A trail of dust billowed in the rearview mirror. Rock jutted into shimmering space. A man riding a bicycle loaded down with an enormous sheaf of grass wobbled as we hurtled by. He regained his balance, then shielded and blinked his burning eyes. I sat in the passenger seat with my arm dangling out the window.
“It depends on the situation,” said the driver, Abraham.
“This situation!” said Olara from the back seat. “We are talking of this precise situation, right Baruch?” Why was he asking me? Shoot, I didn’t know. I was just along for the ride.
The driver shrugged.
The army barracks was an array of round metal huts. They were shaped just like the villagers’ huts of mud and thatch, except they were made of metal, glinting in the sun. Two men in threadbare camo sat in the shade of an acacia tree, guns propped against their knees.
“Thank you, sir. Hello, sir,” Olara said, as the two soldiers struggled to their feet and wandered over to the pickup truck. I smiled at the skinny man. A lumpy scar ran from his right temple to above his left eyebrow. He leaned into my window, yellowed eyeballs pivoting in their sockets.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked, resting his gaze on me. I let Olara answer the questions from the back of the truck. I waited to hear how he would explain our purpose for being here, as I wasn’t entirely sure myself. Also I was still trying to trace the parameters of people’s sensitivities. Olara didn’t bother with any explanation at all. He asked if there were four men who could ride in the back of the truck for security.
The man mumbled something about “facilitation.”
“Of course,” Olara said. “15,000 shillings per man.” That came to about 8 US dollars and was apparently a generous facilitation because the man’s eyebrows arched, wrinkling his scar dramatically.
We tore out of there with four soldiers hanging on for dear life in the back of the truck, weaving onto the access roads to avoid the corrugation and the trenches in the middle of the road, then veering back over the ridges built up by wind and traffic: mostly bicycles and pedestrians, but every hour or so, a development worker in a Land Rover or Toyota HiLux pickup truck or semi-trailer hauling commodities and supplies to Kenya or South Sudan. Everyone was in a very happy mood.
In general it was against company protocol to have weapons on board, let alone soldiers; you can make yourself a target, and if things go badly, you might still be a target later when you don’t have soldiers in the back. There were bright colored decals on the windows with pictures of guns with an X through them to indicate the policy. But apparently the Jie and the Dodoth warriors were somewhat more active than usual this Christmas season. So as Abraham said, the policy was situational. And as Olara said, this was the situation. The US State Department advised Americans to avoid travel to this region given the “frequent insecurity.”
Olara burst into laughter as we passed by two naked teenaged Jie Karamojong boys standing by the road waving. “Is it true that if a man gets an erection, they cut it?” He asked Abraham. Abraham’s father was Jie.
Abraham shook his head. “These are just stories invented by people who cannot imagine being surrounded by naked women on a daily basis.”
“Then they are very disciplined,” said Olara.
“Yes, they are disciplined.”
A hundred yards off the road, slender, silhouetted figures, naked but for the bright checkered cloth tied at the shoulder, leaned into the wind, gripping their staffs, cattle spread out in front of them. Olara took it upon himself to explain how other these people were. “You know,” he said. “Us, we organize space and time in our heads with roads and clocks, segmented in kilometers and hours. But these people you see here, they don’t care about our roads and clocks.”
He was explaining this to me because I was a visitor from overseas. I worked for an NGO in the United States that specialized in conflict prevention. I was supposed to come to Uganda for a scoping and a baseline for an early warning project. Karamoja wasn’t part of the plan, but I’d heard it was the Wild West and I was a huge Louis L’Amour fan. I asked Olara, who worked on food security issues, if they could take me for a tour. He said OK, no problem. If he had signaled any reservations, I would have dropped it just like that. Done. Any hint of reservation and I’d have called the whole thing off.
“If you find the Jie or the Dodoth walking perpendicular, parallel, or along a road, it is nothing other than pure coincidence, isn’t it?” He looked to Abraham for affirmation. Abraham ignored him, so he continued. “The Jie and the Dodoth, they don’t care about administrative boundaries. When the soothsayer looks inside the goat’s intestines, sees a blood clot, and says it is time to go, they go. They take their families and go, wandering across the borders of Sudan and Kenya, back and forth across Kaabong, Kotido, Moroto, and Abim. They are heavily armed but are not at war with the state. They don’t care about the state. They have no designs on the state, one way or the other. Isn’t it, Abraham?”
Abraham shrugged. “You’re the political anthropologist in this Toyota HiLux.”
“Why don’t they care?” I said.
Abraham liked that question. “Exactly why don’t we, the Jie, care? Hah? Why not?”
Olara said, “Anyway, the government, lacking economic or strategic interest in Karamoja, only half-heartedly engages with the bare minimum in the way of health, education, infrastructure, and security.”
