This post was written by Juliane Okot Bitek, storyteller and author of upcoming book “The Dry Season”. “The Dry Season” is a non-fiction book based on the experience of three women who were kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerrilla group that terrorized northern Uganda, Sudan, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1987. All photos by Lara Rosenoff.
The pull to return and belong; to change and yet remain the authentic self, is what most distinguishes us, the people of the diaspora, from those who refer to themselves as native born. In that tension is the quality that we of the diaspora have an uncanny recognition for; within ourselves and others who struggle with it. It is also a place of empowerment and agency, where we can claim both sides of the divide while maintaining a Janus perspective. For me, as one who holds the mirror and is the image in the mirror, this is the place from which I recognize the women survivors of the Lord’s Resistance Army. These women, all kidnapped as girls and trained as rebel fighters become adults, all the while maintaining what little childhood memory they have. They are my sisters, cousins, daughters, friends, neighbours — these are my kinfolk, the women from my homeland. They are me and I am them.
On return to Uganda, these women discover, much like the experience of the diasporic people who return home, that the place and the people who remained static and often perfect in their memory, have ceased to exist. The relegation of home as imaginary forces that second place of attachment, often for the first time, as an option to this strange location, this place that should be, but isn’t the place we thought we knew for so long. From the The Dry Season, it is apparent that these women sometimes reminisce about that place, that time where they knew what to expect, where they knew that they were needed — to carry things, cook, clean, fight, and bear children. Here, at home, they no longer belong, many of them having been ostracized by their neighbours, and sometimes their families as well. We know this feeling well, we of the diaspora. Many of us have spent much time grieving for lost familial connections, sometimes reaching out to vague memories and having no familiar hand grab on to ours.
The women return to a society that has been internally displaced, living in camps and completely dependent on international food. We, of the diaspora, remember times that we too, had to depend on government handouts and how that made us feel. And yet, we also know now that we can never return home because it has become a perfect and intangible place — it doesn’t and can’t exist. We’re left bereft after this loss, and then finally come to understand that this is a place of agency and the place that only we can occupy; where only we can hold the mirror to the light, or angled away towards the shadows; where our pose is what will be remembered by those who look. So we hold up our heads and speak up a little louder.
As they adjust to this new way of being, the women of The Dry Season are transplanted back to another time, a time that is difficult to discuss, explain or even articulate to an audience that was victimized by the same rebel group that these women belonged to. In text, all dialogue is possible. And for the first time in my life, I recognize that it is the combination of my diasporic lens and interest in the creative arts that allows me to contribute towards the creation of a space where people can see themselves and be seen as authentic, and as people who can belong.
Juliane will be a speaker at ”Human Insecurity And Peacebuilding: Diaspora Perspectives And Roles”, a public dialogue at SFU’s Wosk Centre for Dialogue on July 13, 2011 at 6:30pm. This is a free public event, but RSVP is required here.
Do you have a story to share? What has been your experience as diaspora?