Out of Africa

Refugees tell of persecution in Uganda, war in Liberia

Walter Lam: In 1977, he fled his country for the first time. He left Uganda, he said, "because of the executions." Amin's regime had become particularly brutal to the Acholi. "My tribe was what got me into trouble."
  • Walter Lam: In 1977, he fled his country for the first time. He left Uganda, he said, "because of the executions." Amin's regime had become particularly brutal to the Acholi. "My tribe was what got me into trouble."
  • Image by Chris Woo

In the office where I met David Omen Acana II, paramount chief of the 800,000-member Acholi tribe in northern Uganda, a large color photograph of two hippos hung on the wall behind him. The animals, neck-deep in water, teeth glistening, seemed to be grinning at each other. I told Chief Acana that I thought the hippos looked "cute."

The chief, broad-shouldered, deep-chested, dressed in a tailored navy blue suit and a gray and light blue tie, laughed. His two bodyguards, huge men with shaved heads and grapefruit-size biceps, laughed too.

"Cute?" said Chief Acana. "Cute? They could cut a man like you in half with just one bite. It would take just one second and you'd be gone."

I explained that the closest I'd come to the animals was at the Hippo Beach exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. I said Hippo Beach allowed a visitor to watch the hippos swim underwater, where they looked "graceful." This made the chief and his bodyguards laugh harder.

"Yes, yes," said the chief. "Quite graceful."

A few days later I read that the hippo is considered the most dangerous animal in Africa, responsible for thousands of deaths each year. It occurred to me that an African and an American looking at a nature photograph might not see it in the same way.

I was introduced to Chief Acana by Walter Lam, a 52-year-old Ugandan immigrant who in 1989 founded the Alliance for African Assistance, a once local but now international organization dedicated to aiding African immigrants in the United States and abroad and also refugees "internally displaced" in Africa. Lam is a tall, very dark-skinned man who at first seems formal and a bit shy. Lam doesn't immediately disclose much about his life in Africa or the way Uganda in particular caused tragedy in his life. When he does touch on those subjects, his formality and shyness reveal themselves as caution.Lam is proud of the Alliance's offices, which occupy a white two-story building on El Cajon Boulevard not far from San Diego State University. On the Saturday afternoon Lam introduced me to Chief Acana, he led the chief and his entourage on a tour through the building. As they moved from room to room, from first floor to second, I could hear their laughter rumble down the hallways. In the room where the chief and I spoke, Lam carefully set out a variety of chilled soft drinks and bottled water on the conference table.

Chief Acana told me that he was 33 years old when he became paramount chief of the Acholi. He said chieftainship is handed down from father to son.

"You can become chief at any age, even if you're a baby. Once you are chief, and if you are old and ill, you can appoint someone to act in your place. But that person won't become chief until the chief dies.

"The tribal government is an institution which is a local government by itself which is recognized by the state. We, the Acholi, have 50 chiefs. We get together and meet twice each year. But there are other meetings that are called as needed. My duty as paramount chief is primarily the mobilization of the community -- for development, for harmony. A lot of what we do is settle disputes, all sorts of disputes, such as land disputes. I handle disputes about once a month. The other chiefs and elders would handle disputes on an almost daily basis."

Chief Acana explained that people could choose to have their disputes settled in civil court.

"But people choose depending on their belief. If they believe that the civil court will help them better, they will go there. If they think the tribal court will help them better, they go there."

About his personal history, Chief Acana told me that he was raised in a compound shared by many members of his extended family. Although he couldn't remember an exact number, he said that "easily more than 50 people" lived there and that more than half were children. Chief Acana's own father had two wives and with them produced 15 children.

"So you always had someone to play with," I said.

"Yes," said the chief. "Plenty of children to play with and get in trouble with."

This comment made the chief's bodyguards and Walter Lam laugh. Compound life, with its dozens of children, was a famous setting for mischief.

I asked Chief Acana why he was visiting the United States, and he said that in addition to meeting Acholi who had immigrated here, he was trying to draw the American public's attention to "what was happening in northern Uganda." I said I wasn't aware of what was happening in northern Uganda. Chief Acana handed me a simple brochure printed on white paper. The brochure, in part, read:

"Northern Uganda has been terrorized by a rebel group known as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and its own government for over nineteen years. The LRA has killed, raped, mutilated, and abducted its own people in an incomprehensible attempt to overthrow the government. The government, for its part, has done little to protect the people and has even been guilty of its own abuses. Almost two million people have been displaced, thousands killed, and over 30,000 children abducted and used as sex slaves, porters, and soldiers. Children are often indoctrinated by being forced to kill their friends and family or killed themselves. In order to escape the terrible fate that awaits those abducted, 40,000 children have taken to walking dozens of miles each night to sleep in the relative safety of city centers like Gulu. Every day they walk to their beds made of stone, and every morning they walk home to go to school and do their chores. These 'night commuters' live in a constant state of fear due to the inhumane tactics of military and paramilitary forces of both the LRA and the Ugandan government."

Uganda's misery was ongoing. Africa's misery was ongoing. Walter Lam and his Alliance for African Assistance were reminded of this misery every day. The Alliance helps African refugees settle in San Diego by finding them apartments, teaching them English and computer skills, guiding them through bureaucracy, offering them counseling when American life overwhelms and bewilders them. The Alliance has two 15-passenger vans and one 9-passenger minivan that shuttle these new immigrants to jobs at the Viejas Casino in Alpine, Barona Casino in Lakeside, and Sony Electronics in Rancho Bernardo. The Alliance offers translation services in 28 languages.

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