Author: George Kitsaras
Rustic reds, orange, yellow and greens create a diverse and intriguing colour pallet that dominates the horizon. That is one of the first impressions when approaching Gulu, roughly a 5-hour drive away from Kampala, the capital of Uganda, on the road to South Sudan. Gulu is the most important economic, cultural and administrative town in the North of Uganda. It is also the unofficial capital of the Acholi people, one of the largest ethnic groups in Uganda.
Gulu resembles a typical, bustling and active Ugandan town. When you approach the city, having only passed the Nile on your way there, Gulu welcomes you with a gradually increasing number of shops and businesses lining the main road on both sides. Traffic can be chaotic and hugely unpredictable. All around the city Boda Bodas (motorcyclists carrying people, goods and even animals around) create a noisy and in some cases dangerous atmosphere. The lack of pavements, traffic patrols and limited night-time lighting don’t help things either. Surprisingly, everything and everyone moves in a natural and at times effortless fashion. There’re traffic and pedestrian accidents but not as many as you would have thought when first encountering this inner-city pandemonium.
Nowadays, Gulu has a population of roughly 150.000 with the vast majority of them living in traditional huts dotted across the flat landscape. There are a few residential and commercial buildings all of them heavily concentrated in the centre of the town. Most inner-city roads are going through a huge transformation from pothole-infested, dirt roads to modern, tarmacked streets with pavements and lighting. The same transformation can be seen across the city. Like the rest of Uganda and East Africa in general, much of the investments come from the Chinese government and private Chinese firms. Despite ever-growing investments, Chinese presence in Gulu is limited. That is mainly due to the fact that Chinese companies opt in for prefabricated houses in isolated and self-contained areas with limited integration with the locals. Contrary to the Chinese, other ethnic minority groups have managed to establish good links with the locals. Ethiopians, Indians and other nationals have well-established businesses, restaurants and are today a lively part of Gulu’s society and economy. All the on-going growth and tangible changes have resulted in high spirits and pride amongst many locals. Meanwhile, others remain wary of foreign intentions in a place that has suffered greatly due to foreign involvement, manipulations, broken promises and indifference in the past.
It was not long ago when Gulu was in the midst of a long, tormenting civil war. Back in 1980s the Lord Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony started an armed campaign against the central government in Kampala following the overthrow of Acholi president Tito Okello by current President Yoweri Museveni. Kony infused his call to arms against the government with religious overtones and utilised a wide terror campaign that pushed many locals to join his forces. As the clashes intensified, Kony and his men started deploying abductions of primarily children in an effort to increase his recruits while further controlling people’s minds through sheer fear. At its peak, abductions were so common that thousands of young children had to commute to and from schools in and around Gulu over-night in order to lower the risk of being kidnapped. Those children became known as “Night riders” and at times more than 50.000 of them used to line the streets and abandoned buildings of Gulu waiting to go to school in the morning. Almost a decade ago, armed conflicts started to ease, abductions were no longer the norm and Kony himself evaded capture by fleeing to Sudan and later on to the DR of Congo.
Today, most people avoid talking about the period of the war. It is actually surprising how determined many people are to leave the past behind and move on with their lives rebuilding their communities for a more prosperous future. Unemployment statistics are hugely inaccurate but many people keep busy with a series of day to day jobs across the town and surrounding areas. Everyone seems to be doing something. In the truly Ugandan and Acholi spirit of community support many people have started their own non-profit and social enterprises actively helping those in need.
In one of the many such initiatives, a tall, slim and smiley figure stands by its gate welcoming people in the compound. That figure, is Abraham. Abraham is born and raised in Gulu Town. Today in his late 50s, Abraham remains hard-working, dedicated and shows no signs of slowing down. A former teacher, Abraham has been working at WEND Africa since its inception and prior to that, he was a key member of Invisible Children. He is the third of a total of 9 siblings. Two of them have sadly passed away. Abraham has 5 children, 2 boys and 3 girls. The girls are in boarding school away from home. His wife is a teacher in a school far from home. She spends Monday-Friday away from the house since it’s impossible to commute on a daily basis. Abraham spends his time after work alone. In his own words he finds that “difficult, boring and at times sad”. However, when the weekend comes, Abraham enjoys a full house with his wife and 3 girls back home.
Apart from being part of WEND Africa and being a former teacher, Abraham has an intriguing, unexpected and truly amazing past. Abraham is one of the few remaining survivors of the 2000 Ebola outbreak that affected Uganda. Abraham caught Ebola while working as in a nearby school. He believes that one of his colleagues infected him. That same colleague was found dead from Ebola just a few days after Abraham started experiencing symptoms. Abraham was treated for a long time under a UN funded scheme for the victims of Ebola. After his discharge from hospital, and without posing a risk to society, Abraham had to carry a special certificate issued by the hospital in order to reassure people who were afraid of him. Back then, and in some respect today, communities were hugely misinformed and that resulted in suspicion even outright aggressiveness towards Ebola survivors. After some time, and with lots of patience, Abraham managed to be fully accepted back to his community. Ebola might have been behind him but the on-going health consequences of the disease still torment his body and impact his quality of life. Despite being in almost constant pain around his joints, having eyesight and hearing issues Abraham remains positive and full of life. He always smiles at anyone walking through the gate while extending his hand for a firm and friendly handshake.
Abraham, like Gulu Town, has been through a lot, being caught in a series of unfortunate events and twisted fates. Like Gulu Town, Abraham recovered. Despite physical and emotional scars, he’s moving forwards gazing his future with excitement and hope. Both Gulu Town and Abraham act as important lessons that transcend national boundaries. Gulu and Abraham teach us that perseverance, dedication, altruism and optimism can be powerful tools for a better future.