Archive | July, 2012

Kivu Mai- Mai Return: Raia Mutomboki

30 Jul

Members of the Raia Mutomboki

The word Mai-Mai was taken from the Kiswahili word meaning “water” which is actually “Maji” ( pronounced Ma-gee, like Ma as in mother and gee as in Gee Whiz!). The name currently refers to any of the community militias composed of male Congolese villagers, young and old, who came together during the Second War in the Congo to defend their land and their homes in the northeast region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Although there are Mai-Mai groups throughout the Congo, it was Mai-Mai of North and South Kivu Districts who played the most crucial role in the Second War in the Congo. These groups were composed of local men from districts in the northeast region of the country who loosely grouped themselves together in order to resist the forces of the Hutu Interahamwe ( Hutu soldiers responsible for the 1994 Rwandan Genocide) who had been driven out of Rwanda and across the border by the victorious Tutsi army in power in Rwanda. The Hutu guerilla fighters called themselves The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda( FDLR) and settled in both Kivu districts. The Mai-Mai also fought against the Congolese Tutsi- supported militias such as the CNDP who were also fighting the FDLR in the area. The enemies of the Mai-Mai were any non- Congolese troops located in the Congo and they sought to either kill or expel any non-Congolese troops. Their goal became difficult to reach when during the second war Laurent Kabila’s new Congolese Army accompanied the Rwandan Army throughout Kivu District helping them locate and kill all Interahamwe living in these districts but many Mai- Mai fought with their own Congolese army when trying to rid their districts of non-Congolese soldiers.

The Mai- Mai had no charters, no commissions, nor were they paid by anyone. They had leaders but no officers in the true military sense of the word. Most came together without guns carrying the hoes and the pangas (machetes) they used in their fields as weapons. These are extremely localized groups that were formed to defend a small number of villages against specific crimes and injustices and have never been connected to district or national political movements. Mia- Mia or Rega societies are local groups that usually serve to protect the residents in no more than several villages. And each Mai- Mai group has its own initiation ceremonies into its own secret society with its own set of rituals and protective charms.

A few culturally insensitive and poorly informed journalists, especially Americans in their attempt to make publishing deadlines, have not bothered to identify the localized nature of Mai- Mia groups within specific Congolese villages, and have glibly attributed the name Mai- Mai to the water used in  pre-battle rituals. First of all, each, Mai- Mai group is its own secret society and performs its own unique set of rituals in order to prepare for battle and as protection from bullet wounds and death. And secondly, the choice of the word Mai- Mai has far greater significance than the use of water as a protective charm.. It refers to the way in which free men of the Congo choose to come together or disband depending on the defensive needs of the people, to the fluid sense of unity which comes and goes, or ebbs and flows – just like water. If one understands why the villagers enter into these loose groupings in the first place then it would be evident why the groups have been named- Mai- Mai. If these journalists would have investigated the history of tribal warfare in northeast Congo before the white man arrived they would have recognized the same sense of fluidity in Congolese tribal warfare. The concepts behind Rega, Mai-Mai, secret societies, and battle rituals are not new; the villagers have simply restructured them in order to meet the needs of a more current struggle.

The membership profiles of specific Mai-Mai groups are hard to pin down and include a wide range of individuals. Some groups that would be considered “Mai Mai” are: private armies led by warlords, tribal elders or village leaders and currently there are a few Mai- Mai groups that espouse limited political agendas. Certain Mai -Mai groups have been known to ally themselves to: established guerrilla groups, terrorists, and even other foreign governments if it helps them to survive. It has been documented that several groups of Mai- Mai are far more harmful than helpful to the villagers placed in their care and are considered to be no more than killers and thieves.

Many Mai- Mai in north and South Kivu districts were historically committed to stopping the infiltration of Rwanda- supported militias in the area but even their allegiances were fluid and changed frequently. Although these groups took part in the Second War in the Congo they were never included in the peace accord that brought an end to the war and were never made to disband. In 2007 The Mai Mai in north and south Kivu districts which border the country of Rwanda repeatedly clashed with the Tutsi militia, The Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD-Goma), a Rwanda- supported military force that had taken over the Congolese city of Goma. Some of the larger Mai-Mai groups received money and supplies from the government of the DR Congo during and after the war. But smaller groups of Mai- Mai were reported to have aligned themselves with the Tutsi militia, the RCD in Goma.

