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Reflections

A Tale of Two Lockdowns, 33 Years Apart

15 min read.

The lockdown in Entebbe brings back memories of another lockdown in a boarding school in Teso, where, in the midst of a raging war and looming starvation, a young boy lost his childhood and learned the true meaning of loneliness and abandonment.

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A Tale of Two Lockdowns, 33 Years Apart
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I did not return to the scene until 15 years had passed, by which time I was already more than twice as old as I had been when the events of 1987 abruptly ended my childhood.

In early February 2002, I was in the press pack that accompanied the inaugural East African Legislative Assembly on the inspection of the Soroti Flying School, once the property of the East African Community. I found time and nipped off to St Andrews Madera Boys School, where I had studied from 1985 to 1987.

Even then, in my mid-20s, the paradox was unavoidable: Had I truly left St Andrews the day that the Red Cross evacuated scores of us school children trapped behind the front lines in Soroti?

Can a psychology shaped by the tragic knowledge of impermanence and strife learn to trust and easily move on? How could I say I had put the months of 1987 behind me when the first thing I did upon return to the school was to make way straight for the Stretcher House dormitory?

Standing there with my face pressed against the window, looking inside, it was the events of early August 1987 that came to mind, to that early morning when a teacher sent me and two friends to buy soap in the town with the absurd, early colonial name, Camp Swahili. And there, as we ask about, comes the single gunshot, the high whine of a military truck racing back to town, and then the preternatural sight of the men, the fighters of the rebel prophetess, Alice Lakwena, shirtless, in their black shorts, their torsos glistening in the sun from shea butter, which we later learned had been smeared to bounce off bullets.

The key event shaping a personal future starts at that moment. Explanations are not needed. You have learned a lesson; when the time has come, you must run, do not hesitate. We are going very fast. We cut through the Madera Seminary, which in ordinary times had been forbidden. We are reaching the school compound when the bombardment begins, and all over the town, when the shock of the explosion draws our attention, we see a pillar of black smoke, as if to announce the beginning of hell, habemus bellum.

We make it to the Stretcher House dormitory and dive under the beds. And there, for the next two hours, we track the movement of the front line by how close the sounds of battle are. We hear it recede from the town, come past the flying school, which is a mile from our complex of missionary schools. (Madera was set up in 1914 by the Mill Hill fathers and came to include a school for the blind, a girls’ school, a boys’ school, a technical college and a seminary.)

Shortly, the front envelopes us. Its progress is majestic, slow, following the sloping ground from Soroti town, going down a slight incline to dip into a swamp. This swamp halts the battle, as the army decides against pursuing the attackers beyond the Arapai ridge.

There is, intermixed with the terror, a character to war you read about but is the privilege of an accursed few who get to know it intimately. It is the macabre nature of war that men find irresistible, the grisly truth that a war in motion can also be attractive.

Yes, the sounds of war can be a terrifying, seductive symphony. The sharp mosquito-like buzzing sound of a bullet flying mere feet from your ears, the tearing, rocketing then shuttering register of mortar shells, the ear-splitting rending, as if a giant were holding a sheet of metal as one holds a piece of paper then rips it to pieces as missiles tear overhead. The inscrutable lopping repetitiveness of a machine gun that sounds like someone drumming on a home-made drum fashioned from an old aluminium saucepan. But everyone looks forward to the artillery, the big boy stuff, with dread fascination; the imperious rapid impatience of Katyusha rockets which come as if the earth were being cut up by a high-velocity grinder tool, and, target found, the centre of the world collapses.

In a lockdown, life loses meaning

But as I drew away from the window, my memory drained, I remembered that I had to leave to rejoin the delegation of East African MPs at the Flying School. Then a shot of the feeling I once lived with daily attacked me

How can one explain such a feeling? There’s the febrile malarial listlessness to it, a dry-throated longing, like having a nightmare whilst fully awake. That day in early 2002, I felt as I had for much of 1987 – that there was no point to life, that going on with it would only lead to a future of dystopian mediocrity.

But if the 2002 reunion did not answer the question, then March 2020, when news came of the world locked down in fear, left little doubt. There, across the valley from my apartment in Entebbe, the planes stopped landing and taking off. The grass around the runway was starting to grow wild. Amidst the dead silence all around, I could sense the collective fear of humanity that was awaiting the calamity.

It reminded me of 1987. I heard once more the silence of the skies when the flying school Piper and Cessna planes stopped flying. I saw the spot of greenery on the runway. The school lawns, once meticulous, had become wilderness. And in the night, there were blood-curdling cries that registered in the morning as another funeral in the villages beyond the Catholic missionary complex of Madera.

This was the second time in my life that I was going into a lockdown. The first one lasted nearly a year and it was devastating. It was only in March 2020, 33 years later, that I began to learn that a certain part of me never made it past August 1987.

My mind went back to that day when I saw the fighters of the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena. It was the first time I saw them; I never saw them again; I have never managed to unsee them since.

By August of 1987, northern Uganda had already been in a lockdown for many months. The savage war in Luwero, southern Uganda, had migrated to the north. And there, with changed fortunes, yesterday’s rebels becoming government and yesterday’s government forces the new rebels, the texture of the violence acquired a new complexion. And yet 1987 was early days in what would be a savage two-decade-long war that has not yet ended. But how could an 11-year-old boy whose chief interest in life was to see mummy know that?

