It was one of the days that life held a questioning about almost everything to Akello. The earthen mount of the hut that she sat on had developed cracks due to little efforts during building. Akello looked with scrutiny at the unsightly shatter. She then let her eyes roam her entire surroundings; there were little huts all around that of her family’s dwelling. It would take a few walks to get to the next hut—all raggedly built, without the beauty that her young eyes had seen in the past, the past that had known peace, abundance, and joy. In between the little mushroom-like structures were half─naked children playing, and drunken men basking in the squalor of the huge overcrowded dungeon─the Koch-Goma camp.
Akello rushed to the little hut that she shared with her four sisters and youngest brother. The inside was broody and unkempt. Akello felt thwarted; she had always drummed it into the young ones to keep the dingy interior neat. She cast her eyes to the left corner of the hut, to where her meager belongings of books lay, and only disorder met her eyes. Furious, she rushed to the pile, curses forming inside her. The books of knowledge and the weather-beaten magazine were all the link she had to the world that she longed to one day be in. However, no matter how much she put protection on them, her little ones just could not learn to respect. Could they not see? Could they not grasp it? She needed the books! It was good for them as well; they—her siblings, mother, and father─would benefit if she got out of the camp with a good job.
Akello bent to straighten the piles when she heard mother’s voice come in from the outside. Mother, whom others called Paulina, had gone to sell some cassava flour to the little market in the center of the camp. The chalky brown flour had been bought wholesale from a trader from another camp. How such commodity still existed, Akello did not know, for none that she knew engaged in productive farming anymore. Mother was lamenting about the becoming laziness of her children for the little compound lay littered with garbage and animal droppings.
Akello stood up straight while thinking about mother’s talk; Atim, Achola, and Acen were now practically grown up to help with the running of the house. But it was as if something deep inside them had died. The listless manner in which her siblings went about the place sent deep unease into Akello’s being. She knew that they needed schooling. And she knew that when that need was not met, her little siblings must have just given up and gone about without care anymore. Mother was alone and tired. Father only drank, ate, and slept. The yearning that was burning her inside was making her become impatient with her surroundings.
Akello paced about the hut, then reached for the hole on the wall that was a window and peered through it to the outside, taking in as much as she could of the fresh air. However, the enraged feeling inside her only increased. Akello pulled up from the window and sped outside where Mother was now removing firewood from the shelter to build fire.
“Mother, I heard you talk,” Akello blurted out the words.
“Ai,” was all the older woman managed to say.
“Mother, you know I want to help you with the young ones. Father is doing nothing!”
Paulina straightened up and, looked her daughter in the eye. “Your father, he was a good man. Then the camp illness caught him too. And that is why he is the way he is now. I don’t blame him for his drinking and languishing about, doing nothing. What can a man be when all his usefulness has been taken away from him? He can’t dig. the law forbids people to go back to their homesteads to farm. So tell me, child, with a man’s usefulness taken away from him, what else do you expect him to be?”
Akello gave a breath of relieve, and felt the yearning inside her ease as well. She understood her mother. The animosity she felt toward her family at that moment lightened too. Akello watched her mother bend to get another piece of wood; for a moment, she studied the middle-aged woman while thinking how lucky their father was to get a straight-minded woman. Then she started afresh.
“Mother,” she called.
“Eyo?” Paulina again straightened up.
“I always think about the big town, Mother.”
“Akello, my daughter, such dreams you should take away from your head!”
“But, Mother, I am about twenty, and I see no good in this camp!” Akello cried.
“You are right, my daughter. But also, what can your father and I do? We know that a lot is not good here, otherwise you would be with husband and child already.”
’’Getting frantic again, Akello put her arms on her head and exclaimed. “And so there is no solution for me here?”
“Akello, it’s God that gives and decides the fates of us humans.”
“Oh, Mother, I am going to decided my fate for myself now! Am getting away from here! Am going to look for a better life somewhere else.”
“Ai, this child of mine─And where is that?”
Hesitantly, Akello said, “Somewhere, the big town maybe.”
“The big town Gulu!” This time, the older woman blurted with open alarm.
“Mother, don’t be so alarmed!” And it was a cry as well as Akello said these words.
“Your father, will you seek his permission first?”
Akello had by now turned her back to her mother as she answered. “Father will see some good in my decision. Father once said he wished I were a male child. He said he sees the making of a man in me.” When she was finishing with the talk, her voice had turned placid, and a hidden mellow radiated her face.
Paulina turned to face her daughter, amazed. She stifled a smile and then began. “He is ailing. and I’m sure he would want you around him.”
But Akello dismissed her mother’s talk with a little impatience. “My staying around here will do no good to anybody in the family. I need to go away to look for a better life.”
