For more than two decades, greater northern Uganda was the site of protracted violence between the Government of Uganda (GoU) and various rebel movements, most notoriously the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). During these periods of instability and in their aftermath, a variety of contemporary and indigenous forms of creative expression were created by local artists and shared widely among war-affected communities. Drawing from more than six years of experience in this field, and the musical and theatrical works of a variety of local artists, this essay provides three reflections on performing arts’ contribution to community-based peacebuilding in northern Uganda.
Northern Uganda’s Conflicts
Since independence, the people of greater northern Uganda have suffered from a series of conflicts that have taken a severe toll on civilians and combatants, especially during the most recent period from 1986 to 2006. This has included severe persecution and marginalization at the hands of government forces and nearly two dozen rebel insurgencies, most notoriously the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). In addition to widespread incidents of sexual violence, torture, and murder, millions were forcibly displaced in squalid internally displaced persons (IDP) camps for more than ten years, and an estimated 60,000 people were abducted by rebels and forced to join their ranks. Furthermore, according to a study released in 2008, northern Uganda has some of the highest levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) recorded anywhere, with an estimated 54 percent of the population suffering from PTSD.
Peace talks were most recently held in Juba, South Sudan, from 2006 to 2008, but were dissolved after the leader of the LRA, Joseph Kony, failed to sign the final peace agreement (FPA). Since then, the leadership of the LRA has remained at large but has not returned to Uganda, ushering in relative peace and security to the greater North. Although the FPA was never signed, the GoU has committed to implementing a series of agreements that constitute the FPA, including the Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation, in which both parties agreed to the establishment of a transitional justice (TJ) framework for the country. Still, the process of implementing this framework has been slow, and there have been few concrete developments since 2007. War-affected communities, often articulated through civil society, have widely demanded further grassroots consultation on complex questions regarding justice and accountability for past human rights violations, and they want community-centered TJ processes to be instated. The arts, especially drama and music, have been one outlet for grassroots people to express their dissatisfaction with the government’s progress and provide specific recommendations to policy-makers.
The intersection between the arts and peacebuilding is still a largely unexplored and untapped area of scholarship and practice. However, expressive arts have been called the “missing link in the field of conflict resolution and peacemaking.” Within the Peace Studies field, John Paul Lederach and Lisa Schirch have been at the forefront of the arts in peacebuilding, and Olivier Urbain’s anthology Music and Conflict Transformation arguably provides the most comprehensive analysis to date on music and conflict. There is budding interest in the arts and transformation in the Psychology (Art Therapy) and Ethnomusicology fields, as well.
In the midst of northern Uganda’s conflicts, a plethora of contemporary and indigenous forms of creative expression were created by local artists and propagated. Ranging from appeals to the rebels to return home and accept amnesty, to analysis on the peace talks in Juba, local artists captured popular sentiments and were listened to by all parties to the conflict, including displaced persons, rebels in the bush, and government forces.
Furthermore, in northern Uganda, performing arts — such as music, dance and drama — are more common than plastic arts — such as painting or sculpting. This is largely due to the prevalence and cultural relevance of indigenous practices of oral storytelling through music and dance, coupled with the high costs of visual art-making materials. As a result, the reflections in this essay draw from examples of performing, rather than plastic, arts.
Since 2006, I have been involved in research and advocacy surrounding the arts and peacebuilding in northern Uganda. In the following section, I provide three reflections on the arts’ contribution to community-based peacebuilding in this context.
The peoples of northern Uganda, especially the Acholi, have a strong oral history, and song and drama are two forms of storytelling which allow for community-based accounts to be recorded and passed down to future generations. In many of these works, I have observed artists seeking to understand the nature of conflicts and how they have continued for so long, as well as advising how to end the violence and never repeat it. One example of this can be found in the song, “Lutela (Leaders),” by Yib Oyoo, an indigenous-genre musical group from Pader district in northern Uganda. According to one verse:
Leaders of Pader district, we would like to inform you that the Acholi are uniting for
But as we are uniting for peace, there is some confusion on the side of the Government.
The Government said this is a period for amnesty, but we still hear bombs sounding from
So we ask the Government:
Why do you say there is amnesty while battles are ongoing? How will that work?
The LRA have reported with their guns to various army barracks like in Pajule, but they
claim the mobile faction of the government army is not giving them room to return
because they are always pursuing them.
This song references the controversial blanket Amnesty Act that was available to combatants from 2000 until May 2012. It questions the GoU’s sincerity in ending the conflict peacefully through the Act, and it preserves a community account of the reality “on the ground.” Despite the Act’s claims to be available to all combatants who denounce rebellion, the army’s pursuit of the LRA made it difficult for rebels to surrender and accept the amnesty. As a result, the community was forced to endure the fighting. By articulating a view of amnesty rooted in local experience, this alternative narrative, one which deeply resonates with the grassroots population, is captured for further analysis from the local perspective.
