Adventures in Acholiland

Gulu is not a tourist town. Still recovering from the 26-year-long conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), this city is growing, but the only “tourist attraction,” per se, is the swimming pool at Acholi Inn.

What Gulu lacks in UNESCO world heritage sites it compensates for by being a great place to meet people. When I first arrived in town, someone told me that there is always something happening, but you have to look for it. Unlike Kampala, where tons of exciting things are happening simultaneously, there is usually just one fun thing happening in Gulu at a time. So if you are lucky enough to stumble upon it, you can have a blast and meet people who guide you to the next adventure.

For me, the key to unlocking this puzzle was attending pub trivia at BJ’s on Thursday night. There I met people who invited me to a bonfire on Friday evening, where I found myself chatting with a spectrum of interesting folks from various NGOs.

The following morning, I joined many of these friends for Saturday morning yoga. Yes, Gulu has frappuccinos and yoga. Globalization has truly arrived in Northern Uganda.  

The Mandala House in Gulu offers yoga classes every day except Sunday. Although the Saturday class was primarily attended by expats, Mandala also provides yoga classes to former soldiers and survivors of the civil war.

Imagine how yoga can relax former child soldiers. “…Breathe in. Breathe out. Relax your left elbow. Your stomach. Your right fingers. Feel the tension leaving your body. Repeat in your mind. I am happy. I am peaceful. I am safe…”

The healing yoga provides can be a powerful salve for the wounds of war and a tool that promotes healing and reconciliation. On Saturday, it was also a cause to celebrate the grand opening of the Mandala House, which had just moved to a quieter spot from downtown Gulu. The director of sports and recreation for Northern Uganda attended the grand opening, gave a speech, and cut the cake along with the director of the Mandala House and the coach of Gulu’s rugby team, which shares a building with the Mandala House. After the speeches, we ate samosas and watched a performance by the Gulu breakdance team. Alas, I had stumbled on an exciting afternoon because I had heeded my friends’ advice and woken up early for yoga.

The Gulu breakdance squad.

The Gulu breakdance squad.

On Saturday afternoon, two of my friends from Kampala, Alyssa and Lincoln, came to visit. That evening we stayed in Gulu, watched soccer, and ate Ethiopian food. With entertainment options in the city quickly dwindling, we decided to seek out adventure the following afternoon.

As I mentioned, the tourism industry in Gulu is rather underdeveloped. We wanted to explore the beautiful countryside of Northern Uganda and go on a hike outside of town, but the only way to get to the waterfalls and hills 50 kilometers away was to hire a car and driver. This was a bit outside of our price range, so we opted for a cheaper option.

We showed up at the Gulu bus park on Sunday afternoon and Alyssa went over to talk to a group of men. “Hello,” “How are you?”…the usual formalities that are required to start every conversation in Uganda. Then she turned to them for advice. “We would like to go to a village about 20 kilometers outside of town,” she said.

“What’s it called?” a man replied.

“We don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know the name of the village you’re going to? How can you not know?”

“We just don’t know.”

“Well, maybe you mean Paicho?”

“How far away is Paicho?”

“It’s about 20 kilometers.”

“Perfect. How do we get to Paicho?”

The man then points at a truck a few feet away that is packed with 25 Ugandans. “That lorry goes to Paicho.”

Alyssa, Lincoln, and I looked at each other. We had never ridden in the back of a truck with that many people before, but it looked like fun and we were hankering for adventure. Still, I had some concerns that we wouldn’t be able to get back from Paicho once we arrived.

“How do we come back to Gulu from Paicho?,” I asked. The men assured us that there would be other random trucks coming back into town.

So we hopped onto the back of the truck, paid a bit of money, and off we went to Paicho. Although sitting on the side of the truck quickly cut off the circulation in my legs, it was still a good bit of fun. As we drove through Gulu, everyone who saw us did a double-take. Acholi often see mzungus (foreigners) rolling through town, but normally they ride in Land Cruisers and private cars—not on the back of lorries packed with people. So everyone we saw waved, laughed, and screamed with surprise. Our 25 comrades also loved it and were smiling and laughing with the folks below.

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Our sweet ride to Paicho.

Our sweet ride to Paicho.

