Chapter 2: Mato Oput/Northern Uganda

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The Acholi people of northern Uganda have a phrase for justice: they call it mato oput. 

It’s a tradition that’s deeply embedded in the culture of the Acholi people, an intricate system of truth-telling and accountability, forgiveness and reparation. Used specifically for cases of murder, the practice includes the critical first step of confession by the perpetrator to his own clan or village; acceptance by the clan of communal responsibility for the crime; apologies and reparations offered to the victim’s clan by the perpetrator’s clan; and finally, a ceremony in which both villages drink together from the juice of a bitter root and finally make peace with a communal meal – eating from one bowl, which is a cherished symbol of family and unity within many African cultures. 

According to tradition, mato oput was initiated centuries ago, after two brothers who play an important part in Acholi legend found themselves in a disagreement that escalated into ever-worsening levels of retaliation and violence. The Acholi learned long ago, one local peace activist put it, “that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” 

And the Acholi know something about violence. For more than twenty years, beginning in the mid-1980s, they were the victims of one of Africa’s longest-running civil wars – caught between the fanatical Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the abuses of the Ugandan military sent to northern Uganda to “protect” the Acholi. 

Two decades of atrocities included mutilation, rape, murder, the abduction by the LRA of approximately 30,000 Acholi children who were used as combatants and sex slaves, and the forced relocation of some 1.8 million people into 251 camps for internally displaced people. 

My first visit to Acholiland in northern Uganda was in the summer of 2007, the year after a fragile peace accord had been signed and the LRA had essentially stopped its operations in the area. The terrible years of the “night commuters” had passed. In 2005 and 2006, thousands of children “commuted” 10 to 12 miles every night from the countryside to sleep on sidewalks in towns, to be safe from the LRA’s notorious night-time attacks and abductions of children. But by 2007, with peace talks continuing, the children were no longer commuting. And their parents were slowly beginning to leave overcrowded IDP camps to try to rebuild their lives, their homes and their crops in rural villages that had been abandoned during the years of conflict.  

There was still plenty of fear and anxiety in 2007, however – and a new worry, as well. The International Criminal Court, at the invitation of the government of Uganda, had issued indictments against LRA leader Joseph Kony and some of his top lieutenants. The LRA, in turn, had warned that it would not sign any peace accord until the warrants were withdrawn.  

In the eyes of many Acholi people, the ICC had become an obstacle to peace. They wanted Kony and his troops – many of them children who had been forcibly abducted and grown up in the LRA – to come home and participate in the traditional justice practice of mato oput. What’s more, they felt the Ugandan government needed to be held accountable, as well, for atrocities committed by the army – and some people even said that Joseph Museveni, the president of Uganda, needed to come to Acholiland to be part of a mato oput ceremony. 

I spent my time in the IDP camps and in the bush with people who were among the first to return to the land they had been forced to leave during the war. I spent it in conversation and travel with local peace activists, including the religious leaders who had come together from every background – Muslim, Anglican, Orthodox, Catholic – to restore the Acholi culture and its traditions, including the practice of mato oput. Again and again, I heard people talk about the ties that bind the Acholi. They are the same ties that many Africans speak of, the value placed on the health of community, and the restoration of relationships, the understanding that the well-being of the individual depends on his or her connection to others. Within that context, truth-telling, forgiveness and reconciliation are an essential part of life. 

“We live as families, not as individuals,” said one activist. “We are born out of families, out of communities, out of clans. And the best way to live on earth is to stay with those people, as your neighbors, your friends. Our relationships extend so far, they go so deep.” 

I was back in Uganda later that fall, one of only a handful of journalists to cover an unexpected event – a “forgiveness tour” by a delegation representing the LRA. It was the first time in the history of Africa that rebel forces went to the people they had victimized, and asked for forgiveness. There was, understandably, a great deal of skepticism about the LRA’s sincerity among many observers. Some saw it as just another ploy to try to hold off the ICC. Others noted that while LRA representatives went on the tour, accompanied by military officers from several other African countries, Kony’s second-in-command, Vincent Otti, was killed by Kony -- reportedly for his role as a leader in the ongoing peace talks. 

