In Uganda, Mourners Proudly Recall a Son, Oryema, Musician Who Gained Global Fame

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Oryema performing "Land of Anaka". Source: YouTube.

GULU, Uganda--In the Acholi Culture, a funeral is celebrated differently depending on the age and contributions the deceased made to society. Heroes were mourned using songs such as “Oryema Oweko paco odong malik ada, too ngo ma okwanyo oteka wa, Oluma ma yam cung iwi awobe” literally meaning "thick darkness has engulfed our homes following the death of the Captain of our army. The fearsome one who led the way in combat."

So it is, with the loss of Geoffrey Oryema.

“In this land of Anaka, they called us Payira. Obiga Tela yoo. Tela Yoo wek Acet anen Otara”.

A deep phrase. Too deep for the heart. I am talking about the abridged version of the Song “Land of Anaka” whose architect was Oryema, the son to the first African Inspector General of the Uganda Police Force Erinayo Wilson Oryema. He succumbed to cancer in Paris, France, on Friday last week.

His remains have been cremated in France, according to media reports.

In "Land of Anaka”, Oryema was singing about the gruesome atrocities of conflict which had engulfed his homeland in Anaka, in the northern part of Uganda for nearly two decades. The Peace ambassador released the song in 1990, at a time when hopes for a Peaceful resolution of the conflict had just been dashed by unrealistic orders issued by Dictator Yoweri Museveni for the rebel groups fighting his government from the north to surrender or be summarily executed.

Oryema's song pleaded with the parties in the conflict to return to the negotiating table to resolve the conflict peacefully. The song became the fabric of hopes in many suffering homesteads playing repeatedly on FM radio stations, pubs and homesteads comforting the helpless Luo people to become prisoners of hope.

Singing in the language of his youth, Acholi, In addition to Kiswahili and French, Oryema’s works for peace transcended many boundaries. At a Nelson Mandela Concert in Wembley Stadium, Oryema featured alongside world renowned musicians including Tracy Chapman in his native Acholi Language. With his deep vocal, he sang “Joni Oweko Dano Oto Ilum Kwica…. Joni Oweko Dano Oto Ilum Kwica …” as he campaigned against Apartheid policy in South Africa. He was saying they tragically massacred people in the jungles and left their bodies bare.

Elsewhere, his music has defined the African roots to the Western World and they were featured in Hollywood as movie soundtracks. His death has dealt a huge blow to the people for whom he fought for peace, the rule of law, democracy and justice. This is the major reason for which he is greatly missed back home where he grew up, in the northern part of Uganda.

John Okello, a media personality at the Northern Uganda Media Club describes the late Geoffrey Oryema as a “well accomplished laureate, human rights activist and peace maker whose work will never be forgotten."

Ambassador Olara Otunnu the former U.N. Under-Secretary General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict knew Geoffrey Oryema well and they both lived in France in the 1980s. He says losing Oryema is a huge blow to the creative industry.

“I cannot talk on behalf of the entire Acholi people, but on my own behalf, I was a personal friend to the late Geoffrey Oryema. And his loss in non-other than a huge blow to the world, something I am struggling to come to terms with”, Dr. Otunnu stated.

Oryema was smuggled out of the Country in the trunk of a car in 1977 at the age of 24 via Kenya after Dictator Idi Amin murdered his father, Lt. Col Oryema, a cabinet minister; he was killed together with Charles Oboth Ofumbi, Internal Affairs Minister alongside the Janani Luwum, the courageous Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Boga Zaire, who had publicly denounced Amin's murderous regime. Dictator Amin publicly accused them of treason a day before they were purportedly killed in a road accident.

Dr. Otunnu says despite the tragic loss of his dad, Oryema emerged as the voice for justice for the people of Uganda. Just like his father, Lt. Col. Oryema he learned to strum the guitar with his bare fingers after playing Lukeme, a traditional thumb piano, for many years. His mother too, was an Adungu (harp) player. Otunnu says in the case of the Oryema family “Mac onywalo mac, not mac onywalo buru", meaning fire begot fire instead of ashes.

Charles Odoki Amuka, an official of Patiko chiefdom says Geoffrey Oryema rose through the corridors of challenges to replace his late father. “He started in his humble way with Gong Gong theater group in Kampala, founded by his father the late Erinayo Oryema. However when he reached France he gave a dignity to the Acholi people", he said. “I got the privilege of meeting him when we went to Germany in 2012. We were invited to a music festival. Whom did we get? Geoffrey Oryema, our own son who was playing the entertaining music to the foreign dignitaries in Germany.”

"He did a lot for the people and if there is anything like an award for Acholi people, I won’t hesitate to give him”, he concluded.

Wod Okello Lawoko, the former Director of Uganda Broadcasting Company - Radio Uganda, says the late Geoffrey Oryema made Uganda very fond of him and was an encouragement to other young people. "It is very unfortunate that he has passed on at a time he is most wanted", he said.

Wod Omal David, the Station Manager of Radio Rupiny in Gulu Town says “it is a great loss for the people of the north, he has, put Acholi in the world map” adding that “we have lost a musician whose music helped reflect on social conditions of society; the world should do something in his memory to build a theater in Acholi to inspire the current and future generations”.

Geoffrey Azuma the District Communication Officer from Nwoya, the Anaka land where the late Geoffrey Oryema hailed from, says for him, the death of Oryema is not a loss for Acholi only but for Uganda and the world.

“His type of music is rare and you can hardly find in Uganda. He briefly spent his life in Uganda but his music is forever in our hearts” Azuma stated.

In his home city of Nwoya, politicians are preparing something big in his memory. They want to name streets after him and his father Lt. Col Oryema to preserve their memory.

Margret Adong, a businesswoman in Anaka town has endorsed the view. She says the ancestral home of the late Oryema should be developed into an International Museum to showcase the culture of the Acholi people and celebrate the gift God gave in the Oryemas.

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