The Power of Storytelling: Personal Reflections On Ododo Wa, a Storytelling Project of War-affected Women in Northern Uganda

 

By Ketty Anyeko

This piece was written in April, 2013, while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Introduction

This essay is a reflection of my peacebuilding experience in Uganda, particularly coordinating Ododo wa. Ododo wa is a Luo phrase that means, ‘our stories.’ It is a storytelling project for women affected by the war in northern Uganda. Ododo wa is an initiative of the Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP), a Ugandan nongovernmental organization that I worked for prior to coming to Notre Dame. JRP still continues to implement this project under its Gender Justice department.[2]

From 2009 to 2011, I worked as a research assistant for Dr. Erin Baines, a professor from the University of British Columbia, who was studying the life histories of women in northern Uganda. Dr. Baines and I started engaging formerly-abducted women in storytelling with objectives to assist them, document their personal life histories of the war, build their leadership skills and support them in recovering from past human rights violations. In my 7 years of work in Uganda, engaging with the women in this project has been the most exciting part of my peacebuilding career and it is the reason I chose to reflect and write about them.

In this essay, I argue that storytelling is important for the insertion of voices and experiences of marginalized groups, especially women, in peacebuilding debates that happen after violent conflicts. Excluding such voices can lead to further marginalization, resentment, and failure of peacebuilding initiatives. Storytelling has shown to have positive impacts in the lives of women emerging from protracted and gendered violence including: restoration of dignity and recovering a sense of self worth, psychosocial healing, empowering women to advocate for accountability and reparation, and become their own agents of change. To illustrate my argument, I will reflect on the case study of the Ododo wa project. But first, I will provide a brief historical background to the conflict in northern Uganda.

Background

I. The Conflict

More than two decades of war in northern Uganda, between the Ugandan government army and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, has inflicted unspeakable pain on the civilians. About 1.8 million people in the North were displaced to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps for more than 10 years (Otim and Weirda 2010). Approximately 75,000 people were abducted and forced to fight against their own communities (Otim and Weirda 2010). Civilians were massacred, maimed, tortured, and their property was destroyed.  Young girls abducted into the LRA were forced to become “wives” to top rebel leaders, trained to fight, served as porters, sexually abused, and forced to bear children at tender ages - with men the age of their fathers. As this storyteller recounted, ‘he called me to go to the house where he was, but I refused. He called me again, but I still refused. He sent his young boys (child soldiers) to come and collect me by force and take me to him. The boys came with sticks and took me to his house, where I spent the night. I cried throughout that night.[3]

II.The Impact of Violence on Women

Our members are still going through difficult times coping with re-integration challenges which include stigmatization, supporting our children born in captivity, land inheritance, health problems among others.[4]

As a result, these girls, now women, returned from rebel captivity into IDP camps with children born of sexual violence and forced marriage. Due to poverty and appalling living conditions in the camps, some of these women were rejected by their parents and had nowhere to turn except move to the outskirts of urban centers in northern Uganda. Despite the fact that IDP’s have returned home, these women still struggle single-handedly to meet the basic needs of their children - including school fees, medical health, and shelter (as the woman above noted). Some of their abductors, who have returned and benefited from Uganda’s blanket amnesty, have neglected these children. No accountability, acknowledgment or apology has occurred. The situation is even graver for women whose children’s fathers either died or remained with the LRA. Since some of the LRA commanders concealed their identities in the bush, some women do not know the clans of their children, limiting their children’s access to land, as land in the region is accessed through paternal lineages.

Furthermore, the war inflicted significant psychosocial trauma on the women. The nature of the violence they experienced makes some of them ashamed.  Some of them prefer to hide their abduction experience, for fear of being stigmatized and blamed by the communities. According to Riano-Alcala and Baines, sometimes silence is a way survivors protect themselves from harm, particularly when their memories contradict meta-narratives of victimhood or when they are stigmatized (Riano-Alcala and Baines 2011). Despite all these effects and challenges, the women also lack sustainable economic sources of livelihood, as their education was hampered due to the long period of time they spent in captivity. The following quote by a former forced wife of Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, depicts some of the reintegration challenges these mothers and their children face;
[My son] is called ‘Kony’ even from our own home. They do not call him any other name. They always call him Kony. They say that his mind is like Kony, that he acts like Kony in everyway, and people should just wait and see because the boy will be a General like his father.[5]

III. Peace and Justice Context in Uganda

In the last seven years, a moderate level of peace has returned to the region due to the peace negotiations that took place between the LRA and the Ugandan government from 2006 to 2008. Unfortunately, the final peace agreement was not signed, and the LRA still remains at large in neighboring countries like South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic. This prevailing level of calm has allowed the war-affected people of northern Uganda to return home and begin rebuilding their lives. For the women, a big part of moving past the violence has been the storytelling project, among other healing initiatives. 
Additionally, the Ugandan government has implemented some provisions of the peace agreement, including the creation of the Justice, Law and Order Sector’s (JLOS) Transitional Justice Working Group, and the International Crimes Division (ICD) of the High Court. Because the women, through storytelling, have identified accountability and reparation as their crucial needs, it is imperative that these mechanisms and other peacebuilding programmes implemented in the aftermath of violence, consider these concerns.

