by Achiro Patricia Olwoch
Achola is seated by a small swamp. This is no ordinary swamp; it has come about during a period of two weeks of non-stop rain which has flooded the land below the village where Achola lives. There are lots of flies around her because this swamp also has all the faeces and garbage from the village. It is a dumping ground. Achola does not seem to mind about the filth around her and she is not bothered when a house fly rests on her nose. She just chases it with a wave of her hand.
The truth is that Achola’s village is not a village anymore. It is a camp – a simple collection of small makeshift huts in a large open area. The occupants like to call it their village though, because it is the only home that they now know. Each hut houses a family and is so small that a grown man cannot stand in it. There is one communal bathroom in the middle of the camp that serves almost thirty households, with latrines filling up faster than they can be dug. There is no room to fit a bed and each hut can only fit two small mattresses on the floor. The hut is the living-, dining- and bedroom all in one. Most of the time, the occupants are forced to eat outside their huts be¬cause of the lack of space inside. There are hundreds of these little huts with only about twenty centimeters between one hut and the next. The children hardly have space to play and make do with the open spaces near the bore¬holes and feeding area.
Achola can see the trucks from a distance and she stands up to get a better look. She thinks that she is seeing badly when they disappear behind a hill. Achola shakes her head and sits back down. ‘‘It must be a dream,’’ she tells herself. Just as she is starting to believe that, the trucks appear and this time they are clear. Achola claps her hands. They are the food relief trucks heading towards her village. She has to hurry and tell her mother. Achola has to be early to be among the first people in the line. That is the only way that she can guarantee that she will get some food.
“My child, is everything alright?” her mother asks weakly.
“The trucks have come, Mama, I want to be the first in queue,”Achola re¬plies without looking at her mother.
“Do not forget to take the right papers,” her mother says, gathering as much energy as she can so that she can sit up.
Achola turns and sees her struggle.
“No Mama,” she says, but her mother insists and sits up.
She looks at Achola and has a serious look on her face. Under the dim light in the hut her mother says, “You cannot fail. If you do, we will die.”
Life has not always been like this for Achola. She has not always sat beside a swamp covered with flies and she has not always been hungry and waiting for the relief trucks to bring food. In fact, it is not just Achola but the other people in the village as well. They have not always been sad and hungry. Begging and dependence are things that they were not used to in the past. They used to be a hard-working and peaceful people. Achola remembers living with her mother, father and three brothers in the village at the edge of the forest. They were one happy family and they never lacked anything. They had a whole home¬stead with three big huts and a little one in the centre. That was their granary and Achola remembers that it was always full of food. Her mother and father and two older brothers always worked really hard each time that they went to the shamba. Achola always stayed at home with another one of her brothers who was supposed to look after her. He was only seven-years-old and she was four. Their mother always left them enough food and water to last until she got back from the shamba. Their village was very safe, so there was no worry of anyone hurting or stealing the young children.
Achola’s father was the chief of the village and he loved his people. He was a wise leader and a good organizer. He introduced his village to the idea of saving up their money and crops for a rainy day. It was normal for every compound to have food in the granary, but he wanted them to have food that they would have over and above that. Thus he encouraged them to plant more crops than usual, and when they were harvested he asked them to keep more food away for the dry season than they put in the granary for everyday use. When they sold their crops, he encouraged them to open up accounts in the local bank in the town so that they could save up their money. Not many people opted for this because the
town was quite a distance from the bank. They preferred to keep their money some place safe in their homesteads; like a small money granary.
The best part of everything in her village was when there was a celebratory feast. There was always lots of food to eat and all the village came together to celebrate. Parties were always fun. The people were spoilt for choice as to where to go. Whether it was the birth of a child or a wedding party, the celebrations was just as big and just as nice. There were sad times too, like when someone died. People cried and everyone was very unhappy. There was still a lot to eat, but the mood was not as nice. Achola remembers all these things like they have all happened the day before.
It was late in the night and they awoke to the sound of gun shots. People were screaming and there were lots of huts on fire. Achola and her brothers woke up and ran into their parents’ hut.
“Mama, what is happening?” a frightened Achola asked as she ran into her mother’s arms.
Her brothers were also terrified and they ran to where their mother was. Their father started to dress quickly. He wanted to go and find out what was happening to his village.
“Please be careful’’, her mother said as she held their children in her arms. They all huddled together to wait.