Currently there is a deadly tug of war being played out between the Congolese army, the rebel militias in the area, and the Mai- Mai. The Mai-Mai are often viewed as opportunists who take over land, even occupy towns when the Congolese Army is engaged in fighting the rebel militias elsewhere.  And in true Mia-Mai fashion as the Congolese Army was occupied fighting with M23, an older Mai- Mai group reappeared on the scene, The Mai-Mai, Raia Mutomboki which means “Furious Citizens” in Kiswahili have killed hundreds of innocent Hutu. These killings started at the end of 2011 and seem to have been carried out in revenge against Hutu villagers that The Raia believed were supporting the FDLR. It has been reported by the UN that around 100 civilians have already been killed.

The Raia Mutomboki was established in 2005 in Shabunda territory in order to protect the villagers in the area from the Interahamwe and the forces of the FDLR Twelve Congolese civilians were massacred by the FDLR in March 2005 in the tropical forest outside of the village of Kyoka, in Shabunda. These villagers were hacked to death with pangas (machetes) and fueled the indignation of the Congolese males in the area to the point where they willingly came together to pledge themselves to serve in the Mai-Mai, Raia Mutomboki. Eventually the Raia Mutomboki pushed the FDLR out of Shubunda.

 In the beginning of 2011, the Congolese army left Shabunda, and merged with other units. This caused soldiers of the FDLR to enter the area. They immediately started stealing from the villagers and killing innocent civilians in the area causing the men to come together and talk of resurrecting the Raia Mutomboki commenced among the villagers

 Then the Congolese army returned to the area in late 2011. Initially it used the Raia to help it locate and fight against the FDLR. The Raia helped the Congolese Army track the movements of the FDLR within the local forests. But in time the Raia forces began to resent the presence of the Tutsi soldiers, the ex-CNDP troops serving in the Congolese army which the Raia considered foreigners who had no right to be living in the Congo, let alone serving as soldiers in the Congolese Army. This animosity caused the Raia Mutomboki to attack the Congolese Army on several occasions and open warfare commenced between the two groups.

 As the Raia continued to hunt for the FDLR soldiers, it also began to kill the dependents of the Interahamwe  including women and children, mutilating them before they killed them. FDLR deserters told UN officials that the Raia Mutomboki were their greatest worry and pursued them relentlessly throughout the local forests. The brutal tactics employed by the Raia caused the FDLR to retaliate in kind, causing the massacres of many civilians on both sides of the conflict. In late 2011, the Raia killed close to one hundred people and burned several villages to the ground in northeast Shabunda and in January 2012, over 50 civilians were reportedly killed by the FDLR around Luyuyu, in retaliation.

 In May 2012, the Raia moved into northern Kivu in Tembo and Kano/Rega . They continued to kill FDLR dependents and massacred close to  one hundred people. But now they began killing Hutu villagers with no ties to the FDLR. Members of the Raia Mutomboki have no love for the members of the Hutu or the Tutsi ethnic groups and want them expelled from their country but especially from their district. The Congolese army moved into this area quickly in order to squelch the ethnic violence that once occurred in Masisi and Walikale in 1993.

 Last month, at the end June 2012  a newer and broader Raia took over Walikale town which is located to the west of Goma, but were pushed out when the Congolese army showed up in the town and took control again.

 And now the issues become murky as so often happens when Congolese events play out in the Kivus. First the Raia said that it would “fight the soldiers in the M23 Movement and push them from DRCongo into Rwanda where they rightfully belong.”  But then rumors have been spreading around both Kivu districts that the Raia have been receiving arms and ammunition from M23 and from Rwanda in order to hunt the FDLR.

 What do I think? The Raia Mutomboki hate the Hutu Interahamwe most so will take support from M23 and the country of Rwanda to get rid of them once and for all. Then they will come after the Hutu civilians even if they are Congolese citizens. The Raia want them gone as well. But after that they will turn on M23 and Rwanda in order to either drive all Tutsi from Kivu District or kill them if they will not leave. Nothing has changed- the Hutu and Tutsi are still hated by the rest of the tribes in the Congo and seen as usurpers even though many of their families have lived in the Congo for hundreds of years.  The soldiers in the M23 Movement know this and fight to call attention to this critical situation. Of this I am certain- if the Congolese and the Rwandan governments do not work together to stem the ethnic violence and alter the villagers’ prejudicial attitudes; it will only be a matter of time before a Congolese Genocide will occur that will match the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.


Kat Nickerson                 Kingston,   RI              USA




Congo Wars Will Not End: Unless

23 Jul

M23 soldiers fight for rights of Tutsi villagers

In an attempt to stem the warfare in both North and South Kivu districts, within the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United States State Department has cut military aid in the amount of 200,000 dollars US to the country of Rwanda after the United Nations Mission in Goma confirmed that Paul Kangame, the current president of Rwanda is indeed backing the movement M23, former members of the Army of the Democratic Republic of Congo and other rebel groups in the area. This is not even a “slap on the wrist” for Rwanda, a country that has shared very close ties with the government of the United States of America in the past and this move on the part of the US will not stop the fighting or bring back the some 200,000 Congolese villagers who have left their homes for refugee camps in Uganda and Rwanda in order to survive the senseless killings perpetrated by both sides in this conflict. If the USA really wants to help then it needs to study the history of the Congo and the ongoing conflict between the Tutsi and the Hutu- past and present in order to create viable solutions that can be used to repair the relations between these two large ethnic groups and the other tribes in East Africa- regardless of country borders.

