“In kene Yesu, in kene.” This verse is sung over and over as people close their eyes and raise their hands to the skies. “Only you, Jesus, only you.” Its simple truth nearly always brings about strong emotions, as tears slowly fall down the girls’ faces.
For many of the people here for many years, God truly is all they had. They did not have food, safety, freedom, their families, or even a desire to live at times, but they still had God and that gave them the strength to survive even the most brutal situations. The stories arise at unexpected times…just sitting under the mango tree in the evenings or drinking tea, my coworkers share memories of the past. Little things remind them. For one coworker, it was her feet. She just started laughing, looking down at her feet. I asked her what she was laughing about and she said she remembered in the days of the war, she would purposely walk around without shoes to make her feet extra tough in case she had to run a very far distance. She would bleed a lot at first, but eventually it was as if nothing could break them.
She told of a time when she was stopped by the rebel army on the road while she was trying to get food for her children. She was the first person in Uganda to have healthy, living triplets, and their father had been abducted and killed while she was pregnant with them. She wanted to die then but knew she had to live for the children to survive. She became famous because of the triplets and had her picture taken for the newspaper. So when the soldiers stopped her they screamed in her face telling her how they were going to kill her. She shook uncontrollably and her clothes were soaking wet from the fear. They pointed the gun at her as she put the cross from her rosary in her mouth and prayed in her head that God would take care of her children when she was dead. As she finished her last prayer and braced herself for the shot, a commander came over and started screaming at the soldier to put his gun down. “What is the matter with you?! Do you know who this is?” he said. He told them she was the woman who delivered triplets—“the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” If they killed her, how would those special ones survive? They told her to run away but she was even afraid to move. They promised they would not shoot her as she ran into the bush.
She ran for miles and then came face to face with more soldiers, this time from the UPDF, the Ugandan government soldiers, who treated the innocent people no better than the rebels did at times. They were equally feared, even though their purpose was to protect the people. She looked above in the sky and noticed no birds were flying overhead—a bad sign. Sure enough, she was caught in the crossfire between the two groups and was sent running and dodging bullets. She saw others fall so she stopped where she was at made a sign of the cross in front of her and behind her. . A single bullet never touched her in the 20 minutes of crossfire. She just stood still and prayed out loud…
Christ be with me,
Christ be beside me,
Christ be before me,
Christ be behind me,
Christ be at my right hand,
Christ be at my left hand,
Christ be with me everywhere I go,
Christ be my friend for ever and ever. Amen.
When the shots became less, she ran away. Hours later, she made it town to give her boys some food and start her dangerous walk back to the village. If she was caught staying in town and they saw her there, they would kill her because they would think she was lying to them and no one from the village was supposed to escape from the village.
As she told her story, girls and coworkers laughed. One told of watching people and vehicles get blown up by the land minds, body parts flying in the air. Even when another coworker spoke of the more brutal acts such as the cutting off of lips, ears, limbs, padlocking lips shut, etc. they just laughed uncomfortably. I was baffled that they could react this way to such horrible stories, but they said they had to laugh or else they would always be sad. One said, “So many people died. If we mourned for all of them then we too would die of sadness.”
Despite the horrific struggles, most people have incredible faith in God. When asked why most say, “I’m alive, aren’t I? Then it is only because of God.” In other parts of the world people do not suffer like this yet they struggle to believe in God. They think they don’t need God; they have enough other material things and man-made systems that keep them safe. The people here don’t have much, but at least they know they have God.
I have been so humbled by the Acholi people’s resilience, joy and especially their capacity to forgive and love again in spite of the pain and suffering. As one Ugandan friend said, “when you do not forgive, you are only hurting yourself; you are prolonging the pain and you are teaching your children not to forgive also. Hate breeds more hate, but love is stronger than all of that….love and God.”