“Voice from the Field: Empowering Local Communities – Challenges of Active Nonviolence Training in Uganda”
By Phil Wilmot, Solidarity Uganda
Phil Wilmot is one of many co-founders and volunteers of Solidarity Uganda. His wife
Suzan Abong, a voluntary Director of the organization, comes from Northern Uganda. You
can connect with either of them via the contact form at http://www.solidarityuganda.com.
Throughout much of Africa, seeing a woman naked is considered a severe curse, a threat
not taken lightly by the witness of the disrobing. The act of undressing to expose the
shame of another party rarely occurs without thorough premeditation; it is therefore used only in dire situations. In April 2012, the community of Amuru sub-county (Uganda) decided their desperation necessitated such kind of confrontational effort.
After spending years in congested internally displaced person (IDP) camps due to decades of unrest in Northern Uganda, Amuru residents (called Acholi) finally began returning to their houses and farmlands in 2006. However, their journey home was met with extreme adversity.
Madhvani Sugarcane Company had begun partnering with the government to forcefully
evict thousands of families from roughly 100,000 acres of fertile, oil-rich land in Amuru. During his last recent visit to Amuru, President Museveni informed the Acholi people that unless they gave their land over to Madhvani Corporation for sugarcane plantations, the government would refuse to deliver basic public services accessible everywhere else in the country, most notably education, clean water, hospitals, and infrastructure.
These circumstances forced the Acholi community to strategize for nonviolent action. As a result, 60 Acholi women from Northern Uganda organized themselves and used their
gender power by stripping naked in front of Madhvani Sugarcane Corporation executives
during April last year. Since their action, President Museveni has refused to visit Amuru, for the fear of encountering naked women.
It was against this backdrop that Solidarity Uganda, a grassroots network of Ugandan
farmers, youth, students, and activists, recognized the potential and necessity for more nonviolent action in rural Amuru. The organization obtained a grant from the AJ Muste Memorial Institute, enabling them to work with a WPP partner from the region who trains communities in nonviolent action.
The WPP partner traveled to Uganda in September to train Solidarity Uganda’s volunteers
and Amuru residents in community mobilization, strategic nonviolence, building movement
solidarity, and practical skills for leading nonviolence trainings.
The training unintentionally became a nonviolent action in itself. When authorities heard of the trainings, the WPP partner was detained with two American volunteers and Solidarity Uganda’s Amuru Coordinator, Ben Ocan. Between the four individuals, a total of approximately 50 hours was spent being questioned in several different offices. The group was ordered by the District Police Commander and Regional Intelligence Security Officer to abide by bureaucratic hoops, yet they both refused to provide the detainees with a written explanation of the imposed procedures and the reasons for them. The detainees were told several times that they were inciting violence with the nonviolence trainings, and were consequently in violation of Uganda’s Penal Code.
Despite the limited mobility of the WPP partner and the volunteers, and having been
denied the right to travel, the group was determined to disseminate the content of the
trainings. Instead of putting on massive public trainings, a handful of local volunteers received the trainings in another town. These volunteers in turn multiplied the training’s impact by organizing small groups in their own communities, through a series of informal dinners.
The training focused on three areas. First, it focused on understanding violence in general, as well as different forms/types of violence and people’s common responses to it (from passivity to using counter violence). By analyzing cases of violence against women, the trainers demonstrated how violence is a behavior that limits people’s potential, and how violence has a tendency of turning human beings into objects.
The second part of the training was about providing an alternative for violence by
increasing trainees’ understanding of active nonviolence. The group learnt that
nonviolence “is an attitude of the mind and a way of life”. The third and final part
focused on the specifc situation in Amuru, and how active nonviolence could be used to
deal with the social injustice in the region.
Although the training continued through an alternative form, the Ugandan police kept
harassing people affiliated with Solidarity Uganda. Just a few days into the training,
authorities sent police to arrest a family member of local coordinator Ben Ocan. This
Amuru resident told Solidarity Uganda the following: “They are trying to target me to
discourage the community from mobilizing to keep their land. They know I help mobilize
youths and the women for nonviolent action. President Museveni himself has called me up
to State House. When the police arrived in Lakang, my village, the local residents
gathered around me and told them that if they wanted to arrest one person, they would
have to take everybody.”
Unfortunately, police harassment of the local community continues to this day.
Despite this reality, Solidarity Uganda continues to train Amuru residents in nonviolent action to support them in defending their land and resisting forced eviction, an asset so crucial to the Acholi that it is woven into their identity. Together with the WPP partner, nonviolence materials will be disseminated within the communities. The WPP partner shared that he feels committed to continue this nonviolent journey with the community, given that they will keep the fire of nonviolence burning and that the women are part of the team driving this. He is committed to supporting women leaders and helping build partnerships between the men and women activists, so that they can go forward together.
Solidarity Uganda is asking all international supporters to spend a week without sugar and one day without food to demonstrate their solidarity with those who face ongoing
displacement from their food source: the land. More information on this issue can be found here, http://www.solidarityuganda.com, including a petition calling the US to cease financial support of the UPDF (Ugandan military) that can be signed.