The manner of the war meant we were liable to get trapped easily. Hitherto, northern Uganda had had a string of nationally enviable schools. The shutdown of the schools began in Gulu, and made its way east, as did the fighting. The result was that we who came from Lango and Acholi were at the initial stages, in the safety of Teso, by which calculation our parents thought it best we stay there. But no one had anticipated the rapidity with which the war would move. Within weeks, in late July 1987, the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena had crossed over to Teso. That morning, we saw the rebels running down from the Arapai Railway station to Soroti town, where they aimed to take over the airfield of the flying school.

The lagging progression of the war had allowed parents from the east and south to pick their children via the road to Mbale in the east. We would have needed the road to the west, which was shut off. Hence, the first term break had come and we had stayed in school. The second term had started and it was thought best we simply continue with our studies.

But there was to be no second term. Barely had it begun than the parents returned, this time with the vigilance of birds not taking a chance with their nest again. Then the road to the east was cut. We were doomed.

We, the seven students who had spent the last six months at the school, felt the loneliness instantly. In a lockdown, the early days are the most lonely. You feel the prickliness of abandonment. After the warm companionship of crowds is gone, you become aware of your status. There is a grim numbness from which you emerge drained of everything, even fear.

Your concern is for it to end, for you to get your old life back. But that life is gone. Sterner times await you. You learn new ways, new languages, believe in new gods and causes. It is likely that you or the people you love or know will die. You will learn fear.

When the school was empty, we, the stranded, knew we were preparing for something darker. The first month was the worst; we had hope. We spent hours watching the drive into the school, hoping to catch the familiar frame of a parent, the sound of the diesel 504 Peugeot from Aboke that would collect us.

One teacher, Miss Ekit, kept watch over us, like an aunt, but she had nothing to feed her relatives taking refuge in her house, let alone us.

For the next four months, the 400 by 300 metres of Madera Boys marked the confines of our world. We dared not, and were warned against, going into Soroti town. There was a railway station over the ridge of Arapai. There was no train. There was a flying school close by. Only the most connected parents airlifted their children away.

To stay locked down, to know that darkness is enveloping the world around you, is a terrifying reality whose greatest damage is not what happens or what does not happen to you in the months you spend alone. You go into isolation expecting the big moments, the war, the calamity, to come confronting you personally. More often than not, the extremes do not happen. But that is also a revelation; because the big things have not come to you, you grow to learn that you are but one insignificant soul. When the extremes do come to you, as they do to a few unfortunate ones, then that too is another revelation; you were but a mere speck of dirt in the great maw of history. You are personally ground into the dirt but war, or peace, plough on regardless.

A Do Me Good hangs us out like tethered goats

As the shutting down of the north began, hidden impulses and prejudices started to surface. The deputy head teacher of Madera Boys, a prickly little man we called A Do Me Good (which was what he called the cane he never walked without) separated all the Luo speakers from the rest. Our beddings and suitcases were taken out of the dormitory. We stayed under the trees during the day and slept in the classrooms at night. We were the dangerous breed. The Nilotics had been overthrown by their arch enemies. Now a punitive raid by the southerners in power against the Nilotes was feared. And in Teso, it was thought, associating with Luo speakers would draw the ire of the new rulers.

In the initial stages of the war, this fear was an extreme event. An attack did come, but it was from further north, and they came, not for us, but for the cattle of the Teso. The Karamojong cattle raids intensified, and we watched as Teso, once a rich, well-fed and proud region, lost its collective wealth.

Before we had even left, skin diseases of indescribable virulence had spread throughout the land. That had been during that ill-fated second term when we had remained uncollected in the school. And although the Ministry of Education had been informed of A Do Me Good’s doing, and we had been reinstated in the dormitories, what was coming for the north was bigger than the calculations of an obscure deputy headmaster in an obscure school.

Everyone one else left and so there were hundreds of beds left for us. As my childhood friend John liked to joke, there was now a bed for each of his fingers, toes, ears and teeth.

But something else stuck. To be foreign in a time of strife is to attract fear and suspicion. In our case, we had spoken the same language as the last regime’s, and the fear of association – for the Teso were as Nilotic as we were – stayed throughout the time we lived alone in the school.

The second month arrived. The delivery of maize meal and beans from the Ministry of Education ceased. The school store was broken into and the last morsels of food were taken. First we ran to the teachers. We returned with sticks of cassava. Some called us “Elangoit” (Teso for Lango) to our faces and chased us away. For me personally, it was a frightening time. (My name, Kaiza, is from my great grandfather three generations past who was Bunyoro, a culture and language my own grandfather barely remembered, but it meant I would be regarded as enemy by all sides). It did not take long for us to realise that it had been the same ministry delivery that had kept them fed.

There unwalked paths to the roads disappeared and the lawns had a return-to-the wild look. Unswept, the leaves played in the wind. There was a high season of large, egg-yolk orange sunsets. The dusks descended as harbingers of doom. We feared the nights for the dreams that awaited darkness. We feared the nights because children fear darkness. There was a cemetery close by and in the evenings, we thought we caught willow-the-wisps skirting the perimeters. (As I write this from Entebbe, power is gone, dogs are barking wildly and two days ago, a neighbour who returned from Europe with all his family, workers and dogs, was taken into quarantine.)

In the desultory daytime air, we kept to the shade. Towards the end (which you never see coming), we switched from fearing the nights to fearing the daylight. We started to long for the night. We knew the school very well and could stow away in safer corners at night, even inside the heavy branches of the mango trees, till morning.