Just as he reached the door, her father heard footsteps and he stepped back towards his family and closed the door behind him. Not too long afterwards there was a loud bang on the door. The person on the other side was ordering them to open it. The chief stood back and gestured to his family to be quiet. He hoped that these intruders would leave. Instead the banging got louder, until they finally kicked the door in. A man came rushing in and he had a gun which he pointed at them. He ordered the chief to step outside. When the chief would not budge, the man turned to point the gun at Achola, her mother and brothers. He again insisted that the chief got out or he would kill him and his whole family. There were other men who entered and soon the whole hut was full of these violent strangers. They wore the same colour army uniform and had identical
scarves and bandanas tied across their foreheads instead of army caps. Most of them had dreadlocks.
Achola saw her father stand in front of the man and his gun as he tried to shield his family.
“Who are you people and what do you want?” he demanded to know.
“I am the one asking questions here!” the man shouted back at him.
As calmly as he could, her father continued to ask, “What is the meaning of all this?”
“Enough! Get out, NOW!” the man shouted even louder. He was getting an¬gry and he started walking toward her father as if to hit him with his gun. Acho¬la’s eldest brother ran forward to protect his father from harm. The man with the gun hit her brother on his head and he fell screaming, onto the floor. He had a deep cut on his head. He writhed for a while and then he closed his eyes slowly as he breathed his last. He was dead. There was a scuffle as her father ran to his dead son’s side. Her mother set Achola aside as fast as she could and ran towards her husband and son. The man with the gun then hit her father in the stomach and he fell over. Achola and her remaining two brothers stayed still and huddled together in the corner. If the wall could open up, they would have entered it. Achola closed her eyes. She thought that maybe if she did not see anything then it was not really happening.
“My child… you have killed my child”, she heard her mother wailing.
There was another loud gunshot. One of the men had shot into the roof to silence them. Her father was then dragged outside along with her two brothers. They fought and screamed the whole time. Achola was holding onto one of her brothers as they took him away. One of the men kicked her and she fell against the wall and she hit her head. That was the last that she could remember; she had blacked out.
Achola awoke to hear her mother crying as one of the men violently raped her. Achola sat up and crawled to the furthest corner in the room. She stayed there, crying and burying her face in her hands. When he was done ravishing her mother, the man began kicking her even though she begged him to stop.
“You thought you were untouchable, eh?” he said, even as he fastened his trousers and continued to kick her.
When her mother could cry no more, she rolled herself into a ball. The man spat on her and gave Achola a sly smile before leaving the hut. He was a young man that they knew from the village. Achola sniffed. She could smell smoke. The hut they were in was on fire! She ran to her mother, lifting her by her arms and dragged her from the hut. All around them the homestead was burning. The granary had already burnt to the ground.
The next morning everyone who had escaped the attacks gathered in an open space in the forest. They were now homeless and very frightened and hungry. Their homes had been burnt down and their domestic animals and poultry had been taken. Whatever they were wearing on their backs was all that they had left. The rebels were everywhere and no one was safe.
Now that they could not farm anymore, they had to depend on the free food that the relief trucks brought them. They did not have the luxury to pick what food they wanted to eat, in what amount or when they wanted to eat it. They tried planting vegetables at the entrance of the camp, but there was only so much that they could plant. For a people who had been used to owning vast pieces of land and large granaries filled with food, this was as good as death itself.
Achola is now 12 years old. Eight years have gone by since the war started. All she can think about now is her little brother and her mother. Her moth¬er gave birth after their father was taken away. When Orach was born, Achola heard the midwife tell her mother, “No matter what, he is still your child.”
She said that because Achola’s mother would not hold him after he was born.
Right now the rains are falling hard and even the little crop that some people have planted around the camp is rotting underground. The people are starving. The roads have been washed away and now it takes a long while before the trucks get to the camp. They tried to use helicopters to drop food but because most of the ground is covered in water, the food got wet and was spoiled. The trucks of food that were sent out were stuck on the bad roads for days. They could not
move forward or backwards. Medical supplies in the camps are running out and the growing number of illnesses is alarming.
Since her mother is too ill, Achola has to go all by herself to get food from the relief trucks. Their hut is at the end of the camp and the food is being served at the other end in an open field. Achola has to move fast now that the news of the trucks is spreading throughout the camp. The other people are also hurrying to get there early so that they can be among the first in queue.