First of all, there were and are large settlements of Tutsi and Hutu living within the territory now called  East Africa – they live in settlements throughout the countries of Uganda, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Tanzania.  Unfortunately, these tribal districts were claimed by different countries when the European Powers divided up the lower continent of Africa in the late 1800’s creating new colonies under the rule of the countries of Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany but the Tutsi and the Hutu living in these territories did not understand the limitations of country borders, or view themselves as citizens of a specific colony. They continued to see themselves as members of the same large ethnic groupings that had existed as one entity for hundreds of years before the white man came to govern them. They did not remain in these new colonies either but moved from one village to another other whenever they felt the need. There existed a loosely organized state of allegiance to certain colonies during the late 1800s which continued into the early 1900’s. It was only around World War One when East Africa entered into the war based on the nationality of the country that ruled each colony when “residence of country’ began to matter.

If one reads the history between the Hutu and the Tutsi they lived in a state of tentative peace throughout the 1700-1800’s and traded with each other during their more peaceful periods but did war against each other from time to time, as warfare was an integral part of tribal existence. By the late 1800’s they had became tolerate enough of one another to approve  of occasional intermarriages between Hutu and Tutsi, although they never condoned them. Then the Belgians who ruled Rwanda pitted both tribes against one another- the Hutu against the Tutsi. The Belgians preferred the Tutsi over the Hutu and openly discriminated against the Hutu so much so that the Belgians even created laws to help the Tutsi take the Hutu tribal land away from them. Talk to members of the Hutu tribe today and listen to what they have to say.

 They will give you an accurate accounting of what was done to them by the Tutsi and the Belgians in power in Rwanda as if it occurred yesterday. Some of these transgressions may be over one hundred years old but the Hutu talk about them as if they happened yesterday. Each Tutsi crime is relayed as clearly as when it was first experienced by the Hutu. Nothing has been forgotten or forgiven – no matter how long ago it occurred. If the US wants to end the warfare they will have to think of a way to give the Hutu back the tribal lands that were stolen from them by the Tutsi or reimburse them in some way for what has been taken from them. And how the Hutu will reclaim their self- esteem and self-worth is a much deeper issue but one that must be addressed if the majority of the Hutu nation is to stop this relentless hatred and eventually move forward with their lives.

I believe the lack of self-worth was one of the driving forces behind the Genocide of the Tutsi by the Hutu in1994 that and the thousands of unjust court cases that took land away from the Hutu who could not turn to the colonial government for justice. The stories of these crimes and insults were told and retold around the evening campfires for generations until enough of the Hutu men agreed to join together to even the score.  Generations of young men heard these stories until they became obsessed with righting the wrong, with evening the score; their solution- to obliterate all Tutsi from the Earth. This was even too much for many members of the Hutu tribe to condone. Brave Hutu spoke out against the massacres only to be killed by those Hutu committed to revenge. Starting in April and ending in June of 1994 a whole army of Hutu men joined the revolt and began the wholesale slaughter of 800,000 innocent Tutsi- men, women, and children.

While the Rwandan Genocide took place other Tutsi and Hutu living in villages in the countries of Democratic Republic of the DR Congo. Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania helplessly looked on. By June 1994: Paul Kagame’s Tutsi rebels ended the genocide and pushed the Hutu government and supporting army out of Kigali. The Hutu army fled over the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then called Zaire) and into Northwest Uganda. Paul Kangame entered the Congo along with Ugandan troops to overtake and kill the Hutu “interahamwe”, the soldiers responsible for the Tutsi Genocide once and for all. But more importantly,  more than one million ethnic Hutus also crossed the border in 1994 from Rwanda to DR Congo most of them trying to get away from the conflict and live in peace. The Rwandan army killed many interahamwe and innocent civilians in the process but was not able to destroy all of the militant Hutu. Many of the interahamwe survived and took up residence in North and South Kivu districts in the DR Congo and in northwest Uganda.

