Note: Here follows the first three poems in a poem cycle I wrote after spending ten days in Uganda in 2002. I was in Kampala attending the Women's World Congress, a gathering of scholars and activists which meets in a different part of the world every three years. Rebels attacked a town 30 miles away killing a dozen people while we were there. President Museveni has been trying to broker a peace deal with rebel leader Joseph Kony, an insane person, who burns villages, kidnaps children, forces them to kill and then butcher their families and turns them into soldiers. His mother, now retired or dead, is a Joan of Arc figure who led a spirit war of "soldiers" sent into battle singing hymns, covered with ash they believed would keep bullets from hitting them. They were ordered to fire randomly into the air believing bullets would find their righteous home. Now, under Kony's command, the second wave of fighters are simply butchers. In Northern Uganda almost 100,000 people have become internally displaced persons who live in UN refugee camps in deplorable conditions. Kony works in Northern Uganda and The Sudan and is by no means indicative of the mentality of most Ugandans, who are a robust, gracious hard working people passionate about education and re-building their country.
I had the honor, during the conference, of performing a poem with the string band that played for these dancers, who (above) are seen performing at the closing ceremony for the congress.
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Ride the dawn eighty hours around the world spinning down to a two lane street in Africa where a long legged woman rides side saddle on a bicycle in front of a man leaning into the labor of peddling her along a thin strip of red dirt on the side of the road. Her dress almost catches in the spokes of the wheel, but misses. Brilliant batik fabric, perfectly pressed, pointed shoulders, tight at the waist — women, heads wrapped in shouting fabric at twilight, move out of sight as children emerge from schools, tiny ones in matching uniforms, salmon pink with green skirts for the girls, pants for the boys. Lorries zoom past, pushing road dust up loose trouser legs, lifting lapels on loose fitting shirts, delicious black skin. Trucks full of everything, bananas, sugar cane, wood, car parts, lumber, rough wood, innumerable people, half a village, rush past the edge of the African street, where on a thin line of shoulder, red dirt baked hard, a teeming parade of humanity engaged every imaginable sort of industry burgeons through and into the smell of cooking fires and exhaust fumes. Long legged, slow stepping parents return from work miles away, pass inches from traffic speeding by, 70 miles per hour, more, taxis dart around buses, buses pass trucks full of car parts and ploughs. Ride the dawn eighty hours around the earth spinning down to the African Street, Endebbe Road, at twilight, as children return from school, red shirts and black pants, turquoise shirts and dark blue skirts, book bags, mothers carrying wood on their heads, fathers putting one foot in front of the last, eight miles to go. Columns of rich scented smoke against a dusty rose colored sky. Rain clouds. Humidity cooling the air.
"Who’s that?" I ask seeing a lorry full of men in uniform, machine guns pointed akimbo.
The driver is a third year student at the university who has volunteered to pick delegates up at the airport. He wants to study international business in American, or maybe in London.
"Who are these?" The uniforms are different.
"Private security guards."
I see armed men riding in the open beds of pick up trucks, wearing different uniforms, armed to the teeth.
Later a Palestinian man tells me Uganda is a military state, which surprises me because they call it a democracy, modeled after the British. They even have a King and Queen who the people love and who have no political power.
Once as we pass the military check point to arrive inside the University a guard sticks his head into our taxi and asks me if I have a gun.
"No," I tell him, "You do."
I hear someone laughing, vow to bite my tongue the next time a soldier confronts me. Later when one signals with his rifle that I am to turn around and not continue towards the area where the President has just finished speaking, I do what I am told. It is a sunny, humid July afternoon. There is a slight breeze. A stream of people in brilliant dress move downhill from the tent where the president has just finished addressing the congress.
In the newspaper it is reported that 416 youths
have been recruited for Operation Iron Fist
to root out terrorists in Northern Uganda and the Sudan.
They need jobs, are now looking for the LRA
(Lords Liberation Army), a bizarre group of religious
rebels who kidnap children, have holy visions,
want to save the souls of their enemies,
and believe sin, not bullets, kill people in battle —
prove it by not taking shelter under fire.
The American president has listed this group,
who operates in Uganda and the Sudan
on his list of terrorist organizations dangerous
to, for instance, Kansas.
It is only remotely possibly that they know Kansas exists.
Uganda and the Sudanese governments,
anxious to please America have agreed to root them out.
The effect is increased LRA attacks on women
and children in refugee camps, more kidnappings,
and 416 youths who would otherwise be idle have jobs.
©Susan Bright, 2006
Susan Bright is the author of nineteen books of poetry. She is the editor of Plain View Press which since 1975 has published one-hundred-and-fifty books. Her work as a poet, publisher, activist and educator has taken her all over the United States and abroad. Her most recent book, The Layers of Our Seeing, is a collection of poetry, photographs and essays about peace done in collaboration with photographer Alan Pogue and Middle Eastern journalist, Muna Hamzeh.
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