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We Are the Voice of the Grass: Interfaith Peace Activism in Northern Uganda

David A. Hoekema
Published by Oxford University Press in 2019

Jeremy Norwood is Professor of Sociology at Spring Arbor University and serves as Chair of the Department of Sociology, Global Studies, and Criminal Justice.

One of the most widely circulated phrases regarding armed conflict in East Africa is the adage that “when two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.” The phrase refers to how much the African people often suffer in times of war between rival ethnic and political groups, many of whom are often tacitly supported by one or more global superpowers. In We Are the Voice of the Grass: Interfaith Peace Activism in Northern Uganda, David A. Hoekema articulates how an interfaith, grassroots advocacy campaign called the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI) tirelessly sought peace amidst the decades-long civil war perpetuated between the government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

In order to better understand the role of the ARLPI, Hoekema gathered data in response to four major research objectives: whether or not the historical divisions imposed by colonialism could be overcome after independence, whether the corresponding ethnic divisions could be overcome to achieve common goals, if competing religious communities could find common cause against conflict, and what “consent” and “accountability” mean in religious communities living under an autocratic regime (xix). Hoekema interrogated these objectives through the use of “published and broadcast accounts” and “firsthand accounts of Ugandans,” including those who were abducted by the LRA and religious leaders who were part of the peacemaking efforts (xiv). In order to carefully organize the qualitative data that he collected, Hoekema utilizes a critical component of Acholi culture, storytelling, to weave together three separate narratives in order to accurately frame the role the ARLPI played in bringing peace to Northern Uganda.

The first story Hoekema tells has to do with the “key events in the prior history of Uganda, not just as an independent nation but as a British protectorate and, reaching back even further, as a region that was home to several large kingdoms and many smaller population groups” (xiv). This larger historical context allows Hoekema to introduce the reader to the role racial and ethnic divisions played both before and during colonialism, dynamics which continue to impact the political and social landscape within Ugandan society. These ethnic divisions, which were only exacerbated during the time Uganda was classified as a British protectorate, sowed the seeds of discord between Northern and Southern Uganda, as the Northerners were labeled as soldiers while the Southerners were conscripted to serve in roles of leadership and authority within the colonial regime.

The second story Hoekema tells traces the demarcation between the ethnic groups of the North and South through their political positioning in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (xiii). More specifically, this story traces the evolution of the fledgling Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) of Alice (Auma) Lakwena into the more contemporary LRA led by Joseph Kony. Interestingly enough, Hoekema articulates the identity of both rebel movements as grounded in their marginalization from the larger, more formalized political structure, often led by politicians from the South who sought to benefit their patronage networks, many of whom were from the more populated ethnic groups near Lake Victoria. It was through this inherent conflict between the North and the LRA and the South and the government of Uganda that the emergence of the ARLPI was possible. In other words, if it was not for the political strategy through which President Museveni intentionally marginalized the Acholi and other ethnic groups from Northern Uganda (at times comparing them to cockroaches in a bottle), there would not have likely been the emergence of a resistance group to demand economic and political representation for those ostracized in the North.

This political polarization between the government of Uganda and the LRA ipso facto paved the way for the emergence of the third story, which centers around the creation of the ARLPI, an interfaith organization composed of religious leaders who began to speak on behalf of the grass. According to Hoekema, the ARLPI “emerges as an interfaith movement dedicated to pursuing resolution of the civil war between the LRA and the forces of the Ugandan government and to rebuilding lives and communities devastated by decades of conflict” (xiv). As people whose families and communities had been deeply impacted by the civil war, who had lost family and friends to the conflict, and who knew those who had either been abducted or who had chosen to live in the bush in active resistance against the Government of Uganda, the leaders of the ARLPI decided that armed conflict was not the answer, instead relying on traditional Acholi customs and their foundational religious beliefs to mediate and negotiate an end to the conflict.

While these three stories weave together to form the larger narrative in We Are the Voice of the Grass, Hoekema begins by deconstructing popular perceptions of Uganda that have been propagated through the use of viral videos posted by the organization Invisible Children depicting the “insufferable plight” of those living in Northern Uganda, particularly the Acholi people. While those interviewed acknowledge how positive raising awareness about the conflict in the North is, they also articulate how the YouTube videos portray a serious ethnic conflict devoid of appropriate historical and social context. In doing so, the well-intentioned representatives of Invisible Children inadvertently perpetuate shortsighted perceptions of Africa as the “dark continent,” as well as Ugandans themselves as violent people prone to bloodshed. Furthermore, such a lens into the ethnic conflict pits the valiant Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) or the Government of Uganda against the backward, primitive Northerners. Instead of promoting a stronger understanding of Ugandan culture, such a portrayal of the conflict further cements preexisting prejudices and stereotypes, opening the door for future human rights violations. Unfortunately, such a depiction prevents a holistic understanding of the context around the conflict in Northern Uganda, a conundrum Hoekema adequately addresses as he reconstructs the historical, political, and religious context of Uganda.