By1997 Laurent Kabila named himself president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and established his government in the capital city of Kinshasa with the help of Paul Kangame and the Rwandan government. In 1989 Kangame accused Kabila of not aggressively hunting down the Hutu rebels causing Rwanda and Uganda to enter into the First and Second Wars in the DR Congo. The war ended in 2003 but all of the interahamwe were not destroyed. The interahamwe went on to terrorize the villagers by stealing from them and murdering anyone who opposed them. Hutu militias, Tutsi militias, and Mai- Mai vigilantes from surrounding tribes continued to fight it out. In 2008 the largest Tutsi militia the CNDP marched into Goma, the capital city of the Kivu District located very close to the Rwanda border. The CNDP rebels issued  a list of demands, one of which was to turn their militia, The National Congress for the Defense of the People, into its own political party. By 2009 a peace accord was accepted by the DR Congo government and the former CNDP Tutsi rebels were integrated into the Congolese army.  

It is now 2012 and the interahamwe are still living in DR Congo murdering innocent villagers and absconding with their possessions. They have even been known to camp out near and in the Virunga National Forest and have been charged with killing the endangered Mountain Gorillas there. Recently there has been resurgence in the creation of Mai- Mai militias composed of local villagers who have chosen to stand up and fight against the interahamwe. The interahamwe are Hutu terrorists who have one goal- to return to Rwanda, topple Kangame’s Tutsi government, and install a Hutu government in Rwanda. With the interahamwe in chrage  it would only be a matter of time before the Rwandan Genocide began again.

 “M23” is made up of Congolese soldiers who served in the CNDP and who defected in April 2012 because they say that the conditions in the 2009 peace accord had never been implemented by Joseph Kabila’s government. Remember these men are ethnic Tutsi but do not support Bosco Ntaganda although they defected at the same time Ntaganda deserted taking his own men with him. One of their most important demands was that the government “rid the area of the interahamwe once and for all” and declare both Kivu Districts “disaster areas” in order to help the local Tutsis suffer less ethnic discrimination. They have also asked as Tutsi soldiers in the DR Congo army to be posted only within the north and south Kivu District where the Tutsi population currently resides. They do not want to be assigned to other districts around the DR Congo because they face discrimination when placed in other provinces. 

On Sunday, July 15, 2012 President Paul Kangame of Rwanda and President Joseph Kabila of DR Congo signed a proposal which would allow a neutral force to monitor their shared border. It is expected that the implementation of this proposal would help quell the rebel militias in the area such as M23 and Raia Mutomboki. The proposal was authored by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region but it did not include the name of the country that would supply the troops or how the initiative would be funded.

Edouard Mwangachuchu, a Congolese Tutsi community leader and current President of the CNDP said, “I think the Congolese government is working very hard to finish this war, by negotiation, and I think if Rwanda cooperates with the DR Congo government, this war will end,”

A point still to be addressed is the return of some 50,000 Congolese Tutsi refugees from Rwanda to the DR Congo where they belong. Tutsi ethnic groups face discrimination in the DR Congo and Tutsi citizens of the DR Congo have even been expelled from the Congo during past administrations.  The Tutsi are known as successful business men and have acquired large parcels of land which has caused open resentment among other tribal groups. And many tribes in the DR Congo distrust the Tutsi connection to Rwanda which has continuously supported rebel groups in the area especially the CNDP for years after the wars in the Congo ended. They forget that many Tutsi currently serving in the Congolese army did not defect and are currently fighting against their fellow Tutsi to end the insurrection.

 Proposal or not, the wars in the DR Congo and the creation of militias will not stop until three things happen: 1.) the Hutu interahamwe must be hunted down and all of these terrorists killed. There will be no hope of peace in the Kivu District until this happens because the villagers of the DR Congo especially the Tutsi will live in constant fear until this has been done. 2.) the Tutsi and the remaining Hutu ( not interahamwe) must be shown how to forgive and exist together peacefully. This will be the hardest part and they will need programs and incentives to help them learn how to do so. 3.) the children of the DR Congo will have to learn that “might does not make right” and this will be terribly difficult to undo seeing that most of this current generation has grown up with a steady diet of violence and exploitation. It will take more than a monitored border to stop the wars and the massacres. It will take a unified effort on the part of the United Nations,the United States of America, and the governments of Rwanda. Uganda, Burundi, and the DR Congo  to make them stop once and for all.

Kat Nickerson                         Kingston,    RI             USA

Ugandan MP Fights for Children with Nodding Disease: Beatrice Anywar

15 Jul



 Her name is the Honorable Beatrice Antim Anywar and she is a Minister of Parliament (MP) for the country of Uganda a position similar to that of a Senator in the United States of America. She is one of a handful of women who serve in the Ugandan Parliament and represents her district of Kitgum. Kitgum is located in Northern Uganda and was one of the northern regions within which the twenty-year civil war was fought in Uganda between the rebels in the northern regions and the Ugandan Army, The Ugandan Peoples Defense Force (UPDF) in the south. I met with her in Parliament last month during my assignment as a Visiting Professor at Kyambogo University in Kampala, Uganda. One of my assignments in Uganda this summer was to conduct a first-hand investigation into the mysterious sickness called Nodding Syndrome along with a small team of Ugandan professionals from Kampala. She called me on a Monday morning after a dear friend connected us through email and invited me to meet with her the following Wednesday at noon.

