Saturday, June 02, 2007

Big Daddy Gave Me a Name

After an hour of bumping over potholes on narrow red dirt roads, our car pulled up at the home of “Won Nyaci” the Paramount Chief of the Lango tribe. CPA parents have been asking what we can do now to work for peace and reconciliation and what our unique role in that process should be. We’ve decided on 4 “Steps Toward Reconciliation” that we can take and we began the journey this morning. Tomorrow we’ll go to Gulu to meet with Rwot Acana the Acholi Paramount Chief. A team of 5 parents and a couple of “technical people,” like me make up the group.

We were led to a grass thatched open hut. The door is so low we had to duck to get inside. When I entered I saw the chief, or the Big Daddy—which is the literal translation of what most Langi call him. Unlike other times, when I’ve seen him decked out in colorful African fabrics, he was dressed in simple western clothes. The two other women got on their knees to greet him. No one briefed me on protocol and I’m a little uncomfortable kneeling in front of anyone—but I tried to look humble and kind of curtsied a little while I shook his hand. This was such a curious but significant meeting. Chickens walked along the edge of the open room which was lined by 15 wooden chairs with fuzzy leopard print cushions. His wife began praying as soon as we came and then walked back and forth with a handkerchief and an inhaler. She liked to move and seemed friendly and full of energy. Big daddy on the other hand sat very still and drew long breaths and smiled with his kind eyes. Angelina (CPA’s chairperson and great mentor and inspiration to me) explained about the new program of reconciliation that CPA is beginning and the vision behind it. She introduced everyone and told him about the work I’ve been doing with CPA for the past year and a half. Then each parent talked from their experiences and spoke their desire for peace.

People talked slowly to Big Daddy, as if every word deserved time and space and held some special power if it was considered and accepted by the listener. On paper, when I worked on the proposal to get funding for this project, this meeting looked very different. But here I was in this hut and it was so real. Each parent here had a daughter abducted. Each of them are raising the grandchildren of LRA commanders. One of them is still waiting for his daughter’s return. She’s still in Kony’s house—and here they are talking about reconciliation as if it’s a real and possible thing for them. They have turned such unspeakable pain into contagious energy for healing. Each word they speak does have power.

The entire meeting was in Lango—which I can catch bits and pieces of but my comprehension is often a combination of a few words and a lot of guess work. When it was time for Big Daddy to say something he looked thoughtful and then got out a piece of paper. Slowly and deliberately he wrote four names and then explained what each of them meant. One was someone who is feared, one was someone who organizes and keeps house well, I didn’t understand the third one, and the fourth was one who is so precious to everyone that her contribution to the community is invaluable. When he read the last name on the list the parents I was with nodded and made affirming noises and Angelina started to clap. I didn’t know what was going on but then he explained. The names are only given to women who have done great things for the Lango community and who deserve a special name. These aren’t names that are given at birth, but they have to be earned. He says that I need to be given a great Lango name and as the chief of Lango he will name me. The parents should confirm which of the four names is right for me. From that moment they stopped calling me Holly and started calling me Elit.

Big Daddy expressed his commitment to support our initiative and talked about how he felt it complemented other current efforts of peacebuilding in northern Uganda. At what we thought was the end of the conversation Angelina thanked them and said we should be going, but the Big Mommy jumped up. She shook her finger, scolding us, “when you are a visitor it is not you to decide when you are leaving. It is us who will release you and I have refused.” Then she bustled out of the room, ducking through the low door and walked to the smoking mud shack I assume is the kitchen where they were making us food. Five chickens perched on the edge of the room and watched us eat while what must have been a new litter of puppies cried and pawed at the board that barred their entrance into the room.

What we write in project documents packages a meeting like this with goals, objectives and objectively verifiable indicators. Program design makes it all seem so straightforward, predictable and measurable. But the reality is almost always decidedly stranger—and often more powerful.


jim p said...

...deep wonderful sigh...reading this post leaves me sitting here with a big smile, a very warm heart, and nothing to say... except, thank you for sharing with us the real, strange, and powerful... as always, jim

jim p said...

p.s. Holly, your new name fits my opinion of you when you were here with us at Celebration, esp on the leadership team: "one who is so precious to everyone that her contribution to the community is invaluable", yep, I nod my head and clap my hands as well! I continue to hold both you and Ben most warmly, respectfully, and with great prayer and affection.

Dale and Gann said...

Hold onto this day during the times when weariness overtakes you; such times never come to those who say no to the hard work of presence. Thank you once again for representing us all with such integrity.

Holly & Ben Porter said...

Jim--thanks for your ever encouraging words--it means a lot to hear them from someone I respect as much you.
I must say, even yesterday when I wrote this I was weary and still am today--though it's not overtaking me and I'm pretty sure it's worth it. I just got home from Gulu where we met at the Paramount Chief's this morning. It was good-- but so different than yesterday. Donors from the international community have built several beautiful buildings that house the Acholi traditional leadership. And the Rwot himself couldn't come because he's at the peace talks in Juba, so we met with the next 10 highest leaders. They have an anthem which they sang when we entered. Sheep were bleating in the backround almost in tune--like they'd been practicing. I don't understand Acholi as well as Lango so I got the general gist but not much more until I debriefed with the parents on our way back to Lira. They are also supportive, but are much more focused on how peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts can be used to convince the ICC to withdraw (which is of course based on a misunderstanding of the way the ICC works, but that's a whole other blog...) CPA is not as focused on the ICC, but recognizes that an experience of justice for the victims of this war can't be provided soley by the indictment of 5 people--so rather than spend a lot of energy arguing about an already polarized and misunderstood debate--we're encouraging restorative justice at the community level.
When I was working a "normal" job in the US I wouldn't have imagined that I could not be fully present doing this kind of work. But the fact is that I have all the same limitations. I let my mind wander a couple times--feeling the absence of my weekend, and imagining how much more rested I'd be to start off Monday morning if I'd slept in, eaten pancakes for breakfast and stayed in pjs until noon. I put my pjs back on, and I'm enjoying what's left of the Sunday.

Anonymous said...

Holly, are you familiar with the Caritas handbook on reconciliation? I assume you are but here is a link to the online version It might be helpful for developing grassroot reconciliation programs. I found it really useful while writing my LLM thesis.

I'm glad you're doing well and are so needed and appreciated there. I'm praying for you.


Josh said...

Elit (or Holly),
I am so happy you finally have a lango name (one with substance that couldn't be beaten...not "beautiful" or something like that) What a wonderful day. We just watched the video of my "naming ceremony" he he very different.

love ya, Iyer (or Erin)

Anonymous said...

Be blessed for the good work.

I hope you know there is a slight difference between the the dialect spoken in Gulu and Lira like in the Big Daddy title. 'Won' can be 'owner of', 'the one with' or 'father of'. 'Nyaci' is the parting in the hair. I think it was the men's hairdo of the era and the paramount chief had one so he was refered to as 'Won Nyaci'- owner of the parted hairdo.

Thank You.