In a last twist of the knife, one day, Okello, my second cousin, came running to Teacher Ekit’s house where we had taken water, and informed us that a military truck had come and taken two of the boys, the Ejuras, away. They were flown home in a helicopter. We came from the same town. Their father knew people. They left us behind. Now there were just five of us left – me, John, Okello, the portly Akona, and Ocen, a quiet little boy I never heard from since.

The going of the Ejura boys marked a turn for the worse. Corrosive silence took over. We played football less. Looking back, this was preparation for the next phase, and when it came, our own childhood deserted us. We aged prematurely.

Learning to live without food 

Starvation is an event of immense clarifying power. It seems there are two types of human beings: those who have never faced starvation and so do not know many things; and those who have faced starvation and can see through the veneer of most things.

Whilst we had had the supply of maize and beans, we led sad lives, longing for home and fearing for our safety.

But when one day, Okwana, the school cook, did not show up, something switched. Three days went by with barely anything to eat. There was the shame we individually shared, when one by one, we disappeared – to forage in dumps, to gouge the backs of kitchens.

The suggestion might have come from John. He was the strongest-willed of our lot. His father was the doctor of Aboke, an imperious old man. John had the family haughtiness in him. It had come as a chance discovery one morning when while collecting fruits from the borassus palm trees fringing the school, I stumbled upon a root. John came to pull me up. But I had heard a snap in the soil. I went down and dug hands in. I came out with a large tube of cassava. Disbelief. Joy. The surreal moment.

But we had become wise to something by then. John bade me be quiet. We poked around and discovered that this garden, belonging to one of the teachers that had fled the war, had been badly harvested. We took what tubers we thought we could conceal. We ate some raw, but decided that it was best we steal over to the Madera Technical College, over the fence, to cook it, to avoid attracting attention.

Along with some sweet potatoes we dug out of poorly harvested fields, we settled upon cooking in the soil. We dug up the ground, and lighting switches, waited for the bigger sticks to catch fire. We collected rocks and placed these in the fire, and placing the cassava and potatoes in with the rocks, we covered the lot and left. We returned and dug out baked cassava and potatoes.

We fed off the gardens around the school for about a month when the tubers stopped coming out. We collected tins, including paint tins, to cook with. But by then we had discovered the “carelessness” of the Teso farmer. That was our actual word. We set out to “correct them”. Hence the word “correction” was what we called our forage.

The word would have been from Okello, my second cousin. Okello was the genius. His marks for all four primary school subjects lingered in the 80s range.

The story from there took on its own character. It was what we became. The fear we had had of ranging out the school perimeter vanished. Hunger gave us courage we were unprepared for. We made our way past the school for the blind, correcting, gathering. We found groundnuts. We found patches of vegetables we recognised. We gathered tamarind fruits. We walked boldly past military roadblocks.

The groundnuts were a boon. We gathered skills we did not know we had. To turn the nuts into butter, we roasted the seeds in hot soil, taking the moisture out. We pounded the lot and ground them. With the vegetables we had sun-dried, the groundnut butter made for a delectable sauce, a far cry from the cassava.

We went past the flying school, going south of the prisons farm.

This manner of feeding became routine. And we used the correction walks to beg for salt from families we knew in Soroti town. The shutting down of the region was having a terrible effect as essentials and incomes ran out. By comparison, we in the school had space, the “correction” to live by.

But the town had its complexities, of course. There were the Asian families in Soroti town who never seemed to run out of things, whose shops remained well-stocked. There were the high civil servants in the senior quarters. There were the bars and restaurants that lined Jumbhai Road that our steps slowed down going past. The piles of chapati, samosas and roast chicken were set there as if to remind us of our status.

And so the discovery of a further truth in the life of decline.

In town, we got looks. We were shouted away from certain places.

It was John who understood this instantly. The state of us had deteriorated. We had no soap. We were malnourished, unwashed, and walking in town. We were a threat. Who knows, a piece of soap, a soda, precious things, might be snatched.

It was a long walk back to Madera. The looks we got began to register. Our hands were covered in scurvy. We had seen town children our own age playing with samosas and chapati and ice cream.

It was not the war that was damaging; it was what the war turned you into that did the harm.

Ice cream had become too good for us.

Till today, I do not understand by what miracle none of us came down with malaria or typhoid. In the state we were in, it would have taken but a little nudge for the ultimate to come.

By late 1987, banditry had taken hold. Internecine conflict had broken out between the Teso that supported the new Museveni regime and those that did not. Class differences turned Teso against Teso. We watched as even some of our own teachers put on military uniforms and joined either the rebels or the new regime and an intra-ethnic war raged. Each morning brought news of someone who had disappeared the night before.

There was a teacher, Mr Odongo, who had kept a distant, avuncular eye on us. He never approached us but hung about where we understood he was overseeing us. One evening, there was a gunshot, so close that the shock of its explosion silenced our little group. Later in the night, we heard a knock on the classroom door. Mr. Odongo may have studied our peregrinations and knew we no longer slept in the dorms. When we opened the door, there he stood, cradling his arm. He had been shot.

We did not know that the bullet had to be taken out. We did not know why he was running a temperature. But John, from watching his father, understood a few things. It was he who ran out for help. Mr. Odongo was taken by adults to hospital and we never heard of him again.

Another teacher, whose brother had joined the government militia, was not so lucky. The bullet got him square in the chest.

A bridge, a land mine

We became inured to life, which is a dangerous stage. One day, a skirmish broke out in Arapai but we just sat by the window, watching, wondering if they were killing many, in between talking about what they were eating back home.

Another afternoon, over at the girls’ school, where my sister was, but which was better provisioned because the nuns ran a tight ship, we heard screaming. In no time, we heard the gunshots and saw scores of men running with the mattresses they had stolen from the girls.