After successfully moving through several police checkpoints and the Registration Desk, I and my dear friend Fionna, who agreed to accompany me to Parliament, finally made it to the Honorable Members Dining Room. Beatrice had chosen a table in small room off of the more expansive dining room situated one floor above. She came toward us with the same confidence and poise that has made her a household word around Uganda. Whether you love her or hate her everyone knows who Beatrice is as soon as her name is mentioned. My first impression was that she looked like someone’s mother- a very capable mother in her blue and white flowered print dress with matching jacket. And that was exactly how she began the interview. We sat down at the table and she proceeded to eat her lunch of assorted Ugandan fruits: watermelon, pineapple, and mango but only after she had seen to our needs first. While she ate she told me her story.

Beatrice assumed the role of mother from an early age when her own mother died unexpectedly and she took over the care of her two younger brothers. She’s remains a devout Catholic and still believes in what she had been taught. “I had always wanted to become a nun, I even went to the Nkonkonjeru Little Sisters of St Francis Convent to start my training but that did not work out,” she said as she cut her watermelon into manageable slices. “One day my dad came and got me. He felt that I could do so much more with my life so I left with him. I never did go back for my clothes.”

Eventually she married and gave birth to four wonderful children but she managed to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Public Administration from Islamic University, Uganda and a Masters in Marketing from Makerere University Business School. Beatrice beamed as she described each one of her children to me and I could tell by the pride in her voice that they meant the world to her. There is a wide range in the ages of her children her youngest is six and her oldest is twenty-three. I’m impressed. It means that she has been in the “mothering mode” for a long time now and has had a great deal of experience taking care of others.

“So how did you become involved in politics in the first place?” I ask getting down to the reason for my visit.

 “Well the first time I ran I lost because I was cheated out of my seat in Parliament,” she said. “But a couple years later the man responsible for fixing that election came to see me and confessed to me what he had done. He felt remorse at having rigged the votes. I actually had no intention of entering politics but was approached by a well known MP, the Honorable Ronald Reagan Okumu from the neighboring Gulu district. It was he who convinced me that I could do the job and that the people of Kitgum needed someone like me to help them out. I have already served one full term and am currently in the midst of serving out my second term as a Member of Parliament. And I serve the people of Kitgum proudly. The second time I ran I got so many votes that there was no question but that I had won the election and I did it all honestly”.

Beatrice explained how her career in politics had not always run smoothly. She has been arrested and jailed several times for taking part in an assortment of protests. Her most famous one earned her the title, “Mama Mibira” for organizing protests that stopped the state’s plans to give away part of the Mibira Forest to Sugar Corporation Uganda Limited.  She also gained notoriety as one of seven MP’s who returned 20 million Ugandan Shillings (about $10,000 US) during the 2011 election that had been placed in the MPs bank accounts by the present administration because she felt that is was, “morally wrong.” But this was not what she had brought me here to discuss today so we moved on.

Her most pressing concerns are the presence of the illusive Nodding Syndrome throughout all of the districts in northern Uganda and the lack of interest on the part of the Ugandan Government in helping the infected children and their families.

“There are some cases in Gulu, “she reminds me, “but the real misery can be found in Kitgum and Pader. And where is the government in all of this? Where is President Museveni in all of this? They say they are going to send money and help out but they actually do nothing. They need to be told off! My people are suffering and I will continue to speak out about the government’s inability to act in the best interest of its people.”

“So why do you think the government will not officially declare the north a “disaster area?” I ask.

 She becomes visibly agitated as she responds, “ I wrote to the Speaker ( Speaker of Parliament) and presented a motion that Northern Uganda be declared an official Disaster Area and my motion was defeated by the other MPs. “ 

“Why?” I ask and feel her frustration as she replies.

“Because they have other loyalties,” she answers.” Sometimes they vote with me but other times they support the government’s position. They are playing politics when they should be thinking about what is best for their people.”

“I have gone to the Speaker and petitioned him to create a committee to study the problems associated with Nodding Syndrome and because none of this has been done I have taken the government to court. This is human rights abuse pure and simple.”

