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Thursday, September 3, 2015
- The late Malian writer and ethnologist Amadou Hampâté Bâ said, “In Africa, when an old person dies, it is a library that burns”, so huge is the loss of oral stories and information. It’s a saying that rings true with the Acholi ethnic group, that was left devastated by the war in northern Uganda. “Our culture believes, when someone dies, there is a grave and it documents the loss. Now we need to look beyond the graves,” Acholi chief Rwoth Achoro says.
So for the past nine months the Refugee Law Project (RLP) from the faculty of law at Uganda’s Makerere University have been traversing parts of Uganda affected by conflict, collecting objects and archives from people who have lived through war and continue to be haunted by it. According to RLP, there have been 44 different armed groups registered in Uganda since independence in 1962.
The project, called “Travelling Testimonies“ has toured Kitgum, Kasese, Arua, West Nile and Luwero, and recorded and amassed more than 30 hours of testimony from veterans, ex-combatants and other war-affected men, women and children.
There are items like a blanket, given generously to the project by a grieving mother who had been keeping it as a memento for her abducted son.
“She donated it as a symbol of being able to share his memory and the idea of missing person’s beyond her own space,” Kara Blackmore, exhibition curator, anthropologist and heritage consultant, tells IPS.
There’s a United Nations World Food Programme bag from a disbanded internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, a split rocket propeller grenade and a bowl used in a reconciliation ceremony.
The tangible objects, which may seem to be simple, everyday items to look are powerful because they hold greater meaning and are people’s own voices.
“There’s everyone from an arms trader to landmine survivors to widows,” says Blackmore, who spoke recently at the exhibition in Luwero.
In a 2007 survey conducted among the country’s war-affected communities, a staggering 95 percent of respondents said they wanted memorials established.
The RLP is constructing the National Memory and Peace Documentation Centre (NMPDC) in Kitgum and say they’ll embark on “aggressive fundraising” next year to complete this. The museum is currently only “a slab”, says Blackmore, but the organisation is trying to find funding to finish it and have a full-scale multimedia exhibition on “Travelling Testimonies” there.
“Travelling Testimonies” is the first exhibition to display anything related to Ugandan conflicts besides the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) one, let alone go travelling.
“The research is so community-led that you just arrive and say ‘this is what we’re looking for’ and then people take you in this direction,” explains Blackmore.
“It’s like a jigsaw.”
Most people have been willing to talk openly about living through war, but some were emotional.
“There’s some people who become quite saddened by it but everyone in that instance seems to be promoting the idea of memory process,” said Blackmore.
“So even though they feel the sadness from it and feel the sense of lack of humanity, the flip side is ‘yes, but our young people should feel this stuff and should be exposed to it.’”
The last stop for “Travelling Testimonies” will be Makerere University Art Gallery in Kampala, where the collection will be on show from Jun. 19 to Jul. 26, before the material returns to the NMPDC.
But it’s not only there where the stories will stay. RLP have created a digital archive, which will go back to war-affected communities. “Each person will get a copy of a testimonial portrait and a scan,” explains Blackmore.
“We have partner organisations in each area that become keepers of the material should anyone want to access it.” She says this fosters a “sense of ownership” of the community’s history “rather than taking it, writing about it in a foreign language and then publishing it in a place where they can’t access it.”