Shortly, we watched as, first, a helicopter sounded off overhead. Then, there was the piercing roar of what may have been a Mig15 fighter jet. John and I were sitting under the tall jacaranda trees by the football field. The Mig heeled up, then, in a terrifying moment, it pitched down, splitting the air, screaming and then it dipped below the tree line. Then it was coming up.

The explosion tore the air apart. We did not run. We had been told to stay put if soldiers or planes appeared. The fighter jet tumbled overhead, we saw it turn upside down, the head of the pilot showing.

In the commotion of jet roar, we had not noticed them. But a single shout drew our attention swiftly. The army had amassed by the football field. And in a straight line, shoulder to shoulder rather than single file, they started to march, sweeping into the bush.

We heard our names. It was Miss Ekit. We got up and ran to the dormitory. She pulled us in and shut the door. We all went under the beds.

There was something about that second battle, coming sometime in November, that was different. It did not sound as dramatic. In fact, it was dull. And it cleared off into the distance. But after that, masses of people disgorged from the countryside and Soroti town became a refugee camp. A Do Me Good disappeared.

We discovered that there had been far more people in the vicinity of Madera than we had known. All had been in hiding, but were now outed by a turn in the war that we did not understand.

People were listless. A faraway look diverted their attention from the immediate. A look like hunger, but deeper, more spiritual. Mute, dull, zombies. We had stopped noticing ourselves, but there we were. Our clothes were too big for us. We had taken to stripping bark off trees to tie our shorts in place. Our shirts were in tatters.

The next week, Miss Ekit told us to pack. She had heard me narrate my stories of travel, for before 1985, my father took me around the country on his business trips. I understood a bit about Kampala, as I knew Mbale very well. Ekit asked me about a friend of our family who was a high-level civil servant in Mbale. She had me repeat his name and the street on which he lived. I did not understand why.

The next day, a long truck drew up outside the technical school. Again, the amazement came. There were scores of schoolchildren hidden in many places whom we did not know about. We were packed into the truck. It drove out of Soroti. We did not speak. If we crossed Bukedea, the border between Teso and Bugisu, we would be safe.

But there was one last throw of fate before we left. We had not yet crossed Aoja Bridge when an explosion whipped our heads to the back. A van had driven over a land mine and lay on the roadside, burning.

The truck had missed it. We the Aboke group were left in Mbale. I took the group to the home of my father’s friend. My father came shortly afterwards and took us all back to the north, via Kampala. But not to our town. In my absence, my family had fled to a place near the Nile, where we still live.

In the coming months, Teso turned into hell, culminating in the notorious Mukura massacre, some of whose perpetrators were the first to die in the Rwanda war five years later.

I did not see John, Akona or Okello again till the late 1990s, and have not seen them since.

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A.K. Kaiza is a Ugandan writer and journalist.

Reflections

The Injustice of COVID-19 Apartheid

Now there are vaccines. But many are begging the universe, screams of grief erupting within them, with no one to hear. Elsewhere there are enough vaccines to cover each citizen many times over.

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The Injustice of COVID-19 Apartheid
Photo: Spencer Davis on Unsplash
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Thousands of people gathered in Wembley, going to the stadium for the Euro 2021 match between England and Denmark.

The fans returned to one of the homes of football, echoing the wider situation in the UK as things return to “normal”.

Many restrictions have been lifted, people can socialise, eat and drink inside pubs and restaurants. Schools are open and so are shops.

All that remains is for the masks to come off collectively, to be able to travel to any part of the world without needing to quarantine upon return and for social distancing to end (although that rule seems to be out of the window without the government’s consent).

Normal.

The calls and messages from friends and family asking to meet up.

Normal.

The discussions over which vaccine you had.

Normal.

The sigh of relief at knowing your parents and other vulnerable loved ones are fully vaccinated and can resume some semblance of a life.

Normal.

The word formed part of one of the most used phrases during this pandemic; “new-normal” is it not an oxymoron of some sort. How can the ordinary and mundane suddenly be new?

Is it like a celebrity singer making a comeback? New look, new branding, new genre of music?

Or a product which is now packaged differently, shiny wrapping, bold letters: NEW NORMAL, NOW EVEN BETTER THAN BEFORE, GETS RID OF STAINS FASTER THAN EVER!

As I watch people embrace this return to normality (that which existed before the “new normal”, I question how.

My normal has been altered forever as I go out into a world that no longer includes the three family members I lost to the virus and the loved ones who passed away during that time whom I was not able to mourn properly.

I am not the only one.

How to resume life when there are human-shaped holes everywhere we look?

There are so many topics which form part of the “reunion discussions” here as people sit opposite those they have not seen in months, everything from love lives, to what you watched during lockdown, to which vaccine you had.

But there are also those of us who will gather, carrying loss and you wonder, who should offer their condolences first? Will we say in unison, “I am sorry for your loss?”

Death

In September 2020, my younger grandad in Dubai was hospitalised with COVID-19. Days later, my uncle, the one my mother referred to as her “twin”, was also taken in.

For days on end, the family WhatsApp groups were a hive of activity as everyone kept checking in with each other on whether there had been any updates on them.

Getting into bed would leave many of us gripped with terror as we kept the phones right next to us, ringer on, willing it to not ring in fear that the news of loss would arrive.

The days merged into one, phrases and words such as “oxygen level”, “ventilator”, and ”lung function” became a part of everyday conversation.

And we waited.

