The Kids of Gulu
Nov 29, 2004
There is a book called Aboke Girls that everyone should read. It describes the horror of Northern Uganda. It's the true story of a dozen girls kidnapped from a school in Northern Uganda. They were forced into a life of being child soldiers, abuse and sex slaves. This is a fact of life for kids all over Northern Uganda.
Each night kids leave their homes for fear of being kidnapped. Up to 40,000 of them walk to Gulu where they sleep safely under armed guard. And each morning, they walk back to their homes. It's casually referred to as the "Night Commute". Again, that's life in Northern Uganda.
Rumors and speculation told stories of a very difficult and dangerous trip up to the "war zone". But, in actuality, there was no problem getting there. We hopped on a bus and after a slightly uncomfortable 6 hour ride we arrived in Gulu.
The trip to Gulu was much easier than expected, and Gulu itself was also a bit of a surprise. It came across as a quiet nice little town. It didn't at all feel like a war zone. There were few soldiers about and no guns. But the biggest shock, was not seeing the kids the first day. You'd expect 40,000 kids arriving in a town to make a real disturbance, but they show up quietly after dark. Unless you go looking for them you won't even notice them.
On the second day, we took a good long walk around town. It was a beautiful sunny day. We strolled down a tree-lined road past Unicef tents, the World Food Program (WFP) distribution center and many other NGOs. My big shock for day #2, was that the people seemed unfriendly. A rule I've learned from my travels is the further you go off the beaten path the more friendly people are. I've gotten accustomed to smiles, and waves, and shouts of "Hello mister." This rule didn't seem to apply to Gulu. In Gulu, I was greeted with uncomfortable stares or ignored.
Outside of the WFP headquarters, we met McDonald David, an 11 year old local whose parents were killed in the war. He appointed himself our guide and followed us around for the next couple of days. He was friendly, interesting and spoke perfect English. I never give money to beggars, but when he offered to teach us Acholi (the local language), I paid him for the lessons. I turned out to be a great deal.
That night, we went to see the kids. We got an invitation to a camp which was turned out to be only a 5 minute walk from our hotel. We met the pastor who worked there. He told us to come back in the morning to fill out paperwork before we'd be allowed to see the kids. One of the more common Swahili phrases is "Pole Pole". It translates to "Slowly, slowly"; but it means "No hurry." This is African time. We weren't in a hurry. Coming back in the morning seemed fine.
We were then led into the office to meet the matron who ran the place. She was very odd: Extremely quiet, very contemplative, and super suspicious. She stared at us for a long time, and then asked us to introduce ourselves. After introductions, she asked my friend Jeff a question or two, and then we were led out of the office. Much to my surprise, before I knew what has happening, and completely contradicting everything that I have heard about African bureaucracy we were led in to see the kids. Testing my luck, I asked if I could take photos and was unfortunately told "no."
From reading "Aboke Girls", I have no doubt of the horror when kids are kidnapped by the Lord's Resistance Army. But, I can't tell you any stories of horror, because I didn't see it. The Night Commute wasn't even depressing. The camp we visited was like summer camp. 700 kids slept in a half-dozen large dormitories. They were chatting, playing, and reading books. They seemed to be having fun. Kids are kids anywhere.
The following day was another leisurely stroll around Gulu. This day we saw our first signs of war. An overloaded armored personal carrier passed by heading north and bristling with guns. Not much later an attack helicopter passed overhead going the same direction.
We weren't allowed to photograph the camp, so I went out the next evening to photograph kids. With only a small amount of guilt, I parked myself 100 feet from the entrance of the camp and waited for them to show up. The kids spoke no English, but I had the phrases McDonald David taught me: "Koh Pang Oh" ("Hello") and "Amok Choli?" ("Can I take your picture?"). The matron objected to photos, but the kids were thrilled to be photographed. They showed off with big smiles and kung fu moves. Unfortunately, it was a pitch black night where I could barely see the kids. It was the worst possible light for photography. With no hope of getting great shots, I only waited for a few groups of kids to come by, and then returned to the hotel.
On my final day in Gulu, I took a loop around downtown for final impressions and a few last photos. An unhappy old woman scowled as she walked towards me. I was reminded of my initial impression of Gulu; unfriendly people. I greet the woman in Acholi, "Koh Pang Oh", and everything changed. A huge grin appeared. She waved, and excitedly replied in Acholi. I can see why people who stay in Gulu for a while grow to really like the place.
From the bus, on the way up to Gulu, we had a view of the gorgeous Karuma falls. On the way back, I was determined to photograph them. Lush green jungle surrounds the area. The Nile passes under the highway, and the thundering waterfall is only a quarter mile up river. My neighbor on the bus told me that I'd have no problem going to the falls and photographing them. She said that I would just have to pay a few thousands shillings for a soldier to act as a tour guide.
Right away, it became apparent that it wasn't going to be quite so easy. Halfway through my lunch, a well dressed man sits next to me for his own lunch. He asks what I'm doing in Karuma, and then introduces himself. He's the head of the city council and informs me that all guests are required to go to his office and register. Registering was painless, but he did ask for small "gift" for the office. 1000 shillings ($.60) seemed a reasonable amount, and the city councilman seemed happy with it. He even offered the town's Secretary of Defense to walk me down to the military base to make introductions.
At the military base things got more tense. It's a small base with a dozen mud huts, and a machine gun placement on a cliff overlooking the river. During the first set of introductions, a soldier with lots of badges starts screaming at a soldier with fewer badges. They both have slightly rusty AK47s. I don't want to get involved, so I very carefully try look at nothing at all, and wait for the scene to be over.
I'm asked if I speak Swahili. I responded "Kidogo dogo" ("A little"), but people have different definitions of "a little". The soldier rambled on in endless Swahili, and I didn't understand a word of it. Eventually, the Secretary of Defense translated it for me: "How much will you pay?" My wallet was almost empty. There were only 2000 shillings ($1.20) left, and I told them that. The soldiers must be wealthier than the villagers as he scoffed at this sum and forwarded me to his superior. My passport was checked several times and I was asked again how much money I have for them. I would have been willing to pay more to photograph the falls, but my cash reserves were well hidden, and pulling out large amounts of cash in the middle of this base seemed like a very bad idea. I'm told that photography is forbidden and we're ejected from the base.
I gave the Sec of Defense 1000 shillings for his help and got on a bus back to Kampala.
Your life is definately more exciting than mine right now. Wow. can't wait to hear about Etiopia. I'll continue sending gossip though.
Misha - Dec 01, 2004
One of your better experiences and writting samples. I think you're getting better and better in your personal style. This is really compelling stuff too considering that most people don't know about this child abduction stuff. I like the reference to the book, but I'd prefer for you to write a little about why the kids walk to Gulu and why they get kidnapped.
You are abolutely right. I am appropriate chastised.
I put the background info that should of been here, in the following journal entry: [ Journal ]
Eric Giles - Jun 22, 2007
Yes, I visited Uganda twice now and I still worry about going to the North to visit Gula, but now the LRA have vacated for the most part to Sudan.