The war is often blamed for breaking down many of the social and cultural traditions within the region. With many elders killed during the course of the conflict and the disruption of normalcy while in the IDP camps, practices like wango’o (“evening fireplace”), and other rituals were restricted during the conflict, and have been slow to re-emerge in its wake. Despite this erosion of indigenous practices, the arts have created platforms for different sectors of society to speak and be heard by their peers and other generations. Through the arts, a vibrant dialogue is taking place on the consequences of the conflicts on various sub-sets within society — including the youth, women, and the elderly — providing important intersections for exchange and debate on how to move forward as a more united society.
The Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP), a Ugandan non-governmental organization (NGO) which I worked for from 2010-2012, aims to foster intergenerational dialogue around transitional justice issues, such as truth-telling, amnesty, forgiveness, accountability, memorialization, and reparations. JRP launched a pilot community theater project in four communities in northern Uganda in 2011. In Abia, a community in the Lango sub-region in northern Uganda which experienced an LRA massacre in 2004, JRP partnered with the pupils of Abia Primary School. After undergoing an eight-week training facilitated by their teachers, the pupils developed and performed a forum-theater-style drama before members of their community.
The play focused on the consequences of the conflict on children and youth. It featured several poignant scenes, including a re-enactment of the massacre and references to child prostitution in exchange for food that occurred while the community was displaced in the IDP camp. The drama ends with a scene on community reconciliation and the line, “There is forgiveness for all the people who committed atrocities during the war.” Following the drama, a teacher at the school facilitated a community dialogue on the issues raised by the children. Throughout the performance, one can see many adults — presumably parents of children at the school — in the audience. This depicts one example of the arts creating space for different generations affected by northern Uganda’s conflict to come together and discuss consequences of the conflict and a way forward. Oftentimes, the arts can spark conversation on these issues and generate momentum for future engagement by the different parties.
The concept of “vernacularization” was coined by anthropologist Sally Engle Merry and references the ways in which international human rights instruments and standards become articulated by local actors “in the vernacular,” or in ways relevant to and understandable in the local context. In several instances in northern Uganda, international human rights instruments have been vernacularized through the arts, contributing to greater understanding of their contents and implications within the local community. One such example can be found in the song, “Wan Lutino (We are the Children),” by local artist Jeff Korondo. According to one verse:
Every day when they talk about children’s rights, many people think they spoil the
children, but I really think that is not true.
These are basic needs for the little child.
Basic needs are these:
Letting your child grow with happiness,
Giving your child a chance to play,
Listening to the ideas and problems of the child,
Fulfilling the basic needs for appropriate growth.
When we provide these basic needs, then that is what we call children’s rights!
The children, too, have their roles that they have to play.
Taking goats for pasture — Your role!
Sweeping the compound — Your role!
Washing dishes — Your role!
Fetching some water — Your role!
But most important is to study hard, study hard our children!
Composed in a contemporary Afrobeat style, “Wan Lutino” was commissioned by Save the Children in Uganda in 2006 as part of a children’s manifesto campaign in the run-up to the 2006 national elections. In line with the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, the song highlights the basic rights of children, such as the right to education and to develop to one’s fullest potential. However, cognizant of local opposition to the international concept of children’s rights, with many fearing it will lead to rebellion in children and a breakdown of children’s respect for elders, the song also highlights, and carefully supports, the balanced supportive role of children within Ugandan society. As demonstrated by the vernacularization of this convention, the arts can express often confusing and controversial concepts or positions in peacebuilding in terms that are relevant and relatable to the local context.
These initial three reflections were drawn from my experiences with the arts and peacebuilding in northern Uganda over the last six years. As they demonstrate, the arts have provided opportunities for vital dialogue and conversation on issues plaguing its post-conflict communities. While there is, without a doubt, more need to analyze the specific impact of the arts on peacebuilding processes, these reflections and their accompanying examples illustrate the rich context of conflict and recovery that can be found in modes of creative expression.
Building upon my previous work, in June 2013 I will commence a larger, one-year study on music and conflict transformation in northern Uganda that will specifically explore how a variety of musical genres emergent during the periods of open violence have contributed to constructive change in individuals affected by the conflict, as well as in the social dimensions of relational, structural, and cultural change. By further exploring works from northern Uganda’s conflict and post-conflict periods, I aim to better understand how the arts influence peacebuilding efforts in these settings. If the previous examples are any indication, the ongoing efforts by artists in Uganda should challenge us, as scholars and practitioners, to be more aware of the influence the arts hold in war-affected societies in the wake of conflict and mass human rights violations.
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