Juliane Okot Bitek knows the power of narrative. An award winning writer living in Vancouver, Canada, Okot Bitek is also an Acholi woman who calls Gulu in Northern Uganda home. Considering the civil war (1986- 2006) that plagued northern Ugandans, it’s no wonder much of Okot Bitek’s passionate writing focuses on social and political issues. In the last decade, through her poetry, essays, fiction, nonfiction and opinion pieces, Okot Bitek has fought both to make sense of, and to expose the tragedies of her homeland.

Okot Bitek comes to writing through an impressive lineage. Her late father is the famed Ugandan poet, essayist, novelist and academic, Okot p’Bitek, who was, shortly before his death in 1982, appointed as the first professor of Creative Writing at Makerere University in Kampala. Things weren’t always so rosy, however. As a result of her father’s work, Okot Bitek and her family spent the early years of her childhood in exile in Kenya. As a result of this history, Okot Bitek is no stranger to political strife and social unrest. Still, in spite of this, she describes the pleasure of growing up in a house full of books and lively debates between her parents and their literary and artistic friends. Some of Africa’s luminaries were regular houseguests: Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and David Rubadiri were men she called uncle, and on a given day they might be filling the Okot Bitek household with their intellect, their opinions and their friendship.

Growing up in such an environment would make anyone sensitive to the importance of storytelling. As Okot Bitek says, “Stories are everything. Without a story, none of us exists.” But it’s not just the significance of narrative that is so dear to Okot Bitek, she is sensitive to the invisibility and the silence that shrouds those whose stories don’t get heard. This is evident in the work she has recently completed, which is provisionally titled Stories From the Dry Season. Collaborating with Dr. Erin Baines of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia and Grace Acan, a women’s advocate and LRA survivor, Okot Bitek took on this work as a way to tell the stories of women from northern Uganda who were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (L.R.A) and who eventually returned to civilian life after long and terrible years of abuse and assault.

A doctoral student at UBC herself, Okot Bitek recently participated in a poetry reading at the Liu Institute for Global Issues with one of the subjects of her book and co-author, Grace Acan. In 1996 Acan was abducted, along with many other girls, from her school in Uganda when she was only 16. For eight years she was the captive of rebels, living a terrifying and unstable life in the bush as a “rebel wife”. She bore two children during this time, but tragically, one of her them was killed in an attack by the Ugandan army. Attempts at escape by other bush wives were met with brutal beatings, even murder, but eventually Grace did escape and she is now a university student who is also involved in the Women’s Advocacy Network, a local NGO that seeks justice for women affected by the war in Uganda.

More on Grace Acan can be found here.

And an interview with Grace Acan can be heard here:

In conversation, Okot Bitek describes the war in Uganda as a silent genocide that was ignored by the world and by Uganda’s own president, Yoweri Museveni. It is estimated that Joseph Kony, leader of the L.R.A., and his rebels abducted over 30,000 children who were forced to fight, were savagely beaten, starved and raped. Thus, even from the relative safety of Vancouver, Okot Bitek feels a strong sense of the writer’s role as educator. As Okot Bitek says, “literature must destabilize the reader”, and through this destabilization, it is her hope that individuals may not only learn information, but learn to act on it.

Given her background and her interest in social issues, I knew that Okot Bitek’s reaction to the recent “Kony 2012″ campaign by the organization Invisible Children would be strong. As an activist, Okot Bitek had the opportunity to speak with Invisible Children’s Ben Keesey. She describes her outrage at the video and its fallout as stemming from “obvious miss-takes that were explained away as the simplification of facts “for which Keesey’s rationale was that “invisible Children’s intended audience was high school students and the history of Uganda is too complicated to explain in the limited amount of time they had invested in the video.”

Asked to elaborate on her issues with the Kony 2012 campaign, Okot Bitek explains:

My problem with the video was that they had packaged an outdated reality of thousands of people in an entertaining short video which then took advantage of the viewers’ naiveté and intentionally harnessed that ignorance into a money-making machine that promised the viewer that their actions could lead to a permanent solution. That’s not true, one cannot tweet and re-tweet a new reality for millions of people…ultimately Kony 2012 blanketed the reality of life in Uganda, and specifically northern Ugandans who are struggling to get back to a life of normalcy after two decades of war as they watch their kids die of nodding disease. Invisible Children had the opportunity to do great work to change the lives of people in northern Uganda using the potential energy they harnessed but instead they used it to take away from a tragic situation…If the international community wanted to help or be involved in finding solutions for things like nodding disease, they’d probably be welcomed as collaborators, not as saviours.

More of Okot Bitek’s thoughts on Invisible Children and other such campaigns can be found in a piece here and here.

Okot Bitek’s commitment to her writing and to her community has led her to be interviewed by various media outlets including the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Her interview can be heard here.

In the end, however, what Okot Bitek really wants you to know about Uganda is that “it is a country of warm and wonderful people. It is also a gorgeous country, with a varied landscape, flora and fauna.”

It is rare and wonderful to meet someone who comes from the literary heritage of Okot Bitek, and who remains committed to telling stories that otherwise might not get the kind of attention that they deserve as Okot Bitek has done in Stories from the Dry Season. Given her background, Okot Bitek knows how important it is to shine a light in dark places and to tell certain subjects into existence so that all the world can truly hear.

A moving excerpt written by Okot Bitek for African Writing Online based on Grace’s experience in the LRA can be read here.

You can hear and see Okot Bitek reading her piece “A Poem for Ali Farzat” here.


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