EPITAPH FOR MY CHAIRMAN

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By John Muto-Ono p’Lajur

If I were to determine the kind of words to be engraved on the tomb of my dear friend and the chairman who presided over my wedding committee meetings in 2014, the late ‘Mike’ Ocan, my epitaph would simply read: “Here lies a true and genuine Acholi nationalist”.

I first knew Mike as one of the Anglican parishioners at Christ Church in the heart ofGulu Municipality, where I was serving as a voluntary catechist, soon after my release from a two-year prison term as a political prisoner in 1988. 

I knew him as a quiet and committed Christian who never missed Sunday services and other church programs like parish council meetings. It was during this period that the parish council resolved to start Christ Church Nursery School and we therefore applied to Gulu Municipal Council to lease us two plots of land adjacent to the one on which the main church structure was built. I didn’t know his job then, but it was only much later that I learnt he was the headmaster of Awere Senior Secondary School.

On the fateful day that he passed on, February 22, 2017, I was visiting him at St. Mary’s Hospital Lacor without knowing it would be my last opportunity to see him alive, shake his hands and also talk to him. It was about one o’clock in the afternoon (about 10.00 GMT) when I knocked on the door of the private room of Medicine ward of the hospital where he was an in-patient. He looked healthy and there was no reason for anyone to suspect that his time on earth was up.

“You are welcome my friend, Muto. Welcome for lunch”, he tells me in an exceptionally happy mood as he instructs his wife to serve me lunch. I sat on a chair next to his bed where he was sitting and enjoying pasted dried fish with millet bread. His shoes were freshly polished.

“We are preparing to take your friend to Gulu District Council Hall this afternoon where validation exercises of all pensioners are taking place”, his wife and also woman Member of Parliament for Gulu district, Mrs. Betty Aol Ocan, tells me as she serves me lunch.

Before I could even take the first morsel of the food served by his wife, he gave a faint chocking sound as if some of the food he was eating had gone through the wind pipe instead of the normal channel where food passes to the stomach. The plate of food he was holding as he ate tilted as if it was falling off his hands. He was looking as if someone who is tired and would like to rest.

His sisters in the room rushed to his rescue, took away the plate from his hands and helped lay him on his back as his wife rushed out to call the doctor and the nurses on duty and also to phone his family doctor, Dr. Davidson Ocen, who also works in the same hospital.

The room soon became a beehive of emergency activities by the medics. They began by removing the shirt he was wearing while others trolled into the room, the oxygen cylinder and connected tubes to his nostrils and then switched it on. Before his family doctor sent many of us who were in the room out, they were trying to pump air into him by pressing his stomach in an in-and-out rhythm. That was the last scene I can remember my closest and best friend ever.

Outside, we became restless but eager to follow what was taking place inside the room as minutes ticked away. Each time the door was opened we would try to peep inside. His first born, Mr. Jimmy Odoki Acellam, was even more troubled, restless and became withdrawn, preferring to wait from the reception area of the ward instead of from near the door to the room.

We were only summoned back into the room about thirty minutes later by the sudden wailings coming from inside by his wife and sisters who remained with the medics. We knew at once that he has left us forever. Doctors said he died of heart failure.

We entered the room and found a nurse pushing cotton wool into his nostrils and mouth. The tubes connected to his nostrils for pumping in oxygen had already been removed. Preparations to take the now still body to the Hospital mortuary had begun.

His sister, Jackie, who is their last born, poured some water in a basin and wiped his face with a handkerchief. Later his sisters, Jackie and Rose, put his shirt back on and covered the body with a pair of bed-sheets. When the mortuary attendant brought in the trolley to ferry the body to the fridge in the mortuary, we helped carry the body in the trolley.

No one spoke a word, except that we were all sobbing with tears rolling down our chins as we hum Christian hymns and choruses and head to the mortuary at about two o’clock in the afternoon. Many visitors who had come to visit their patients in the wards, or were sitting together with their patients under tree-sheds in the hospital compound getting protection from the scorching afternoon sun heat, watched our procession in silence.

