Interviews with the former child soldiers at the Gulu recovery centre for children of war in Uganda were always difficult. Things buried in the past were now open and exposed, like a wound, the scab removed, the pain revisited. Sometimes I would be listening and writing and my mind couldn’t fathom this evil. My pen would fall from my hand, tears would drop onto my paper, and we would have to stop, often hugging each other in an attempt to bring an ounce of humanity to the scene.
In my attempt to show my appreciation to these men and women, I offered my thanks in the form of a gift. For the women I gave a tin bowl of foodstuffs like rice, flour, and oil. For the men, a soccer ball.
The gifts always seemed miniscule. As if this small token of my appreciation could erase the past and bring a better future. When I gave the gifts, I felt inadequate, feeling quite small in the presence of these people’s large grateful smiles.
It wasn’t until I met James that I realized how valuable the gifts really were.
James was taken when he was a young teen, and like many boys who needed to survive as a child soldier with Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, he rose in rank from private to corporal to sergeant. He knew that the more people he could place below him as he climbed up the ladder, the less who could do him harm.
James was like many of the men I interviewed: abducted, trained, then forced to kill his own people. After his escape several years later, he was ostracized from his family and his village, now working a trade in a different community, and haunted by what we call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. The Acholi people call it, ajiji, which literally translated means, “to see again.”
When we finished our interview, I thanked James and gave him a hug. I wasn’t quite sure if it was culturally appropriate for me to do so, but I wanted to, so I did. And he hugged me right back. A big firm hug. And then I gave him a soccer ball.
I will never forget what James did then. He looked at the ball and held it to his chest and he smiled. Not just a grin, but a huge smile that filled his face and brightened his eyes. He murmured thank you, turned to walk away, then stopped, and said:
“Kony took more than our families and our way of life away. He took away our childhood. I will never be able to enjoy the carefree day of youth again. But sometime I like to try to go back and live it - as an adult. When the ajiji come, I go out and I find my friend and we play the game. It help me to see better again.”
He placed the ball on the ground and hugged me, then picked it back up, smiled, and left. I watched him walk away. The gift didn’t seem so small now.
I’m sure that ball is now quite dusty, bearing the marks of many kicks and passes and very well used. And perhaps in its use, a little bit of childhood regained.
My journey as an author, giving voice to those who can't - or won't - speak.