Postcard from Uganda #2: Playing for our Lives

Dec 9, 2015

The Big Wind Blows, if you watch it without sound, looks like a silly children’s game – the one-fewer-chair-than-kids kind.  There’s a stack of cards in the middle of the circle.  I start out with the one on top; it’s meant to be easy, comfort-zone stuff.

‘The Big Wind Blows for all those wearing blue today.’ This is the test run, making sure that everyone has understood the instructions.  They look around the circle, down at what they’ve put on this morning and the wearers-of-blue rush up out of their chairs in search of another.  You can’t return to your own chair; it has to be a different one. The person in the middle also runs to find a chair, leaving one person chairless.

This exercise usually happens on the first day, and its goals are many:  energise us; lower barriers of all kinds through the magic of laughter and movement. It’s harder to stoke the embers of ancient hatreds when you’re playing together.  And we gain critical information about and impressions of who’s in the room.

Written on the cards are assertions; if it applies to you, you jump and switch chairs.  Some are confusing. Some are funny.  Some risk exposure.  Some give pause:  ‘The Big Wind Blows… for all those who have been the object of oppression’ – immediately followed by (order is important) ‘…for all those who have been the subject of oppression’.  Object?  Today, of these mostly South Sudanese refugees and some Ugandans, most get up but many don’t, including a couple of women.  Subject of oppression? the oppressor?  Even fewer get up.

Some cards are trying to get at their interest in and awareness of the news or, having come to a training on peace and being religious people, their ability to recite a verse on peace from their respective holy text. Religion is taken seriously, not as a flawed system of meaning that needs to be dispensed with, but as a well-interrogated tool in one’s peacemaking toolbox, effectively dismantling religion as a root cause of violence.

By this time, it is pandemonium.  The plastic chairs easily give way to the force of flying bodies, sometimes tipping over when two bodies land in the same chair at the same time.  My minimally-sandaled left foot is twice used by others as a launching pad across the room.

Almost half the participants are young men between the ages of 18 and 24, energetic footballers.  Of the 26 of them, only six are women, three Christians, three Muslims.  Two of the men are perhaps in their forties, one of several here representing Ugandans, hosts to 400,000 refugees, of which 40,000 are in Adjumani and Rhino camps, here in West Nile State, famous as ground zero for a disease named for it, notorious as a key battleground of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Refugee camp for South Sudanese in Uganda

Of the South Sudanese, some are Nuer, some Dinka.  It was such a short time ago, the 9th of July, 2011, that the United Nations welcomed South Sudan as its newest state member.  The day was brilliant with parades and dance and song.  Large billboards had been erected around the grounds, expressing gratitude for the 2.5 million martyrs who had given their lives that this day might come.  There was an atmosphere of seemingly unquenchable hope.

VP Riek Machar (Nuer), President Salva Kiir (Dinka)
VP Riek Machar (Nuer), President Salva Kiir (Dinka)

Within days, cattle-rustling and ancient animosities resumed with shocking ferocity.  Cattle-rustling is not new, a common practice for many generations.   In the largely rural country, cows are the common coinage, exchanged for brides, ensuring an expanding family.  But cattle rustling’s toll has escalated exponentially, fed by decades of civil war between the North and the South and a demobilised – but not disarmed – warrior population.   Small arms circulate like sweets to be snatched up by long-time rivals and a growing underclass of young men, left out of the bride market, marginalised in an economy run by foreigners, debilitated by five decades without a functioning education system.

The country’s two largest tribes, the Nuer and the Dinka, had built a fragile partnership of sufficient length to create a parliament and put in place both legislative frameworks and luxurious gated housing.  Then it all unravelled into months of hellish slaughter in December 2013.

To the 2.5 million ‘martyrs’ of decades of North-South conflict and four million displaced or dispersed can now be added 10 – 50,000 dead and two million more forced to leave their homes.  I remember seeing that billboard four years ago and asking first myself and then the 20 participants in a training in non-violence and conflict transformation:  ‘Was it worth it?’  They wanted so much to say, yes!  Yes!  Of course!  Our own country.  It had to be the answer to the question.

Click here to read the previous post; click here to read the one that follows…


Muslim-Christian Trainings
Mindanao / Philippines Conflict Transformation
San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Sudan third party non-violence intervention