Because that really is what this pandemic has been about for so many of us.

One big wait.

Just waiting.

Waiting in a queue to get into the supermarket.

Waiting to feel like a human being again.

Waiting for (an often inept) government to tell you what next.

Waiting for the international community to act on vaccine nationalism, on supporting the hundreds of millions of people whose lives have been destroyed as a result of problematic pandemic policies, on all the global injustices and oppressions which continue to be ignored or treated with a vile indifference.

Waiting to find out if people you love will make it. If you will ever experience those elements of them that your mind and body have connected to, a unique chemical reaction which can never be replicated.

Every year on the 9th of October, my younger grandad would call my mum to wish her a happy birthday, later in the day a bunch of flowers and a card would arrive.

On the 9th of October 2020 the phone rang, and this time it brought the news of his death.

In the days that followed, I watched my mother wrestle with a creature that was invisible to the rest of us, that which morphs into existence following the death of a parent or a parental figure.

While grief sat gently on our shoulders, we clung on to hope with our hands that my uncle would be ok.

The primary coping mechanism became conversations with family members and friends which would feature anecdotes of other people they knew who had contracted the virus and fallen severely ill and somehow made it through.

On the 3rd of November I met with my best friend for breakfast, it was my birthday, and as I bit into my celebratory waffles, my phone rang.

My uncle had passed away.

In those last hours they tried to get as many people on the phone as possible to say goodbye. When it was my mother’s turn, she simply asked him not to leave. She reminded him of the way they would argue over things as kids and promised that if he just stayed, she would never bicker with him again.

My mother’s posture is different now.

She carries loss on her shoulders.

How to put down that burden?

Grief

In my culture, like in many others, coming together and performing certain rituals following the death of a loved one is the norm.

There is the funeral and then during the 12 days after there are communal prayers while people come to offer their condolences.

Some aspects of this coming together can be challenging for some; the copious amounts of tea to be made for the guests, the lack of comfort some get from phrases like “he’s in a better place now” or “it was God’s will”.

Simultaneously however, for many people there is comfort to be found in being surrounded by loved ones. Some bring food, others give well-meaning words of comfort, stories are shared about the person who has passed away and there are moments when the touch of an aunt or uncle or cousin provides momentary respite.

Due to travel bans, limits on the number of people allowed at a funeral and the risks around holding large gatherings, people were denied the opportunity to partake in this communal grieving, the pandemic not only taking our loved ones, but also denying us access to spaces of comfort.

The “zoom funeral” has been among the most peculiar experiences for me.

Watching the last rites being performed and swinging between gratitude for technology and utter disbelief that this last goodbye involves you sitting in front of a screen as if you are watching a film or a Netflix show.

And then. It’s all over.

As other people begin to logout, you stare at the “leave” button, daring yourself to click it.

The decision gets taken out of your hands as a notification pops up, telling you that the “meeting” has ended.

What next? You switch off the laptop, go put the washing machine on, open the mail, call the mechanic to book an MOT and start preparing lunch, while swallowing down a grief that burns the back of your throat?

How can someone just no longer exist?

In the months that followed, I lost more loved ones and loved ones lost loved ones and on and on it went.

Login to social media and there were posts every day in which people shared that someone they love had just died of the virus, and in between these would be those featuring headlines stating, “xxxxxxx number of Covid-19 deaths recorded today”.

These formed some kind of pattern, a reminder that people are not statistics and that behind each number was a living, breathing human being whose death had felt like the end of the world for someone.

Grief laid bare, tears spilling out into the social media feeds, all of us drowning in sorrow.

And now.

Amid all this, a number of countries began rolling out Covid-19 vaccines. At home in the UK, those in the high-risk category began to receive their first shots in early 2021. Suddenly, hope was in the air.

The start of the pandemic saw the slogan “we’re all in this together” being bandied about worldwide. However, the perceived exit point, a vaccine, revealed that this not to be the case.

As countries like the UK return to “normal”, many countries in the global south, including those on the African continent are experiencing the opposite as they once more go into lockdown.

Mortuaries in Namibia are at full capacity, 16 doctors in Uganda have died from the virus in the space of 14 days, lockdowns in countries including South Africa and Rwanda mean that people’s lives and livelihoods are once more severely affected.

Addressing a media briefing on the 1st of July 2021, World Health Organisation Regional Direction for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti said, “The speed and scale of Africa’s third wave is like nothing we’ve seen before.”

That same week World Health Organisation Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was asked about vaccine hesitancy in Africa and that his response was “there is no vaccine so why do we even talk about vaccine hesitancy. Those who have vaccines are getting better and opening up their society, those who don’t are facing serious Covid-19 situations. We need vaccines in Africa now.”

Speaking at the Milken Institute Future of Health Summit on the 22nd of June 2021, Strive Masiyiwa, African Union Special Envoy to the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, said that when he approached vaccine manufacturers in December 2020, he was told all capacity for 2021 was sold, “The people who bought the vaccines and the people who sold them the vaccines knew that there would be nothing for us.”

Ironically, in December 2020, Business Insider reported that Canada “has enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to cover each citizen five times over”.

18-months-ago the global sentiment being pedalled was one of “standing shoulder to shoulder” in facing the pandemic, but it has become increasingly clear that there is a group of entities for whom preserving global inequalities which allow them to stand on a self-created pedestal is far too important.

As Kenyan writer and activist Nanjala Nyabola tweeted in response to an announcement that the United States will purchase and donate half a billion Pfizer vaccines to 92 low- and lower-middle-income countries and the African Union, over two years, “We asked for justice. They are giving us charity.”

