Show the disfigured truth

2009-03-27 00:00

“It’s freezing,” Nasser, my night guard, was standing in the doorway of my office and shivering like he had malaria.

“I know,” I said, drinking tepid coffee, my face lit by the screen of the laptop beneath the net that shrouds my desk until the sun has chased away the last of the dawn’s mosquitoes, “isn’t it wonderful? This breeze would be perfect for sailing.”

Nasser stared back at me mystified. I’d been awake since four on account of the unusually vigilant United Nation guard’s inquiring overenthusiastically about the purpose of strangers passing by in the night.

The retiring bishop of Gulu had asked me to accompany him on a farewell visit to one of his 25 parishes, so my sights were far from set on sailing. By the time I reached the bishop’s lodge, the temperature had already tipped 30°C, although it was still an hour before noon. I joined a cavalcade of dog collars and their colourfully glad-ragged wives in the direction of a remote rural village, less than an hour from Gulu town. The parish, like most functions in Internally Displaced Persons camps, met under a grubby UN High Commissioner for Refugees plastic awning in the sun-baked grounds of a primary school. And while the bishop’s chaplain set up the modest amplification for the quietly spoken bishop, his eclectic entourage were served sweet chai with beans, sour spinach and posho in a doorless classroom.

It was while I was rinsing my hands before eating that I noticed a woman whose demeanour will haunt me for a long time to come. Elizabeth*, as I later came to know her, stood apart from the crowd covering her mouth with her hand. I watched as she leaned down to pick up a child at her feet, noticing she did this with one hand, keeping the other covering her face. I wondered whether she might have a huge case of halitosis or that it was some sort of religious practice during Lent among East African Anglicans, but I was distracted from pursuing the matter.

Then the inevitable happened.

I was still pondering the bishop’s challenge to push the boat out further, and we were wondering about shaking hands politely and passing the peace the way we Christians do in church, when I spotted Elizabeth who had the same child on her hip and was turned away. I approached her from behind and tapped her shoulder. She turned but had to remove her hand from her mouth to take mine. It was awful and I was immediately appalled.

Elizabeth responded magnanimously, ignoring my shock: “Kuc”. (Peace in Luo.)

Having had the Christian ritual of sharing peace affronted so graphically by war, I was speechless.

Elizabeth’s lips had been cut off because she had escaped abduction. Once she was recaptured she was taught a lesson she and any of her fellow abductees who witnessed it would never forget. I sat beside her for what remained of the Eucharist — her child played with the shiny wedding ring on my finger — unable to look again at Elizabeth but desperately needing to gawk. Elizabeth told me her story and took me to her home where a colony of “mutilants” (as they had learnt to call themselves) nursed leper-like disfigurements.

I scanned a multitude of pink scars where limbs, lips, ears and noses had once been, navigating a mixture of terror and anger churning inside of me. In my work I have regularly been overwhelmed by the scale of pain we heap on the heads of the weakest in Africa, but rarely have I been so outraged by human depravity.

In northern Uganda post-conflict reconstruction and peace-building efforts have rightly concentrated resources on the reintegration of children and youth abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army. However, the perpetrators of unconscionable violence and violation, albeit often acting themselves under inhuman duress, have left a legacy of indescribable pain that is largely hidden and, but for the church, mostly ignored.

What then of these victims? What does pushing the boat out further mean for them, Bish?

It was a week later — while assisting a mine victim with a prosthetic leg to board a plane at OR Tambo Airport — that it came to me. Communities that do not take responsibility for the needs of the less able are more likely to be careless about the able too. Peaceful societies are transparent and don’t allow the disfigured truth to remain hidden. They celebrate and protect difference, and encourage diversity. They promote equal and unlimited access to opportunity.

With an election just around the corner back home, it was a timely reminder. I found myself hoping that there would be at least one party on the ballot sheet that not only gave a damn about the victims of South Africa’s ugly past, but also about the victims of the equally ugly and seemingly legitimised lawlessness that borders on anarchy in our present. My vote goes to a party that affirms the right of opportunity for the less able and victims of the lawlessness that bad governance has created.

As history has taught us, societies that meaningfully promote, literally and figuratively speaking, equal access tend to make history rather than repeat it. They make it possible for everyone to climb aboard before they push the boat out and, hopefully, Bishop … further.

• Dennis Bailey is the country director: Cord UK and works in post-conflict reconstruction and dialogue in northern Uganda.

* Name has been changed.

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