“They have bigger fish to fry,” said Abraham.
I knew about those fish. It was my job to know about those bigger fish. Farther south and farther west, there were gangs and militias and traditional kingdoms, all vying for land, revenue, and political power. The government stayed very busy with their sticks and carrots, wedge politics playing one group against another to keep an opposition coalition from emerging, dolling out concessions and development initiatives here, cracking down on protest there, the occasional suspicious death of a troublesome general. It was a complicated game. Karamoja, however, was not complicated. Those people and their problems posed no threat to Kampala. Kampala was a million miles away.
I slipped my money pouch and my passport under my seat. If we got ambushed, I wanted to avoid losing that stuff. According to Olara, when the Karamojong ambushed, they didn’t take your car. They had no need for your car. Cars are only good on roads. All they wanted was your guns and your money.
Back in the United States anyone who cared about Uganda was still talking about the Acholi and the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA commander, Joseph Kony, was led by the Holy Spirit to abduct and mutilate thousands of boys and girls in his rebellion against President Museveni. If they thought you might report them, they cut off your buttocks so you couldn’t sit on a bike. They cut off your lips so you couldn’t talk to the authorities. There was a sign in Pader district commemorating twenty-seven civilians who were killed and cooked up in a pot. They were about to be eaten when the military rolled in and put a halt to the abomination. Joseph Kony had eyes in the sky, so he always knew when you were thinking of escape. Then he had your best friend kill you with a machete. Since 2006, though, the LRA had left Uganda for greener pastures in Sudan, Congo, and Central African Republic.
There were a few other conflicts and potential conflicts that people talked about. But nobody was talking about the Karamojong. Several hundred people were killed every year in Karamoja. They were killed in cattle raids. Soldiers were killed when they tried to stop cattle raids. Travelers were killed in ambushes. But no one talked about conflict there. Conflict in Karamoja didn’t hurt anybody but the Karamojong and the occasional traveler.
There was a loud knocking on the roof of the truck. Abraham put on the brakes, and we skidded to a stop at the edge of a dry riverbed. After a moment the soldier said, “OK, we go.” We started up again.
“We can trust these soldiers,” Olara said.
“You know them?” I asked.
Abraham smiled. “You can have confidence in them because they are skinny.” The two of them laughed.
“They cannot be corrupt if they are skinny,” Olara explained.
“Could the opposite be true?” I said. “A fat man cannot be tempted by corruption because he is already fat.”
That stopped them short. “He has a point,” said Abraham. “A skinny man may have more potential for corruption than a fat man.”
“So can we trust these soldiers or not?” I asked. We all gazed out the windows at the scrub and scattered trees.
Then Olara said, “Well the captain is skinny, as we have said. But the other one is a bit fat. Did you notice?”
“The one with the orange cap? Yes, I noticed that he was a bit fat,” said Abraham.
“So I think we can trust them,” said Olara.
“Yes, I am sure we can have confidence in them.”
“Good,” I said. These guys were a couple of jokesters.
The roads in Kotido town were like wide rivers of sand rolling between short, blocky buildings with mud plaster walls like Wyatt Earp’s Tombstone. We pulled into the district headquarters, where arms collection was taking place that day. Several Karamojong men stood outside, each with an AK-47 to exchange for an ox-plough, a bag of flour, and a certificate of appreciation.
“You see those bangles?” Olara asked.
“On their arms. You see them?”
The Karamojong men had short, braided hair, scarring patterned on their chests, and large ivory bangles pushed up above their elbows. “Each bangle represents a number of cows. Those elders are very rich. In a community meeting, if he wishes to interrupt in the middle of someone else’s speech, he just shakes those bangles.”
“They can just interrupt?” I asked.
“Yes, they can just interrupt.”
“Wow, I need to find some bangles like that,” I said.
“So you can interrupt?”
“Yes, so I can interrupt anyone I please.” I was starting to get my stride with these guys. Before long, they’d think I was a real card.
I followed behind Abraham as he greeted all the men gathered there, one by one. Narrow tonal variation of throaty vowels strung together with sharp consonants and every several beats, a startling jump in the interval of the tone. Subtle emotive shades rippled across their faces as they spoke to one another. It was like listening to the birds.
Meanwhile an official with a clipboard was busy jotting notes. He took their guns, fiddled around with them, and stacked them in a pile. Each time, he filled out a certificate of appreciation, while the Jie warrior watched.
“It has been very dry,” the moderately fat soldier told me. “When there is water for the cows, they bring many more guns to the collection center. Look, these guns are old and rusty. Worthless.” He spit through his teeth. “Help me load these in the truck,” he said. So I did. The official didn’t seem to mind as we loaded thirty guns into the back of the truck.
“What are you doing?” Olara asked. I shrugged.
