We live in an age in which the freedoms and rights of children are non-negotiable, or do we? I met a man whose childhood was literally taken from him by his very own relatives, who was enslaved because of his father’s failure to pay agreed bride price.
Felix Otong tells a sad story of an oppressive norm that to date enslaves many infants in the remote north.
Calm, collected, generous with his smile and terribly comic, it is hard to know that Otong, an established electrical engineer had a dark past. Although his is a sad story, he hopes, telling it will improve the livelihoods of children like him born in conservative parts of the country.
An ignoble birth
Like many other children born in villages, Otong was born in sorry conditions, in a kitchen to be exact, in Lamwo District, one of the new districts in the north on October 30, 1986. As was characteristic of the time, he was born to a mother in her Primary Seven vacation, Concy Ashe and a father, Francis Oroma also in vacation.
His birth was, for obvious reasons, one out of wedlock and so tradition prevailed. Ashe could not keep the child at her home village as the father had not paid luk, a customary appreciation from the male side to the woman’s for every child born. Distraught and without any means to keep him, Otong’s mother had to leave him in the custody of his paternal widowed grandmother, Yokonia Apoko at her home in Kangole, a county in Kitgum district.
The then 83-year-old grandmother had to single handedly raise the baby, as her son had travelled to Jinja to start his secondary studies, where he was to get a job and not return till more than a decade later. “I was the only grandchild of hers living with her,” a reminiscent Otong recalls, “and for that she loved me dearly but even then had to struggle to make ends meet…”
1991 is a year that Otong, then five years old, will never forget. “My maternal grandfather, Paulino Odur came with a bunch of other male relatives to my grandmother (Yokonia) and demanded either of the two things according to tribal custom, the luk which was Shs30,000 at the time, or the boy, (Otong),” he recalls.
The price, given the time and the impoverished state of the widowed granny, was one too high to pay. “Initially, she poised for a fight but seeing her age against a mob of angry men, she had to give me up.” He adds that as was the culture, refusal by one party to comply meant an inter-clan war. “She even rushed to her nearest relative, a man I to date call Uncle Peter, to ask if he could help, but eventually she sorrowfully let me go…”
Life as a child slave
Otong, amid tears, was taken to his mother’s village by the mob that had come to collect him. “I could not stop crying mainly because from the very start they [the maternal relatives] were cruel to me,” he recalls.
Odur bought two piglets and built a sty fit for four hundred or so pigs. Currently an electrical engineer, he estimates, “It was about 250 by 50 (metres).” The money-hungry grandfather placed the pigs and sty in Otong’s custody and gave him a warning that he would never forget, “If any of them dies, you will follow them.”
Along with that, the clueless Otong was verbally given his daily schedule, which for the next five years would be his routine. “I was expected to wake up at 5am daily to release the pigs to eat the waste strewn around the compound, after which I was to sweep the whole compound of the polygamous homestead and then fetch water for cooking porridge and the bathing of the school going children…”
It is obvious that he was deprived of an education, as it was a reserve for the other culturally “legitimate” children. “By this time, the pigs would have eaten all in their reach and so I was to take them to the nearby Abuga River, two kilometres from home, where they would feed on the riverside greens,” he narrates.
Having been forcefully made a pig herder, the closest he had for friends, were the pigs themselves. “They became my best friends and could hear my voice,” he says, adding that “herding them was the easiest time of my day; I would even have an afternoon nap as they ate.”
It was at that very river from which he was to fetch water for cooking that evening, and back home, he was expected to babysit the children of either one of his grandfather’s two wives. His day was to end only after all had retired to their huts and the sty was securely closed.
Occasionally, Otong was forced to escort his shrewd grandfather on night trips to neighbour’s sties from where Odur would steal pigs. “My grandfather never ate one of his pigs, he sold them, however many. He would always steal from the neighbours and have me carry it home…” he recalls.
With Otong doing all the menial jobs for the home while rearing pigs, at such a tender age, it was obvious that he was going to break down sooner or later. At the age of nine, his body could not take more of the increasing load, as the pigs had exponentially multiplied to three hundred.
“A muscle on the right side of my waist coiled and swelled due to the great workload. It became septic and required operation and my paternal grandfather, to avoid having me die in his homestead, convened a meeting in which the men agreed to return me to my grandmother, Yokonia…” It is at this moment that for the first time in the interview, I see his eyes get misty. I ask what his mother’s say was in his cruel treatment and ill health.