When we arrived in Paicho, we hopped off the lorry and said goodbye to our newfound friends. Now what? We surveyed the booming town of Paicho. A large mango tree seemed to be the “bus stop,” where a dozen people waited for trucks to roll by. There was one “store,” or kiosk, which sold snacks and toiletries, and a “bar,” where people sat drinking warm beer, vodka, and local gin. The village had no electricity, but there were a few small solar panels set up where people could charge their mobile phones. Even in a village with no electricity, almost everyone had a cell phone—their lifeline to the outside world.

We walked up a random dirt road and spotted a small shed, about the size of a latrine, with a chair and a small desk inside. This shed was the village’s only NGO, a savings and loan cooperative designed to help orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs). It was founded in 2007 by villagers who wanted to start a small micro-credit program and supported by a larger NGO in Gulu.

The cooperative’s secretary gave us a warm welcome and led us to a few huts nearby, where some of the beneficiaries of the credit association lived. We spoke with a woman who had received a loan to buy and sell produce at the Paicho market. Once she had earned enough money, she paid back the loan and was in the process of building another hut for her children when we stopped by.

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Her home looked like most of the ubiquitous circular huts in and around Gulu; and when I first arrived in Acholiland, I assumed that these were traditional Acholi houses. But the secretary told us that they were actually built during the war to help people cluster together for protection. In the early years of the war, most Acholi lived in their traditional villages—spread out on big farms with large houses. But these farms were difficult to defend, so most people were relocated into camps, where they built huts very close to one another. Most of these camps were disbanded in 2007, but several thousand people still live in these camps today. Many people haven’t returned to their villages because someone has taken their ancestral land or because they are too poor or unwilling to go home.

We could see the remnants of an IDP camp from our hotel balcony.

We could see the remnants of an IDP camp from our hotel balcony in Gulu.

For several years, Paicho had been a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). During 2005, the village held approximately fifteen thousand people, but now it has shrunk to four or five thousand. This woman’s house was surrounded by several dozen huts, but if we had visited seven years ago, we would have seen hundreds of these abodes.

As the loan recipient graciously showed us inside her home, we were impressed by how spacious it was. The hut looks small from the outside, but she had maximized her space by hanging dishes from the ceiling, using cross beams as storage holes, and partitioning the hut to form three separate rooms.

After thanking this woman for her generosity and making a small donation to the NGO, we continued trekking on this random dirt road, until we saw a foot path about two kilometers outside of town. We saw two teenage girls enter the footpath, so we followed them until they stopped and looked at us.

“Hello,” we said.

“Where are you going?” they asked. “Are you looking for the tourist attraction?”

“Why yes, yes we are,” we said, looking at each other. Did this random path off of a random road in a random village actually lead to a tourist attraction?

The answer is no, but the trail did lead to a cool tree bridge and a farm where the girls lived. Their mother was there with ten kids, who were beating the seeds off of a sorghum plant with sticks.

Although we only knew three words of the Acholi language—“How are you,” “I’m fine,” and “Thank you”—it was amazing how much we could convey with three simple phrases and lots of smiles. This family had no clue why three mzungus were visiting their farm a few kilometers from town, but they smiled as we repeatedly said “thank you” and “I’m fine.”

Lincoln picked up a stick and started beating the sorghum plants with the kids. We laughed, the kids laughed, and we snapped a few pictures. Then we asked the teenager who spoke English if there were any good hiking trails around. It was worth a shot, but she looked at us like we were crazy. There was just one footpath back to the main road; unfortunately, Paicho was not designed for leisurely hiking.

Beating the seeds off of sorghum plants.

Beating the seeds off of sorghum plants.

After arriving back on the main road, we went to the Paicho clinic, where there were no doctors or patients on a Sunday afternoon. However, they did have a water pump that was donated by USAID. Because it was overwhelmingly hot and we were covered in dirt and sweat, we decided to wash ourselves with the pump that some of our tax dollars paid for. Thank you, Uncle Sam!

Fighting the heat withthe USAID water pump.

Fighting the heat withthe USAID water pump.

