Laurence Ocen on Memory and Loss in Northern Uganda

Laurence Ocen

LSONY DSCaurence Ocen, a 2015-2016 Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Dissertation Completion Fellow, is concerned with how communities remember and recover from war.  In this interview, Ocen describes his novel approach to reading monuments, which employs a deeply interdisciplinary methodology. Drawing on critical theory from art criticism, literature, and philosophy, Ocen encourages researchers to look at memorials textually. In this sense, he hopes to investigate new ways for citizens of war-torn communities to create democratic monuments, away from selective histories and state powers.

Can you give a brief overview of your dissertation project?

My project focuses on the politics and poetics of memory in post-war northern Uganda. After suffering mass violence for twenty years (1986-2006), the region is struggling to recover from multiple traumas of mass massacres, massive abductions, the collapse of social and economic infrastructures, endemic diseases, and broken social relations. I specifically look at how war monuments and related memorials work as an entry point into the discourses of transition and recovery from that traumatic history.

My claim is that war monuments in northern Uganda, emphasize a totalizing, yet selective history, while underrepresenting the everyday experiences of ordinary people. I believe there is need to re-examine memorialization at official sites, vis-à-vis non-official sites, by individuals. These re-examinations would focus on songs, drama, language coinages, poetry and other artistic forms mobilized by ordinary people to reflect their everyday moments.

Additionally, the project proposes the ways monuments can be studied as texts that illuminate epistemological vistas and generic interfaces between literary works and material arts. It is an invitation to literary scholars to revisit the conventional understanding of literature as anything in print, and an invitation to social scientists to revisit the importance of interdisplinarity of texts and genre. It is high time literature is conceptualized as embracing non-inscribed or semi-inscribed texts like monuments. This is possible when we take monuments as both objects and artistic work with textual properties such as author, location (setting), voice (as in character), form, and style.

 What are some of the sites that you are currently studying?

I am studying five sites in northern Uganda, although my study is not limited to them. These sites are located in the Acholi and Lango sub regions in northern Uganda. Acholi and Lango are the two major locations that faced the worst brunt of violence by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). These sites include the Attiak memorial site where the LRA killed 209 people in 1995, Lukodi massacre site where the LRA killed 65 people on May 19th 2004, and Barlonyo memorial site where the LRA killed more than 300 people on 21st April 2004. Then there is Abia Sub County where the LRA launched at least three raids killing more than 150 people in 2004. All these sites have war monuments that remember the massacres.

However, the monuments do so little to remember the twenty-year-old war in its everyday form. For instance, in contradiction to these official sites, there is an interesting unofficial site in Kitgum where a family has constructed their own monument to remember 11 family members that were killed by the LRA in 2003. In addition, I am studying songs, dances, speech coinages, and poetry from these locations to see how ordinary people remember the war using local technologies of memory.

To further illustrate the disparity among each of these sites, there is another monument in Kitgum, which highlights the philanthropy of the Spanish benefactor, who sponsored the structure, rather than the event itself. There is a large portrait of the benefactor on one side of the monument. On another side, are names of victims written by survivors in unprofessional print. The names are weather-beaten and slowly fading away. One wonders what the monument is memorizing, the Caritas Spanish sponsor or the victims?

How are you using interdisciplinary texts to re-examine and contextualize the narratives of war monuments?

Monument has a tripartite face. First, there are people who look at it as a physical object that represents a historical event. Second, there are those who look at it as text, as something that can be read and interpreted. This category examines things like inscriptions, size, surroundings, signatures, dates, and the catalogues to interpret a monument. Third, there are those who view the monument as art, considering its design, texture, shape, color, pictorials, etc. All these constitute intrinsic and extrinsic parts of a monument, which can be studied in isolation, or in relation to the others to generate meanings. In short, different people will read monuments differently. That is why I propose a departure from the traditional way of simply looking at monuments as objects that represent known historical, or climactic events. We should not circumscribe the phenomenological boundaries of a monument. We should leave it open-ended.

In my project, I engage literary methods. I deploy critical orientations such as New Criticism, Russian formalism, defamiliarization, and poststructuralism to interrogate narratives of survivors, victims, and other post-war actors in northern Uganda. I use New Criticism particularly to determine whether or not interpreting monuments requires us to bring an author’s agency into perspective. Other than literature, I am dealing with a broad range of interdisciplinary texts—history, culture, political economy, psychology, etc. This is because the post-war experiences of people in northern Uganda touch on economic loss, physical mutilation, relations with government, justice, recovery, transition from war to peace, mending social fences, etc. No single intellectual discipline is capable of handling these complex situations.