Achola holds her containers as firmly as she possibly can and joins the other people along the way. It is a battle that can only be won by the fastest. There are so many people and they are all pushing and trying to run faster than those around them. Some people elbow others or trip them. In the commotion, Achola is hurt. She falls down twice and hurts her knee.
No one around her pays any attention and they all run past her, some of them jumping over her. Many a child has been known to be trampled to death in such a scuffle as this. Achola stays down for while so that she can compose herself. When she does get up, she cannot run as fast as she was running before. Her mother’s words echo in her head: “If you do not bring back food, we will all die of hunger. You must not fail, Achola.” Meanwhile, many people have now gathered at the serving point and the trucks have arrived and parked. There are security men keeping the people at bay and ordering them to get into a queue before they can be served.
The serving begins and the people at the front can already see that the food is little. In the past they got as much as a sack of beans and a sack of maize as well as a ten liter tin of oil. Now they are lucky if they are given a small bag of rice, a bag of flour, a bag of beans and a small tin of oil. This time, there are no tins of oil. There are small two liter bottles, a bag of flour and half a bag of beans. Some people start to complain. This food will not last very long.
Achola finally arrives and she finds that the queue is so long that she cannot even see the people serving the food. The sun has now come up and it is quite hot. Some people are seated on their containers because they are too weak to stand.
Agatha is in charge of the food distribution. She walks through the queues, looking at her watch and then at the people in the queues. Then she looks at the food in the trucks and back to the people in the lines. Each time that she looks at her watch, Agatha appears to be impatient, but when she looks at the food remaining and the number of people in the lines, the look of impatience turns to worry. The food will not be enough and the people are too many. There are people who will die of hunger.
Just then, there is commotion at the serving area. There is an old man at the front of the queue who refuses to leave even after he has been served his share. He is weak and frail and is asking for more food. The man serving tells him that they cannot give him any more food. The old man pleads, saying that his family is sick and they cannot come and queue up. It does not matter what the old man says after that, the serving man will not give him more. The policy is that they can only serve the people in queue. His family will have to come for themselves. If they gave everyone their family’s share then the food would have already been fin¬ished by now. There is so much pushing that the old man starts to get scared and moves away.
There is panic at the back of the queue where Achola is. Word is circulating that the food is finished. The crowd starts pushing toward the truck and the security men have to hold them back. Achola is worried; she is thinking about her moth¬er and her brother. The queue is getting shorter; there is hope that everyone will get some food even if there is not much left. The beans are finished now and people are getting only flour. Achola is even more worried now; her heart is beating very fast. There are only about twenty people in front of her. Surely she will get something to take home to her mother. At the very least she should get flour that she can use to make porridge.
The serving stops all of a sudden. There is no more food and the people are told to leave and go home. Agatha promises to be back soon with more food. “I will come back as soon as I can”, she tells them without even looking at them.
By now, Achola is realizing what is really happening and she starts to run after the truck. She is crying and mucus is flowing from her nose. The truck
slows down and Agatha sees Achola from her window. She gestures to her driver to increase speed. She does not look back except once, when she sees Achola on her knees, searching for any remains on the ground where the men were serving.
Achola is crying hysterically now. She can hardly see the few beans she is picking up. She has no food to take home. She is tired and depressed and afraid of going home. She stops at the swamp and sits. She looks around her, sees nothing but filth. Achola puts her head down. It is throbbing from the hot sun. She falls asleep and wakes when the sun is going down. She has to hurry back home. The government soldiers will be patrolling the camps and they do not like to see people walking about at night. They will not be happy with her and they have been known to lock up people who they think are spies, even if they happen to be little children.
She tries to run, but her knee is throbbing even worse than it before. She can only walk with a limp and it is a long while before she actually reaches the camp. Achola hears moaning, it is not uncommon to see people moan in the camps. Somebody dies almost every day. The moaning increases as she approaches her family’s hut. She freezes. She drops the empty container and runs inside. People have gathered around and the hut is full. Achola pushes past them.
She takes one look at the bundle of wrapped clothes in the middle of the room and she drops on her knees. Orach has died. Her mother sits motionless next to the body. She looks like she has been crying all day. Two women are sup¬porting her on either side. She looks up and sees Achola and holds out her hands to her. Achola walks straight into her mother’s arms and buries her head in her chest. She cannot help but cry.