A Case Study of Ododo wa

This project started in 2009 with one womens’ group, but later expanded to other groups, based on the recommendations by the women to facilitate storytelling among other women with similar experiences. The first group met every Saturday from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm, but on days when members did not want to stop telling stories, we left well after 6:00 pm. One of the women leaders generously hosted the gatherings, and we met under a mango tree in front of her compound. When it rained, we all entered her hut. Occasionally, we had water and soda, but the women reported not caring about those things.  All they wanted was to tell stories, have their peers listen to them, and listen to others, too. Operating on a small budget, it was a cost-effective project, but with valuable outcomes, outcomes that were not only beneficial for Dr. Baines or JRP, but for the affected women themselves.

Aware that it is not easy to tell a painful story or find the right words to describe an incident, the project employed methods that made it simpler for the women to open up. Some authors noted that the experience of violence creates an experience of unspeakable depths and words attend to only a small portion of the deeper process (Lederach and Lederach 2010). Due to this, tools used were to help group members find a place to begin narrating, a starting point. These included life maps, body maps, memory quilts, and forum theatre activities. The women were given papers, crayons, markers, pencils and were asked to draw their life maps. They drew symbols that represented particular experiences in their lives and narrated stories about what they drew in a group. On some days, they used the same drawing tools and drew body maps. Here, a woman laid down on a big piece of paper and she is helped by another woman to draw the outline of her body. She then indicated marks of physical pain, emotional pain and psychological pain. Then they narrated stories about their body maps to the whole group. Many of these activities were conducted around a fireplace, the Acholi traditional bonfire called wang oo, or during daytime under a tree. The Acholi people in northern Uganda have an oral culture, where events are rarely written down. They record and memorize significant past events through stories, songs, dances and folktales (ododo). These stories, songs and folktales are shared at the wang oo to pass on knowledge from one generation to another and educate children about the culture.
Being part of the women’s storytelling sessions every weekend was instrumental in confidence and trust-building between the women and project facilitators. I viewed my role as, not being there to extract their stories, but rather to be their friend and sister. Even after I have left the project and resumed my studies, we have maintained that relationship, and I have learnt so much from these women. I admire the strength they have, and I believe that these women can change their lives if given the platform. Therefore, I will focus the next section on illustrating the importance of storytelling.

Impact of the Storytelling Project

In this section, I reflect on the impact of the Ododo wa project on the lives of the women involved and emphasize the crucial role of storytelling in peacebuilding. As I observed in the Ododo wa project, storytelling has both immediate and long-term impact on storytellers. It can be more effective if the voices of these participating women are inserted into the discussions on accountability and reconciliation. Therefore, storytelling, in this context, has led to the following impacts:

a)      Empowerment;

The project has given us the courage to speak boldly about ourselves unlike before when we never wanted to be known as formerly-abducted persons.[6]
 
Sometimes, people simply want to be heard. They want stories of their suffering to be validated and accepted.  Yet finding people you can trust, who can listen, accept and validate your story is difficult.  This is made worse in a society emerging from conflict, where the line between victims and perpetrators is blurred. According to Lawless, women are eager to tell their narratives, and they ask her to ‘take their stories’- for telling them validates a life, names the abuse, and honors the escape  (Lawless 2001).  Likewise, in the Ododo wa group, women were eager to tell their stories and every member was, at one point, either a storyteller or a listener. Sometimes, they, together, recalled certain events that happened in an area where a number of them were present. By doing this, they collectively validated their own stories. The women reported feeling more confident and empowered to tell stories of suffering. Having courage to speak about violence is empowering; it restores hope and power in the voices of survivors which  further leads to personal development.

b)      Justice and Reparations Advocacy;

