The case of Uganda reflects the impact of a history of colonialism and conflicts that have emerged from that history which continue to create violence and traumas in the present. This article merges personal experiences with history.
When I set out to write about trauma, I faced a lot of resistance, mainly from people close to me. Their major concern was how I would ensure that my story did not include the stories of others whose lives have been intertwined with mine. In revealing my trauma how would I keep theirs hidden! For trauma is a word loaded with guilt, accusation and shame. It conveys that someone has done harm to another, but it also implies weakness, because to acknowledge a trauma means to accept loss of control. Trauma is also a social experience.
From its etymological roots in Greek, trauma means wound. The word originally referred to an injury inflicted on a body, but over the years, trauma has come to include wounds that are far deeper than the eye can see. Psychologist Bessel Van Der Kolk writes that “trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain and body.” In my understanding of trauma, one has to take into consideration the social context in which the trauma occurs because human beings are relational.
Trauma is therefore an individual and social-cultural experience. Sociologist Jeffery C. Alexander’s defined cultural trauma as “when members of a collectivity feel that they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.” I believe ‘irrevocable’ here should not mean the impossibility of change or transformation but rather the sense in which a community may perceive their circumstances.
Individual and collective trauma in postcolonial Uganda
Born in Uganda in the 1970s, I have been a witness to many postcolonial civil wars that started in 1968, four years after Uganda gained independence from Britain. These continue to simmer underneath the veneer of peace seen mainly through the lens of security, even as I write this article.
Efforts to secure the nation-state as we know it today has created many traumas including mine.
Efforts to secure the nation-state as we know it today has created many traumas including mine, but my trauma is not an exception. In fact, until recently, I have completely disregarded my own experience and suffering, given the horrific experiences of others that I have witnessed.
To provide an example of these traumas caused by the civil wars that have characterized postcolonial Uganda, I recall traveling to the scene of a gruesome massacre of refugees in Acholi Pii in 1996. I was a journalist reporting on a civil war in northern Uganda. A rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) had taken arms against the government. We arrived by helicopter and found garden tools strewn all over the ground on the earthen compound in the middle of a refugee settlement.
The men had spent that morning mourning and digging shallow graves burying their dead wives, brothers, sisters, mothers, daughters and sons. Moulds of brown earth that entombed the dead stretched as far as my eye could see. The smell of decaying flesh, buried only a few meters in the ground, was chocking. But one man was still insisting on showing us more. We scurried behind him because it was getting late and we were in a hurry to get back. The man walked us a few metres and showed us a tree trunk where his child’s small skull had been crushed. The man’s face was blank as he pointed.
All in total, the night before the LRA had massacred 100 people in this camp of Sudanese refugees in Northern Uganda. Vivid nightmares of this nature sometimes awaken me deep in the night, triggered by either minor and major changes in life; beautiful ones like becoming a mother or mundane ones like wind blowing on a curtain in a room at night.
A critique of trauma theory
According to Irene Visser, trauma theory has been criticized for being Eurocentric and event-based and therefore as having limitations in explaining the persistent trauma of colonialism. As part of her postcolonial studies research, she published the article “Decolonizing Trauma Theory: Retrospect and Prospects” which underlines that traumas can become collective because they can affect a people’s self-identity. Whereas a Eurocentric view of trauma would regard the incident of my witnessing the aftermath of a massacre as an isolated shocking event, postcolonial trauma theory asks that the incident be contextualised. I am therefore not an individual journalist who wandered off onto the scene of a massacre and therefore has to deal with the consequences, but rather I am part of a social context in which the South Sudan war for independence was happening, from which the refugees happened to have fled. The LRA insurgency was part of the divide of the northern and southern parts of Uganda. Seeds of both wars can be traced back to colonial policies of governing the region.
As such the trauma caused by such post-colonial civil wars which are sometimes called ‘tribal, ethnic’ are thus linked to the history of colonialism. They generate transgenerational traumas through a cyclic form of violence that continues to be handed down from one generation to the next.
Jeffrey Alexander distinguishes between personal trauma and the trauma to a society. He argues that it is undeniable that in a traumatic experience something horrendous has to have happened, but with social trauma, the event has to be reinterpreted. Whereas individual victims of trauma may go into a state of denial and repression, and later work through the trauma by bringing it to consciousness, collective trauma operates on another level of collective reinterpretation.
Alexander argues that “[f]or collectivities, it is different, rather than denial, repression and ‘working through’ it is a matter of symbolic construction and framing, of creating stories and characters and moving along from there. A ‘we’ must be constructed via narrative and coding, and it is this collective identity that experiences and confronts danger.” This reinterpretation of social trauma can sometimes create stories that exclude others. In postcolonial Uganda, the reinterpretation of trauma has happened along tribal lines which explode into episodes of civil war. The tribal divisions are a consequence of social trauma that was inflicted during the colonial era when differences rather than similarities were emphasized between people and tribes were elevated over each other in a system called indirect rule. Subsequently, identities became prejudiced bringing forth the wars we witness today.
To understand the trauma inflicted on the people of Northern Uganda one needs to look at Uganda’s past starting with its colonial history which influenced many tribal-based civil wars after gaining independence.
