Having killed as a rustler, Lokuro now dances for the survivors

09:50 by Kaggwa Andrew

With the backdrop of shrubs, the glowing sunset romances the eyes; it is no secret, we are stuck in a far- off place.
For the purpose that has led us to this end, it is quite surprising why anyone with an artistic mind could choose such a seemingly dangerous ground for a dance.
As we are still puzzled, we see a group of boys and girls – they are the reason we came in the first place – singing and dancing. Even without understanding the language we can tell the song is sad.
As the first dancer strides through, you can sense the presentation projects energy, typical of an African dance. The girls take the lead, gently pounding the ground with their feet and their arms swinging in the air, creating an impression that they are punching some imaginary evil force.
Clad in striped sky-blue vests – high enough to expose their belly buttons – with huge bead adornments on the heads, necks, wrists and waists, the look is complemented by a Scottish-like kilt. The boy dancers follow. Unlike the struggling girls, the boys are using their hands to create music.
They pound their chests and clap their hands in perfect synchrony, then join the girls. Their leader jumps, claps, twists and rocks while throwing his head in sharp, angular gestures; there is an ultimate scowling expression of determination and ferocity on his face.
His name is Lokuro Totuja. He is trying his best to get the steps for the edonga dance right. He and the other dancers have to perform for the American ambassador who will visit the area in two days’ time and thus the reason for this extra effort. Years back, you could barely find Lokuro enjoying a dance, let alone hanging out during the day.

He was a youth of the jungle; a traveller’s nightmare and a death merchant in his own way. But even then, he was a leader. A leader of one of the most dangerous cattle-rustling groups in the eastern part of the Karamoja sub-region.
“I started raiding at an early age; every poor person was doing it for survival,” Lokuro says.
Lokuro is born to a rich father who owned cattle, but in Karamoja, many children are denied the chance to be young; so much so that instead of getting the basic education, they turn into the family breadwinners.
“I’ve killed very many people and besides those that were rival tribes, most of the people we killed were innocent. We knew it though, the anger inside you overrode everything else including someone else’s innocence,” he says.
Poverty aside, Lokuro’s reasons to take up arms were never farfetched. As a child, he witnessed his father fall from grace to grass when his entire herd of cattle was taken by rustlers.
“I was angry with whoever stole my father’s cattle, I joined the raiders to regain all my father’s stolen cattle and glory,” he says.
Though, even when they rustled hundreds of cattle, the crew was usually interested in the blood and barely the meat. They would suck blood out of cattle and mix it with raw millet for food.
“There was no way we could waste a cow by eating it; it was very important in trade,” Lokuro says.
And since the Aids stigma is still high in Karamoja, Lokuro also reveals that they also used the blood to detect who among the members was infected with HIV. They believed that when a person with HIV/Aids drunk the blood, they would instantly drop dead.

When none of them dropped dead, they then trusted each other more that in case of a successful loot, they could share anything including women. Cows were also used as ransom whenever the warriors were either ambushed or arrested by the soldiers.
“Cows would buy freedom; we used to give some of them to the soldiers so that they could let us move [freely] even after we had been arrested; or even buy some of their armour. At times when we had serious missions, we would hire their guns,” he says.
The other arms merchandise would come from Sudan and the Turkana region of Kenya. There were also local traders that sold bullets, gun cleaners and other arms accessories in kiosks and retail shops.
“It was hard making money when you didn’t stock bullets; it was a faster moving product than soap or sugar,” says one of the shopkeepers in Moroto town.
According to the Amudat Resident District Commissioner, Stephen Nsubuga Bewayo, arms trade was common at the peak of cattle rustling between 1990 and 2004.
“People had replaced the currency with bullets; they could buy food using bullets, use them to pay for taxis…” he says.