Through storytelling, women have gained the language to articulate their personal human rights violations during the war, and they have actively begun to advocate for the inclusion of their voices in transitional justice debates in Uganda. Storytelling built consensus on the justice issues affecting the women,leading to the creation of the Women’s Advocacy Network (WAN). This is a network of war affected women who have come together to speak and advocate for justice and reconciliation concerns. The WAN is comprised of 9 women’s groups across the Acholi sub region in northern Uganda.  Through the WAN, these women have broken the silence on their experiences and are working to end marginalization of formerly-abducted women and their children in their communities. Through storytelling, they have reported feeling more confident  speaking-out about various forms of injustice that they, and their fellow women, suffered in the war. Rather than turning to JRP or other organizations to speak for them, they have become their own agents of change. The WAN has already met with government and grassroots leaders to advocate for reparations and accountability, they ran a weekly radio talk show program, and organized community outreaches on social stigma and reconciliation.  They also are creating an environment for reconciliation within the communities affected by the LRA. The statement below, made by the Chairperson of the WAN show how they are taking lead in advocating for redress:

We have realized that if we do not come together, speak out about our issues and seek solutions to our problems then no one will do it on our behalf. We have made a resolution to break our silence and become advocates of our own cause[7]
Furthermore, Lederach and Lederach say, ‘silence is an unacceptable offense, a shocking implication that the perpetrators in fact succeeded (Lederach and Lederach, 2010).’ Similarly, the women in the project have engaged with the wider audience in northern Uganda to break the silence and engage perpetrators. Through their talk shows on a local radio station, they have spoken about the nature of the violations they suffered and cited examples of their abusers living with them in the same community, without apology or accountability for what they did. As a result, some of their abductors have approached them to ask them to stop embarrassing them on the radio.  Not satisfied with that demand, one of the women leaders told them that the women are now free and they can say whatever they want to say - which they will continue to do until they receive the acknowledgment and apologies they deserve. They are not telling these stories for nothing. They expect some form of response which could include acknowledgement, apology, accountability, or recognition. Sadly, so far, reparations and apologies have not been made—fathers provide no support, leaving the wome to struggle alone to meet their children’s needs.

However, I observed that telling a one’s story about abuse is the beginning of correcting that wrong. If no narrative is known about what happened, how it happened, and who did it, it is challenging to provide redress. Telling these stories restored power in the women’s voices to narrate the stories from their own perspectives, which has helped them move past the violence. Now, through the women’s advocacy networking, they are advocating for reparations.

Relationship Building and Transformation;

I remember asking my mother, “Mother, you aren’t happy that I have returned? Why are you just running away from me? Whenever I find you, you look at me badly.” I asked her to kindly tell me the truth if she no longer wanted me as her child. My mother told me that she did not want me anymore. I could not believe what she told me and wept bitterly. I later decided to go back again to confirm if she meant what she said earlier. I was shocked to confirm that she actually meant what she said. She told me that she will not reach where I am, and I should not go where she is.[8]

According to John Paul Lederach, transformational processes happen at personal, relational and structural levels. At the personal level, such changes can involve cognitive, emotional, perceptual and spiritual dimensions (Lederach 2003).Storytelling brought about change at both the personal and relational levels.  For instance, the women shared stories of rejection by their families and communities, they discussed how to address such issues and encouraged one another to forgive and reach out to their friends, family and communities. After sharing this story with the group, one woman who believed her mother hated her actually reached out to her mother once more, and they reconciled. Her group members encouraged her to talk more with her mother, explaining how some parents did not know how to react when their children returned home from captivity. Furthermore, some of the women were co-wives (women in a polygamous marriage) while in captivity and, in one way or another, hurt each other. Through this storytelling, some women realized that they needed some mending within the group itself.

c)      Psychological Healing

We used to cry when we just started, but at least now people can talk about these things without crying.[9]

The above quote illustrates how this project has contributed to psychosocial healing. After participating in storytelling, the women reported feeling stronger about discussing their past experiences. Through sharing their stories, they reported feeling a huge relief from trauma. Prior to Ododo wa, many of the women said they had never told their stories to anyone, not even to their own relatives. They never trusted anyone and were afraid of the consequences of talking about what had happened.  Some of them said they simply did not have the words to describe their stories, while others felt they did not have the emotional ability to relive painful memories through narration.

Forgive me as I don’t know how to talk for long, I can’t manage even if I wanted to but this is what I have to say…[10]

I watched this woman transition through the stages. At first, she talked in a very low tone and said very few words. But as time went by, she started saying more and contributing to the discussions. She is now one of the leaders in her group. Another factor that enhanced healing was a strong peer support within the group. I have observed that listening to a similar narrative of a painful experience helps an individual recover from their own trauma. I sometimes wondered why most of the group members cried whenever another member narrated a painful story. But later on, I observed that after the women told their stories, they realized that their stories were similar, and that narration and crying was relieving. I noticed that those who had already told their stories seemed much stronger during the course of the project. They ceased crying and instead provided emotional support for their peers. During narration, the women transitioned from tears, to hugs, to prayers, to encouragement, and now, to smiles. Seeing the women go through this recovery has helped me to recover from my own personal trauma of listening to the horrific stories they narrated. I gained strength from observing how strong and courageous they were for, first, surviving their horrific abduction, and second, in seeking change in their lives.