After delivering the body in one of the cold fridges, we retreated to the home of Dr. Ocen at the Doctors’ village as he arranged for transport to take us to senior quarters-their official residence, although this time, without one spouse- Mr. Mike. Many of us began to break the sad news to close relatives, friends and the general public through phone calls and social media.

Many mourners had already gathered at home by the time we arrived at about four-thirty in the afternoon. That evening, we convened a meeting and decided on where and when he would be buried. We also formed the burial committee to draw up a budget.

During burial on March 2, 2017 at his ancestral home at Putika in Agoro sub-county which located over five hundred kilometers away from the capital city of Kampala and close to South Sudan border, retired Anglican bishop of the Diocese of Kitgum, Rt. Rev. Macleod Baker Ocholla II described him as a ‘fearless hero’.

“I consider him ‘munyalem’ (a fearless hero) who would stand up to face a roaring lion or elephant and be the first to spear such an animal during hunting expeditions” said Bishop Ocholla II.

His widow eulogized her husband saying he was a man with a very large heart for education and doing God’s work’ adding, she considered him her ‘first born’.

Thousands of mourners including Members of Parliament, academia, people of all denominations, politicians of all political divide, leaders and the local community from all over the country attended the send-off. All those who had the opportunity to speak during burial also eulogized him as one who served humanity diligently. The family slaughtered six bulls to feed mourners. It became a celebration of his life well lived instead of mourning him, and for the rare unity the people portrayed. Several mourners joined the widow in dancing to the tune of a special dirge sung in his memory by one of the local artist.

Born on January 2, 1954 to an East African Railways worker, the late Batulumayo Langoya and the late Mrs. Veronica Lamunu Langoya, the late Mike wedded his longtime partner, Mrs. Betty Aol Ocan on Saturday August 25, 2012 in what Bishop Ocholla II described as a momentous occasion for the couple’.

“No doubt, this is the wedding of the year that fills our hearts with an immeasurable joy and happiness, as we all join in the celebration of the union between Michael and Betty. This is one of the happiest moments of their life as husband and wife. This new family of Michael and Betty has set a new parameter concerning our unity as a people and a nation…a shared future for our prosperity”, Bishop Ocholla II, who conducted the union of the new couple at Christ Church in Gulu, told the congregation.

I followed his footprints two years later when I chose him to be the chairman of my wedding committee to my longtime partner, Mrs. Cecilia Aber Muto. I had no money of my own except a donation of US$ 100 (about UGX. 250,000.00 at that time) from my friend Mr. Milton Allimadi, who lives in the United States of America (USA) for the wedding.

Up to now, I still don’t know how Mike managed to mobilize and assemble resources to support the wedding budget, which was in several millions of shillings, for which I remain indebted to him. He chose wedded retired civil servants and their wives, who were all in their sixties and grandparents, as groomsmen and maids while the best-man and matron was my OB at Sir Samuel Baker School, Mr. Phillip & Mrs. Christine Okech. Some of my grandchildren were among the peg boys and flower girls.

Although I wanted to put on my usual wear on the wedding day, a kind of wear I prefer which makes me identify with the local community who were just recovering from a two-decade civil war, my friend would not hear of it. He preferred a brand new tailor-made suit. The suit was my first suit the people of Gulu saw me wear; and my wife now prefers that I wear suits for every event we are invited for.

It was another wedding of the year on Saturday April 26, 2014 at the same church where Mike and Betty went to, that I walked and led my wife of thirty-seven years, to the altar for the blessing of our union, which was also presided over by Bishop Ocholla II.

I and Mike became close and more intimate soon after a new newspaper, The Monitor, started its weekly circulations on Wednesdays countrywide, around September 1992. There were only two newspapers then, the State-own The New Vision newspaper and The Weekly Topic newspaper. I would always meet him when he comes to collect copies of the three newspapers for his school from newspaper agent, Omer Store, which belonged to our fellow parishioner at Christ Church, Kenneth Onen (RIP).