“To be destroyed,” explained the soldier.
Abraham was not happy, not one bit.
We stopped for lunch. I ordered kalo, a black-colored millet paste, and a side of malaquang, a sauce with groundnuts and crushed greens.
The soldiers were yucking it up. They laughed at everything anybody said. They bought everybody a couple rounds of beer, using up their facilitation money. I bought everyone another. Olara pulled out small a small bundle of leaves and passed it around. “Mairungi,” he explained to me. I had never heard of mairungi. But the soldiers were delighted. After chewing on it for a while, my ears were buzzing and everybody was a lot funnier. Abraham stood outside, talking on his phone.
Back in the truck, the soldiers hung on for dear life as Abraham jammed the clutch and shifted gears, spinning tires and veering around obstacles.
“You’re a fast driver,” I observed. “Real fucking fast.”
“To avoid ambush,” said Olara in the backseat.
“That’s good,” I said. “Keep going fast, then,” and laughed. I wished I could get Abraham to talk. He hadn’t spoken since we put those guns in the truck. Since I put those guns back there. I hoped he wasn’t mad at me. “Maybe those soldiers aren’t to be trusted after all?” Anyway, it’s not like I had a real choice. I don’t think I had a real choice.
“Those guns are going to the Dodoth,” Abraham finally said. The Dodoth were the Karamojong who lived to the north of the Jie. The Dodoth and the Jie regularly raided one another. Sometimes they teamed up against the Turkana or against the Potok or the Matheniko. But generally speaking, they raided one another.
“Being a soldier can present business opportunities,” Olara said.
“Fuckers,” Abraham said.
“So we make them leave,” I said. “We stop the truck and tell them, get the hell out. Then we go on our way.” But even slightly under the energizing influence of mairungi, as I was, I knew that was no real option. They’d just lock us up for arms dealing. Boy, that would be a pisser. Wonder what my boss would say about that. Wonder what my wife would think about that. I’d have to be careful not lose my wits in the midst of this avoidable predicament. Neither Olara nor Abraham even acknowledged the suggestion. Abraham looked at me, though, for a second. Then looked back through the windshield at the road ahead.
“Those guns probably don’t even fire,” I said, trying to make everybody feel better. Hell if I knew anything about the mechanics of a firearm.
“The Dodoth are very clever,” Abraham said. “They are very clever.” He turned off the main road. The soldiers began pounding on the roof. Abraham yelled out the window: “Just a small detour. To show the American an authentic Jie village.” That shook them up a little, if the accelerated banging on the roof was any indication. Abraham stopped the car. The captain’s face was thrust into my window again.
“Look, sir.” Abraham said. “That is this man’s mandate.” He put his hand on my arm. “Mister Baruch has come all the way from Washington, DC, to visit this Jie village. We have requested for you to accompany us, and you agreed. Now you are saying we cannot go? Is the facilitation not enough?”
The soldiers talked to each other in Acholi. They waved their arms around and shuffled their feet. Little puffs of dust filtered and refracted the light when they moved. Olara leaned out the window to his waist. “Come, it will only be a moment. We will get some more mairungi from the soothsayer. Then we can continue to Kaabong.” Grumbling, the men climbed back into the truck. “Afoyo,” Olara said to them. “Afoyo matek.”
Olara offered me a lesson in linguistics. “In Acholi,” he said, “the word for thank you is the same word you use to greet and to say goodbye.”
“Afoyo,” I said. He smiled a big toothy grin. But language was more than just words. Language was also the paralinguistics: the volume, the cadence, the distance, the grunts, the breathing, the gestures, the posture, duration and depth of eye contact, and how all those things interacted with the words and with the context. Language was what happened in the space between the subject and the subject. Wow, this mairungi was really something.
“How about other words?” I said.
“I tye nining means how are you. Atye maber means I am fine. Wa nen means see you later.”
“That’s great,” I said. “That’s wonderful.”
“Acholi is a Luo language,” Olara said. Your president, Barack Obama, is Luo, just like me.”
“Praise God. The Luo have taken over the world,” I said.
As we resumed our journey, Olara said, “May I ask what you are doing, Abraham?”
“Getting some more mairungi,” he said.
Three hundred huts made of sticks and thatch. Crowds of children with earrings and feathers and headbands and necklaces. Everyone came running out to see us as if we had just emerged into the world of life from some place of shadows and mystery. Everyone was happy that we had made it home. There was the sound of chatter and laughter. Also the sound of cattle breathing and groaning and shuffling somewhere just out of sight. The children embraced Abraham and gathered around the truck. That was when the soldiers first realized that Abraham was Jie. They smiled and nodded and scratched themselves excessively.
