PERSPECTIVE OF A UGANDAN IN CANADA
This past weekend, I joined a crowd of 1,500 people in Toronto for the GuluWalk. The unprecedented civil action organised by Canadians Adrian Bradbury and Kieran Hayward aimed to draw world attention to the plight of children in northern Uganda who continue to experience daily violence because of the 19-year-long insurgency.
The walk took place in over 40 cities worldwide that included Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, Seattle, Washington, Beijing, Gulu, Kampala, London, Nairobi, Perth (Australia); Stockholm (Sweden); Sucre (Bolivia), and Uzice (Serbia).
In London, the event was led by Rwot David Onen Acana II while Peace Mediator Betty Bigombe walked in Washington, DC.
The Toronto GuluWalk was a 12-kilometre hike starting from Lawrence Subway station straight down Yonge Street (touted as the longest street in the world) to Metro Hall in the heart of Torontoâ€™s business district.
For me, it was not the distance that was overwhelming but the sheer number of people of many races and backgrounds coming for one thing only â€” to show solidarity with the children from my own backyard, the children of northern Uganda. The sky which had been gorgeous with glorious sunshine the previous day was an ugly grey.
Temperature fell even as the crowd assembled for the beginning of the walk.
Adrian paced back and forth, visibly worried that the foul weather would scuttle the event. Bishop Baker Ochola on hand to lead the walkers took temporary refuge in a nearby warm coffee shop. Only those who clearly believed in the cause could brave such unfriendly blast from the chilled wind. But, by a quarter to five when the march was ready to roll, the crowd had swollen to over 1000 strong and growing fast.
Many participants â€”Canadians, Ugandans from all regions, Africans of different nationalities â€” all came for the same reason: the war had gone unnoticed for far too long, taken too many lives especially of children and the time was now to stop it.
This was not just an Acholi tragedy but a humanitarian catastrophe that required immediate international action. From Brampton, Mrs. Maureen Bikangaga, and her three young children Rukundo, 7, Ampiire, 5, and Ariyo, 2, and family friend Sanyu Galabuzi, 7, braved the rain because â€œthis is something we have talked about in the family and feel strongly about.â€ Even Toronto Police Services currently in the middle of a labour dispute with the City of Toronto for better pay, put aside grievances to donate time to supervise the walk along the busy Yonge street.
Someone commented that the crowd was made up of hard-core supporters of the walk who would have walked anyway, rain or shine. â€œI am not hard-core because this is my first walk, I just happened to believe that this is importantâ€ responded a woman in a yellow rain-coat.
At around 5:00pm, as the rain pounded the assembled walkers, Adrian and Kieran addressed them and the TV and print media. He thanked everyone for taking time to show support for the children in Acholi. â€œWe hope that this walk will not be necessary ever again when the children return to lead a normal life,â€ said Adrian to cheers from the crowd. Then, as two Toronto cruisers with lights flashing led the way and a team of uniformed officers on bicycles raced along, the walk got underway. Startled drivers rolled down car windows to ask what the walk was all about.
Why so many people were walking in the cold rain, they asked. The police and the walkers shouted the same response â€” this was about the children of northern Uganda.
Many drivers nodded in silent understanding as if to say, â€œWell, itâ€™s okay to interrupt traffic for the children of Uganda.â€
Others honked in support. Shoppers stopped to look. Some joined the march once they understood what it was about.
Toronto police officers meanwhile worked feverishly at all intersections, allowing the walkers to cross the streets safely. The rain continued to test the resolve of the walkers, intensifying as the line snaked past Eglinton, St. Clair, Bloor, College, Dundas, Queen and King Street.
There was steely determination in the eyes of every walker now soaked to the bone. My throat swelled with emotion seeing the little children holding tightly to their parents as they ran to keep up. This was about the survival of little children from where I come from, I told whoever cared to listen.
There and then, if wishes could come true, I would have invited the whole lot to someday come to Acholiland to meet the very people they were supporting. Many did indicate plans to go to Uganda in the very near future.
Those like â€œJaja Steveâ€ who had just returned from working trips in Uganda were already planning their return.
At the end of the walk, cheers and ululation filled the night sky. There was hot coffee and specially minted tea from New Bilan Somali Restaurant on Dundas. Strangers hugged â€” black, white, and Ugandans from all backgrounds, coming together in unity.
Bishop Ochola stood up proudly to thank everyone for showing solidarity with the children of northern Uganda. â€œWe do not feel alone anymore because we know you care deeply about us, and I thank you sincerely from the bottom of my heart,â€ he told the cheering crowd. I did not feel alone any more.