The Acholi Quarters is a slum village and granite quarry on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda. The Acholi people who are packed into this hillside come from northern Uganda where the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) spent years terrorizing villages and destroying lives as they attempted to overthrow the Ugandan government. Many of the people who escaped the LRA alive were displaced into camps where they lost all forms of livelihood and identity. They became reliant on NGO’s and foreign aid to provide for their needs. Yet, even in the refuge of these camps, they were still vulnerable to the attacks of the LRA. Mortality rates in these camps were high as they were also made susceptible to diseases such as malaria and AIDs.
In an effort to make a new start and to get away from the reach of the war, many decided to relocate to the capital city. In Kampala, they hoped to find new and better opportunities that would enable them to send provisions back to their families who stayed behind. What they found, however, was that those opportunities were scarce. Instead, they ended up in the Acholi Quarters; hammering, chiseling, sorting, and hauling rocks in order to earn a meager wage that would barely afford them the ability to even remain in these slums. Even the children, who have never known anything different, would work alongside their parents in the quarry. This became the new normal for the Acholi people. Hopeless and feeling trapped.
They couldn’t go back home because the war persisted for many years. Even when the LRA was forced out of northern Uganda, they didn’t feel like they could return because their attempt to provide for their families in the city had failed. They had lost face and believed they would not even be welcome back in their villages. And even if they would be allowed to return, they could not afford the transportation to get there.
As bleak as this picture seems, it is actually far worse beneath the surface. The heaviest weight the Acholi people have to bare is not the granite in the quarry, but the burden they carry internally from what they experienced, saw, and (in many cases) were forced to do by the LRA.
When the LRA came through villages, they would abduct children out of homes and schools. These children were forced to learn how to kill and then were sent back into their own villages to commit atrocities to their very own families. Some children were able to hide in the bush from the LRA for months, but many were eventually discovered and then programmed as soldiers.
While most people enjoy watching the beauty of the sun setting, that is not the case for the Acholi people. For them, sunsets brought only fear and pain. An Acholi man named Francis explained that gunfire in the distance actually comforted them as they made their beds in the bush because they knew where the rebels were located and they could tell where they were headed. For a brief moment they could even ease the tension with a little light-hearted humor about the gunman’s ability to hit his target based on the sounds they heard. Silence, he said, was terrifying because it made them painfully aware of the dangers that lurked in the dark and left them alone to be haunted by their own thoughts.
As the war subsided, the grown boys and men who were abducted as children started making their way back into society. Some returned to the northern towns and camps close to home, others made their way to the Acholi Quarters. Their innocence had been stripped away and neither they nor the people around them could forget the things they had done. They quarried the same granite side by side with some of the same people to whom they had been responsible for inflicting so much pain. Can you imagine working beside the man, a relative even, who killed your husband and raped you at the behest of the rebel soldiers? Can you imagine the turmoil that you would experience seeing your brother for the first time in years knowing that the last time you looked into his eyes was right before you cut off his arm? It is gruesome to discuss, but those are real stories of the Acholi. I for one cannot even imagine their burden. My mind cannot place myself in their shoes. I can sense that they have experienced pain in life, but I cannot begin to empathize with the gravity of their trauma.
I Live Again (ILA) Uganda is standing in that gap for the Acholi people. The Director of ILA Uganda, Benson, is an Acholi pastor and his staff are all Acholi men and women, who have experienced the same pain and loss as the rest of the Acholi people. Benson is a great storyteller and has lots of real stories to tell as well as many parables that he uses to convey his point. He described the scene of the white NGO’s showing up in northern Uganda with their genuine efforts to help with a parable like this. An Acholi man walks out of the bush covered from head to toe in blood (some of his own, some of others), he washes off the blood off in the river, towels off, and is immediately approached by the white man who with great compassion and sincerity asks him, “Are you OK?” The Acholi man then responds with, “yes” and they move on. For many, that is the level of counseling they received as they began to establish a new normal following the war. ILA Uganda has been tasked by God to change that.
Through ILA, God is helping the Acholi discover that they are not alone, their lives have tremendous value, they can achieve forgiveness for themselves and others, and that there is hope both now and in eternity through Christ. ILA is also helping people in the Acholi Quarters escape the bondage of slum living to return home and resettle in their villages. They have resettled hundreds of people, many who were child soldiers but are now miraculously reunited with their families! God is helping them realize that no matter the burden they have had to bear, no matter where they have been, and no matter how that has shaped their current situation, there is hope beyond those things. They cannot change the past and they can never forget it either, but they can truly live again.
ILA has acquired some land in northern Uganda, outside of Gulu, where God has given them the vision to build a retreat center for training, discipleship, counseling, and development called the Potters House. The name Potter’s House comes from Jeremiah 18:1-4.
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
ILA engaged EMI to help them form a plan for this property so they can continue to accomplish the vision God has given them. I co-lead a team consisting of six other EMI staff and interns from our Uganda office to work on this design. After spending a week with ILA in Gulu, understanding the vision for ministry that God has given them and collecting data on the site, we are now completing the design back in the Uganda office.
The vision that God has given ILA is to see the Acholi people made new again. To be formed from a broken lump of clay to a new vessel of the Potter’s choosing, fit for His use (2 Timothy 2:21). God is using ILA in incredible ways to do just that. He is restoring the Acholi people back to Himself. At EMI, we cannot counsel the Acholi people, but we are honored to partner in a small way with ILA in this work as it so aptly aligns with the vision God has entrusted to us.
People restored by God and the world restored through design