Hoekema’s approach of applied philosophy is integral to understanding how important the voice of the grass is through his desire to analyze social structures through an ethical and sustainable lens. Without a critical analysis of the historical, political, and religious structures, the reader would be left without an understanding of the longer-term, normative consequences of such a widespread conflict in Northern Uganda. After utilizing his background in applied philosophy to reconstruct the reality in Northern Uganda, Hoekema then goes into great depth to give proper context to the roots of the conflict. This reconstruction of the rich culture and history of Uganda not only provides the proper context for understanding the emergence of the LRA as it formed out of resistance to the autocratic rule of President Museveni and the UPDF, but it also permits the reader to understand the fertile soil in which the seeds of the ARLPI began to germinate. This retelling of the modern history of Uganda allows the reader to appreciate the process by which the nation-state gained its independence, the successive waves of militaristic, autocratic leadership as ethnic groups from the North and South alternated vis-à-vis their ruling cliques, and the emergence of the UPDF and Museveni as a stabilizing force in Ugandan politics.

Once Hoekema has established the context for the conflict in Northern Uganda, he then shifts to unpacking the political and religious background through vignettes of three major political figures, all of whom are former rebel leaders: the current President Yoweri Museveni, Alice (Auma) Lakwena, leader of the Holy Spirit Movement, and Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. The focus on these three figures affords Hoekema the opportunity to study the leadership in the conflict in more depth. It also allows the readers to put the leaders in a stronger cultural and historical context given their respective movements or counter-movements. Moreover, the reader is able to better understand the inner workings of each of the movements, as well as how each were able to benefit economically and socially from the constant conflict and ethnic strife within Uganda. While these leaders benefited politically and gained support from their respective ethnic factions, they were also able to pit nation-states against one another both in East Africa and globally. For example, by attempting to implement what appears to a casual observer as a democratic, free market system, President Museveni soon became one of the beneficiaries of generous foreign aid packages. He also received considerable financial and logistical support when labeling the LRA “terrorists.” These vignettes do a terrific job connecting the personalities of these rebel movements with their interests in perpetuating the conflict in Northern Uganda.

After completing his discussion of the political and economic dynamics, Hoekema next outlines the religious history of Uganda, focusing on the actions of Catholic and Protestant missionaries, their similarities and differences, and the rise of Islam in Uganda, particularly during the rule of Idi Amin. This dialogue is particularly insightful as it begins to foreshadow the different approaches to conversion and evangelism among the different Christian denominations and Islam. It is clear from the data collected that the bloodshed caused by the fight between the “two elephants,”—the government of Uganda and the LRA—actually helped to galvanize the various followers of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam around a common cause: the cessation of violence and the restoration of peace amongst the Acholi on a small scale and Ugandans en toto on a larger scale. This religious history helps the reader understand not only the divisions caused by the interests of Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims in Uganda, but also the magnitude of the atrocities committed which brought members of these groups together under the aegis of the ARLPI.

Once he has explained the historical, political, and religious contexts, Hoekema then leads the reader through the specific atrocities of the conflict in Northern Uganda between the government of Uganda and the LRA. This section includes the series of LRA insurrections, the mass abductions as a way to recruit and discipline the Acholi population, widespread migration on behalf of many Northerners into internally displaced peoples’ camps (IDPs), and the various reprisals on behalf of the government of Uganda. Hoekema does an excellent job articulating the sacrificial actions of Catholic, Muslim, and Protestant religious leaders of ARLPI as they discarded their historical disagreements and past wrongs, agreed upon a common strategical approach to end the conflict, and risked their lives as they shuttled between the two sides to find common ground.

Even as these members shared their faith backgrounds with each other, agreeing on certain beliefs while disagreeing on others, the ARLPI came together around a common mission which sought to “actively engage the entire Acholi community to effectively participate in the process of healing, restoration, reconciliation, peace, and development in Acholiland” (128). As part of its larger mission, ARLPI sought to further six primary objectives in stopping the bloodshed and bringing peace to Acholiland. First, to “unite as believers in God Almighty to mobilize the people of Acholi for peace and development.” Second, to “advocate for justice and human rights.” Third, to “train in conflict analysis, conflict transformation, and undertake community peacebuilding.” Fourth, to “foster a spirit of peaceful co-existence among different communities in Acholiland and its neighbors.” Fifth, to work collaboratively with any and all stakeholders to promote a culture of dialogue. And, finally, to “undertake any other activities which may contribute to the creation and promotion of love, harmony, forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, and peace” (129).