“You always had the yearning for more, my child, and I don’t know if that is good for you. You are young and inexperienced. The world you dream of is not honest as you are. Did you not hear what happened to our relative John’s son, Ocan? Even if he is a man, he came back with the insanity that the town world gives a person.”
Trying to comprehend. her mother’s talk, Akello, a little later rushed with another way of outlook. “What is the difference. Mother? This camp’s filth that has made Father disabled? I am wise and aged already, Mother!” She turned frantic. “Wish me well, Mother. Let me go with a guiltless heart, Mother.”
By now, the older woman was sitting on one of the large pieces of wood. Her hands were on her chin and her expression distant as she thought. Akello would have to get laa maber from her father first. Things were bad for many households in the amassed camp, but Paulina would rather have her children near her than in a far─off land that promised nothing but only luck to those that seeks for better lives.
She then turned to her daughter and spoke with a voice full of confidence. “You know I don’t want you to go, but if you must, then I shower you with every blessing in my heart. Go to your father. I know he will think over too about your safety. But knowing him, he will give you the good blessing, the laa maber.”
A quiet smile crossed Akello’s face. She thanked her mother and rushed back to the hut where her sisters and brother were minding over their own preoccupation. Their resigned bearing made her want to say something harsh to them, but she refrained; she had the good development in her life to concentrate on. She instead made for her pile of books and inspected them adoringly before tenderly laying them back on the floor. She then turned to her siblings with a smile and began. “I am going to the big town and maybe even to the very big one—the city.” And she relished the eagerness that her statement put on the faces of the younger ones. “I am going to search for a better life for me and for us all.”
Achola, the third child in the family, spoke first. “Oh, big sister, will we be able to go to school then?”
“Will we put on better clothes and eat the little breads for breakfast?” Otto’s little but eager voice questioned. Being the last and only male child in the family accredited him much attention.
“We will come to live with you then, big sister?” Atim, the second child, said with a new glow on the face.
And the other two, Acen and Angom, who were known for shyness, rushed and hugged Akello.
Akello felt the restlessness that had engulfed her begin to lessen up. She wished for the happy faces within the little hut that they shared to always last forever in her memory. Surged with a renewed energy, she danced with her little sisters for a while before their eager questions got an answer from her lips. “I will make sure you all go to school. I will give you new lives. And Mother and Father will be happy again.” She jumped anew with the sudden jolt in her memory. “I have not told Father yet. But Mother said he would give me laa maber. I will tell him tomorrow when his head is clear of the waragi he takes. So this is our little secrete for now.”
And when the rest agreed with her, she let out a pleasant sigh. The joy of seeing the new world and changing the life of her family was all that was in her head. She had one special friend in the camp. Ayaa Vicky would sure soon need to know about her new resolve, she decided.
The next day, when the morning sun still carried a pleasant warmth, Akello rushed to her father. He was up and preparing to go to his usual sitting place behind his hut for the morning sunshine. Akello thought she saw surprise take over his face upon seeing her. And that look on his face did temporarily take her aback.
“Father,” she started when he interrupted her.
“You come early to me. Has something gone wrong?”
“No, Father, but I have something to tell you.”
Olobo Otto grunted, his form springing to alert with the perpetual sag on his face giving way to a quizzical look. “Very well,” he said. “Follow me to my sitting place.”
Akello waited patiently for him to carry his weakened form to the rwot onino chair, his precious belonging. The chair had come into the household that one day when Uncle Opio Bangi, who lived at the border of Koch-Goma and the Acholi Palwo village, married his daughter off, and their father, who was the chairperson of the ceremony had to possess the rwot onino chair as culture demanded.
The chair, now beaten and old, was still strong at its bolts. As Akello thought about the chair, she could not help but be grateful for it. She knew that despite the misery that the helplessness had brought on their father, the chair eased the suffering in his body.
Then before the talk began, Achola interrupted with a bowl of porridge for their father. And before he began to sip the content of the bowl, Olobo Otto motioned his daughter to begin.
“Father, I am making twenty soon.”
The elderly man turned thoughtful, his brows crowding as a result. “My child, what is the meaning of your saying?”
“Father, this camp—this place has nothing for me.”
“Child, but what is it that you want to tell me?”
“I am going away!”
Olobo Otto put down the bowl that he was about to lift to his mouth.
“Do not get me wrong.” Akello rushed with the talk in an attempt to explain. “I have a good mind, Father, and this place is no good for one like me. I want to work. I want to make you and Mother and the children happy, our father.”
A slow look of comprehension took over Olobo Otto’s perpetual sad face for a moment. He looked like he was struggling to understand his daughter’s talk as well. “You are young—”
“I will go and stay with the friend of our Aunt Acayo. Her name is Lakeri. I will stay well with her, Father. I know she will treat me well.”
