Rick Gregory, Writer

Translating Messages From Heads To Hearts

As I scanned the small gathering, the body language � especially of the warriors was all wrong. Their eyes sent chills cascading down my spine despite the heat of the African savannah.

The name of the village was Lopeduru Aparukude, situated in the bush about 20km away from the trading center at Nabilatuk in the province of South Karamoja, in the Northeast of Uganda near the Kenyan border. The people are of the Pian tribe, but known to the rest of the world as the fiercest modern-day warriors � the Karamojong. When we arrived just outside the village after a bicycle ride of nearly 2 hours, several men were lying on the ground in the shade of a giant acacia tree, their heads “pillowed” on the tiny wooden stools they carve and carry about with them. It was 10:30 in the morning and already scorching. None of the women were around and though the village knew we were coming, these men barely moved as we dismounted. However, when my backpack came off the bicycle rack, and my yellow Nalgene bottle flopped free, one of the old ones jerked up on one elbow, asking what I “carried” with me. When I told him it was only water, he lay back down, disappointed, hoping I had come to share some waragi with them! Waragi is the brutally intoxicating banana liquor made locally � what we�d call moonshine here in the US!

Damac (pronounced, da-mash) Felix, the older of my two translators began some preliminary introductions, asking them to send for the traditional animal healers (these are the ones often referred to as “witch doctors”). Once the healers arrived we would begin the formal interview and survey I had been commissioned to complete by Dr. Jean Grade, DVM and missionary sent out by the Christian Veterinary Mission. The survey was designed to catalog indigenous knowledge from the healers about different ways animals (especially goats) medicated themselves, and then which specific plants the sick animals sought out for their treatment. In addition, we wanted to know if the healers used any of the same medicinal plants or treatments on humans. This was the first time I had conducted the survey without Dr. Jean�s assistance and I felt privileged to participate in her vision of using her love for animals and expertise with their care to gain entrance to the hearts of the cattle-loving Karamojong. It seemed she had found the secret to being Jesus� hands and feet to this majestic people.

Once the healers came, Damac Felix began the formal introduction process. He spoke for a long time � longer than I thought the information should take. While he spoke, I watched the people, wondering what they were hearing . . . and what they were thinking. As I scanned the small gathering, the body language � especially of the warriors was all wrong. The coldness of their eyes sent chills cascading down my spine. I leaned over and asked Onyang John (my younger translator) to tell me what Damac was saying. He said Damac was telling them how important the white man was (me), and how it was their duty to answer whatever questions I had for them. He was explaining how I had left a lucrative American career in construction to study animal science and now I had come to Karamoja to get further training in how animals act. How I was in a special program in University for studying animals and that I thought the Karamojong had real knowledge I could use . . .

Part of what he was saying was true, but it was presented in such a way that made me look as though I had simply come to use them. Though I knew Damac�s intentions were good, I held up my hand to stop him and asked Onyang John to begin translating exactly what I was saying without interpretation or evaluation. I clarified that I was not there on my own behalf, that I was there representing Dr. Jean and KACHEP, the non-profit, non-governmental organization set up for and run by Karamojong themselves! Their countenances softened a bit, but I still sensed resistance as we went on with the survey.

The actual questions took over an hour to complete. During that time, more warriors gathered around the outskirts of the group, listening, leaning on their AK47�s, watching the interaction between me and the traditional healers. These warriors are men who have been trained from about 5 or 6 years of age to kill with their hands, bow and arrow, knives, spears and guns. They are so fierce that even Joseph Kony, the brutal warlord of the northern Lord�s Resistance Army (LRA), who has kidnapped and enslaved thousands of children and displaced over a million people, refuses to encroach upon their territory! These men are today�s real-life version of Hollywood�s John Rambo (who they actually believe is real person � and whose “life” they strive to imitate)! I know it sounds crazy and so out of place, but in the middle of nowhere � in the bush � in sub-saharan Africa, they know who Rambo is and have somehow found ways to see the movies!

