I had gone to work at an IDP camp (Internally Displaced Persons…a refugee camp essentially) in Agoro, it’s a tiny village on the border of northern Uganda and southern Sudan. I’d heard about this initiative to set up a job training center for camp residents, some money had been set aside for it but it needed more and was being held up until someone could be found to manage the setting up of the center, so I volunteered and headed over. It was pretty far out there, a long way from any paved roads or anything. During one of my trips into “Town” (Kitgum, about 70km to the south) I was asked to meet with a local women’s group. The group, like a lot of the women’s groups in the North, was made up mainly of widows and women who had been abandoned by their husbands because they had been raped. They had a small bead making operation and were thinking about buying a grinding mill, basically they were taking care of each other and their children as well as some of the kids orphaned by the fighting or disease in the camps. They would pool their money and would invest in buying bead making supplies or lend it out if someone needed medical care for themselves or the kids, basically their own micro finance program, but a truly community in the realest sense of the word.
I was so blown away by the strength, by the resourcefulness of these women, and by the end of the meeting I said that there were two thing I wanted to tell them; one was that I wanted to carry their story back with me because I really feel that people where I’m from, we could learn a lot from them, how they are really taking care of each other and really living in as a group of people who care for each other, a real “community,” and secondly, said, “I don’t know how, but somehow my friends and I are going to figure out a way to help.” They were so thankful just for those words that they broke into this song. By the end of the song they were in tears, I was in tears, and I said “that was so beautiful, could you tell me what the song said, what the lyrics were about?” and they were like “oh, that’s one of the songs we sing to tell the soldiers they are forgiven and that it’s ok to come home.” These women who had every reason in the world to hate or give up or whatever, they were singing these songs to forgive and to welcome home not just their sons and husbands, but even the very people who had perpetrated these atrocities against them…it just seemed like the greatest act of forgiveness but also the greatest use of music I’d ever heard. I asked them to sing me another.
I can’t really describe the feeling of being there with them, to just sit on the floor with these ladies who had been through so much, so many years of war and loss but who find this incredible inner strength to go on, and more than that, it was one of those moments where you actually appreciate it while it’s happening, and I just remember sitting there watching and listening, thinking to myself that I was witnessing perhaps the most beautiful things, the most beautiful people, I’d ever see in my life. I’d heard so many stories by that point about LRA violence, had a couple scares on the “Abduction Road” and AK’s waved in my face…stories about not just abducting children as soldiers but making them kill their own families, cutting off limbs and padlocking people’s mouths shut as warnings not to talk, even straight up cannibalism. So basically what was hitting me was the realization that here in this place, in the face of the very worst that humans are capable of, here was the very best. It was a really intense realization.
Afterwards they said now I had to teach them some songs and the first two to come to mind were Joe Purdy’s “Suitcase” and a Dead Moon cover called “It’s Ok” that Pearl Jam used to do, they’re just the ones that came to mind as they were translating the lyrics of their songs. After that I spent a lot of time traveling around to towns an villages, places like Gulu, Lira and Lokapel, even walked over the mountains into Sudan, meeting with more groups in different villages and towns, exchanging songs. The protocol was always the same, I’d ask them to teach me theirs and I had to teach some in return. And that’s how we began, listening to each other.
— Hunter Heaney (Executive Director)