But what couldn’t be denied was the enthusiasm of the Acholi people to receive the LRA delegation – to voice their willingness to forgive if only the LRA would come home to account for its crimes, make reparations, and rejoin the communities they had helped tear apart. I stood in open-air gatherings as hundreds of Acholi crowded in to see and hear the delegation. I watched – and photographed – the response when those crowds were asked: “Who wants the ICC to leave Uganda?” and “Who here is willing to forgive Joseph Kony and the LRA?” 

Every time, every hand shot in the air – a sea of outstretched palms eagerly indicating assent. Yes, get the ICC out. Yes, bring Kony and the LRA home. Yes, we are ready to forgive. 

It was a remarkable scene – one that I don’t think was ever published in the West. Or if it was, not widely. The unrecognized power of that moment came back to me full force six years later when Invisible Children unleashed their “Stop Kony 2012” campaign with a video that went viral almost overnight. The video racked up tens of millions of views and launched a storm of internet posts and conversations. Middle and high school students, in particular, were moved to buy Stop Kony kits online (complete with trendy rubber bracelets, to download posters and launch local events urging the arrest of Kony. 

It was an appalling campaign – a brilliantly produced video with a colonialist message easily apparent to anyone who was willing to take more than a minute to break down the visuals: the white hero (one of the founders of Invisible Children) assuring his young tow-headed son that daddy was going to go save the poor Ugandan people from the dangerous black man, Joseph Kony. The Acholi people had no voice, no agency in the video. And the solutions were all Western: arrest Kony and bring him to the ICC; authorize US troops to go in and find him. Not a mention of mato oput and the cultural traditions and desires of the Acholi. 

And that was only the beginning, if you were willing to dig. Joseph Kony and the LRA hadn’t been active in northern Uganda since 2006 – why this video now, six years later? (Kony and a remnant of his forces, believed to number a few hundred, had been active on a small scale in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, but not in Acholi-land, as the video led viewers to believe). And Invisible Children? After first presenting themselves as an organization working on the ground in Uganda (they did have a track record of bringing the “night commuters” problem to the attention of Western college students), financial records showed they were spending almost no money on programming there. The organization switched tack and said they were an “awareness-raising” organization. Digging a little deeper revealed strong ties between Invisible Children and the Christian far-right in the United States – an interest group that had also helped shape and fund efforts to pass notoriously rigid anti-homosexuality laws in Uganda. 

It’s a campaign that on the surface was a textbook-perfect example of how to get Westerners to focus on something happening “over there.” Invisible Children pushed all the right buttons with its video – triggering an emotional response that had little to do with facts, and everything to do with feeling. On one level, it makes sense that their video reached tens of millions of people and set off a frenzy of shallow, short-lived activism. 

What doesn’t make sense is the way we in the West rush to “save” Africa, the way we assert our answers, our justice, as if they are a universal panacea. What doesn’t make sense is that we don’t listen, that we don’t think for a moment that we might have something to learn from a culture that is not our own.  

What doesn’t make sense is that a video like the one Invisible Children made was seen all over the world -- and that all those waving hands went unseen beyond the circle of those who were there to witness. That those voices of forgiveness went unheard.  

As I write, it is October 2013 and Northern Uganda has once again slipped from the headlines -- although if you look for it, you can find some news. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, closed its operations in the region last year, stating that virtually all IDPs had returned home. The ICC is entering what’s called a “third phase” of operations in its work in Uganda – a plan that requires it to wind down most of its operations and shift resources elsewhere in the world, while also remaining able to ramp up again quickly if any arrests are ever made. 

And the Acholi people? I haven’t been there for a while, so I can’t say for sure. But my best guess? They’re still waiting to forgive. 

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