“I am sorry,” Achola manages to say.
“Sshh,” her mother says.
“I failed, Mama, I have failed Orach.”
This time her mother does not answer. She is numb and she is staring at the bundle beside her. She is so weak that she can barely hold Achola in her arms anymore. The two women want her to rest and they take Achola away from her.
“We will bury him, you need to rest,” one of them tells her.
Achola still wants to remain with her mother, but the women will not let her. One of them gestures to another person in the crowd to come and take her away. Her mother lies down slowly. She is too weak to cry, but anyone can see that she is mourning inside.
In the camp, when someone dies, they do not hold long vigils because there is no food to feed everybody. So early the next day, Achola accompanies Orach to his final resting place along with a handful of other people from the camp. The burial ground is near the swamp at the edge of the camp; the place where she always goes to think. Her mother is too weak to go and bury Orach. Achola believes that the death of her brother has made her mother even weaker. Achola lets her tears flow freely as she sees them lower Orach into the small hole which is to be his grave. He has lost so much weight that he looks like a 4-year-old child. Achola buries her head in her palm.
The next few days are very slow. The villagers have contributed a small amount of food. . Sometimes her mother refuses to eat. She tells Achola that she is not hungry. Achola knows that this is not true. . She does not want to let her only remaining child die of hunger. Soon all they have left is porridge. They share one cup a day between the two of them. By now the people in the big city have begun to worry about the people in the camps. It is on the news on every single TV and radio station in the country. Even those people who did not ever care about the war in the North are moved when they see the starving people.
While everyone around her returns to their normal lives, Agatha is never the same again. She cannot get Achola out of her mind. Normally she is able to go to the camp and leave again without feeling a thing. She has never felt attached to anyone or let her emotions get in the way of her work. That day when she drove away from Achola has left her breaking inside. Seeing Achola on her knees scratching for food broke her heart. She knows that there is nothing that she could have done, yet she feels terrible. The whole journey back home she thought about that weeping girl on her bleeding knees.
Achola reminds her of her daughter who is about the same age. Seeing Achola¬
made her picture her own child begging for food. Agatha is worried that she will not find Achola alive the next time she goes to distribute food. She does not know whether there is still food in the stores to distribute anyway.
There is a rumor going around the camp that the trucks will be back with food. It is almost three days since Achola has eaten the last porridge and she can barely stand up straight. Instead, she crawls on all fours just to get around the hut. She sits in a corner and puts her head in her palm. She feels so faint, almost like she is floating on air. Her mother coughs and turns on her side. She is breathing heavily and all Achola can do is stare in her direction. Her mother coughs again and stretches herself out. She breathes her last.
Achola starts to cry. She cannot get rid of the lump in her throat. She is crying but no sound is coming out of her mouth. She starts to crawl slowly toward her mother. Her joints hurt. She cannot see clearly. The room is dark, but she knows that her mother is lying in the middle of the hut. She calls out to her; no answer. It is almost dawn and Achola can hear the sound of the trucks. She thinks she is dreaming. She has now reached her mother and she lies down next to her. She is cold. She slowly closes her eyes and puts her hands around her mother.
The trucks come to a stop and the food is off-loaded. This time there is enough food for everyone. The people are excited; they do not fight to be at the front of the queue. They just stand where they can and slowly move forward.
Agatha is amazed. She has never seen them this organized before.
The serving goes on peacefully. Achola is helped to the feeding area by an elderly woman. They walk slowly, Achola almost being dragged along. Achola reaches the truck and falls on her knees. Agatha runs towards her and catches her just as she is about to collapse. Achola takes one look at Agatha and smiles as she tries to talk. She says slowly, “I am on time today…” Then she closes her eyes and lies limp in Agatha’s arms.
Achiro Patricia Olwoch hails from Gulu, in Northern Uganda. She has written four books to date and is in the process of self-publishing her first book, A War Song. Achiro bases her writing on real life situations, but adds a twist of imag¬ination to each and every story. She writes because she would like to make a difference in her community through the different stories that she has to tell.
Achiro has also written for film and the stage. One of these plays was produced on a radio show in Los Angeles. She presently writes freelance for In Kampala online magazine and bspirit, the SN Brussels inflight magazine. Most recently, Achiro’s was nominated onto the International Women Playwright Conference’s management committee.