The war in northern Uganda is the longest running war in Africa. It is characterized by brutality, mass suffering, and apathy. Despite the scale and horrific nature of this conflict, you rarely hear about it in the international media. Even in Uganda, there is a certain level of unawareness and apathy about what is happening in the northern part of the country. While the north has suffered massive displacement, violence, and extreme poverty, the south has enjoyed relative peace, prosperity, and development.
When in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, (located in the south central part of the country) it’s easy to forget that what the UN called “one of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” is taking place in the same country. People who live in the south are not affected by the war at all, whereas those who live in the north have their lives consumed by it.
There are many factors that have contributed to the cultural, social, and economic divisions that exist between the north and the south. One of those factors is the ethnic tension that has been played upon and exacerbated during and since colonialism. The Acholi tribe primarily inhabits the north central part of the country; where as the south central part is largely populated by the Buganda. There are a lot of misconceptions and mistrust that exist between these two groups based on perpetuated stereotypes and a complex political history.
Many of those working toward finding a resolution to the war in northern Uganda stress the importance of promoting national reconciliation as part of a comprehensive strategy for bringing about lasting peace in the entire country.
In addition to using the positive elements of Hip Hop culture as a form of play therapy for war- and AIDS-affected children, one of the goals of the Hip Hop Therapy Project is to create opportunities for youth from the north and south to interact with each other in a positive manner.
I recently interviewed Abramz Tekya who is one of the founders of Breakdance Project Uganda, a partner organization of the Hip Hop Therapy Project. He shared with me his experience traveling to northern Uganda for the first time to teach break dancing and the role that Hip Hop has played in breaking down some of the barriers that exists between the north and the south.
This is what he had to say:
It has also like, it has also helped to bridge the gap, I’m not saying that it’s [over], we’re still going, but so far, it has also helped to bridge the gap between the north, uh northern Uganda and southern Uganda.
Because today, you know, we send people to Gulu to teach and some of them have actually made it to Kitgum to do shows and to perform. And we’ve also had the Gulu kids come here like twice to learn and also perform with the people in Kampala. And the people from Kampala have also gone to Gulu to do the same.
So, I think this is something that you know… it made people realize that, they might be coming from different areas and they’ve gone through different stuff, but it showed them that there is still something that you have in common.
Because before I even went to Gulu, I didn’t how you know Hip Hop would be appreciated up there. A lot of friends called me up and they were asking me if I was tired of living because I was going to Gulu.
I remember I got a number of text messages because people thought that I was definitely going to be shot the moment I crossed Karuma Falls.
And then I made it there and I got back alive and all these people, all of these break dancers from Kampala who were scared to go up there, saw the videos that Melissa did while I was teaching the kids and the photos I shared them, with the people here in Kampala, and a lot of them were inspired to go up there and teach.
Because before they saw the pictures they were asking me if the rebels came around when I was teaching [laughs] you know, like “Did you get…
[did] you thought you were gonna be abducted?” I told them look,
it’s still going on but it’s not in the areas where we teach and I told them that look, a lot of people go up there and come back alive.
So, you just have to try it.
And I told them that the kids up there they love Hip Hop and they love Breaking and they are interested in meeting you guys and learning because I told them about the [break dance] crew that we have here in Kampala.
So you know, the second time we went up there with Melissa and Toki.
Toki, the rapper from Minnesota, I got only two people that wanted to come. That was Hakim and Abdul, because the rest were still scared. A lot of them were like yeah we’re going to show up, but then towards our trip to Gulu a lot of them dropped, they were like no I don’t think I’ll be able to go because I have work to do at home but I knew it was because they were scared.
So even Hakim and Abdul were also a bit scared but they had seen the pictures and had seen a number of people come back from Gulu alive so we went with them and they were so happy when they started teaching the kids when they saw how the kids really appreciated the skills that they were getting from them. And when we started sharing about our different backgrounds. Where we all come from, how we grew up and they were so excited.
So, I mean I understand that we’re all brought up differently.
Because I remember when I was growing up, I once lived in Makere as a kid and we had some people who had migrated from northern Uganda to the central and I remember this guy’s name was Lukai and so he had a lot of kids and different relatives. It was a big extended family from northern Uganda. And a lot of people around, like the grown up people where we were used to live used to tell us, “Those people are hostile”.
Whenever we wanted to go in there to play with the kids there they were like, “yeah you shouldn’t interact with those kids, they’re very hostile, they’re bad, they’re unfriendly.” But you know these were kids of our age, and to me it seemed like these kids really wanted to play with us, but I mean I started you know believing what the elders were telling me. So these are all misconceptions that we’ve grown up with and of course if we want to break this chain, we can’t use our traditional dances that’s the thing.
Because if I go up to northern Uganda using the Buganda traditional dance to you know bring people together, that’s going to symbolize that Buganda is superior than all the tribes up there. If I use the Acholi traditional dance, [it] is going to be the same when I bring it to the central. But Hip Hop is something that is neutral; you know that whereby we all…if we want to be Hip Hop we can all be Hip Hop.
If I was born a Buganda, there is no way you can transform me to become an Acholi. It’s the same thing with the Acholi or the people from all the other tribes. But if an Acholi wants to be Hip Hop, they can be Hip Hop. If a person from the western part of Uganda wants to be Hip Hop he or she can be Hip Hop. So, this like a neutral culture that brings all of us together.