Giving his head hard thinking, Olobo Otto drummed his finger on his head, then as the memory he was searching for sprang out, he began with a fresh start. “John’s son—do you know what the far away town did to him?”
“Oh, Father, Mother told me that too. But I am wise, Father. I will stay away from trouble.”
Olobo Otto pushed the bowl of porridge aside, it having gone cold. The sadness on his face turned to a pained look as he began. “I am old and not well, child. What I should be doing to my children, I can’t do now. And this is pain in any good man’s heart.”
“Father, I want to take away the pain in the family. Please give me laa maber, Father.”
He startedthinking hard again. “I will wish you well, my child. Remember to keep away from bad company. I don’t want to see you like John’s son. He was stubborn. He did not listen to wisdom. And as our people say, the stubborn goat will break and fall from the arm of the granary.” He took his most treasured book, the Bible, and pointed it to her. “You have big dreams. You read big books about the world.’’ He again picked the book where he had placed it on the mount of the hut. “It is not bad that this book here. the book of God has only words of wisdom in it. I pray that you begin to like it too so that the dreams of the world does not mislead you, so you stay on the right path, child.”
Akello smiled, her oval face changing into a charming countenance. “I will not let the family down, Father,” she now said amid chuckles.
When she finally stood up to leave after some irrelevant talk with her father, Akello felt light-headed with a trouble free being. She was a tall woman with a clear dark complexion. A life of worry and poor feeding made her body thin, but with a full bosom. She took mostly after her father, whereas her other siblings could be taken as a mixture of their father and mother.
Home was not far from Koch-Goma camp. Opoka, a lush green village with canopied trees, fertile loam soil, and avariety of wild animals was situated in the middle of Koch-Goma. And Opok was a village with an enviable variety of food, including the popular bush meat before all had to leave for the camp. And as if intentional, the Olobo Ottos found themselves neighbors in the camp with their village mates, the family that Ayaa comes from. The two households had held a tight bond of friendship that was now being challenged by the hardship in the camp. But the two age mates, Akello and Ayaa, had proven that despite trying times, their friendship would always thrive.
Gulu Town, the big town as known by the grass-root people of Acholi land, was originally a sister town of Kitgum District that was split up due to administrative reasons, birthing the New Pader District. All three districts, situated in the Northern part of Uganda had once boasted of rewarding trade and Agriculture. And then the war of the Lord’s Resistance Army came. And all was disrupted with the Government sending the northern population into protected Internally Displaced people’s Camps. This meant that life was hard and the quality of daily existence so poor. Despite the poverty forced on the inhabitants of these Districts, their urban parts―the towns had long recovered from the gruesome atrocities met by the war and life was going on, even flourishing for a few.
Akello was aware of this last bit from the talks of the adults that had the opportunity to visit the towns. And this knowledge was now the pillar to Akello’s dreams.
So that one windy evening, several days after Akello’s resoluteness about leaving the camp for the far off town, Ayaa, the light skinned girl and Akello were on their way to the camp borehole. The hand pumped borehole was a bit crowded that evening. Water containers lined along the outlet to the drainage. Women stood in two or more chatting, while keeping watch for their turn to the water.
And as Akello and Ayaa waited with a few talks here and there, a conversation from a group of women next to them suddenly sifted to their ears.
“Did you hear what happened to Akullu’s husband, Ocaka? He decided to ignore the warning against going back home to dig. The soldiers spotted him and shot him.”
“What? Did you say Ocaka is dead?”
“I tell you he is. They say they mistook him for a rebel.”
“Oh, Labikiriya! He was a man that expressed disapproval to the meager food given from the big offices of the rich.”
“We can’t blame him. This life that we have been thrown in! And now the promises that they make but do not fulfill, Did you hear about the mud stove that they are talking of? They say to help with the firewood problem?”
Akello turned to give a proper look at the source of the talks; they were three women of varying ages. They had formed a circle and were facing each other. The shorter one, in a red head scarf and flowing green dress, seemed the outspoken one, whereas the other two were more in empathy with her as they participated now and then. Akello listened further as they dwelled on Ocaka’s death and the mud stove happening.
“The other time, Otim was about to beat up his wife for acting excited about the stove.”
“Every woman is excited about it, not so?”
“Yes, but the men seems to be getting tired of the empty promises.”
“Yes, but let us see the outcome of their promises this time.”
“Oh, my turn has come. Let me go and pump my water.”
Akello did not know of the young man that they were talking of, even if her heart wept for him. Later, as she told Ayaa of her decision to going to the big town, their talk still dwelt on Ocaka, the killed man. Life was difficult for everyone, but woe was unto those that could not restrain from the tempting forbidden.