Feeling refreshed, we went to the “pub” in Paicho. There were about a dozen people sitting outside of a kiosk that sold soda and alcohol. As I enjoyed a warm Mountain Dew, I made small talk with some of the folks sitting around me. “Buy me a soda,” one of them asked me. “Buy me Big 5,” another said, pointing to a bag of vodka. The staple drinks at this pub were vodka and waragi, sold in small bags for 1,000 UGX (40 U.S. cents). I tried to explain to my new friends that I wasn’t here to buy them alcohol.

“Why are you in Paicho?” they asked.

“We’re just here…walking around, exploring,” I tried to explain. As our conversation progressed, it became clear that these people thought we worked for an NGO or were somehow there to donate money. We had made a small donation to the NGO in town, but we certainly weren’t there to support alcoholism at the local pub. When the men grew more and more insistent that I buy them a drink, I finally got up and walked away. It was time to leave Paicho, the random village upon which we had stumbled.

So we walked to the big mango tree and waited for a bus. We didn’t see any vehicles come by for twenty or thirty minutes until we spotted a matatu taxi in the distance. I stood in the middle of the street and flagged down the driver. Then I looked in the windows. Wait, I thought, I know these people!

The matatu was filled with people I had met at the bonfire on Friday night! They had hired the van to take them to a waterfall two hours away and were en route back to Gulu. So we hopped on and they gave us a ride back to our hotel.

It was one of those strange coincidences that makes you wonder if all of the entropy in the universe has suddenly dissipated. At the very moment that we wanted to leave Paicho and were possibly stranded, a van rolls by with people we know, willing to take us home.

Our friends with the matatu dropping us off in Gulu.

Our friends with the matatu dropping us off in Gulu.

Apart from revealing some greater cosmic significance, I think the matatu incident indicates how easy it is to meet people in Northern Uganda. The following morning, another friend I met in Gulu, James, took us to his mother’s village, about 15 km outside of town in the opposite direction of Paicho. This time we organized our transportation in advance and forked over $50 USD to hire a car and driver.

The village of Lukodi was a lovely place to live before the war. The elephants who formerly resided there did a thorough job spreading palm fruits, so hundreds of lush palm trees now tower over the grassland below.

Palm trees in Lukodi.

Palm trees in Lukodi.

Once the war began, people in Lukodi gathered together to form an IDP camp and the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) built a garrison on top of Lukodi Hill to watch over the villagers below. But when the LRA arrived in the middle of the night on May 19th, 2004, the soldiers ran away, leaving the civilians defenseless. Fifty-two people were killed and thirty children were abducted in the brutal attack.

The people of Lukodi have still not forgiven the Ugandan government for forcing them to live in an IDP camp and abandoning them. To the farmers of Lukodi, this was the equivalent of herding all of your sheep into a small, gated pen and sending in the wolves. The government has promised to compensate the villagers for the negligence of the UPDF, but the people of Lukodi still haven’t received any money.

A few of James’ relatives spoke with us about the massacre, its impact, and the compensation they seek, but they also showed us how life in the village has returned to normal. The IDP camp has been disbanded, the military garrison has been torn down, and farms are now spread out across the plain. On Monday morning, children wearing bright-pink school uniforms walked together to school, nervous and excited about the first day of the spring semester. This simple act would have been impossible seven years before, when rebels would kidnap unaccompanied children roaming the streets.

After surveying the village from the top of Lukodi Hill, we visited a small monument to the massacre and went to James grandma’s house. His grandma was 80 years old—three decades older than the Republic of Uganda. She has seen a lot during her four scores, but we found her in her hut listening to ‘Lil Wayne, beaming with energy and excitement.

With the help of several children, we pounded our palm fruits on a rock next to grandma’s compound and split them open. Then we bit into the stringy, orange sweetness within. It definitely wasn’t the best fruit I’ve had, but James assured us that it tastes better if you soak it in water to bring out the juices.

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It’s not the same if you don’t balance the palm fruit on your head before you eat it.

It takes a few dozen whacks before your palm fruit starts to crack.

It takes a few dozen whacks before your palm fruit starts to crack.

My face says it all.

My face says it all.

At least the kids enjoyed it!

At least the kids enjoyed it!

With strings of orange palm fruit stuck to our teeth, we returned to Gulu, ate lunch at Coffee Hut, and caught a bus back to Kampala. It was a wonderful trip to Acholiland and one that I hope to have again before I leave Uganda at the end of May.

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