Additionally, the women regained their dignity and sense of worth through storytelling, and this has enhanced their psychosocial healing. They reported feeling relieved after a prolonged period of telling stories and listening to each other. They felt human again after all that they went through. By engaging with the wider community, in fighting stigma and advocating for reconciliation, the women used this as a platform to regain dignity and respect from the community.

d)      Gaining Closure;

Narrating past experiences of violence has helped survivors reconstruct their own narratives of what they went through, make meaning of them, and gain closure. Lederach and Lederach say, ‘social healing has been sparked by the resiliency of people and communities who in the aftermath of violence must make sense of their lives and bold a way forward while still living in the presence of their enemies that make their suffering painful, vivid and difficult’  (Lederach and Lederach, 2010). Despite these challenges, some women still struggle to interpret and make sense of what happened. For instance, a woman during the storytelling session said ‘for me, up to today, I still don’t know why I was abducted.[11] Relatively, Riano and Baines say ‘ in the spaces that survivors choose, memories are made and remade and a map to make sense of the violence is sketched out’ (Riano-Alcala and Baines 2011). Similarly, the women in this project struggled to make sense about what happened, yet at some point, the only sense they could construct from their suffering was that the rebels simply wanted to make women suffer with impunity.  If this was in fact the case, the women felt they deserved an apology. The following conversation between the women illustrates how they tried to make meaning from their past experiences;
Woman A: There was no courtship in the LRA. Women could be abducted and just distributed like goods, and you have no right to refuse. If you refuse, you could be punished.
Woman B: Even if you have been given to an old man, you have no choice.
Woman C: Yes, you have to just stay.
Woman B: The LRA believed that if each woman was to choose a husband, then some men would go without wives. But also, why weren’t women who were menstruating allowed to go to the prayer place?
Woman A: First of all, they believed that such a woman was dirty. I also feel that the LRA was violating women’s rights. Even the idea of calling commanders lapwony (teacher) was a trick to enable the new people not to know who Kony and the other commanders were.  They used that title lapwony to hide their identities from kuruts (newly abducted persons).[12]

As they narrated their past, these women illustrated a deep desire to make sense of what had happened. Their efforts to understand what they experienced often helped them cope with the problems they were still facing, and slowly gain some level of closure.  For example, the fact that the LRA top leaders hid their identities has led to a number of children not knowing who their fathers are. As described above, this prevents them from obtaining land, since land is distributed through paternal lines.

Conclusion
Storytelling, in my view, positively impacts  the lives of survivors of violence, as it helps survivors talk about the unspeakable, from their own perspective, in a space where they are most comfortable. It also rebuilds broken relationships, empowers survivors, and contributes to psychosocial healing. Storytelling is the beginning of redress, because it makes victims become aware of their rights, and seek reparations and accountability from their abusers. Peacebuilders should encourage transitional societies to engage in narration of the past, so as to add victims’ voices and concerns in the design and implementation of peacebuilding initiatives, and ultimately bring about constructive change. Exclusion of affected people, such as the women in this project, can hinder the outcome and sustainability of any peacebuilding initiative. Storytelling is just one among many peacebuilding initiatives. It does not solve all challenges war-affected women face as they still suffer economic marginalization and stigma.

Bibliography

Lawless, J. Elaine. Women Escaping Violence: Empwerment through Narrative. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.
Lederach, John Paul. The Little Book of Conflict Transformation. Good Books, 2003.
Lederach, John Paul, and Angela Jill Lederach. When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys Through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Otim, Michael, and Marieke Weirda. Uganda: Impact of the Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court. Briefing, International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), Kampala: ICTJ, 2010.
Rhiano-Alcala, Pilar, and Erin Baines. "The Achive in the Witness: Documentation in Settings of Chronic Insecuirty." International Journal of Transitional Justice, 2011: 1-22.


[3] Storytelling session2009.  
[5] Storytelling session, 2009
[6] A statement by one of the project participants, Dec 2009
[8] Storytelling session, 2009
[9] Project review notes, 2010
[10] Storytelling session, 2011
[11] Storytelling session, 2009
[12] Storytelling session, 2011