Uganda was specifically colonised as a security project by the British to protect their interests in India and Egypt, especially the Suez Canal. On recommendations of Sir Gerald Portal, one of the pioneers of the colonial venture in British East Africa, “Uganda dominated the north and west of Lake Victoria, held access to Lakes Albert and Edward and controlled the headwaters of the Nile so its abandonment would ‘imperil’ British interests,” writes the Ugandan historian Samwiri Karugire in his book “The Political History of Uganda” (2010).
To make inroads into governing the territory, the British used what Karugire calls the “three potent weapons against which African societies and their way of life could not possibly muster any defence. These were the gun, the bible and the ‘anthropologist.’” He further emphasizes that it was through the anthropologist that African political entities or nations predating the colonial era were misrepresented as ‘tribes’ meaning “a debased form of nationhood (…) a group of barbarous clans under recognized chiefs.”
The British then proceeded to create tribal-based distortions that played out in Uganda’s post-colonial past and present. In Buganda, the biggest kingdom and other kingdoms within Uganda, the British used indirect rule which stripped the kings/rulers of authority by creating parallel power centres around the local implementers of colonial authority. Karugire further explains that in some segmentary societies of Uganda that were already practicing collective leadership through chiefs, a hierarchy of chiefs was created, at the top of which a British District Officer was placed.
Although the confronting of colonialism began as early as its establishment, mainly by kings and chiefs, especially Mwanga in Buganda and Kabalega in Bunyoro, and continued throughout the entire colonial era, the independence struggle came to be characterized by tribal division. According to the Ugandan political scientist Mahmood Mamdani, by independence in 1962, “the people were yet to take steps on the road which gradually would forge different tribes and nationalities into a single nation.”
“Tribal” divisions and traumatic rebellion
In 2018, when I sought to understand my own personal trauma, I analyzed one of Uganda’s longest recurring traumatic rebellions, The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Its roots go back to colonial ‘tribal’ divisions established in the 1920s. The ADF generated interest in international political and security discourse in December 2017 when they were pointed out as responsible for an attack on the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO). According to the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), at least 14 UN peacekeepers were killed and 53 were wounded in a predawn assault which happened in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The ADF has operated in the Rwenzori borderland of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The volatility of the region dates back to the colonial era and the various rebellions that have successively recruited ex-combatants to form newer versions of the never-ending insurgencies in the area. In his analysis “Rebel Movements and Proxy Warfare: Uganda, Sundan and the Congo (1986–99)” (2004), Gérard Prunier explains the revolving conflict along the Uganda-Congo border was born out of the seed of a colonial system. The method that warped the political unit of a Kingdom of precolonial times and turned it into a district, forcing people that did not formally have kingdoms into subject status of kingdoms or rulers to which they did not subscribe.
To make inroads into governing the territory, the British used what Karugire calls the “three potent weapons against which African societies and their way of life could not possibly muster any defence. These were the gun, the bible and the ‘anthropologist.’”
Under this arrangement, the Bakonjo and the Bamba community were amalgamated under the Kingdom of Tooro that had broken off from Bunyoro Kingdom. Because Bunyoro was the centre of resistance to the colonial occupation of Uganda by the British, the British found themselves an ally in the breakaway Tooro Kingdom. The Bakonjo and their Baamba neighbours never had a say in matters of how they were ruled until the 1950’s when they started demanding their own district status that led to a rebellion called the Rwenzururu movement.
In 1996, the political scientist Mahmood Mamdani wrote about the Rwenzururu guerrillas and their grievances including “nationality oppression that led to land deprivation, language exclusion and job discrimination through most of the colonial period.” The region in which the Rwenzururu movement emerged in the 1950s has continued to be a source of trauma because of the latent ability to explode into newer civil wars. In 2016, the Daily Monitor newspaper reported that 46 royal guards and 15 police officers were killed in clashes between the royal guards of the King of Rwenzururu, Wesley Mumbere, and Uganda’s security forces including the army and the police.
I analyzed one of Uganda’s longest recurring traumatic rebellions, The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Its roots go back to colonial ‘tribal’ divisions established in the 1920s.
I interviewed several people who had been involved in fighting on either side of the ADF insurgency. The two which I outline briefly below are John Bwambare (name changed), a colonel in the national army, and Wilber Mugisha (name changed), who, at 12 years, joined the National Resistance Army (NRA), a rebel group that would later become the national army. He got demobilized and ended up joining and commanding the rebel group ADF.
During my interview with Bwambare, his hand would reach out to rub a big scar visible on the nape of his neck. Towards the end of the interview, we talked about that scar. “I nearly lost my life. The ADF shot me in battle. Look at how the bullet entered here and came out through here. You can imagine, through the neck! I came face to face with them.” I asked him how he felt about forgiveness having almost died from that gunshot wound. He told me that some members of the ADF were innocent because they got lured into rebel activities. “They become soldiers and they want to shoot and kill you. How do you hold them responsible?” Bwambare said to me.
Mugisha described a different kind of wound: the pain in his back caused by sitting in one place for seven months with his legs and hands in handcuffs. Though he surrendered to the government, he was rearrested several times for trying to remobilize the ADF. He had been released from prison a few weeks before I met him in 2018, this being his third arrest. “By the time I left the room, my skin was yellow,” he recalled.
Although the two men are dealing with wounds that have been acquired between 1996 and 2019, they are only a microcosm of deep wounds rooted in old colonial conflicts that continue to have serious repercussions today.