I would always be at Omer Store every morning to read and compare news of the war which was going on between the government forces, the National Resistance Army-NRA, (later renamed in 1995 to Uganda Peoples Defense Forces-UPDF) and the rebel outfit, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) which were published by those newspapers. Somehow, we developed liking the accuracy with which The Monitor publishes its stories. We would compare stories on the war by the three publications with what we witness on the ground and we would always conclude that the Monitor was more accurate.

When The Monitor newspaper advertised for positions of regional correspondents for the different regions of Uganda I gladly applied. Later, I received a letter dated February 8, 1993, signed by Mr. Charles Onyango-Obbo as the editor, appointing me on trial for six months as the correspondent based in Gulu. My friend Mike was exceptionally very excited after reading this letter.

Another letter Mr. Onyango-Obbo gave us, was the ABC’s of how to be a good writer-especially the 5Ws+H formula, which became my first lesson in journalism. He also instructed us to be the ‘voice for the voiceless’ by giving platform for victims, witnesses and local leaders who often don’t feature anywhere in the national paper instead of quoting government officials.

I offered literature in English in both ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels during secondary education, served the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) as a trained intelligence staff and also worked as a social worker with the Diocese of Northern Uganda. I didn’t get major challenges in starting my new job as a journalist. I worked diligently as a journalist with the Monitor until 2007, when I retired due to ill-health and because of the fact that the war had technically come to an end. The LRA had withdrawn from the region into DRC forests after the parties at war signed cessation of hostility agreement and had initiated Peace Talks in South Sudan capital city, Juba.

When I started working for The Monitor, the new Vision also started publishing a Luo language regional weekly newspaper, Rupiny, and recruited Mr. Pelegrine Otonga as its first correspondence based in Gulu. The New Vision furnished its office on Plot No. 1, Queen’s avenue. Mr. Otonga was given the extra task of recruiting more reporters for both Rupiny and The New Vision.

It was Mike who advised me to also begin writing for Rupiny, little did I know that through this we would soon start an association of journalists operating in the region called ‘Gulu Press Club’ which we later renamed ‘The Northern Uganda Media Club’ (NUMEC), when we wanted to register and make it a legal entity. It has remained the first media association outside Kampala which is active todate.

On the political scene during this period, was campaign to elect members of the Constituency Delegates whose job was to go and write a new constitution for Uganda. I and Mike found ourselves on the task force of a young lady, Mrs. Christine Lubwa Oryema-Lalobo who was one of the candidates campaigning to represent Gulu Municipality in the CA.

It was Mike who came to my home together with Mrs. Christine to comfort and console me after our candidate lost to an old veteran politician, Lord Andrew Adimola. I had collapsed because I did not take the defeat honorably. This experience was my first lesson in politics.

With the help of Mike, I and Mr. Pelegrine Otonga published the first list of ‘Acholi cabinet’, composed of all the members of Acholi Constituent Assembly Delegates (CAD), in Rupiny newspaper. We envisioned that the CADs should ensure that issues that affect the Acholi community were captured in the new Constitution, especially the land tenure question.  

While other CADs hailed us for coming out with the cabinet list, others who were aligned and sponsored by the ruling NRM party, did not like our idea, arguing that it would alienate us from other tribes. It however generated a lot of debate among the Acholi community, especially the elites. They began to discuss the question of what do we want as Acholi?’ or ‘who is our leader who can speak for us?’ The end to the LRA insurgency was not in sight.

Two years later, the Acholi cultural institution was revived in 1995. In 1997, there was the first grand Acholi meeting organized in London called ‘Kacoke Madit (KM) with one main objective: to contribute to the resolution of the LRA insurgency.

People were herded to ‘Protected Villages’ where WHO estimated that one thousand civilians died weekly due to preventable illness. There was need for them to go back to their homes and reconstruct their lives.