“And what about the American CDC?” she adds. She is referring to the United States Center for Disease Control based in Atlanta, Georgia. “They have been no help at all. They have conducted research in the north for three years now and nothing. They have yet to release a report on their findings. They have told us nothing and most of us have lost hope that they ever will. It seems that they only do what the government tells them to do. They work for the government not the people.”

“The government refuses to fund an organized census to determine just how many children have been infected with Nodding Disease. I have heard estimates from 3,000 to 4,000 children but those totals are much too low.  I know that the real total is more like 7,000 children infected with Nodding Disease and 200 of them have already died. There are now 34 adults confirmed to have Nodding Disease as well. And what about the children who survive? They will need medical centers that will provide medications, treatment, and food to ensure they get the proper nutrition to build their bodies back up again. They will need transportation to make sure that they are able to reach these medical centers. They will need special classrooms equipped with special education teachers who will have to be trained in how to best teach these children. We already know that their previous level of intelligence will never return. If the government won’t then who will take care of these children and their families?”

“Now the government wants to cut the national Health Budget for next year by 6%. I will be fighting this proposed budget on the floor of parliament this very afternoon.” she adds.  “Sometimes I think that these children are supposed to die- that it is all about grabbing the Acholi’s land.”

“Tell me more. What do you mean?” I ask.

“There is oil in Gulu and the government would like nothing better than to take the land away from the Acholi people and create a vast estate of government – controlled sugar fields on their land. This is all about more money for the government and the people presently in power,”

“What do you want people of Uganda to remember as a result of reading this article?” I ask.

“I know about all of the rumors that have been spread around town about me- about how I was given a lot of money by President Museveni and about how he owns me. Well it’s not true. I did not take his money and I am my own person.  What concerns me most of all is what do I tell the people I represent?  They do not understand why the government will not help them. There is a woman I know in Kitgum who gave birth to seven beautiful children. Right now two of her children have died from Nodding Syndrome and three more are infected with Nodding Syndrome and will probably die. What do I tell her and her two remaining children? It is thoughts such as these that keep me moving forward and make me stay in the government’s face.”

And she’s right.  I recall hearing the late Professor Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and creator of the Kenya Green Belt Movement talk about how she was slandered, beaten, arrested, and even imprisoned by the Kenyan government in her career as an environmentalist – how members of the government tried to destroy her career. It was only after she received the Nobel Peace Prize that the Kenyan government claimed her as their own again. It’s hard to be an African woman in politics under normal circumstances. It’s dangerous to be an African woman in politics when you’re determined to challenge the status quo.

“Are you afraid at times?” I ask not sure where this question will take me.

“I have paid for my commitment to my people. Last year in November I was in a bad car accident along with my six year old son. I ended up in the hospital.”

“Are you saying that you were deliberately hit – that someone was trying to kill you?”

“That is what I’m saying. “

“Do you think that they will try again?”

“Yes, I do.”

“And this time how will they do it?”

“This time I think that they will use poison,” she says and deliberately puts the last piece of pineapple on her tongue and begins to chew.

Suddenly I am no longer hungry and catch a fleeting glimpse into Beatrice Anywar’s world- a place where might continues to make right and no one is really who they pretend to be,

“What do you want the people of the United States to know about this situation?

“I have always been fond of the United States. My older children attend university there,” she says showing me a Fourth of July Reception Invitation addressed to her and her son courtesy of the United States Embassy in Uganda.

“The government of the US needs to know that children are dying needlessly and that they can help by publically asking the Ugandan government why the children are still dying and what the Ugandan government intends to do about it. They can ask why the north has not been declared an official disaster area yet. The people and the government of the United States need to keep watching what ‘s happening to these children in Uganda and if they ask enough questions hopefully they will embarrass the Ugandan government into actually doing something to help these children out.”

A week before I left to return to the United States, the Ugandan Monitor ran this story about Beatrice Anywar. Kitgum Woman Member of Parliament, Beatrice Anywar Resigns from Opposition Cabinet as Shadow Minister for Energy, Oil, and Mineral Resources. According to the writer of this article Beatrice was getting much too close to President Museveni and he predicted that she would soon leave her present political party and defect to the other side -which just happens to be the party to which Museveni belongs.

I suppose the article was written to discredit her but it had quite the opposite effect on me. It caused me to peruse all of the articles that had been written about Beatrice in the local Ugandan newspapers for the past three months. And I discovered that many “someones” had gone to a lot of trouble in order to try and tarnish her good name. Why did Beatrice’s political conduct have to be superior to the dubious conduct regularly demonstrated by her male colleagues? Why is Beatrice held to such a high standard and the bad behavior of her fellow MPs regularly overlooked? Changing political parties is not a new occurrence in Ugandan politics and male MP’s have done so often- as many times as it has taken them to secure the political limelight.

