Buildin' With Your Elders
The old man had a distinct ring of blue around his otherwise dark eyes. This was a feature I had never seen in northern Uganda, a region dominated by deep black skin and dark eyes. I had just been invited into the family compound of Ak Akera, a 91 year old Acholi elder. Akera was extraordinary, not only because the average life expectancy in northern Uganda is 39, but because of his uncommonly exuberant and thoughtful demeanor. His bright eyes and welcoming disposition showed no trace of the burden he carried. His people, for the past twenty years, had faced child abduction, rape and pillaging by the LRA, as well as the daily humiliation of living in cramped and dirty internally displaced persons camps, oblitering both the desire to life as well as cultural identity.
I was in the north putting together a two week program for American undergraduate students on the role of youth in post-conflict northern Uganda. I had heard about Akera through a local politician, and immediately thought he would be perfect for an evening story telling session.
A citizen farmer all his life, Akera had been trained under the British protectorate, become a history teacher, while also working his own farmland, now out of reach because of recent violence. He told me how the British taught the Acholi farming techniques, and showed them how to grow cotton, the great cash crop, as Akera said, that ran the mills in Liverpool. He explained how the people of the neighboring West Nile district, for many of the Protectorate years, were not allowed to farm their own land, because they were used as labor in the sugar factories down country in Jinga. He told tales of gangs of men carrying crops on their back, and the barge that crossed the Nile in Murchison before the Karuma Falls brige was built.
Akera had an extraordinary perspective of history, studying the world in books, and living his own country's story, witnessing every horror and joy of independence, both Obotes, Amin and Museveni. Akera is his people's cultural lynchpin, an anchor to remind them of who they are in stormy times.