22 years ago, Atiak was a chill Acholi Village. The last town you would pass on your way to Sudan, the southern border of which lies just 22 miles north. Because of this location, however, it was the first place that the Lord’s Resistance Army descended upon during the war. One day in 1995, the LRA stormed the village. The separated the pregnant women and children from everyone else, the prelude to massacre. They killed 250 men and women and set the town ablaze. The town was devastated. Over the course of the war, Atiak was unsafe. Which meant that aid organizations like the world food program could not deliver supplies. Those who remained in the town, much like any who lived along the Great North Road between Kampala and Gulu, were constantly subject to fresh raids and abductions.
In 2006, the war finally subsided. In an effort to curb defection, the LRA moved further out into the bush, into the Congo. Finally, the great north road became safe to travel without police or military escort. The world food program has been there for the last six months.
But Atiak is no longer a village, really. It is an IDP camp, a place for those who were displaced from their homes by the war. Women work hard at raising children and working in the fields, gathering what food they can to supplement the WFP. Most of the men are deadbeats who just hang out all day. This is not the traditional Acholi way, I am told.
One day, I accompanied the midwives to Atiak. We were taken by Lam, an Atiak native with links to St. Monica’s. We arrived for a night meeting with the town officials and retired to the Safari Hotel, which is made up of two mud huts covered by bamboo roofs. Atiak is dark. There is no electricity. There is not even light on the horizon from some other city. At the meeting with the elders I could not see the faces of people who were sitting right next to me. Such darkness on land made the perfect settings for light in the sky. Which was so full of stars I had trouble believing that it was the same sky into which I gaze back in Tampa. So I told Lam that I might like to go on a walk from the hotel and check out the sky. He said that this would be inadvisable. There may be people who wish me harm, he said, and the only way it would be safe to travel is if he accompanied me, since he knew the language and was well known in the town.
I heard this and thought about that song that comes on the radio back home incessantly, the one about the dude who wants to take a girl on the tour of the slums, like yo, “as long is you’re with me, baby, you’ll be alright.” Like there is some underlying romance in this idea. Then I thought about the people of Atiak and the crap they have gone through. I thought of Lam, who has dedicated his life to improving this place, to giving his people a future, and finally, of Sean Kingston whose highest ambition is to impress girls by taking them on a tour of places like Atiak. What a stupid song.