So maybe she will defect to the other side and maybe she has created stronger ties to President Museveni.  But in the end why is that such a bad thing? If it allows her to tackle the problems associated with Nodding Syndrome, help the people in her district, and not line her pockets with cash like so many of the honorable male members of Parliament have done-so what?  It seems to me that the press and certain MPs have gone out of their way to negatively portray her choices and criticize her for whatever course of action she’s taken so far. And it is this relentless criticism that has convinced me that she has to be doing something right if she’s managed to bother her critics to this extent. Way to go Beatrice! Because I do believe that if you had already entered the political sewer and been hanging around with the rest of the corrupt MPs there- you wouldn’t have gotten their attention at all.

Kat Nickerson    Kingston        Rhode Island    USA                                       July, 2012

Nodding Disease in Uganda: The Villagers Speak Out!

2 Jul

What if a one quarter of the children in towns across the northern portion of the United States were physically wasting away and had lost one half to three quarters of their previous levels of intelligence after contracting an unknown disease? What if it had been determined that the loss in their mental faculties and motor skills could never be restored? What would citizens in other regions of America do to help?

Would they question why these children were not being given the health care and community services they so badly deserve? Would they petition their senators and congressmen to do something immediately to help find both the cause and a cure of this mysterious disease? Would they demand that the President declare this section of the United States a national disaster area? Would they keep fighting until they had been heard and the children had been sent to the proper medical facilities? Would they see to it that arrangements had been made for their families and their future?

As outrageous as this situation sounds it is not the plot for a new television series but is actually happening to at least 4,000 children in northern Uganda- maybe 7,000 children if the newest estimates are correct. They have been diagnosed with what has been officially labeled as “Nodding Syndrome” but most people in the north refer to it as “The Nodding Sickness” or “Nodding Disease.”

I traveled to the city of Gulu, one of the largest towns in Northern Uganda, at the beginning of last month to find out more about this illusive disease and the reasons why the government has taken so long to provide effective health care to these children. I traveled with other professionals from Kyambogo University, one of whom was originally born in this area. Members of his family still live there. We were able to visit villages and schools in the area and hear from the people about how they felt. I got to interview them and hear what they believed might be the cause of this disease.

First some background information: The districts with the most cases of Nodding Disease are Gulu, Kitgum, Lamwo, Pader, Agago, and lately new cases of Nodding Disease have been reported in the villages of Polaro, Atiak, and Odek (all in Gulu district).

Northern Uganda went through a twenty year civil war beginning in the year 1986 and ending in 2006 although some of the villagers still believe that it continued on until 2008. Various rebel armies fought it out with the Ugandan Army called the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF) until the war seemed to peter out in 2006. The most famous of these was the Lord’s Resistance Army lead by Joseph Kony. Both Kony and his soldiers were members of the Acholi tribe, the largest tribal grouping in northern Uganda. By 2006 Kony and his men had left northern Uganda for good and headed into the northeast section of the DRCongo where they presently cover an expanse of territory which takes them from the  DRCongo, to South Sudan, and then into the Central Africa Republic. Because Kony kept kidnapping the young Acholi boys and girls in northern Uganda to serve as soldiers and wives in his army the Ugandan government forced all residents living in the north into Internal Displacement Camps. By the middle of the war two million people had been placed in 180 separate Internal Displacement Camps in order to keep them safe from the Lord’s Liberation Army and other rebel groups fighting in the area (WHO, 2009).

I discussed with them the most popular theories on the possible cause of Nodding Disease and the specific actions taken by World Health Organizations and the Ugandan Government to stop the suffering. Below is a summary of the information they shared with me in my travels.

United States Center for Disease Control, Atlanta Georgia: No one I talked with in Gulu Center or in the villages in the northern districts believe that The Center for Disease Control (CDC) works to help them anymore. They believe that the Center works for the government and does only what the government tells it to do. Researchers from the Center have been present in Gulu for three years now and they have yet to release any official report on Nodding Disease to Parliament or to the Acholi People. No one that I talked with had confidence in them anymore or would share information with them. Some of the villagers felt that the CDC was deliberately stalling in order to protect the government. No one in the government or in the CDC has even organized an identification census that would provide important data on just how many children and adults have been infected with Nodding Disease. While I was in Gulu, the Uganda Monitor reported  that the Verification Team on Nodding Disease sent by the Ugandan Government was stranded in Gulu after it discovered that there had been no money allotted by the Government for their upkeep and travel costs.

