Africa, Headlines

/ARTS WEEKLY-UGANDA: Children Use Pictures to Convey a Message of Peace

Evelyn Kiapi Matsamura

KAMPALA, Nov 4 2003 (IPS) - The pictures of flying bullets, burning houses, dead bodies and fleeing villagers, show just how Uganda’s 17-year-old conflict has become part of the children in the north of the country.

With just a pencil and a few crayons, the 50 paintings the children have drawn create the picture of a generation that has never known peace.

The drawings, including the portrait of the dreadlocked rebel leader Joseph Kony, were sponsored by the Belgian Embassy for the school children in the war-torn northern districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Lira.

The exhibition, titled "Towards a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence in Northern Uganda", was organised by ‘Uganda Art for Peace’, a non-governmental organisation.

Opening the exhibition at the University of Makerere’s Margaret Trowell School of Fine Art in Kampala on Oct. 23, the Belgian Ambassador, Koenraad Adam said art was one way the children were using to express themselves.

The rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have been fighting the government of President Yoweri Museveni since 1986. The group, led by Kony, is known for its penchant for killing, abductions, and cutting off victims’ lips, ears, noses, arms, and legs.

No one has any idea about the size of the LRA, but various sources put the figure of the rebel army to around 6,000.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says over 10,000 children have been abducted since 1986. A July 2002 report by an international relief agency, ‘World Vision’ said over 5,000 children had been abducted to become child soldiers in the rebel army in the past year.

The war has also led to the displacement of over 1.2 million people into Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) camps, where women and children below 18 make up over 70 percent of the population.

The ‘World Vision’ has a centre in Gulu to rehabilitate former abducted children. More than 6,000 children have passed through this institution, known as the ‘Uganda Children Of War’ rehabilitation centre, since it opened in 1995.

"These children have lost their self-esteem, are haunted by inferiority complex and face the uncertainty of the community’s reaction toward them," a report from the centre says.

Young girls and women have been raped, defiled and forced into marriages by the rebels. Some have been used as porters, cooks and domestic workers, with the weak ones being killed along the way to southern Sudan, where the rebels have bases.

The war has now spread to Soroti, eastern Uganda, prompting president Museveni, who has been insisting on military solution, to pitch camp there.

The children believe talks are the only solution to the conflict. This message is very clear in the award winning exhibition, ‘Stop The War’, by Peter Oloya. He uses mahogany to make an AK-47 assault weapon. Placing it on a wide wooden board, Oloya cuts the gun into three pieces using a saw. Above the gun is a hammer, pulling out the metallic parts of the weapon.

Oloya says the AK-47 is the gun that is destroying Africa. "I look at this weapon as the virus in Africa, deadly than the HIV virus," he says.

"I use the AK-47 image because it is the most common gun used in Uganda. I believe that 75 percent of our problems, both past and present are due to this gun," he says.

His colleague, Stephen Oketa uses watercolours in ‘What Is Impossible’ to show how two sworn enemies can compromise: these enemies are a dog and a cat eating in the same plate. "These animals always live side by side as non-compromising enemies. The apex of their disagreement is usually in the presence of a meal. If the food is enough for both of them, they eat it without fighting.

"If a dog and a cat can eat in the same plate, then why is it impossible to find a solution to the conflict in the north?" Oketa asks.

Another painting, ‘Help My Generation To Survive’, by Susan Namiiro, shows the pain of a young woman in the war-torn north, with her lips chopped off by the rebels. This happens when civilians refuse to pass information.

In the same painting, a young boy limps with a walking stick; his leg has been amputated after stepping on a landmine. Namiiro uses brown and red colours in the background to show the devastation caused by the war in the north.

"The land is on fire," she explains, referring to the brown and red colours in her painting.

Not all is doomed, however. There is a ray of hope, somewhere. In ‘The Storm Is Over’ government soldiers and rebels meet by the river. They are shaking hands and dancing. Rebel leader, Kony is waving a white flag, a sign of surrender. The civilians in the background are cheering. Everybody is happy. The war is over. "I believe that dialogue and peace talks can be the best way to end the war," says Ruva Roy Collins, the painter.

In Moses Bahutu’s ‘We Want Peace Not War’, president Museveni shakes hands with Kony, a cultist whose preaching mingle Christian fundamentalism with African traditional religion. The warm handshake and the smiles on their faces show that some day, peace will prevail.

"Putting Museveni and Kony in the middle of the paintings shows that both men are at the centre of the conflict," Bahatu says.

"We are looking at arts as the best way to communicate to all people whether they are literate or illiterate. Arts is a universal language that can be understood by almost everybody," says Dan Tumusiime, the curator of the exhibition. "We hope to use art to promote peace and non-violence."

At the opening of the exhibition, a large blank peace mural was set up for guests to paint something on it. The mural, together with the guest book, will be handed to Kony and to the government.

"We donated the mural to the government peace team, to tell them that what they are doing (peace talks) is the best thing," Tumusiime says.

The exhibition will be taken to Gulu in December and Belgium next year.

Not everyone, however, believes that the exhibition will lead to the end of the war in the north. "These people just decided to paint a few pictures because they want to pass their exams. Others wanted to win prizes. How can paintings convince Kony to stop fighting," says 24-year-old Jacinta Kakayi, an accountant.

Others agree. "The artwork is good. But I am sure that’s where the journey’s going to end; on the wall," says Julius Arinaitwe, a university student.

Tumusiime does not blame those who think that the exhibition is toothless.

"The whole concept of arts and culture is new in Uganda. That is why few people believe that art can be used as an instrument of peace," he says.

"If you can use art, designs and colours to advertise a mobile phone, why can’t we use that same art to promote peace?" Tumusiime asks. "We have a duty to promote art and peace. Art is everywhere in life. We cannot hide it."

Since every journey begins with the first step, so maybe with time, Tumusiime’s concept of art for peace will produce results that many Ugandans will be proud of.

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