Keromela Anek tossed her naked body back and forth in the roadway, blocking a government convoy in the remote village of Apaa, Uganda. Lands Minister Daudi Migereko and Minister of Internal Affairs General Nyakairima Aronda had just traveled to the village that day, April 16, with the plan of redistricting it. That would place Apaa in a new region and help facilitate the sale of the peoples’ land to South African investor Bruce Martin, who hoped to use the heavily forested, currently-populated area for sports game hunting.
Upon reaching a roadblock and witnessing Anek and some other women naked and in tears, chanting insults toward the ministerial delegation, Migereko began crying, while Aronda tried his best to avoid looking at the women. Local witnesses claim that Aronda then called Ugandan President Yoweri K. Museveni — a dictator who has been in power for three decades — and received instructions to have his security personnel open fire on the women. If this command was indeed given, Aronda wasn’t able to follow through with it. Instead, he and the other government officials turned their caravan around and left the village.
While the action taken by these village elders may seem spontaneous, it was actually the result of careful organizing — and an event that forever changed Anek’s life. Four years ago, a local councilor came to Apaa with personnel from the Uganda Wildlife Authority, or UWA, and set fire to their huts and crops, claiming that the villagers were residing illegally on what was government property. Anek’s 29-year-old son, Okot Alaba, was stripped naked and beaten to death with his own garden hoe for refusing to leave his home. This marked the beginning of a series of government scare tactics and attempted evictions.
Shortly thereafter, in 2012, Museveni visited a village that neighbors Apaa to threaten its residents that they would soon have to hand over their land to Madhvani, a multinational company notorious for destroying lush forests and developing sugarcane plantations. Upon hearing this news, a group of elderly women listening to his speech promptly disrobed — a powerful omen throughout most of Africa, where it is considered a curse, or “abomination,” to see a naked woman old enough to be one’s mother. Museveni has never visited the area since that day, fearing the power of these female elders.
When the nonviolent action training organization Solidarity Uganda (of which I am a board member) caught wind of this successful demonstration, we connected with local community organizers and developed a training program in Anek’s district, inviting professional nonviolent action consultants from other parts of East Africa to develop tactical skills within the local population. Once local community organizers were thoroughly trained, they began the work of community outreach, while suffering regular death threats and intimidation from government authorities.
Anek’s life went on with great hardship as she assisted her son’s three wives with caring for the nine children Alaba had left behind. In Apaa land is one’s wealth and sustenance. It is a source of survival just as much as it is part of one’s identity.
Recent years have seen fluctuations of environmental and human rights abuses in Apaa. In July 2014, I traveled to Punu-Dyang, a forested area within Apaa village, to compile footage for a documentary film on the land conflict between residents and their government. We interviewed numerous people whose huts, crops and trees were scorched by UWA. A few days later, UWA retaliated, burning down a few dozen more homesteads and firing bullets aimlessly in an attempt to drive people off of their own land.
Displaced residents slept in trading centers or at neighbors’ homes until their own huts were rebuilt. Then, in early April, all hell broke loose. I received a message one night from a community trainer living in a village adjacent to Apaa, saying that UWA had resumed evicting people from their homes and intended to clear the area by morning. I promptly called the Kilak County MP, as well as some other contacts, all of whom said they were rushing to the scene.
By the following morning, hundreds of people from near and far had gathered in the usually-sparse village of Apaa. Local nonviolent action trainers were deployed to identify those organizing the community so that they could come up with a plan of action together.
Anek, like many other mothers of her village of residence and origin, participated in the ongoing community-wide dialogues and waited anxiously for the government’s next move. Pictures of placards, banners and marches circulated via Solidarity Uganda, the county MP and other residents on social media. Some journalists for larger media outlets took note and flocked to the scene, stirring up nationwide conversation.
As the trainees of Solidarity Uganda disseminated their knowledge to the now-massive gathering of people in Apaa, some of the soldiers with the Uganda People’s Defense Force, or UDPF — who had assisted UWA in the nighttime evictions — began fleeing the area, ashamed of themselves for carrying out such terrible orders. Meanwhile, some of the remaining on-duty soldiers started leaving their guns behind, claiming they had no reason to fear attacks by community members anymore. This was a crucial tipping point in winning the solidarity and support of military personnel who were now merely monitoring residents participating in demonstrations rather than intimidating them as they had been so often ordered to do.
This unfolding organic movement was at its peek when the government ministers arrived, ready to extend the border of the neighboring Adjumani District into Apaa as a preliminary step to grabbing nearly 350 square miles of land. What followed — Anek’s heroic action, with the support of her fellow demonstrators — forced the government officials to disobey orders and leave the plans for redistricting unfulfilled.
As if this wasn’t a clear enough win for the people of Apaa, who in recent memory have been subjected to decades of war and displacement under the Lord’s Resistance Army and the UPDF, orders were given for the removal of all UPDF soldiers stationed in Apaa immediately after Anek’s demonstration.
When I recently visited Anek’s homestead in Apaa with other civil society organizations to assess the situation on the ground, there were an abnormally low number of spies deployed. (We know this because local community organizers know who they are.) Tensions have largely subsided, and it is apparent on their faces that residents feel as though they are still celebrating a great victory.
While Solidarity Uganda certainly contributed to cultivating a climate conducive to effective nonviolent action in an area plagued by decades of horrendous violence, it would be erroneous to assume that Solidarity Uganda should receive full credit for the victories attained by Anek and other residents of Apaa. “I alone chose to undress myself because I cannot accept my land to be stolen,” she told me. “I undressed myself because even the ministers were born to naked mothers, so if they wanted to kill me, let them kill their own mothers. I wanted to be killed the way my son was also killed: naked.”
Anek went on to explain how President Museveni had once promised to pin down her people like grasshoppers in a single glass bottle, leaving them to eat one another. “Even when I am killed, nobody should put a single cloth on my corpse,” she demanded. “The one who clothes me during my burial will receive many curses. This is our land; I want to be killed naked and buried naked in it.” This is quite a radical statement in a land where burials of notable community icons are carried out with thousands of mourners and much pomp.
“I have never met anyone as powerful as Anek,” noted a staff member from a civil society organization who joined me on the visit. “Surely this is the most empowered person in our country.”
In a country where one-off demonstrations are the norm for movements and activists, the people of Apaa village and Kilak County as a whole shine bright as an example of a sustained and committed movement to achieve a concrete goal: preventing land grabbing. When I share the tactic of disrobing with audiences in the United States, I am often asked the same question. “Does that really work?” It made some advances in 2012 during Museveni’s visit, but the climax of its power was realized on April 16 when Anek and her fellow grandmothers brought it to the scene of a roadblock and sent their ministers packing.
The ripple effects of Anek’s demonstration have spawned a massive network of individuals and institutions ready to support the cause of land protection. Civil society organizations and environmental groups throughout the nation are beginning to wonder how they can replicate this model of low-budget (or no-budget), high-confrontation land protection efforts. Training programs such as those facilitated by Solidarity Uganda can help these innovations spread like wildfire across the country. With growing instability in East Africa as elections approach in historically dictatorial nations, surely there will be more opportunities to leverage the power of cultural omens and the resolve of peasant grandmothers like Anek.
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