The meeting brought together people from both the Diaspora and Uganda comprising of cultural, religious, civic leaders, victims of the war and from all political divide including LRA delegates. I give credit to Mike because it was after our ‘cabinet list’ came out that all these rapid developments took place. The peace that we now have could not have come quickly if the likes of Mike were not there.

After the election of 2016, and President Yoweri Museveni sworn in, my friend Mike, had another thing in his mind, an assignment he wanted me to work on. One evening, I received a phone call from him summoning me to his home the next morning. When I arrived, the first thing he said to me was to question me: “What is Acholi Agenda in the twenty-first century?”

We discussed this question and we agreed that we should consult widely and generate issues which are pertinent to the people of Acholi. He offered three issues; Unity question, the Land question and the Higher Education question.

In response, I went and reached out to my Facebook friends who are Acholi and requested them to send me three most important issues each, of what they think should be included in what should be a document detailing Acholi Agenda. The result was splendid. I bonded a 68 page and 8733-word document and gave a copy to the Prime Minister of Ker Kwaro Acholi.

From December 19-21, 2019, there will be an Acholi National Conference (ANC) discussing the same issue Mike requested me to generate three years ago. He was a true Acholi nationalist with a vision who knew how to exploit the media.

He was also one of those Acholi elites who funded the revival of the controversial Oyengyeng (Earthquake) Publications Limited which used to publish Oyengyeng newspaper at the peak of the LRA insurgency from Kampala. Run by a veteran journalist, Mr. Livingstone Okumu-Langol aka Lumute, Oyengyeng is now online.

When Dr. John Olara Otunnu initiated the first commemoration of the martyrdom of St. Janani Luwum, the third Anglican Archbishop at Namirembe on February 16, 2015, he chose Mike to chair the Local Organizing Committee (LOC). Mike would always make sure that I accompany him to Kitgum whenever he goes to chair meetings of the LOC. He would use his own means of transport without transferring the burden to the finance committee. He was a very patriotic Acholi.

I will not have done justice to my friend Mike if I don’t mention the fact that The Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (HSMF) of priestess Alice Auma Lakwena abducted him from Awere Senior Secondary School in 1986 where he was headmaster.

The HSMF waged a war from August 1986 to October 1987 against ‘perceived evil not only an external enemy represented by the National Resistance Army (NRA) of the government of Mr. Yoweri Museveni, but internal enemies in the form of impure soldiers, witches and sorcerers’.

They used ‘Spiritual controllers’ in all units of HSMF who would smear shea nut oil which they claim is ‘holy and blessed oil’ on combatants that it was supposed to stop bullets of the enemy if the combatant’s soul was pure.

They believed that stones which were blessed would ‘explode like grenades’ and combatants ‘walked into combat in cross-shaped formation while singing hymns’.

You can imagine that Mike went through such terrible experiences and still survived NRA fire which traumatized him up to his deathbed. He never talked to me about that experience, except that a former soldier in the rebel outfit, one Christopher Akite, vilely mentioned to me that Alice Lakwena had chosen Mike to lead the country instead of her if she took over power.

He however gave extensive interview to Professor Heike Behrend, who quoted him extensively in her book: ‘Alice Lakwena and the Holy Spirit Movement, War in Northern Uganda 1986-1997’.

He was only rescued by the NRA on October 1987 from Busoga sub-region when the HSMF was finally defeated from a hostile ground to the HSMF. The rebel had threatened to cross River Nile onto Kampala to overthrow Museveni and establish their government. Kampala was less than one hundred kilometers away.

He underwent chakamchaka (political education on NRM ideology) before being re-deployed to Awere to resume his duty as an administrator.

If I were to determine the kind of words to be engraved on the tomb of my dear friend and the chairman who presided over my wedding committee meetings in 2014, the late ‘Mike’ Ocan, my epitaph would simply read: “Here lies a true and genuine Acholi nationalist”.

FARE THEE WELL MIKE!

The author has been in the media since February 1993. Having worked with the Monitor Publications Limited, he now writes for Black Star News (online).

 

 

 

 

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