Memories from 15 years ago
On Saturday October the 6th 2018, Asomo Genevieve gave a call on WhatsApp to Nick in UK. Her sister Babra had given birth to a beautiful girl, Acuro Eshian. Asomo and Babra were washing clothes, as it was a reasonably dry and warm Saturday morning in Bweyogerere, Kampala.
What followed in the call was a twenty-minute description of experiences and life during the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), “Kony” conflict in Kaberamaido District, Eastern Uganda where the family were living. The National Resistance Movement (NRM) was the ruling party in the Government of the Republic of Uganda.[i]
At the time of writing, Asomo came to be twenty five years old and this experience is a deep memory from when she was aged between eight and ten. It is harrowing and deeply disturbing to hear this first-hand. On one occasion she saw two dead bodies, one of a student who had been cycling to school and the other a middle-aged man who had been stopped by Kony’s men. Their heads were burned with grass and they were killed. Asomo remembers hearing about raids into secondary schools and students being tied together in one line “like slaves”, she explained. Her childhood friend and cousin sister were among those taken from Lwala Girls Mission School situated in Kaberamaido District. Some of them had been cutting their nails, and so, in semi-undress they were all forced outside; some were even naked. Two or more escaped, running into the bushes. Others used razorblades or other sharp objects to cut through the rope and escape. Many students, and especially girls, disappeared and so far, to date have never been found.
Asomo talked about attacks near their homestead in Omor village. At night the family would sleep away from the huts in the compound of their homestead, and stay overnight under a tree. This was one mattress for all of them, there were many children.
In the call, she told the story of Kony’s men looting shops in various trading centres, and grabbing men and women, boys and girls to carry their drinks, bags of sugar, salt, animals from people’s homes and other foods. “The rebels could ask you if you were tired, and if you said yes they would kill you there on the spot.” The sound of gunshot was heard all over from time to time.
After it became scarier to stay near the homestead in Omor, the family moved into the “camp”, which was set-up in Kalaki Sub County. This was makeshift and unofficial for a while. Staying in their auntie’s house, the one who lives in the USA; the house was full with other four relatives’ families. Asomo Genevieve, at the age of nine was given the task each day of looking after her sister’s son Egosu, her own sister Proscovia, plus baby Dafina who was very young, under one. One day out of curiosity she took the younger children on a bike to see rebels that were killed outside the camp and on returning she was severely told-off for taking such a risk.
Asomo remembered that food aid was brought in by World Food Program (WFP). These consisted of yellow maize flour, beans, cooking oil and salt. Because of big numbers, there were many cases of theft, and huts catching fire while cooking. Each day people from the camp would go early around 5am before dawn to collect water. However, because of the long queues and the slow process they would often not return for many hours up to 2pm. On many days, there was a severe shortage of water and food. Firewood was difficult and risky to collect. Each time someone left the camp, there was a risk that they may not return. Many children suffered dysentery, diarrhoeas, malnutrition and other sicknesses.
The situation was ongoing and relentless. Travel was difficult; Asomo’s uncle lost his leg when he was shot on his way to Kampala. Farming was almost impossible. People would take risks to reach their fields to harvest some crops, for example some cassava or sweet potato. A number never returned. They were captured and killed by Kony’s LRA insurgents.
No analysis could enter Asomo’s mind at the time. She was so young. Because of the upheaval, she lost over two years of education, including not being able to pay school fees some times. People prayed hard, she remembered. They prayed for the conflict to end for the suffering to stop and for peace to return. Eventually the conflict ended. The rebels dispersed. The government soldiers remained on guard. Asomo recalls that nevertheless some of the soldiers took local girls and behaved badly.
Asomo is very clear that while the painful memory from her girlhood has impacted her whole life, it has also given her a standpoint to work from. She overall, considered that she herself is extremely blessed.
She is blessed in her view for two reasons. In two senses. One, that she thinks she was too young to truly appreciate the conflict and trauma. Each day she was busy looking after her siblings, and also selling bread that her mother had made. Asomo became well-known among people in the community within the Kalaki area. This capability, and perhaps the sociability were skills she learned at that early age.
The second reason that she feels blessed is that she did not have the worst part of her education cut away. After the conflict, she was able to resume education and by the time she completed secondary school there was the possibility for her to study and train in college. This unique advantage further enhanced her skills in business communication, enterprise and so on. The one thing she retained was a deep enthusiasm and interest in agriculture.
Asomo is part of Watoto Ministries in Kampala and Esule Omor Pentecostal Assembly of God at home founded by the late grandfather Esule. The local church is appealing for additional funds to complete their roof. They are close to managing but still struggling to meet the sufficient amounts. Overall, Asomo believes in part that her enterprising spirit and energy stem from these early experiences and the mysterious blessings in her life.
She nevertheless recalls as the WhatsApp call is coming to a close that many people in Kalaki and Kaberamaido were killed and never buried. Their spirits are unable to rest in peace. It is known even today to encounter these people [like Abiku in The Famished Road by Ben Okri]. The community therefore remains traumatized by this severe episode in their local history and how it is part of the LRA’s second and much more violent insurgency.
In some respects, Asomo is a character in Against All Odds here to tell her story.[ii] She’s willing to share this otherwise private account of her life. She is driven to make work this social enterprise. Part of rebuilding people’s livelihoods, part of re-establishing a strong community and a rich, sustainable, agrarian development.
The struggles in 2018 are very different. A focus on economic competition, questions of sustainability and the try-out of Agroecological approaches. The aim is therefore multi-fold with many ambitions and hopes. Above all, to overcome the vagaries of uncertainty both in economic dynamics but also in the ever-worsening climate and weather conditions. Asomo remembers the general appreciation in the community that the last good harvest in the region was in 2003. Asomo was ten years old then. Happy twenty-fifth, Asomo.
[i] In March 2002, after several months of uncertainty, “Kony” LRA forces began crossing back into Uganda and carrying out attacks on a scale and of a brutality not seen since the first insurgency in the mid-1990s. The people in several regions, such as Soroti experienced widespread displacement and suffering.
[ii] Against All Odds. Memoirs of Resilience, Determination, and Luck Amidst Hardship for an African Girl Child in Her Passionate Pursuit for Education, by Betty Ogiel Rubanga.