Vaccine consignments through the COVAX facility and other donors arrive in dribs and drabs, the International Monetary Fund saying, “The vaccine rollout in sub-Saharan Africa remains the slowest in the world. Less than 1 adult in every hundred is fully vaccinated, compared to an average of over 30 in more advanced economies”.

There has been another pandemic running parallel with COVID-19, that of injustice.

I think back to those anguish-filled days when my uncle and my grandad were in hospital, the numerous moments of bargaining with the universe to just make them ok and the feeling of the floor falling away from me when I was told they had gone.

At that time, talk of vaccines and rollouts was not widespread.

Now, there are vaccines.

Yet there are many begging the universe as I did back then. There are those sat in front of a screen being forced to say a final goodbye with the click of a button, screams of grief erupting from within them, with no one to listen.

And there are those, double-vaccinated, who walked into a football stadium, their screams in unison with a thousand others, heard all over the world.

Normal?

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Reflections

South Africa: No One Should Use Our Rage Against Us. We Own Our Rage.

To riff off James Baldwin, there will be a fire next time in South Africa. The embers and kindling are in place. What matters is what South Africans do between this fire and the next.

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South Africa: No One Should Use Our Rage Against Us. We Own Our Rage.
Photo: Pawel Janiak on Unsplash
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Two of South Africa’s most populous provinces are on fire. Others teeter on the brink. Together with many others who are observing this iteration of the smoldering blaze, I am caught in the confluence of all kinds of emotions. My sisters and their children live at the center of the fire that is raging in Pietermaritzburg. They are terrified. Even though I am observing the fires from Maputo, their horror at the destruction is an affect that they have drawn me into as well. Social media is flush with the devastating images. Acquaintances have lost businesses that they remain mired in debt over. I have internalized the fear of my family and others whose terror I watch on Twitter. In moments of life altering change, we are usually counseled to sit respectfully and to learn from the experience. For this reason and because I am depleted by the effects of COVID-19 on African lives, and as a consequence of the conflicting emotions jostling within me, I had decided to be quiet and to learn.

Over the past decade, I have been thinking of the rogue emotion of collective rage that occasionally surfaces and sweeps us in its wake. For this reason, Pumla Gqola tweeted asking that I remind tweeps about the work of collective rage in this moment. I write in response to this invitation to think through the lessons of rage and its fires. To begin with, we might think of rage as intentional and networked anger rather than as a free standing emotion. Rage builds on sedimented anger but it is not reducible to anger. It transforms individual grievances into shared problems and structures anger into collective action. In the words of Fred Motem, rage is love and care under duress. This is because it forces the downtrodden to choose themselves and assert their presence even when the world has blotted them out.

To rage is to say, “fuck it, I love myself too much to allow this.” Steve Biko reminded us that we are either alive or dead and when we die, we don’t care anyway. Rage is patterned on history because the grievances build up over time and their expression finds resonance with old and evolving forms of protest. I do not have to remind the reader of just how deep South Africa’s protest history goes and how it folds into and out of social sanction and respectability—attributions of good and bad. Following the old feminist adage, the personal (anger) becomes political (rage). Because of what it represents and does, property has always been the target of rage.

These protests and looting bare the hallmarks of rage. Unemployment sits between 60 and 80 percent among black youth. Many are unemployable. They watch us live comfortably and they see the excess of jet setting Moet lives. Businesses come to squarely represent excess. They’ll never get jobs at a shopping centre or mall from which they are routinely chased out and seen—with justification at times—as potential thieves. In Pietermaritzburg there are tons of young men that sleep on the streets, in parks, under shop awnings, bridges, road overpasses, and the city’s cemeteries. Everyone knows to look out for the “paras” despite this being the seat of the unseeing provincial government. The “paras” broke into my sister’s house twice while the family slept. The children are traumatized. The “paras”want food. Some take drugs to numb the pain. And then they need money to buy the drugs. Because they already live in the street, their fate is not tied to the cashiers and waiters who work at the burning shopping centers. This is to say that if their mothers and cousins lose their jobs as a consequence of a burned shop, this will not have material bearing on their overlooked lives. And those who are not homeless already live precarious lives. They see the dimness of their futures.

When someone strikes a match and invites them to take from the shops, the young people are more than ready to rage and eat. Even if for a day or two. The feeling of fleeting control is priceless. To watch the things that taunt and mock you go up in flames is to finally experience the adrenaline of living. It is to turn the world upside down so that we can all feel the destabilizing effects of marginality. With or without shops in the neighborhood, they will always experience hunger and humiliation. So they don’t believe that they are cutting their own noses. Today is their day. For today, it is we who are terrified and uncertain. Tomorrow they will watch us rummage through the ashes. They know the feeling too well. They live in urine stained ashes.

With reference to the Vietnam war, Spike Lee’s protagonist in Da 5 Bloods says “No one should use our rage against us. We own our rage.” It is apt here. Jacob Zuma and his children have attempted to own the rage of the unemployed. Those they forsook and overlooked when they led the rampant feeding at the trough of political patronage. Now they seek to use the rage of the forsaken to fight the reckoning that must follow reckless and wanton corruption that robbed the poor and swelled the ranks of the unemployed. They lit the match and tossed it. It has landed on dry tinder. Now the flames are engulfing us.

