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One Night in Ogonyo

Uganda, October 9, 2006

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Families displaced by Uganda's civil war are staying in transitional camps while they await circumstances safe enough for them to return home. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

For a night, I felt the chill of life in a displacement camp.

My colleagues and I just spent the night inside a traditional mud hut in the village of Ogonyo, Uganda. It was a rare opportunity; just a few of weeks ago, before the peace talks between the Ugandan government and Lord's Resistance Army began, it would have been impossible to stay here after sunset. The long-running civil war mandated that all humanitarian workers be back to their offices or lodgings by 4:30 p.m. at the latest.

Of course, these restrictions offered little solace or protection for Ugandan villagers. As darkness fell each night, uncertainty and fear replaced the industriousness and mirth of the daylight hours. No one was ever sure if - or when - violence would suddenly arrive at their doorstep.

For the last several years, hundreds of thousands of families traumatized by war have lived in sprawling displacement camps plagued by lack of educational or work opportunities, poor sanitation and scarce food supplies. They are miserable places where disease is rampant and hope dim. But they offer one thing that more traditional villages can't: strength in numbers. Government soldiers are constantly on guard against rebels along the perimeter of larger displacement camps.

Villages like Ogonyo are a relatively new phenomenon in this part of Northern Uganda, cropping up earlier this year as peace talks began. These villages - known as "return camps" - are much smaller than the "mother camps" in which families have lived for as long as the last decade. In the dozens of return camps like Ogonyo, houses are spaced farther apart and families have access to farming land to grow their own crops.

It is still an arrangement that is far from ideal. Traditionally, members of this area's Acholi ethnic group live in family compounds that are close to their fields and far from towns or even other families. The generation-long civil war here has completely reordered that culture, forcing families into camps where huts are sometimes situated less than five feet from each other.

Places like Ogonyo offer an alternative, one somewhere between the grim reality of the mother camps and hopeful thoughts of returning home. It's in these camps, in Northern Uganda's war-torn Pader District, that Mercy Corps is helping families re-establish farming practices and protecting them against food shortages. And it is in this camp where I felt fear in the middle of a moonless night.

Fifty children and a song

Our group - three Mercy Corps field officers from the area, our driver, a photographer and I - arrived in Ogonyo shortly before 5 p.m. A bountiful rain shower had just passed through the area, anointing the crops and infusing the landscape with rich color. A rainbow unfurled across the sky in affirmation.

As we exited the car, a crowd of smiling faces quickly wrapped around us. Most of the faces belonged to children, eager and curious. My heart was warmed by the enthusiasm in their eyes, but I was also saddened at the thought of the horrors some of those little eyes have seen.

At first, we walked around Ogonyo greeting villagers. The entourage of children following us grew from a dozen to almost 50 in no time flat. They stayed near to us, occasionally reaching up to hold our hands as we made the rounds.

About two hours later, after we'd shaken hands with most of the village, the children were still faithfully following us. Their faces hinted at innocent expectation. Not wanting to let them down, I tried to think of a game that would translate well without the benefit of words. That idea failed me.

Just then, thoughts of my two-year-old son popped into my head - and with those thoughts, a song. I stopped in my tracks, faced the crowd and launched into "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes," complete with actions. The smiles grew. By the 12th rendition of the song, the Acholi children were singing along with me and having a great time performing the actions in unison.

It was a moment I'll never forget. Just then, one of my colleagues tapped me on the shoulder to let me know it was time to go eat.

I asked the children to give themselves a round of applause and a cheer, and the result was thunderously joyous. I walked to the hut that would be our home tonight with the song still in my head.

Darkness and uncertainty

As the sun set, my five colleagues and I sat down inside the hut and enjoyed spicy stewed chicken, lovingly prepared by one of our field officers, Christine. We swapped tales and laughter.

We talked about the uneasiness of staying in a village overnight, with the brutality of civil war a not-so-distant memory - and one I've heard echoed by dozens of Acholis we've spoken with. The night grew darker.

Soon, after a mug of hot tea each, it was time to go to bed. I didn't look at the time, but it was probably only about 9 p.m.

Three of us - our photographer Thatcher, field officer Lawrence and I - squeezed onto two tiny mattresses on the dirt floor of the hut, while the other three slept in the car. Sleep came quickly after a long day of field visits.

An indeterminate time later - minutes or hours, I don't know - I woke up and couldn't keep the thoughts from my head. I imagined rebels lurking in the fields outside the village. I second-guessed whether it was a smart idea to stay here. What if the peace was suddenly broken? What if something happened here, to us and the families we'd just met?

It was then that I grasped some idea of what every night must be like for children and families in Northern Uganda. After everything they've gone through, every sound in the night must be a threat. I wondered how they could ever sleep again.

And what would we do if rebels did burst into the village? Darkness enveloped us. Where would we run?

There were no easy answers - just dark, uneasy thoughts in the night.

It was one of the longest nights of my life. I kept wishing for morning to come, but the night persisted.

At some point, I mercifully nodded off and, in what seemed like an instant later, awoke to jubilant sunlight. Sounds of village life were everywhere, and the pungent smell of cookfires began.

I emerged from the hut into the soft morning light, bleary-eyed but happy, and I smiled and waved to a woman sweeping the ground outside her hut. She laughed, waved back and returned to her work. Then, out of nowhere, a dozen children emerged and surrounded me.

Daylight - and joy - had finally returned to Ogonyo.