from The Economist
AT A place called Wang Jok, in Paraa National Park in northern Uganda, the Nile flows strongly among trees and over rapids. This is a magic spot: coins, pots and human figures sometimes mysteriously appear from the river. And if you had visited Wang Jok in May 1986 you might have seen, sitting beside the water, a young woman of 30 apparently talking to herself.
People from Opit, the railway town where she lived, knew her as Alice Auma. She sold fish and flour with another woman and had had two husbands, both of whom had deserted her because she was barren. But it was not Alice Auma who was sitting by the Nile. She was possessed by a spirit called Lakwena, and he was holding a consultation with all the animals of the park.
They swarmed round him in a huge bellowing crowd, elephants and hippopotami and crocodiles and giraffes, many of them holding up wounded limbs to be healed. Lakwena asked them who was responsible for the civil war in Uganda, in which the Acholi rebels of the north were fighting the troops of Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Army. They replied that “the people with two legs” were the violators of peace and Nature. A waterfall and a mountain were interrogated too. They gave back the same answer.
Thus began Alice's mission to purify first her native Acholi, then Uganda, then the world. Lakwena gave her stones and water, with which she went back to Opit and began to heal people. Beside the railway station she built a temple of mud-blocks and thatch in which, as Lakwena, she would sit on a throne and give instructions. When the men muttered that she was only a woman, Lakwena would announce in his commanding voice that he had possessed her precisely because she was a woman and a sinner, who had never got beyond seventh year in primary school; he was making an example of a hard case, saving her first, before he saved the wicked Acholi in general.
Lakwena also offered, in August 1986, to conduct the war for them. And when the rebel commanders ignored him, he and Alice formed their own army. The Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (HSMF) numbered at their peak around 10,000 souls, not a few of them abducted children; and for a brief spell they were the most successful of all the groups fighting the NRA, which was now the Ugandan government.
Their methods were unorthodox. Lakwena, giving orders that his soldiers wrote down neatly in school exercise books, forbade them to use weapons. They did not need to, because they were pure. Each man had burned his witchcraft charms, and had appeased the spirit of anyone he had killed previously; and as the army marched into battle, singing Catholic hymns and with their bare torsos smothered in shea-nut oil, the bullets of the enemy would bounce right off them. Nature, too, was on their side. Water, if they were polite to it and “bought” each river they crossed with coins and shells, would block the enemy or drown him. Stones, if they threw them, would explode like grenades.
Lakwena expressed these war-rules through Alice twice a day, at seven in the morning and seven at night, as she sat in a white robe on a fold-up chair in the middle of the camp. He made her repeat the 20 Holy Spirit Safety Precautions: no walking-sticks on the battlefield, no hiding behind anthills, no smoking, and each man to have “two testicles, neither more nor less”. Round Alice stood three charcoal stoves on which little wire replicas of enemy weapons were heated until they glowed and then waved above the soldiers' heads to immunise them. Something worked, for in several encounters the NRA soldiers, faced by rampant hymn-singers, dropped their weapons and ran away.
Alice revealed a little about Lakwena. He was an Italian army captain, drowned in the Nile in the first world war, who spoke 74 languages, including Latin. He had taken possession of her so violently in January 1985 that she ran amok and could not hear or speak. Sometimes, to discipline her, he would make her ill or order that she should be beaten six times with a stick. But he shared her body with other spirits: Wrong Element, a loud-mouthed American; Franko from Zaire; several Koreans and Arabs; and an Acholi nurse, Nyaker, whose voice was so thin that the soldiers could not understand it. They never knew, they said, whether Alice was a spirit or a person from one day to the next.
Gradually, however, she seemed to resolve into an ordinary wilful woman. As the HSMF marched south towards Kampala in the late summer of 1987, the influence of the spirits and Alice's own power seemed alike to be fading. The bullets no longer bounced off, and the enemy didn't run away. At Jinja, not far from the capital, the HSMF was smashed by artillery fire, and Alice fled on a bicycle.
The remnants of her soldiers—mustered under Joseph Kony, an ex-altar boy who claimed to be her cousin—metamorphosed into the horrifyingly violent Lord's Resistance Army, which continues to kill, rape, pillage and abduct children in today's Uganda. Alice settled in a refugee camp in Kenya, a greying barfly drinking gin and Coke. Lakwena returned to the Nile, and the Nile flows on.