The crowd of children parted as an elderly man came through. He carried a small wooden stool and a calabash pipe that was larger than the stool. He chattered away, seemed to be posing provocative questions and then startling himself with clever interruptions and jokes. He walked in a wavy line, every step seemed only loosely connected in sequence to the last. Inexorably, however, he wound up approaching the group of us standing uncertain, next to the pickup truck. He placed his hand on the heads of children as he passed. They gazed up at him with love.
Abraham and the old man spoke at length. The old man turned his face to me and I felt warm inside. He also nodded respectfully to Olara. The old man did not acknowledge the existence of the solders. They scratched their palms and shifted their weight from one foot to the other. They held their guns close to their bodies.
Abraham took off his shoes and handed them to the old man. The old man flipped them and watched them fall. Then he sat down on his haunches and studied them at close range. He looked off in the direction that each shoe was pointing. He traced some lines and arcs in the sand with his finger. Olara whispered to me, “Normally they cut open a goat and study the intestines. But sometimes they do this with the shoes.”
Abraham pointed at me and Olara. The old man nodded.
Next thing I knew we were off again. This time Abraham was driving real slow. “What was that about?” I said.
“Getting directions,” was all Abraham would say.
When the sun starts to go down in Karamoja, the landscape turns a mottled reddish gray. Supposedly there were elephants out there. At dusk your eyes play tricks on you. You see darker shades of dark in the darkness, and you think it might be an elephant. All I saw for sure was a snake slithering across the road. The sun turned bright red as it lightly touched the horizon, sending eddies of color across the sky. From the smell of the air, somewhere there was a brushfire.
“You’ll be OK,” said Abraham. “Don’t worry.”
An AK-47 doesn’t sound like a firecracker. And it doesn’t have the big boom of a shotgun or the pow pow pow of a nine millimeter. It goes off in short mean bursts, three or four pops at a time. Abraham slammed on the breaks without the clutch, and the truck stalled out. The soldiers were yelling to one another in Acholi. In the road ahead, a small naked boy was crouching, his knees to his ears, keeping his center of gravity low, the gun cradled in the crook of his arm, sighting straight and true. Abraham pushed me down as far as I could go. He yelled something to the boy in the Jie language, and the boy fired his gun then sprinted behind a rise in the ground. From the sides, we were pelted with rocks. The soldiers fired their guns in all directions.
“They’re just kids,” I said from between my knees. I didn’t mean we shouldn’t shoot them dead. I was just surprised that they were kids, that’s all. After that I tried to think of something heroic to say, something that I could relate later when I told this story to my friends at the Gables, down Route 41 past the city limits, where we used to go drink beer and talk smack. I couldn’t think of anything to say.
Olara, however, was shouting: “Afoyo, Obama. Afoyo matek. The Luo have taken over the world!” He said that over and over. “The Luo have taken over the world!” I think he might have been crying while he screamed those absurdities. His voice cracked and kind of choked as he said that over and over again.
“Calm down,” Abraham said to him, exasperated. Around these parts, everyone’s been ambushed. That mairungi, though, can make you lose your grip. He opened his door and stepped into the open. He yelled words in the Jie language, his own language. He yelled out to the kids. I’m not sure what he yelled. But he yelled a long string of words with sharp consonants and throaty vowels. Then a thin, wavery voice replied from the rocks. Abraham responded, his voice heavy with emotion. Remorse? The boy responded a second time.
“He says, you drop all the guns and they will let us go,” Abraham said to the soldiers.
The captain jumped down from the bed of the pickup truck, shoved Abraham against the side of the truck and pressed the barrel of his weapon against his chest. “How do they know about these guns?” he said. “How do those little children know about these thirty guns, Karamojong?”
Olara started speaking in Acholi. He spoke quick, earnest words. He moved his hands when he spoke and inclined his head respectfully, intimately. Everyone stared at him, transfixed as he weaved his thoughts and made his case. Olara had become a soothsayer. After he was done speaking, everyone was silent for a moment, waiting. Now was the moment when someone either would or wouldn’t get shot.
The captain made up his mind. “You tell those boys that we go now. If we see them as we drive, we will kill them. We will kill you and you and you. Then we will go and report the ambush. Then a battalion of soldiers will go and take revenge on the village where we stopped on our way. You tell them.”
I’m not sure what Abraham told them. But after he was done speaking, he climbed back in the truck and said, “OK, we go.”
We took the soldiers to Kaabong, where presumably they sold the thirty guns to the Dodoth and went home $400 richer. That night we stayed at a motel in a compound, owned by one of the Kaabong district members of parliament. I sat out in the parking lot alone that night, after the generator was shut off, and everything was pitch black. I lay on my back in the gravel and looked at the sky. The stars dusted the sky, more stars than I had ever seen. Slowly turning my head, I could see two or three shooting stars at any one time. Everything was very far away.