1995, Lincoln International School, Kampala, Uganda.
Break time on a sunny Wednesday morning: children of all races aged 5 to 18 years strolling around the quad or out on the playing field, some kicking a ball around, others playing tag; teachers and helpers enjoying their hot coffee in or around the staff room except for the two outside on duty and those embroiled in last-minute lesson preparations in the classrooms. I, the Maintenance Officer, happened to be down in the corridor near the computer lab which led to part of the field.
Military helicopters buzzing around Kampala’s sky were not unusual. This one however got louder and louder. I moved outside to where I could see it. It was hovering quite low over the field. Children moved to the edge as it … to my horror I could see it was landing in the middle of the playing field.
January 1984, the road to Kotido, Karamoja, Uganda
My second day travelling what, because of my experience of the English countryside, I could only regard as a 150-mile-long cart track: red soil, red dust, red blistering heat, ameliorated only by the hot air blowing through the door windows in the cab of the green Mercedes truck – left over relief transport from the 1980 killer-famine. We stopped to view a couple of human thigh bones – all that was left of two teenage school boys killed by the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) some days earlier.
A few weeks later, on the way to buy timber from Mbale, 200 miles away, I am shown the place known as Lorengacora. There was nothing left, save a couple of burned-out mud huts that had once been grass-thatched, where once there had been a whole village of people, caring for their animals, growing their crops, collecting their water from less-than-clean shallow wells, or over-used boreholes with heavy-duty hand-pumps. The village had been bombed and set on fire by the military, in helicopters.
1990, Moroto, Karamoja, Uganda.
With the approval of the local community I took under my wing a 13-year old orphan boy, in need of care and fees for school where he had previously shown promise. His story was long; it took many months for him to tell me most of it. People who suffer trauma, not least children and not least those who suffer long, find it hard to provide an intelligible and consistent narrative. Their listeners struggle to know wisdom and compassion in teasing out and piecing together some coherence.
Almost no part of Karamoja (near to the size of Wales) was free from senseless and violent persecution under Idi Amin, and later under the second regime of Milton Obote. The Karimojong inhabitants were punished for being ‘backward’ due to being semi-nomadic cattle keepers. They were also said to be ‘uncivilised’ due to their entirely-healthy tendency to avoid the wearing of clothes. The earlier colonial ‘Protectorate’ administration had ‘pacified’ and then pretty-much ignored them. It was left to the missionaries to introduce formal education, for better or worse.
James was from the south, the youngest by far of three boys – like his new dad, born later in the marriage. His parents died of natural causes when he was small. In 1986, when the villages around Namalu were attacked by the UNLA in helicopters, nine-year-old James had the unenviable experience, along with other residents, of running from the burning villages, soldiers firing live bullets at them from the open doors of low-flying helicopters. Obviously he survived, while many he knew did not. Not happy memories, nor what someone taking over parental duties would wish to hear.
1995, Lincoln International School, Kampala, Uganda.
Even before the sound of the engine faded away, children started moving towards the helicopter, drawn perhaps as moths to light. As fear caught hold of me and possible scenarios flashed through my mind, I knew that, whatever could have caused a military of helicopter of the Uganda National Resistance Army to land in an International School playing field, I did not have the authority to deal with it. I began to run up the stairs towards the administrative block where I hoped I would find the Director. Time appeared to slow down, yet I was running. I had no time to be shocked and scared at the children and staff who had appeared as from nowhere and were flooding down the stairs to get a close-up view of this exciting event; yet I was.
“You’re going the wrong way!” I tried with limited breath to yell to a teacher. With what seemed to me a foolish disregard for the children in her care (and their large-fee-paying parents), she grinned and continued on down. Had I the time to think, I would have been aghast at the crowd mentality or dangerous inquisitiveness that drew them.
Running up more steps and across the grass of the quad, ignoring paved paths, I reached the Director’s Office outer door and ran in. He American, and at the top of this little heap, I would normally ask his Business Manager if he was free or, if she was absent, knock and wait. She was not in evidence: I knocked once and rushed in. He was apparently in the middle of interviewing parents of a potential pupil.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but an army helicopter has just landed in the school field. The buck stops here.”
It turned out that the pilot was confused as to his location; he also appeared to lack common sense. He was eventually persuaded by the Director to fly away: I presume the latter was trained for any eventuality. Later I was told that one child, who had previously witnessed a military coup in another country, had been scared out of her wits. She and me together. It’s not hard to see what might have lain behind my and her reactions to the situation, but still I wonder about the teachers and why their first instinct was not to move the children away.
I never found out whether the interviewed parents sent their child to the school, but I do confess to experiencing a moment of pleasure in saying “the buck stops here”.
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