Much has been said on this blog about the preëminent Karimojong political expression, the community meeting. Participating in such meetings is one of the more distasteful aspects of being a missionary in Karamoja, and the community has started to take note. Thus, I was recently called to participate in a survey of a parcel of land the mission is selling, but when I arrived, I was instead ambushed with a community meeting and found out only afterward that the surveyor had not yet arrived on site.
The land where the church, the clinic, and the new clinic staff housing are built was purchased years ago from one of our area’s “big men”. In 2019, he died and his children began a protracted process of negotiating to buy back from the mission as much as we were willing to sell. That process concluded with payment being finished at the end of 2022. The last step that required the mission’s input is a survey of the new boundary line so that the subdivision paperwork can be processed. Thus, we have been pushing for weeks to complete the survey. So when I was told last Saturday that the survey was happening, I wasted no time to report so that we could be done with it.
The meeting was blissfully brief, in contrast to some of the trials we have endured, and included the usual cast of luminaries from our community. The sale agreement was read out loud, I confirmed that the requisite monies had been paid, and concluding remarks were made by the Local Chairman, Aleper Paul. It was these comments that I found most illuminating. He spent not less than ten minutes complaining to me over the mission’s lack of care for the community, mixing facts and fiction (mostly the latter) into a potent brew of the sort that Karimojong are particularly fond of guzzling down. He complained that we haven’t built a top-notch hospital in Nakaale like the Catholic Church has built elsewhere in Karamoja. He complained about the high cost of treatment at our clinic (in real terms, we are the most affordable care option anywhere around). He complained that we refuse to deliver mothers in labour unless they first pay (again, untrue), and that the six dollars we charge for a delivery was exorbitant. He didn’t go quite so far as to say that the mission is actively engaged in the killing of children, as was expressed at our previous community meeting, but he wasn’t far off the mark.
Following this harangue, which was heartily endorsed by all present, he turned to the representatives of the purchasing family, who live in Kampala, speak not a word of Karamojong, and visit our village perhaps twice a year where they do not venture out from their walled compound, and said, “I want to thank you for all that you do for us. We know that you are very busy doing good work for us in Kampala, and lobbying the government on our behalf.” Again, sounds of general assent greeted this expression. The reality is that during the mission’s tenure, most of this land has been freely farmed by the community as we simply have not had the resources to manage it. But somehow, our neighbours have got it in their heads that the family buying back the property represents a return of the land to the rightful hands of the community.
Finally, the surveyor appeared yesterday, and we conducted the survey without any major hangups. The portion sold consists of 110 acres, including the borehole that the mission rehabilitated and opened for the community, and that, in 2019, the family decided to claim as their personal property, locking the borehole inside a shed and piping the water to their home. At the marking of the last point, the farm manager, representing the family’s interests during the survey, turned to the gathered community leaders and said with great ceremony, “We are done. This side of the land is now for the mission, and this side of the land has come back to the community!” He then shook hands with the Local Chairman. An hour prior, as we sat in the shade waiting for the surveyor to recalibrate his equipment, the farm manager casually mentioned that the family had plans to fence the whole property and graze their own cattle on it. He said it in English; the local leaders did not understand.