What It Means to Be A Survivor

I was invited to attend two days’ conference on Surviving Armed Violence: Comparative Perspectives organized by the Center for Foreign Policy Studies (CFPS) in conjunction with Child Soldiers Initiative and Resilience Research Center at Dalhousie University in Halifax – Nova Scotia. I was asked to make a twenty minute presentation on the importance of storytelling after mass atrocities, and my work with Women’s Advocacy Network (WAN) at JRP.

I was delighted to give my presentation as follows on how storytelling helped made a difference on the life of women we work with. This may not be very easy for someone who has not been closely following what we do to understand what I am about to share with you and may want to see a documentation to believe but I tell you, this is real!

There are many advantages of this storytelling to these ladies. We started with less than ten women but later the number expanded. It is not usually very easy for someone who has gone through a difficult situation to just start sharing their painful experiences except when there is trust and confidence among those involved. This is how the story began and made a difference in the lives of these ladies.   At first others were shy and afraid of the outcome of what they may say. But since the storytelling sessions occur in an informal setting, it reduced the amount of intimidation that a woman might feel as she narrates her experience. As she listens to one another’s story, she begins to feel that she was not the only one who suffered but one of many which encourages her to speak more. And the more and more one speaks of something painful gradually that person begins to feel better or get relieved of the burden she was carrying as a result of silence.

In Acholi culture, women are familiar with using stories as a way to communicate. Because women are able to provide peer support and advice to each other, they form a vital community for the women, something especially important for women whose family members have disowned them because they were abducted. Another advantage is that minimal materials are needed to conduct the storytelling sessions. Furthermore, besides using an audio recorder to document the sessions, supplying paper and other craft materials when we draw body and life maps, and sometimes providing snacks and transportation for the women, the costs associated with the project are minimal in comparison to its effectiveness. These are very important in the reintegration process since there is need to have confidence and trust in the people they are going to live with and the community they are going to be living in.

I also shared just one of the many poems called The Things We Carried from a book that I am writing with Julie Bitek called Stories from the Dry Season which is an illustration of the burden girls and women bore during war in Northern Uganda. So many who came to the art exhibition were touched and I believe it gave them a sense of what it means to be a survivor and they learnt what happens to people especially women during war and in particular the one that took place in Northern Uganda.

During the conference, whose objective was  to identify what survival means for those who have lived through violence or understand what survival means, I learnt that in times of crisis and in particular during armed conflict, the affected  people always find ways of surviving the problem, stopping it or seeing that the perpetrators are brought to justice. This is in line with the contribution of survivors both during and after the crisis.

The following are some of the ways in people use to survive violence and how people survive on a daily basis; sleep standby, spend nights together while monitoring what is going on. This helps to reduce the effect of war on individuals. They would also tell stories quietly through the use of all means of communication. When all schools were closed during the war, some people kept one school open through negotiations with armed actors. Engagement in doing something in times of fear like doing exercises helps to overcome fear. I think some of these methods used in pursuit of justice are an example that survivors should follow, even if nobody listens to them today. Tomorrow someone might just like this survivor who I learnt about during the conference in Peru who survived to see the one who killed his son in 1983 prosecuted in 2011

I also happened to travel the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in the fall when the leaves are turning red in preparation for winter season. It’s hard to believe and express that beauty in words. This is a place located along the coast of Pacific Ocean with a wonderful view of snowcapped mountains as one heads to Whistler, one of the most cold places in the world during winter. During my last days in Vancouver I visited Whistler too and went on a plane moving on top of ranges of mountains that have snowcapped and with snows that have lasted for thousand years ago melting when the temperature was 5 degrees centigrade. I could not believe I was seeing the glacial features that I learnt about theoretically in my Advanced Level Geography. When I was over the mountains, I felt humbled as a human being.