leader Joseph Kony. The LRA was responsible for more than 100,000 deaths, the abduction of between 60,000 and 100,000 children, and the displacement of up to 2.5 million civilians between 1987 and 2012. Many of the abducted boys and girls were beaten, raped, and forced to loot and kill.
People were caught between the LRA and Uganda army and faced violence and abuse from both sides. The LRA’s punishments were cruel and barbaric.
The LRA would cut off lips, ears, noses and breasts as punishment. Kony ordered that anyone caught riding a bicycle should have their legs cut off. To frighten people from informing on them, the rebels would put a padlock through the upper and lower lips of victims – and walk away with the keys.
“Night commuters” who fled the villages for the night to Gulu town to escape attacks became a tragic symbol of the conflict. In 2000, in the company of Uganda’s current minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs Norbert Mao, who was then the Gulu MP, I visited St Philips Cathedral, which was filled with the huddled night commuters.
Mid-morning on January 1, after the New Year hysteria, I went to St Philips Cathedral cemetery to pay respect at the grave of Okot P’Bitek, perhaps Uganda’s most famous novelist and poet. As I walked about the cemetery looking for Okot’s grave, a priest stepped out of the church, and I asked him to help.
As we stood over Okot’s grave, I remarked how Gulu, the cathedral, and the area around it had changed beyond recognition. He told me on the surface the transformation of Gulu and Acholi was remarkable, but the nightmares are just beneath. He himself had been abducted as a child. He told me of the horrors, and how they were forced to cook and eat human flesh.
“If you didn’t eat, you would be the next one in the pot,” he said calmly.
Afterwards, I drove in silence to a happier place, the Through Art Keep Smiling (TAKS Centre about three kilometres away in the centre of Gulu. TAKS is a place that came back from the dead, but also with its artsy black walls, a place of celebration, a teller of triumphs.
Wall of fame
Painted in white contrast are portraits of famous local sons and daughters, prominent figures in Ugandan history, and global icons – like reggae great Bob Marley and Nelson Mandela. Bitek is one of the chosen few on the Wall of Fame. The centre was closed. I returned to it recently in February.
The brains behind it is ceramic artist and sculptor David Lukani Odwar. An enthusiastic and ever-smiling man, Odwar’s face belies both his 50 years of age, and trying past.
“The Acholi historically were either farmers or artists,” Odwar explained. “There is a certain richness, pride, and resource in that artistic culture, that I believed could be harnessed to help them deal with the trauma of war, and find joy again. If you are able to express inner pain in a form that isn’t violent — like art — you begin to find a way out of it.”
In 2005 Odwar purchased the rundown property that would become TAKS Centre. His journey to it, however, began with his flight from Gulu.
Fled to Gulu
Odwar’s father died while he was very young. As the LRA war engulfed most of Acholi, Odwar’s mother gathered up the children and fled to Gulu, then to Kampala. Shortly after, in 1988, aged 12, Odwar says, “I found myself at Heathrow to begin life as a refugee in the UK.”
He studied at Cheney Upper School, Oxford, then Oxford College of Further Education, where he studied arts and graphics. Odwar was also a local javelin champion, and did the long jump and triple jump.
But art was calling, and he went to Cardiff University, where he studied ceramics. A small grant from the Princess Trust enabled him to buy a kiln, and he was able to make a living sculpting, doing ceramics, and teaching school.
“I flipped the style of [Swiss sculptor and painter] Alberto Giacometti and made a figurine of an African woman with lacerated skin. It was inspired by the Yoruba. It got my work some notice, and opened doors,” Odwar said.
He started travelling back to northern Uganda with British art teachers and would go to the camps of the internally displaced, and work with children on art projects. In 2001 he was accompanied by a BBC crew, who produced a documentary, “To Bring A Smile” aired on BBC 2.
TAKS has come a long way. Sitting on the highest point of Gulu, it was built in the early 1900s as a club for British colonial officials and the white people in the area. It has a generous lawn, and the area around was a nine-course golf course in the colonial period. Some marks of the old tennis court are still visible in the cracked hard floor with grass growing through it. One tennis net post, with a rusted lever still stands.
From independence in 1962 onward, the clubhouse went into a downward spiral. In the years before Odwar bought it, it was the temporary site for a college displaced by war. The contrast between the wreck it was in 2005 and today is remarkable.