On this precipice, we too have to sit with the warning. “No one should use our rage against us.” As the middle classes and the tenuously employed working classes, do we hit out at the raging youth or do we help in closing the growing gulf between the poor and the wealthy. Not through slogans about old Stellenbosch money, but our own money, political decisions, and privilege that we use to build walls around our properties. Even if we got our hands on all the white Stellenbosch money and imprisoned apartheid generals and war mongers, our problems will not be overcome. Not to use the rage of the unemployed calls on us to end our problematic relationship to property and to recenter the public good. It is insufficient to take care of our families and to complain about black tax. It is to take seriously that the raging youth own their rage and that it is an expression of their self-love under duress. We might condemn their destruction of property but to take rage seriously is to reconsider the social role of property not as enrichment but as public good. This moment is one of reckoning. It shines the spotlight on the government’s ineptness, the fissures between us, and the violence of property.

Perhaps the rage will die down in a few days. Rage always burns itself out. But all it needs are reckless political feeders who thrive on attention and self-importance to light the kindling. Proxy political battles, xenophobes, fascists and others will fill the yawning fissures of inequality. We will return to this place again. We have been here before. Those old enough to remember the fires of the 1980s and the transition years know the fires of rage. Those who came of age in the 1970s nurse the burns of the Soweto and Langa uprisings. The Durban strikes. And earlier still, in the 1960s, the Mpondo revolt and Sharpeville massacre had their own fires. The women who marched on the Union Buildings know the heat of rage.

To riff off James Baldwin, there will be a fire next time. The embers and kindling are in place. What matters is what we do between this fire and the next.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Reflections

The Voyage of Life: The “Zapatista Invasion” Has Begun

Welcome, compañeroas, compañeras and compañeros zapatistas, to the diverse geographies of the continent that will soon be renamed Slumil K’ajxemk’op.

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The Voyage of Life: The “Zapatista Invasion” Has Begun
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After months of preparations, and weeks at sea, a delegation of the Zapatistas has touched down in Europe. The “reversed conquest” has well and truly begun.

It was a genuine surprise when the Zapatistas published their communiqué “A Mountain on the High Seas” on October 5, 2020, announcing a tour of the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) across five continents, starting with Europe. Even though the Zapatistas have not shied away from organizing initiatives in Chiapas and across Mexico — the March of the Color of the Earth just 20 years ago is a case in point — it is basically the first time since 1994 that they are leaving the borders of their homeland behind.

Then, on January 1 of this year, they published a Declaration for Life, co-signed with hundreds of individuals, collectives and organizations, outlining the objective of this voyage: making a contribution to the effort for anti-capitalist struggles — which are inseparable from the struggles for life — to converge in full consciousness of their differences and unhampered by homogenizing or hegemonizing forces.

In the past six months, extensive organizing has taken place at the European level, as well as in each individual country or “geography,” according to the Zapatista vocabulary. For instance, a francophone coordinating body has been established, which includes eight regional federations of collectives and local initiatives.

Meanwhile, the EZLN confirmed that a large delegation of more than a hundred members, three-quarters of which are women, was getting ready. The delegation is also said to be accompanied by members of the National Indigenous Congress–Indigenous Council of Government which unites Indigenous struggles across Mexico, as well as a contingent of the People’s Front in Defense of Land and Water of Puebla, Morelos and Tlaxcala which is fighting against the installation of a massive power plant that is threatening to divert water resources indispensable to the peasants in the region.

The Voyage for Life — Europe Chapter

On April 10, the anniversary of Emiliano Zapata’s assassination, they announced the departure of the first party of the Zapatista delegation, destined to make its voyage by sea. We had expected to see them leave the caracol of Morelia that day, where the members had been preparing themselves for months. A formal ritual was performed for the occasion, with traditional music, incense and purifying acts (“limpia”), upon a life-size model of a ship’s prow.

But the group did not set out on their journey right away: first they went into a 15-day quarantine to ensure that no one leaves the Zapatista territory carrying any other virus than that of rebellion. This decision is in line with the EZLN’s resolution to take all the required precautionary sanitary measures to avoid the spread of COVID-19 upon themselves and outside of state mandates. This had led them to issue a red alert and close off access to all Zapatista caracoles since March 15, 2020.

The maritime delegation was baptized “Escuadrón 421” because it is composed of four women, two men and one transgender person (“unoa otroa” in the Zapatista lexicon), who were individually introduced in a communique of Subcomandante Galeano.

After another farewell party on Sunday, April 25, accompanied by the exhibition of numerous paintings and sculptures, encouraging speeches by the Council of Good Government and a communal ball, the delegation departed the next day from Morelia. From there they reached the Mexican harbor at Isla Mujeres where a ship named “La Montaña” was awaiting them and they set sail for the Atlantic crossing on May 2.

The Escadron 421 is now at the mercy of the ocean’s wiles, under the capable seamanship of the ship’s crew. They should be within sight of the European coast at the port of Vigo in Spain in the second half of June.

Simultaneously smaller celebrations were organized by the sound of drums and all sorts of encouragements to accompany the departure of other members of the Zapatista delegation, leaving their villages in the Lacandon jungle, at times using canoes to descent the rivers of this tropical region close to the Guatemalan border. They are part of different groups of the Zapatista delegation, which will reach the old continent, by air travel this time, from the beginning of July onwards.

So will begin months of intensive activities, meetings and exchanges all over Europa for the Zapatistas. Thus far they have received and accepted invitations from a great number of “geographies”: Austria, Basque Country, Belgium, Bulgaria, Catalonia, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Sardinia, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, UK and Ukraine.

