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.