River Blindness: Not one of them believed that there is a connection between River Blindness and Nodding Disease although the Center for Disease Control found that many of the children who had Nodding Disease had the same parasite that causes River Blindness in their blood stream but not all. It has not been proven that there is a direct correlation between the presence of River Blindness and Nodding Disease. According to the men I talked with River Blindness has been around since before the colonials arrived and no children or adults for that matter contracted anything close to the symptoms they have observed in Nodding Disease. The government is planning to spend millions of Ugandan shillings to spray wetland areas and rivers in order to rid these districts of the Black Fly that carries the parasites which cause River Blindness but everyone I talked with mentioned people who had become sick with River Blindness and not been infected with Nodding Disease. Most think that the government is trying to avoid finding the real cause of this disease.

Prions, A Kuru-Kuru-like Disease: Now their reaction to this was very interesting. Once I explained to them what “prions” were and how the mothers’ in New Guinea passed it on to their children from eating the human brains of dead relatives several people in the room got very excited – seems that it is common knowledge in the villages that soldiers in the UPDF with the blessing of their officers made Acholi adults eat the human brains of dead Acholi they had captured and killed in the district. One man’s brother said that incidents such as these were told to President Museveni and were translated by the brother of a friend of theirs only no one could remember his name.

As far as they could determine this occurred sometime between 2003-2007 when President Museveni made a personal visit to Gulu. They remembered that stories such as this had been reported in the Gulu newspaper, New Vision and they said that they remembered a film that was shown on television which exposed what the soldiers had been doing. One man said he remembered pictures of caldrons where people’s arms and legs were “sticking out of the pot”. When I asked them how prevalent this practice was by the UPDF and how many people they thought might have been made to eat dead people’s brains. One man told me that he remembered how the soldiers had cooked the dead people’s brains first then the Acholi were made to eat them. I began with the number ten and they all agreed “no” but eventually settled on “hundreds”.  Another man said that it was a common practice used by the UPDF and that the soldiers did not stop even after the President ordered them to desist. Most all of the people felt that they fared worse under the government than when dealing with the Lords Liberation Army. They also were wary of the “Invisible Children” Initiative who they claimed are very closely aligned to members of the Ugandan Army.  They went on to explain that they were treated far worse by soldiers in the Ugandan Army than by the rebels in the bush. Several men told me stories about how their homesteads had been burned down by the UPDF forces so that they would be forced to move into the camps. They also remember soldiers laughing when people fell down on the road and purposefully running over their belongings when refugees dropped them in the road on the way to the interment camps.

Chemical Waste, Toxins, or Poisons

This was another cause that the villagers did not dismiss. The idea that these children were being poisoned in some way by something harmful in the soil or in the water they felt was a definite possibility. When I mentioned the presence of chemical waste every person that I discussed this with in Gulu remembered that there had been a rumor going around during and after the civil war that the UPDF brought chemical warfare with them in order to fight the rebels. No one could tell me when, where, or why but every one of them nodded along when I asked them if it was a possibility. One person stated that Moammar Kadafi may have sent chemical weapons down to Uganda to help Museveni out during the civil war in the north.  Another man mentioned that it was common knowledge around the northern districts but no one could tell me what was shipped in or when it had happened. Even professionals in Kampala remembered being told that the UPDF had used chemical warfare during the civil war. No one I discussed this cause with denied the possibility or was at all shocked.

Another surprising twist was that many believed the children could have been poisoned by the food that they had been given to eat daily in the Internal Displacement Camps. Had they been given tainted food and if so, why didn’t everyone get sick. The villagers certainly made a case for the presence of poisons: when they reminded me that when heavy metals and chemical poisons are present in food supplies it is the young, the old, and the sick who are affected first. Maybe the children with Nodding Disease were the ones who were most susceptible to whatever was in the food, bedding, or water? And the next logical question is- If this happened this way, was it done deliberately? The villagers’ opinions were split on this one. Half felt that the government wanted to punish the Acholi for backing the previous president of Uganda and half felt that it had not been done on purpose but that the government was doing everything in its power to make sure that no one found out- even if it meant letting these children die.

Whatever the cause of Nodding Disease, the government has refused to provide the resources it should have offered. Nodding Disease has been infecting young children for a few years now but as of this year 34 adults have been diagnosed with the disease. The disease continues to spread throughout northern Uganda but the government has proposed to cut the health budget for next year at a time when it should have already declared the districts in the north a “national disaster area” and created an all-encompassing plan of action with which to identify and stop this devastating disease. Where are the medical centers, community resources, and the special schools needed by these children? When will a unified and committed approach to the pandemic begin?

In my next blog I will tell you about one woman of courage who has challenged the government to fulfill its responsibilities to its citizens in the north: Minister of Parliament, Beatrice Anwar.

Kat Nickerson                  Kampala,   Uganda   July 2, 2012