Hundreds of meetings and activities have been proposed to the Zapatistas, which are currently being coordinated. These events will be made public by the organizing collectives when the time comes. This might also include larger gatherings/rallies, around all current struggles: from the Gilets Jaunes to ZAD’s, in the case of France, and other resistance groups fighting destructive mega projects; feminist collectives, migrant support initiatives, groups struggling against police violence, as well as movements aiming to undo colonial forms of domination; mutual aid networks based in cities and rural areas as well as those involved in building alternative ways of living; not forgetting the critical mobilizing efforts compelled by, as the Zapatistas emphasize, the bloody tragedies of our wounded planet. The list — incomplete here — is long in the vast constellation of rebellions against capitalist brutality and struggles for other, more desirable worlds.

Above all, the Zapatistas have explained that they are coming to exchange with — that is, to speak, and even more so, to listen to — all those that have invited them “to talk about our mutual histories, our sufferings, our rages, our successes and our failures.” Especially in grassroots meetings so there is enough time to get to know and learn from one another.

The Zapatistas have long since argued for our struggles not to remain isolated from each other, and have underlined the importance of constructing global networks of resistance and rebellion. There is no need to enumerate all the international events that they have organized in Chiapas from the First Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and against Neoliberalism (also referred to as “Intergalactic”) in 1996 until the Critical Thought in the Face of the Capitalist Hydra seminar in 2015. But in August 2019, while announcing the recent advancement in local self-government with the establishment of four new autonomous communes and seven new Councils of Good Government, the Zapatistas had made it clear not to be organizing any large events anymore. Instead they were planning to take part in “meetings with groups, collectives, and organizations that work [struggle] within their geographies.”

There was no question back then of touring the five continents, but it could be — among many other reasons to set out on such a journey — a way to initiate this very process. If such an approach may indeed resonate with the widely felt need to weave stronger bonds between existing struggles, this requires not only an exchange to identify the commonalities and differences but especially a human-to-human encounter that can forge interconnection.

The Zapatistas are calling this journey the “Voyage for Life,” and it will present an opportunity for a vast number of people to meet the Zapatistas and learn more from their experiment in autonomy and dignity, persevered against overwhelming odds for over a quarter century. And, hopefully, many will allow themselves to be won over by the virus of rebellion of which the Zapatista are contagious carriers.

Let’s also hope that all those who identify with the Declaration for Life and for whom the autonomy of the Zapatista is a shining source of aspiration and inspiration will be ready to welcome them, support their itinerant initiative and participate in a manner best suited to each and every one on this Voyage for Life.

The Continent Renamed “Slumil K’Ajxemk’Op”

Returning to the Escadron 421. Since the first announcement, the Zapatistas have talked about their voyage towards Europe as a reversed process of conquest. The idea of the inversed invasion — this time with consent — amuses them. Obviously, it is said in jest — but are we entirely sure? When the delegation left, scale models ironically alluded to the caravels of Christopher Columbus: “No soy una Niña” and “Santa Maria La Revancha”; but it was also clarified that it is only if the members of Squadron 421 manage to land on European soil that it can be truly said that “the invasion has started.” If all goes well, they will be in Madrid on August 13, 2021, to celebrate in their own way the quincentenary of the conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan by the army of Hernan Cortés.

The Indigenous population of Chiapas, like all those on the American continent, have for five centuries suffered the implications of colonization, including all the forms of internal colonialism and racism that extend it. The Zapatistas have made it clear, however, that they are not coming to Madrid to get a formal apology from the Spanish state or the Catholic church. They reject the essentialist condemnation of the “West” as evil and fully assimilated to the colonizers, as well as the attitude that relegates the colonized to the role of victim. On the contrary, they are intending to tell the Spaniards “that they have not conquered us [and] that we are still resisting and in fact in open rebellion.”

To make this voyage in reverse is to nuance a history that has assigned deeply entrenched and unambiguous positions to the vanquisher and the vanquished, and unlock the possibility for an alternative history.

When the maritime Zapatista delegation reaches Europe it is Marijose, “unoa otroa” of the Escadron 421 that will go ashore first. The following is how Subcomandante Galeano described the scene in advance; an inversion of the gesture by which Christopher Columbus — who disembarked on October 12, 1492, neither as a conqueror nor as a discoverer, since he was only seeking to find the already known lands of Japan and China — rushed to plant his cross and impose the name San Salvador on the island of Guanahaní:

Thus, the first foot that will set on European soil (that is, if they let us disembark) will not be that of man or a woman. It will be the foot of another.

With what the deceased SupMarcos would have described as “a slap with a black stocking in the face of all the heteropatriarchal left,” it has been decided that the first person to disembark will be Marijose.

As soon as they will have planted both feet firmly on European ground and recovered from seasickness, Marijose will shout out:

“Surrender, pale heteropatriarchal faces who persecute that which is different!”

Nah, I’m joking. But wouldn’t it be good if they did?

No, on stepping out on land the Zapatista compa Marijose will solemnly declare:

“In the name of women, of children, of men, of elders and, of course, of other Zapatistas, I declare that the name of this land, which its natives today call 

“Europe” will henceforth be known as: SLUMIL K’AJXEMK’OP, which means “Rebel Land,” or, “Land that doesn’t yield, that doesn’t fail.”

And thus it will be known by its inhabitants as well as by strangers as long as there is someone who will not abandon, who will not sell out, and who will not capitulate.”

Welcome, compañeroas, compañeras and compañeros zapatistas, to the diverse geographies of the continent that will soon be renamed Slumil K’ajxemk’op.

Editors Note: This is an edited version of an article first published by ROAR magazine. It is republished here as part of our partnership with Progressive international

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