The first time we went to Karamoja (northeast Uganda), it was like driving onto another planet. That’s just how foreign it felt at the time. Luckily we were traveling with another missionary who had lived there for three years already. He introduced us to the strange new environment about as gently as one could. He and his wife hosted us for six weeks. They debriefed with us around uncomfortable experiences like being begged, going hungry, watching out for road ambushes, and hearing gunfire at night. We are forever grateful they were there with us. They ended up leaving the country just after our visit.
A couple of months later, Amber and I found ourselves on our way back to Karamoja. This time it wasn’t just for a visit; it was to stay. We were going to occupy the Baptist mission where our missionary friends had been. The area where the Ik people (the ones we were assigned to) lived was too insecure and dangerous for us at the time (by our standards), so we needed to set up a temporary living situation in the town of Kaabong.
As we crossed the border from Acholiland into Karamoja all alone, I was buzzing with exhilaration and apprehension – thrilled from the sense of adventure and purpose and anxious about threats to our safety. We arrived at the Baptist Mission just after dark. This was already a no-no because armed bandits often started roaming around at dusk. We reached the compound, got through the gate, and fumbled with a big set of keys to find the one to the house. It took us a while to get a light going besides our truck’s headlights.
The second morning there, May 26, 2008, I wrote the following entry in my journal:
Second morning back in Kaabong [town in northeast Uganda]. I was thrilled to discover that already the [solar] battery is charging: tonight we’ll have light!
Last night I slept better, although those blackbirds woke me up again too early. Natural alarm clock, I guess. Not sure what we’ll do today, but I’m sure it will be interesting/challenging. I still find my stomach turning when I hear voices of people at our gate. They can be difficult to relate to, but much more so, I surmise, if you can’t communicate in their language…
Let me report why I think God is with us: when we got here after dark two nights ago, we quickly discovered that there was no solar power in the batteries. Next option was a kerosene lamp, but no kerosene could be found. Next option was candlelight – a little anti-climactic but useful nonetheless. Through this whole mini crisis of finding a light source, both Amber and I remained calm and collected and didn’t get upset at each other. It’s been that way since we got here. Even though I feel a vague sense of foreboding this morning, overall we’ve had peace.
That vague sense of foreboding had not dissipated by the evening. As is the norm in Uganda (for people who can afford them), the property had two night-guards, guys from nearby villages. (There is a joke that in Uganda, one third of the population hires the second third to protect them from the third third). One of them was stationed at the gate of our inner compound, while the other guarded the gate at the adjoining compound (which was vacant). When it started getting dark, Lolem, the guard for the adjoining compound arrived for duty. He was obviously intoxicated. I asked him where the other guard (Tubo) was, and he said that he was in town since it was his night off. We had the guards’ work schedule in the house, so I knew that it was not his night off. But regardless, Tubo was missing, and we went into the night with only one guard. Lacking the extra vigilance a second guard provided and believing that the second guard had deliberately skipped out on work left us with an even more eerie feeling.
Just after dark, around 8:00 p.m., our dog Buddy [a permanent resident of the property] started barking. We knew from our stay earlier in the year that Buddy only barked at animate things. After dinner, Amber and I watched a TV show on our laptop – Buddy still barking steadily the whole time. We finally got into bed close to 11:00 p.m. and were about to start reading a bit when two gunshots rang out about forty feet from our open bedroom window. You could say those two shots are still reverberating in our bodies.
Instinctively we hit the floor and crawled to our closet. Two thoughts terrified me: 1) that our guard Lolem had been killed guarding us (people he didn’t know or care about), and 2) that we were being hunted and would also be killed – on only our third day! My blood ran cold and thick with shock, and I started shivering. As we huddled in the closet, I kept thinking “we’re going to die, we’re going to die.” I fumbled with my cell phone and dialed the number of the local army commander whose platoon was stationed less than a mile away. (We were there during a period when the government was forcibly disarming the Karimojong of their many weapons). I told them gunmen were in our compound and asked them to come rescue us. When I said ‘Baptist mission’, all they heard was ‘mission’ and rumbled out to the Catholic mission all the way on the other side of town. It would be forty-five minutes till they finally came back to where we were.