Hoekema describes many of the actions taken by ARLPI to further these objectives, stop the violence, and bring restoration to Northern Uganda. First, the ARLPI worked diligently with the Acholi people to build consensus around the idea of peace and restoration in Northern Uganda. Not only did the Acholi want the conflict to end, but they wanted to be reconciled with those soldiers from the LRA and UPDF involved in the abductions and killings. Second, using the consensus of the Acholi people, the ARLPI began simultaneously negotiating with both the LRA and the UPDF, even going so far as to meet with their leaders, Joseph Kony and President Museveni, to attempt to broker a peace agreement. This endeavor was a dangerous one, however, as representatives from ARLPI were continuously viewed as being political pawns for either side and were even at times targeted as being actors in the conflict themselves. Despite all of this adversity, ARLPI was an active presence in the peace negotiations between the two sides and was even able to compile and publish reports on the status of the conflict for further dissemination. These publications were then used in presentations abroad that ARLPI leaders were invited to be a part of. These actions eventually helped to lead to the end of conflict in Northern Uganda, although some might still debate whether the conflict had a peaceful ending or resulted from a joint military effort amongst East and Central African nations, supported by the West, to drive the LRA out of Uganda altogether.

Nevertheless, the role of the ARLPI is undeniable on a number of fronts. First, the ARLPI actively assisted in drafting provisions for amnesty for those who were part of the LRA and the UPDF. As a result, many of the soldiers who fought on either side were granted forgiveness for crimes committed as part of the conflict through a traditional Acholi ritual, mato oput, which focuses on forgiveness and reconciliation instead of revenge. Through this process, those responsible for committing atrocities during the conflict were welcomed back into the Acholi community after taking responsibility for their actions, drinking bitter herb (signifying the washing away of bitterness), and offering compensation to the individual, family, or clan whom they wronged. Another way ARLPI was involved in the healing and restoration of Acholi culture was through assisting with land conflicts and other social disputes as a result of the relocation of Acholi IDPs. When the Acholi sought to resettle upon their ancestral lands, they found their homes destroyed, their crops uprooted, and their livestock no longer there. Hoekema explains that many young Acholi began to believe that much of their food came from U.N. shipments instead of the traditional methods of farming and land usage.

Despite all of the support which came during wartime, there was not a lot of aid given to the Acholi during the rebuilding phrase after the IDP camps were no longer. This required organizations such as ARLPI to solicit funds and form programs which would seek to provide education, training, and resources for many Acholi who simply needed to rebuild their lives after such a devastating conflict. In addition to much of this material support, ARLPI and its partners also sought to provide counseling and other social supports to those Acholi impacted by the conflict so they could heal in a more holistic manner. The ARLPI also sought to overcome dependence on outsiders and develop local accountability in the process. In order to achieve these objectives, ARLPI has sought to promote a stronger sense of sustainability in its initiatives, allowing the Acholi people the ability to maintain agency as part of this larger process, attempting to shift the responsibility of healing and reconciliation to individuals, families, and local clans. Hoekema notes that this can take place through “vocational training” and “peace camps” where individuals are encouraged to build new lives after the conflict (226).

As We Are the Voice of the Grass conveys the immediate impact of the ARLPI is clearly the role the organization played in helping to mobilize consensus amongst their Acholi brothers and sisters against the perpetual conflict between the LRA and the UPDF. While both sides seemed to benefit vis-à-vis their patron states, each of whom had their own strategic interests to advance, the grass was nonetheless trampled. Hoekema, through the use of applied philosophy, a rich understanding of the context of the historical, political, and religious background of Uganda, and a belief that adherents to a particular religious tradition were stronger together than they were apart, leaves the reader with a clear message in a world which desperately needs to hear stories of hope, redemption, and peace. In reality, the power of the work of ARLPI should not only be limited to a group of faithful Catholic, Muslim, and Protestant leaders in Northern Uganda and their efforts to bring a brutal and bloody conflict to an end. This model of interfaith activism could also be replicated in other parts of East Africa and the African continent, as well as other parts of the world. For, after all, we as human beings have so many more similar aspirations, beliefs, and goals than we do differences. And, as the ARLPI has shown in Hoekema’s We Are the Voice of the Grass: Interfaith Peace Activism in Northern Uganda, nothing is impossible when religious leaders from different faith perspectives seek to collaborate in order to achieve a common goal.

Cite this article
Jeremy Norwood, “We Are the Voice of the Grass —An Extended Review”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:3 , 295-300

Jeremy Norwood

Spring Arbor University
Jeremy Norwood is Professor of Sociology at Spring Arbor University and serves as Chair of the Department of Sociology, Global Studies, and Criminal Justice.