What do you mean by the ‘totalizing’, yet ‘selective’ history of the war in northern Uganda? How does this impact your project at large?

The claim that monuments produce and reproduce a totalizing history of war is real—not only for northern Uganda— but also other post-war societies. The type of monuments that narrativize selective history is the public type—those created by the state, sometimes in collaboration with NGOs and civil societies. These monuments are not value-free. They emphasize only the climaxes, specific, and outstanding moments of the war.

The narratives they produce are often doctored or scripted by the agencies that created them. Such narratives feature memorial days, anniversaries, national, and public prayer days, or on officially calendared programs. This creates contradictions with private accounts that often negate or interrogate public testimonies. This means that public monuments act as state or civil society ideologues, and to put it more blatantly the mouthpiece of power holders.

Therefore, massacres in Attiak, Lukodi, Barlonyo, and Abia villages cannot represent a totalizing history of war in northern Uganda. Even though hundreds of other locations did not experience mass massacres, this doesn’t mean that the effect of war in those locations were less tragic. I am highlighting how the everyday experiences of war, such as starvation, poverty, diseases, deprivation, slow death, orphanhood and widowhood can be given visibility in memorial discourses. Do those stories not fit in the genre of massacre? Shouldn’t such stories be remembered? I contend that the history of those who died during the war shouldn’t be reduced to tragedy alone. What of survivors’ success stories? Can monuments remember such detail as well?

 Is there a link between selective memory and power?

The notion of selective memory is synonymous with forced forgetting, forced remembering, and repressed memory. This comes through certain configurations of power. Monuments produce, advertently or inadvertently, some silences, voices, presences, and absences in narratives. The agency of the monument’s author, to choose which details to foreground, and to those to eclipse, is a function of power. Silences and absences may include weaknesses of public institutions and powerful political individuals, most especially their lack of accountability for the war. The state and its institutions sometimes dodge responsibility for mistakes made during the war. In doing this, they instrumentalize selective memory using apparatuses of power. In other words, selective memory is the means by which state agents or power holders present only the detail of what exonerates them, or does not portray them as guilty of crimes of omission or commission. To do this, they may use the media, police, or other information management apparatuses.

The history of war is then read or received only from the state’s perspective. It is on this account that ordinary survivors, through their songs, poetry, dances, and speech utterances give alternative accounts of what happened, what might have happened, or what did not happen to counter or even complement the official narratives. Survivors and citizens defamiliarize experiences and use poetic licenses to camouflage their otherwise critical intentions. They mobilize cultural and artistic resources that protect their histories from being beclouded by the ‘center’. This defines how their memories are collected, written, stored, and transmitted. In reality, the so called governed and the powerless are capable of challenging the different historical constructions that do not represent, or only partially represent their own personal experiences.

How do you translate academic theory to community engagement?

A scholar or an academic should not be detached from the social realities of his or her community. In the case of northern Uganda, anyone can see the post-war political, economic, and social contradictions. In this sense, we are concerned with peace-building from below. What this means is that efforts of transitional reforms, recovery, and rehabilitation should not be left to NGOs, civil societies, local governments and Central Government. Academic theory should inform how we build community agency through enhancing their capacity to speak, diagnose problems, network and forge partnerships, and also locally raise resources to a certain level. For instance, to actualize peacebuilding from below we use theatre to propagate community education, advocacy, and sensitization on issues of reintegration, reconciliation, and empowerment of vulnerable groups created by war.

There are things people must remember about the war, but there are also things they should forget. Drama, theatre, and art exhibitions help us to shape the architecture of peace by building productive post-war relations. As the director of a local based theater group, United Troupers, we were able to traverse the eight districts that constitute the Lango sub- region, to address critical problems of returning child soldiers and other ex-combatants, land wrangles, HIV/Aids, poverty, and rights abuses. We conceptualize these as “hidden wars,” meaning, tensions and contradictions that arise after the guns are silent. This, in my view, is peacebuilding from below. Local communities are involved in identifying community problems first, before financiers come in.

 Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I would like to salute SSRC for this fellowship and the follow-up support they continue to give to fellows in their program. SSRC’s tutelage and should I say mentorship is awesome! A luta Continua!

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