After the gunshots, we heard men rattling gates and shouting. Their voices sounded altered like they were high on something. Images of crazed criminals murdering us flooded my mind. When they started shaking the gate just fifteen feet from our window, the foot-thick walls of our house suddenly seemed paper-thin. We grabbed a bulletproof vest and tactical helmet (left by previous missionaries), scrambled to our bathroom, and hid in the shower. That would be our last stand if necessary. No way to fight, no way to flee. Our only option was to freeze, and freeze we did for over an hour. We called another NGO expatriate friend of ours who tried to keep us calm. We kept calling the army to see where they were, but eventually my phone battery died. Sometime after midnight, the sounds of the intruders had faded. We cautiously exited the bathroom to look out the windows. Not too far away we saw a flashlight and thought it was the soldiers. No, they didn’t came for another fifteen minutes. Must’ve been the robbers. Finally, the soldiers showed up, did a sweep to make sure the bad guys were gone, and left a squad to keep us safe until daybreak. Miraculously, we were able to get some sleep.
The next morning, just after light, I went outside to talk to the soldiers. That’s when Lolem, our guard, emerged from a lockable outdoor shower. He was stark naked. He said he had been sleeping in the nude when he was awoken by the sound of footsteps approaching. When he stepped outside his guard shack, someone fired two shots at him. Adrenaline surging, he vaulted an eight-food gate that had six-inch spikes along the top – and this without an injury! He ran to the outdoor shower and locked himself inside for the rest of the night (our guards didn’t have guns, so they weren’t supposed to fight back).
Later in the morning, our neighbors, the local elders, and the military commanders came by to see us and survey the crime scene. The thugs had cut the chain-link fence on the south side of the compound, entered, fired at Lolem, grabbed three goats from the empty compound, cut the fence on the north side, and escaped. Our neighbors found entrails not far from the property where the guys had slaughtered the goats. We should’ve known by then – but didn’t for some reason – that the robbers were after livestock and intended us no harm other than scaring us into not resisting them. My fear that we were going to be killed was mostly unfounded (unless we had tried to interfere).
As western expatriates, we came to that world with a lot of privilege and a tremendous sense of entitlement. The truth was that the local people lived with this banditry on a daily and nightly basis. Their homes and properties were regularly robbed at gunpoint, and because their houses are made of mud, sticks, and grass, the ‘enemy warriors’ would not infrequently shoot someone in their hut. People died for goats and household goods. They could call the police or army, but the police had a habit of responding very slowly because they were afraid of the thieves (they all had the same weapon: AK-47); and the military was populated with men from other tribes who despised the Karimojong.
It was not fair that just because of our race and nationality, we were offered much more protection. We even had a squad of heavily-armed soldiers assigned to guard us every night for the next six weeks. I doubt they cared a lick about us as people (they may have even hated us), but for political reasons (the US funded up to 40% of the country’s annual budget), having Americans murdered on Ugandan soil would not have been expedient.
The sense of safety our armed ‘angels’ provided allowed us to make great strides in our recovery from the trauma. I think that without them, we probably wouldn’t have been able to stay in Karamoja. But the local people, whose land and country it was, had nothing even near that level of protection from their own government. I was grateful for what we had, but I am sad about the injustice. Besides the official protection, we had the economic means to further harden ourselves as targets: we could hire more guards, equip them with spotlights and air-horns (air-horns still send a shudder through me); we could install floodlights around the house and buy body armor (I learned later that the vest we had that night could only stop a 9mm bullet; at least it made us feel safer).
Amber and I both had different levels of PTSD. Ten years later, I think my only residual effect is a mild social paranoia, especially of men. For Amber, loud noises can trigger her, and she still struggles with a vague sense of unsafety in public. Growing up we were so sheltered it’s almost unbelievable. But how much of the world lives in chronic unsafety and deals with CPTSD – chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. The degree of violence and injury going on at any given moment on our planet is just staggering. Large swaths of our species live brutally traumatized lives. The collective nervous system of humanity is crackling with hyper-vigilance and the neurochemicals of stress.
What we went through that night was frightening, but I’m so glad it happened. It was an appropriate introduction to Karamoja and the realities faced by its inhabitants. The local people are incredibly brave and resilient, rugged and tenacious survivors of all kinds of horrors (we won’t even go into the practices of forced disarmament!). Fortunately, since about 2012, the number of guns and gun-related crimes dropped dramatically. I pray for the day when the peoples of Karamoja – the Karimojong, Nyang’ia, Mening, Ik – have the protection they deserve in order to lead lives free of chronic fear, violence, and trauma.