Peter Andema, a driver with one of the NGOs operating in Moroto, survived cattle rustlers twice and one of those times, it was Lokuro’s group.
“The first time I was driving a group of missionaries to the town centre when our car was shot at,” Andema reminisces. He left the scene unhurt although his missionary friend was not as lucky; he sustained injuries that later killed him.
The second time, Andema recalls: “I remember [Lokuro] very well. They were over 50 of them holding guns and machetes. They stopped the car and Lokuro stepped forward and asked for money. I panicked and when my hand reached for the pockets, it’s just a Shs 5,000 note that came out and it is what I gave him.
I was scared because it was little, although I was shocked when he happily let us go; we left wondering how they would share money that little since they were many.”
About this incident, Lokuro says they were going for a raid that time and their minds were focused elsewhere, that is why they easily let Andema’s convoy go, noting that it would have been a different story had the passengers met them on their way back from some unsuccessful raid.
Today, Lokuro and his former combatants have joined the fight to end the use of arms and it took a family member and best friend’s life for him to come to this resolution.
“One day we went to raid, and everything backfired. They killed many of our members and some of us were captured,” he says.
This is the first time I hear remorse in his voice. The muscles on his face ripple as he talks about this. He started living in fear; his 30-plus crew had been reduced to seven. It was about that time that he met John Robert Adupa, a Moroto-based local artiste.
Adupa had been working on convincing different warrior groups to embrace peace and his efforts were yielding fruit.
“I was running a group called the Mogoth Mobile Crew. We would perform in schools while spreading messages about abstinence, cleanliness and dangers of violence,” says Adupa.
The soldiers, Adupa says, in an effort to bring peace to Karamoja, had resorted to a full fire confrontation against cattle rustlers.
“The raiders had attacked a van and killed a team of five peace negotiators, [most of them] foreign,” Adupa says. After the incident, the government became ruthless towards raiders, which saw many of them, Lokuro inclusive, give up their guns voluntarily.
Lokuro and his troops later joined Adupa to send a message of hope and peace; this gave birth to the Moroto Reformed Warriors Foundation which today comprises more than 200 girls and boys.
“Some of these are former warriors, well-wishers and the others, especially the girls, were orphaned during the raids,” says Adupa.
But even after giving out their guns, it has not been a bed of roses for Lokuro and other former fighters; some people segregate them because of their past.
“I understand where many of these people are coming from; for them, the crisis and suffering in Karamoja was our fault,” says Lodikany Loyonamoe, also a former fighter with Lokuro.
Culturally, a Karimojong man marries with cattle and historically, bride price has been very high. Young men had a powerful incentive to establish and build their own herds through raiding other pastoral groups.
From the 1970s, these warrior herdsmen, who had previously fought with spears, acquired modern fire arms, thanks to instability both in Uganda and southern Sudan, making the raids more violent.
Karamoja is enjoying relative peace and in September 2013, during the International Peace Week celebrations, the locals witnessed a signing of the groundbreaking peace accord between the Matheniko of Uganda and the Turkana of Kenya – the Lokiriama peace accord.
Besides preaching peace, Lokuro and fellow dancers also provide counselling services to fighters still in the bush; “We encourage them to give back the guns and embrace peace”.
“Many people in the region still have their guns and over 200 warriors are still hiding in the mountains,” Lokuro says.
With the help of international organizations such as USAID, UNDP, UNHCR, Unicef and International Rescue Committee (IRC), Karamoja is slowly picking up.
After the disarmament, the IRC tried to change the mindsets of Karimojong by bringing the warring communities together, while Unicef provided basic needs including medicine, food and tapped water, to lure locals into resettling in areas they had previously abandoned.
“Karimojong were originally farmers, thus we believe by availing safe water, former warriors can reignite their potential by trying out farming,” says Godfrey Haruma Ijumba, Unicef field officer, Moroto.
The day the dancers have been waiting for is finally here, Scott DeLisi, the American ambassador, is already here though because of the bad weather, the routine must wait. The dancers brave the rains, the first ones since we got here, and when the skies clear up, they immediately swing into action.
The first song talks about Aids and how the public must protect themselves from the pandemic. It is, however, the second song that Lokuro co-leads that carries the message home; “the gun destroyed Kaabong, Nakapiripirit….we’ve waited for a new day, a sunset. We say NO to guns, we won’t comb the shrubs for our dead fathers, mothers….” they sing.

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