Uganda: Traditions eroded by years of war

NAMOKORA, 21 May 2007 (IRIN) - Jackson Ocaya last attended an evening campfire 20 years ago and was nostalgic about the important role such gatherings played in promoting the social values of the Acholi people in northern Uganda.

"In the past, we used to gather children around the fire, to educate them about proper behaviour and bond with them," the 77-year-old said at a recent campfire in Namokora internally displaced people's camp, a sprawling settlement of 17,000 people in Kitgum District.

The campfire, called 'Wang Oo' in the local Acholi dialect, had been organised in honour of the visiting United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, John Holmes.

Wang Oo, a forum for the exchange of ideas and discussion of problems facing the community, was the seat of wisdom where parents and elders taught youngsters good behaviour, traditional norms and gender roles.

"The war has shattered all that," Ocaya explained. "Children who have grown up today have no reason to attend the fire and in the process our customs and traditions have been eroded."

The war lasted more than two decades, pitting government troops against rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army. The rebels terrorised the local population, forcing nearly two million to abandon their homes and live in camps. They also abducted thousands of children to fight in the LRA ranks or to serve as wives to rebel commanders.

"A person who was four years old when the war started is now 25 and has produced other children. But he and the children have known only one life - the life of violence and war," 65-year-old Jennifer Acayo said.

"These are the children we have," she added. "I have no trust in the children we have brought up. Though they represent the future of our community, I fear that it will be a future of people whose character has largely been influenced by the situation we have lived under for these years."

Violence and eroded culture

The campfire culture died out when people moved into camps. Here, educational activities and cultural norms and values were seriously limited - including parent to child contact - and the children exposed to all sorts of different behaviour.

"Many children have been exposed to too much violence. Many of them like fighting at school and resist instructions from teachers," said Nam Basil Odingcom, a teacher at a school for displaced children in Namokora.

Other teachers said they were spending a lot of time resolving fist-fights among the children. There were also cases where the children threw 'missiles' at each other or used instruments to settle petty arguments.

The children, they added, lacked adequate parental guidance in the congested camps. "One no longer has control over his family," Odingcom added, saying the authorities at his school had tried to set up guidance and counselling facilities.

Camp residents said the fact that some parents slept in a single hut with up to six children was also to blame. "Marital responsibilities in a home have exposed these children to [sexual] behaviour while still too young," Odingcom noted.

Marital issues, including intimacy between couples, used to be sacred among the Acholi people. Indeed the process of marriage was always conducted through an elaborate process and ensured that people of the same lineage did not get married, but that too has collapsed, according to Odingcom.

"If a boy fell in love with a girl, the boy approached the parents of the girl," he told IRIN. "Today they meet by the roadside and by the time you know about it, they have brought you another generation of people."

He added: "This has also led to numerous diseases among the camp residents."

Matthew Opio, 31, said he feared that HIV/AIDS incidence in the camps was high. "We need sensitisation, which is not yet in place. We just see people pointing fingers at each other and there is stigma among the camp residents," he explained.

Okot Oryang narrated how the war had separated children from their parents. "Some parents sleep without knowing where their children have slept and for this to stop, the Juba talks [between LRA and Uganda] have to succeed," he said.

According to Oryang, the children who stay in the camps play games that underline their character. "The games are only about violence, about the war, abduction and death. Not about family life - cooking, hunting and digging - like it used to be."

Hope for the future

After a lull in fighting and advances in talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA in Juba, capital of Southern Sudan, many IDPs have started returning to their villages.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, several sub-counties in Gulu, Pader and Kitgum Districts have been declared safe for return. However, IDP movement from camps remains tentative, with some aid agencies estimating that up to 1,2 million people still remain displaced across northern Uganda.

"Many of the IDPs hope that the peace talks in Juba will yield positive results so that the family role of nurturing well-behaved children is restored," said Erizewo Ongom. "Our hope is that peace comes back so we resume our normal lives and are able to educate our children again."

At the height of the war, parents encouraged their children to leave the villages at night to avoid abduction by the rebels. Such children, who became known as 'night commuters', would spend their nights in towns, sleeping in churches, hospitals or on shop verandahs.

With relative safety, most of the children are no longer commuters, say camp residents at Namokora.

In cases where the IDPs have moved from the bigger camps, either back to their villages or to 'satellite camps' - smaller settlements established near the homes of IDPs but protected by the Ugandan army - parents feel they are finally getting closer to their children again.

"In the bigger camps, the rate of defilement was high as was domestic violence and early marriages," said Helen Adee, who had moved from Omiya Nyima IDP camp to a satellite camp in Labworomor. "Here, we are few and closer to our children."