At the conclusion of the survey, it is customary for the one doing the survey (me) and one of the elders present to pray, thanking God for the time and making requests for the village�s people and animals. Whether Christian or not, the Karamojong are very spiritual people, often beseeching God for His favor upon them. One of the elder healers had earlier agreed to pray after me, so I finished my prayer and nodded to him to pray. He said, “I can�t pray.” I asked why not. “I am too angry!” he responded. I started watching the warriors, wondering how they would react to this new development. I asked what he was so angry about. “I am so angry I could collapse!” he yelled. He lifted his tunic and pointed to his emaciated stomach and protruding ribs, then jabbed his finger at me, still yelling, “Look at you! You�re white! You�re fat! We have had 2 years famine and 5 years drought. You have food and you have money. I want it!”

My mind began racing! How do I respond? With their hunger, anger and hostility, I knew they would kill me instantly if they knew how much money I carried. I remembered that according to their culture, I was someone who didn�t own cattle, didn�t know how to fight, carried no weapons and potentially offered no help to them � after demanding something from them. In short, I would be classified as an enemy of the lowest scale and there were no moral implications for them whether they killed me or allowed me to live.

Fortunately, he didn�t know that indeed I did have money, too much money. I had just the day before exchanged the remainder of my US dollars into Ugandan schillings (to pay for my stay in Karamoja and for the balance of my trip) and hadn�t had the time or opportunity to hide it away safely! But I couldn�t give it to him. It would leave me alone in the bush with no cash and no way to pay for my lodging, food and transport back to “civilization.” It would also undermine 7 years of work done by Dr. Jean, during which she sought to partner with the Karamojong rather than create dependencies on Western aid. I still planned to go to other villages to conduct more surveys and if I gave money here, each new village would also want money and feel slighted if they didn�t get any. What I didn�t know � and found out later, was that these very warriors had killed 5 soldiers just two days earlier.

I looked him in the eyes and said, “My heart breaks for the conditions which have caused this hunger and famine. Please remember that I have not come for myself, but on behalf of Dr. Jean and KACHEP (the local organization helping the Karamojong). Our goal is to bring Western technology and knowledge of animals together with the great knowledge of the Karamojong. This joint knowledge will help to prevent future famine and will hopefully insure continued food and resources for the Karamojong. I do not have any food, and I will not give you money.” He returned my gaze, stared at me for what seemed like an eternity and then respond
ed, “You are fat and you are white. White people move with money. I want money.” For the next 20 minutes, we locked eyeballs and went back and forth, him demanding and me refusing money.

Through the course of this “negotiation,” I quickly came to realize that the situation was far beyond my control and understood that my life hung in the balance. I thought of my wife and my family, grieving inwardly at the thought of never seeing them again. I recognized that my risk was likely the same whether I did or didn�t give the money. I opted to trust the Lord and continued to refuse. We had reached an impasse and I saw that he wasn�t going to relent, nor could I.

I told Damac and Onyang that it was time to leave. As much as I feared doing so, I stood up, turned my back on them, shrugging away the chills and began walking toward the bicycles. We mounted up and started what felt like a slow-motion ride away. For the first few minutes, I fully expected the crush of a bullet or an arrow in my back. But it didn�t happen. Somehow, despite his anger, the old one had let us leave. Later I asked my translators whether it was as bad a situation as it felt to me. “It was a miracle they didn�t kill you” was their reply. No kidding.

My first response was, “I�m never going back there again! Anyone would be crazy to attempt any ministry to these ungrateful, cruel people!” But the moment I spoke the words, it dawned on me that the Karamojong are no different than any other people living their lives according to their own story rather than Jesus� Story. The reality was that He had allowed me the privilege of being His hands and feet to them in this instance, and He had spared my life so I could indeed go back and minister His mercy to a desperate people He loves.