Odwar restored the clubhouse, but added a floor on half of it, and built twin round units with grass thatch as a political and cultural statement that “Africa is now on top”. The space has held many cultural festivals and performances, and is free for use by the Gulu creative community.
It houses the lively film collective, United Youth Entertainment whose short film “Crying for Help” won the award for the best short film at the 2014 Uganda Film Festival. It’s an elegant, but by no means flashy place. Its ageing fence is made of off-cuts that were cast away when the Forest Authority culled a big pine forest nearby. From the entrance, one can see watering points.
“We want it to remain simple and not intimidate the people. Many folks walking turn in and drink from the watering points,” Odwar says.
Beneath Odwar’s positive spirit you can still sense apprehension. Because it is free, TAKS doesn’t make much money beyond selling lunch meals and snacks, the occasional donation from a well-wisher, and selling art pieces in its curio shop. Most staff at the centre are volunteers.
Odwar had just got good news, though. His application for tax exemption had just been approved by a panel. The little money TAKS makes, now won’t have to be shared with the taxman. Maybe the stories of TAKS will be kept alive longer. And perhaps none of them are as powerful, as that one of the paper beads.
Like many things in Gulu and TAKS, it was born out of pain and death, and a woman called Santa Joyce Laker. A feisty imposing figure in her early 70s, Laker is a former civil servant and retired politician, and a board member of TAKS.
In 1999, her grandmother died when a car she was travelling in outside Gulu was blown up by a landmine. She was very close to her grandmother, and was devastated and angry. Her grandmother wouldn’t have died, she reasoned, if she didn’t have to travel far to make a living.
Shortly afterwards, she went to Kampala, and visited a place where Acholi women displaced by the war in the north were staying. She found them making and selling beautiful beads for a living. She couldn’t believe that the beads were made from recycled paper. She stayed for two weeks and learnt how to make them.
Back in Gulu, Odwar had been distressed by the violence against women by husbands emasculated by conflict, unable to use their land because of the conflict. Many of the women illegally brewed and sold a potent gin to keep their families fed, and often partly set off a deadly cycle of events. The husbands would drink the gin, free of charge and, drunk, they would set upon the women.
Laker’s beads seemed to provide a way out. If they could get more women to make and sell beads, and gain an income, they might be able to remove alcohol from the home. TAKS decided to incubate the paper beads project.
“It was not easy,” Laker says. “Men laughed, they mocked us, saying we were making their women roll useless papers.”
It was slow. Then a big break came.
“An American woman, a big consultant, came here to do some work, and she was swept off her feet when she saw the beads, and by the fact they were made of paper,” Laker said.
She signed a three-year contract with over 100 women to make the beads, which were regularly shipped to the US.
“It was incredible, women who were only making peanuts were now earning up to Ush500,000 ($134 on each sale. It’s the kind of money they had never seen,” Laker said.
The attitude of the men changed, and many families moved away from making moonshine, and domestic violence eased. Laker likes to tell a good tale. She speaks of how some husbands who had rejected the women before they took to making beads, warmed their way back. She got emotional when she spoke of the case of a woman who had been shunned by her husband, who took on another wife, because she couldn’t have children.
“She came and learnt to make beads, and was very good at it. She made a lot of money, and went to hospital to see a doctor,” Laker narrates. “Because she could now afford it, she took fertility treatment, and had children.”
The new wife didn’t take to the beads.
“So how did the story end?” I asked.
Laker chuckled. “Who do you think would win; the wife with money and children, or the wife with children without money?”
Paid close attention
Odwar is proud of the role TAKS played in their good fortune, but he saw and heard something else which is what has a greater hold on him.
“When they were making beads, they would begin singing. Sometimes I could see them crying, then I paid close attention,” he said.
“They were singing about the war. They sang about their children who had been abducted. The ones who didn’t come back. The ones who returned broken. They were endless stories of horror, but an educative record of the tragedy that befell northern Uganda. It was more than I would have asked for when we started TAKS.
“We have heard a lot of stories at TAKS. Today, Gulu doesn’t have something that you can look at and say ‘that’s horrible,’” he said, “but only if you don’t dig too deep”.