Sunday, May 23, 2004

Violence lives on in Uganda

A peak at the violent underbelly of Uganda

It happened. An ordinary Ugandan last year( 2004) did the unthinkable, he took an axe and panga and killed 8 children, his own.

Around this time i had promised some friends that i would make the argument that Uganda was systemically violent. The type of violence that is a mirror image of what a society is or can be. It could be that I woke up and realised what a violent country I live in. It used to be fashionable to claim Uganda was misunderstood say by Western tourist would, as a cauldron of blood and misery, a dark and violent place with a President like Amin (RIP) who is infamously rumoured to love human flesh. We easily defend ourselves calling others misguided and ignorant about the real Uganda, that it is a different place, streets are safe and children play after dark in the open.

But in fact Uganda is not a safe place, violence and violent attitudes flourish. The deaths of Gertrude, Perusi, Samali, Joseph, Juliet, Denis, Ronald and 2 year old Peter at the hands of their father is just one example.

The morning the family perished, daily newspaper’s reported several acts of violence across the country.

A Taxi driver in Bushenyi was shot because Police wanted him over a “ taxi offence”. His irate comrades descended on Bushenyi Police post intent on burning it down. Six People were arrested in Gulu in connection with the assassination of 76-year-old priest, Father Luciano Fulvi. His throat was cut with a blunt knife. Students of Kitagata SS fought Police with stones despite being fired at with live bullets. A UPDF Major is placed under house arrest tying an escort to his truck and ordering his driver to drag him around a rough road.

A survey of the Monitor Newspaper for this month of April alone reveals many instances of violent acts. The month begun with a public protest by the Human Rights Commission about torture in Ugandan prisons. Later in the month, a man who had his testicles pricked with needles as part of his cruel torture in the hands of the security agencies-he testified that he was now impotent because of the torture. The Violent Crime Crack Unit displays serial killers, men they claimed specialised in the rape and murder of housegirls. A 32 year old woman was held for killing a 2 year old after a quarrel with the childs mother, her sister. Possible arson dogged several schools. A jealous man in Nyimbwa county , Ndegge cuts his wife to death over allegations of infidelity and fights with his children. Another man burns a house killing his ex-wife, her three sisters and brother. He was had reportedly failed to win her back. In politics, the Inspector General of Police issues orders for the breakup of political rallies organised by unregistered parties even as the force keeps a watch on a youth pressure group, the Popular Resistance against Life Presidency. One of their members accused police officers in a Kampala surburb of conniving with a local hotel owner to hold him and extract a false confession from him. Former President Godfrey Binaisa asks opposition parties to register or risk being beaten. The list is much longer of course.

What appears like ordinary crime can be placed in another perspective if you consider the acts as really interconnected instead of isolated incidents.

In 2001, Doctors at Butabika hospital reported an alarming rise in the number of Ugandan’s with mental difficulties, most of us suffered from enough psychological stress to produce symptoms of mental illness. Dr Fred Kigozi, a Director in the hospital then told the press, between 2 and four million Ugandans are “ mentally ill”. A survey done by researchers said 1 percent of Ugandan’s suffered from severe mental disorders, 3 percent from serious depression and 20 percent from “ significant emotional problems”.
I spoke to Dr Margaret Mugherera about the situation. She is a Psychiatrist and at the time involved with a psychosocial project in Northern Uganda. According to her coping with past trauma’s was a slow process and people needed time to adjust to normal life and expectations, most of all, they needed help.
Now what appears as criminal activity is in fact “systemic violence” that draws its energy from the effects of collective tragedies that are experienced by the individual. The violence is simmering below the surface because of the negative emotional health of the individual. So many ordinary men and women you and I meet are really ticking time bombs that will explode in violence depending on the provotion.
Psychologist, Paul Nyende, who lectures at Makerere’s Institute of Psychology, agrees that essentially violence stems from exposure in society.
“ As we grow up we observe and learn from this observation, we are all exposed to aggression, role models which include for example people in violent films. We store this learning without thinking of putting it into practice but once frustrations, extreme psychological stress and emotional disturbance set in, seemingly well-adjusted individuals reveal their violent potential” he says.

The exposure is truly strong in Uganda. Role models starting from the President casually refer to killing. During Operation Wembley, which brutally suppressed crime in the city, Ugandans looked aside as thugs were hunted down and shot on sight.
Mr Nyende also says that without social support individuals cope poorly with psychological stress.
“ There was a safe net in “ the old arrangement” when individuals lived as part of a community and one could easily share their problem and expert emotional and even financial support but these days people focus on the advantages of individualism” he added. He warned that “ individualism” comes with disadvantages as well, which include the inability to access help. As a result when in trouble, individuals are overwhelmed.
About two years ago 93.3 Monitor fm did an interview with an acid victim, one of several who had come together to tell their stories and even forgive their attackers. What struck me then was that jealousy motivated some of the attacks. It takes extreme hate or fear but certainly without doubt, a complete lack of control for one to take corrosive acid and pour it, just to disfigure another human being and watch them suffer.
But acid attacks too have increased. The causal link between this individual violence and the society suggests that the two can be partners to prevent future horrors.
Daniel Goleman , the author of the best selling book “ Emotional Intelligence” makes his subject of emotional well-being , a warning to parents and society. What you reap is what you sow. Children, whose emotional health is jeopardized by the environment they live in, reflect the instability later by being poor managers of their emotions, inviting havoc in their lives and that of their peers, neighbors and friends. Uganda has almost three post independence generations who have seen a world of total chaos, “ Panda Gari”, disappearances, tales of torture, State butchers and fear for safety. The generation of Kony survivors make-up another Chapter altogether, a conflict that has entered global record for its inhuman harshness. The wars and civil strife have injured the tapestries of most Ugandan communities, severed the common heritage of tribes and scattered families. Ordinary people walking the villages, towns and cities are witnesses to extraordinary cruelty and do not have a close family network to hold on to. Someone did say this country is full of skulls, so where would you erect a monument in the memory of the dead?
We can only rise to this occasion if we can find the courage to face the future without the violence of the past.