One thousand internally displaced persons (IDPs) die every week in Acholi. That is the preliminary conclusion of a report titled, “Health Mortality Survey for Northern Uganda,” undertaken by the government, UN agencies and NGOs.
I am shocked, though I wonder why. After all, I have been living in Acholi for 17 years and I work in a rural parish with two displaced camps holding more than 50,000 destitutes.
"Sometimes you are so much in the thick of a situation that you don’t realise how serious it is. An outsider has to come and shake you up. One thousand fragile flames dying silently every week! But statistics don’t bleed, people do."
One thousand innocent lives lost every week means 4,000 a month, close to 50,000 a year. And, most are children. I see them every day, with their sad eyes asking us why we have failed to protect them.
In Minakulu-Bobi parish, we have a dispensary where we get more than 100 patients a day, mostly kids and their desperate mothers coming from the nearby camps. We struggle to get drugs and enough resources to keep it going. Whenever I get discouraged, my mother’s words ring in my mind: “My son, this is the best work you have ever done, keep it up”.
Then, I feel powerless when the nurse in charge gets exhausted at the end of the day and tells me how frustrating it is to treat patients for malaria or diarrhoea only to see the same children sleeping in unhealthy places where they get all kind of diseases or drink unsafe water. What else can they do; after all, we only have a borehole for 5,000 people who come to sleep at the centre every night and we have no more doors to knock and get another one.
One thousand deaths per week tell us that we still have a huge humanitarian crisis in the North. But there is another kind of death, generally unreported (perhaps because it is more difficult to measure) that has been going on since 1996. That was the year people were inhumanly herded in into IDP camps.
It is the slow death of family and culture: the two pillars that sustain a human being.
Family life in Acholi has traditionally always been stable. Once a man and a woman are married and have children, they take pride in remaining faithful to each other. Children were taught to respect their parents and the homestead was the place where you found security, affection and a healthy environment to lead a simple, happy life.
In a displaced camp, one is forced to live with all family members in one tiny hut of no more than 12 square metres. Only one hut, because you are not allowed to build more houses for your family. When people tell their experiences, invariably they mention that this is the most humiliating experience they have ever gone through.
Husband and wife have no chance for intimacy and children lose all respect to their parents. Often people find themselves in situations of unbearable tension, which easily leads to family break-ups.
And, these days when relief food is distributed, the same ration is allocated to all households regardless of family size.
Having to live on 25 kilos of maize and six kilos of pulses for a month, a man leaves his wife and eight children to go and live with a younger single mother of two. Going with her means he will have fewer responsibilities and have more food to eat.
The backbone of the Acholi culture was the informal education given in the evening at the fireplace, called “wang oo” in Luo. This precious way of passing on a culture of centuries is gone. Add idleness to this and you will get a lethal mixture of alcoholism, promiscuity, with HIV/AIDS exploding.
Most IDPs suffer from severe depression, especially the women. Lack of any perspective for the future is forcing many people to choose suicide as the way out of so much desperation.
It is the best way to save the thousands dying physical deaths, and to stop the tragic disappearance of family and cultural values; the foundation stone that sustains a human being.
He is a Catholic missionary working in Northern Uganda.
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