Sunday March 9 2014

I was a slave for five years

Felix Otong, an engineer, at work at Biyinzika

Felix Otong, an engineer, at work at Biyinzika Enterprises. He believes he is lucky to have come this far after having been mistreated by family. 

By Joseph Lagen

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.

“My mum was obviously a woman, and being a woman in that society implied you had no say in clan meetings, regardless of the fact that you were the mother. All she could do was cry in the fringes…”

Together with the same men that brought him, the ailing Otong was returned to his paternal grandmother, who he recalls wept like she had already lost her grandson. “She wept the entire night and called my Uncle Peter the next morning…”

Uncle Peter was good with herbs and all forms of local medicine. “At least, he was the closest help we could get then. He carried out a rudimentary form of surgery by arranging strong boys to grab hold of me and used a razor blade to carry out the operation.”

It does not get more gruesome than you can imagine a huge pus-filled swelling being slit. “He wrapped me with cloth and then started regularly applying herbs on the wound, it was an excruciating process,” Otong recalls. While this would be the worst of experiences in someone’s lifetime, Otong cannot forget those seven weeks it took him to heal. “It was like heaven for me because, for the first time in a long time, I was able to wake up normally like other people to a hot meal by me and a caring grandmother…”

The inglorious return
Like all fairytales, Otong’s recovery stay had an end. Word reached Lumech, his mother’s village, of his recovery. “My grandfather arranged the same men and came home and said the very same thing as he first said…the money or the boy,” he recalls. “My grandmother and uncle were again, no match for the agitated mob and so, amid weeping, she had to give me up, again.”

The nine-year-old returned to a shabby home, a shadow of what he left, with overgrown grass, starved pigs, others sick and some even dead. “My grandfather passed two instructions. The first being I was to regain the former state of the home and the pigs. Secondly, I was to maintain the multiplication of the pigs from then on,” Otong recalls. “I was threatened with flogging and promises of murder if I faltered in any.”

In fear for his life, the just recovered Otong had to toil with whatever strength he had left so much so that it was only two months before his muscles on the left gave way. “When the muscle coiled and got swollen, I was very happy. I was happy because I knew this time…I was going to die,” Otong remarks with a sombre gaze.

He recalls his mother crying in her hut for two days, as she was denied custody of him even at that terrible moment. “Another meeting was convened and the same decision made, my grandmother wept even more and Uncle Peter carried out the same surgery…” he narrates.

During this second recovery, Otong realised he could no longer work as fast and efficiently as he used to. “If they come back to pick me,” he recalls thinking to himself, “they will surely kill me.” Luckily for him, he had a second turn at heaven as once again, he could live like a human, waking up at leisure with the hope of a meal he didn’t have to personally prepare.

“I was maligned even by my father’s relatives who knowing that I was the strongest of my age in the village and that my dad was ‘abroad’ (the term coined by villagers for those in urban settings), were jealous and refused to take me to school as they knew only my dad could afford further education,” he recalls.

Otong adds that he was even denied immunisation drives by his uncles at his age because “we don’t want to be asked many questions…” Even then, he was content with this hellish heaven, not knowing things would get better. “One day, while I was home alone as everyone had gone for a polio immunisation drive at a health-centre five kilometres away, a man who I only remember as Mikayo, who I would later learn to be a close friend of my father, came home on an errand from dad to get the list of necessities for the village. When he mentioned my dad’s name, I knew it was my big day,” he recalls.

Mikayo asked what he could do for the young boy and Otong recalls asking only one thing, “Take me to my father…” The man agreed to return to the city with him the next morning at six. Excited, Otong noticed that all he had for clothing in five years was a tattered green short. “I spent my night asking around for clothes and my cousin Chankura Robert gave me in exchange for the short, old oversize jeans and a worn out shirt.”

Otong informed his relatives from immunisation and his granny from the garden of the developments. “They agreed, for my sake, to be silent about the issue until I was in the custody of my father. I spent the night turning in my bed in anxiety and at a few minutes past six, my deliverer arrived.”

Their journey started on a bicycle from Lamwo Sub county to Kitgum town and thereafter a caravan that drove us to Tororo town where my dad now resided and worked with the then UEB. “Seeing the affluence of my father, I was too angry to give him a genuine smile despite his excitement in seeing me,” he recalls.

It was only then that school started for Otong, with a six month home coaching and studying at Oguti Primary School that would lead him on a path that made him the engineer he is today.

His father’s in-laws realised his departure a little too late, with Odur sending several letters threatening the life of the father, who was not moved. “Years later, when he heard that I had gotten saved, my now very poor grandfather, for shame and fear of me letting out his secrets, bundled his belongings in one hut, set it ablaze and went on to hang himself. I however, already in Kampala city, had forgiven him and everyone else.”

Otong now lives the average life, independent and working with Biyinzika Enterprises. This life however, is a dream for a child in a remote village, who like him, could have parents without the means or will to pay the customary price, for their freedom.

What Human Rights Activists say:

Ms Kalule Flavia, a programmes officer in woman rights lobbyist group, Forum for Women in Development (FOWODE) says about the matter: “This is an absurdity, a travesty to human existence. That one can be denied his intrinsic right to freedom over Shs30,000 or any such fee is appalling.
“Because it is culture does not necessarily mean something is good. It almost is the same cause, that we try to sensitise our female counterparts in the Kupsabiny region…”

When I asked her whether or not such a norm should be scrapped, her response was, though philosophical, to the point. “There is no way you are going to train a baby after removing its favourite sweet.

We are not saying no to such cultures, however we are asking that more humane modifications, especially in this one, be considered. A child must not be held a slave for his father’s actions, but still a debt must be paid as civilly as other debts are.”

What is Luk?
According to Mr Charles Olango, a 56 year old Acholi elder, luk is “a fine levied for elopement paid by the boy to the parents of the girl with whom he eloped.” He adds that it has been a tradition since time immemorial in the Acholi culture.

“It is not bride price,” he affirms, “those who come forward to discuss bride price do not pay luk. Failure to pay this fee is tantamount to having the girl taken away from the man (explaining further why Concy Ashe, Otong’s mother was staying with her parents) and any children from the elopement becoming property of the girl’s parents.”

This tradition, Olango says, still is in effect in most Acholi distrbnb icts. “It is with the coming of civilisation that this generation (the young) are rebellious to these norms,” he remarks, adding, “Refusal to pay is spitting in the faces of the girl’s parents, a great show of disrespect.”b

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