In 1975 Uganda hosted the 12th summit of the OAU. It was an exciting time for us. I was in P6 (in primary school). For a while our curriculum, and the games we played, focused on general knowledge about the continent. We had to learn the names of all the countries in Africa, their capital cities, recognise their flags, their presidents – we were all caught up in the preparations. As part of those preparations Government decided that certain primary and secondary schools would take part in a ceremony at Nakivubo Stadium. The secondary schools would take part in marching and gymnastic displays. The primary schools would be part of creating huge, colourful murals as a back ground to the older schools. If you school was involved it was compulsory for all P5, 6 and 7 pupils. If you were absent you would be expelled. At least, that is what I heard – and being expelled was not an option.
Weeks, maybe months before the ceremony we would go daily to Nakivubo to practice. It was always overwhelming! There were crowds and crowds of children, and soldiers. Our parents dropped us quite a distance away from the entrance and we had to somehow find our way to our school group. I was afraid of large crowds and even more afraid of the soldiers so those few minutes while I looked for my school group were always excruciating. Once we were all together we would go to the stands, opposite the main VIP building. Each school had particular rows assigned to them and each pupil a row and seat number. There were hundreds of us! We were each handed a large A3 book with your row and seat number. It was made of cardboard with brightly coloured, numbered pages. Our job was to turn the pages at a particular time and thus create the murals. Our ‘conductor’ was positioned behind the seats of the VIPs, and they would signal to which page we should turn and exactly when we should turn. We practiced until we could turn them as if we were one person. Each time we turned a page the mural would change, in synch with the marching and gymnastic activities on the field below. We worked every day, all day, in the sun, and hid under the stalls if it rained.
As the days went by we got to know the other children who were there. We began to make friends with the children near to us. We also began also to recognise the secondary schools and other role players. There was one group that stood out – the recruits to the army, or Kurutus as they were being called. I was terrified of them – even though they were not really Army men. Over the weeks we began to notice a kind of rivalry between the ‘Kurutus’ and the boys from one of the local high schools. It must have been Kololo High or Kampala High. They always seemed to be taunting each other.
One day, as we ate lunch the taunting became worse. One minute they were jeering each other, the next there was a fight on the field. Boys fighting with young men in army fatigues. Boys running away from the Kurutus. Blows being exchanged. And then the Kurutus picked up the big sticks that they had been using as guns in their marching and started chasing the boys and beating them up… Some of the boys were hiding behind a stack of cases of Soda and they started throwing soda-bottle-missiles to the Kurutus. We ran screaming under the stands huddled together, watching in horror as the Kurutus circled a few boys and BEAT them up. I believe that one of the boys died – I don’t know for sure – but he was beaten up so badly that an ambulance took him away.
That was the first time I saw the army unleashed on civilians.
We went home shaken that day. My parents told me that I should stop going but my fear of being absent was far greater than my fear of what happened. I thought that the powers that be would come home and take me, or hurt my parents, and nothing would put me at ease. I was hysterical at the thought of being absent. And so I went back, as did many of the other children – and whenever I saw a soldier or a Kurutu, I would take the longer way to wherever I was going.
On the day of our performance we were all there bright and early. Clean uniforms, polished shoes and sunburnt faces and arms peeling, our hearts still bruised with the loss of our innocence. We watched them arrive in the new Mercedes Benzs, guessing by the flag who was arriving. Our performance for the Heads of State went well – they were so impressed, and none of them knew the what it cost us to be there.