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Betty's choice: the importance of community in healing the wounds of war

Atimango betty

Betty has been a member of the Life in Africa community since 2006

Betty Atimango has a particular set of reasons for wanting the Kampala-based Life in Africa group’s crowdfunding campaign for a Family Transition Center in Northern Uganda to succeed.

The atrocities that happen in war are often unspeakable, thus hard to imagine, even for those who have experienced them. For Betty, what happened to her during Joseph Kony’s war still lives larger than life within her. There is a duality she experiences in her own sense of identity - she knows she has goodness in her heart, but feelings of guilt, unworthiness and shame over what the rebels forced her to do eat at her from the inside. More than 20 years later, she still experiences outbursts of violent rage that she knows are “bad” but sometimes finds very hard to control. On occasion she’s had to pay the hospital bills of people she has fought with and injured.

What Betty remembers as the time she was most proud of herself was when she got her husband through dancing well. Before the war, the Acholi people would have huge festivals at the end of the harvest season, where everyone would come together to dance. Young people from different villages would dance in competition, and in hopes of catching each others’ eye. The year Betty and her husband noticed each other, she was named the best dancer of the whole festival. His family approved of his choice, and was eager to have Betty become a part of their family so she could also teach their girls to dance and sing so well. Following tradition, this translated to a significant bride price that was paid to Betty’s family in compensation for educating her so well, and earned Betty a place of high respect around her new husband’s family campfire. (The Acholi campfire was like a cultural home-school - families would gather each night to tell stories from the past and teach the children about Acholi foods, customs and traditions.)

Just a teenager then, Betty truly loved and was loved dearly by her new parents-in-law. Her mother-in-law had also been a great dancer in her day, and treated Betty like she was special and worthy of all the good things their life had to offer. She took time to teach her, was patient and kind, and never scolded when Betty made all the typical mistakes that a young girl is prone to make. After Betty gave birth to her first son, life was blissful. She was a good girl, and had everything and more than she’d been taught to hope for in life.

Atimango Betty at her small beauty supply shop

Betty started a small beauty supply shop with a small loan through Life in Africa in 2008

When the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels came to her village, they first killed many people, then they captured Betty’s husband, tied Betty to a tree, and locked her parents-in-law in their hut. Betty was then given an impossibly cruel choice: she could watch the rebels kill her baby and then die herself, or set her beloved parents-in-law’s hut on fire and watch it burn with them inside. Betty chose her son's survival.

Her husband eventually escaped and they both made it to safety in Kampala. They've gone on to build a large family together, but Betty nonetheless sometimes regrets that she didn’t just choose to die that day - the good girl she believed herself to be died anyway, when the rebels turned her into a murderer. Behind Betty’s big warm smile and hardworking nature, rage and self-hatred run deep in her veins. She has never been able to forgive herself.

Now the place where they resettled has been sold and it’s time to go back to the North. For Betty, the complex logistical challenge of moving 400km north with 10 children are not the main issues that keep her paralyzed with inaction. Her brothers in law have already started rebuilding, and have begged her to come back and live there as part of their larger family unit. Although she knows they forgive her for everything and still want her with them, the thought of living as if nothing happened - in the place where she found out she can kill someone she loves - brings on nightmares. By day the guilt and pain well up inside of her until they explode - sometimes violently. Betty sees this in herself and is so ashamed. She is deathly afraid that living again where it all happened she’ll never find peace.

Betty plays percussion and leads the singing when the Life in Africa members dance together

Betty plays percussion and leads the singing when the Life in Africa members dance together

She’s never once fought with any member of Life in Africa. She never could, she says, because this supportive and tight knit group of women have treated her with the same kind of love and gently correcting kindness that she remembers from her mother in law. She feels safe with them, as part of a community where she’s been able to rediscover her own value and let some of her talents shine once again. The option of resettling with some of them at the Family Transition Center they hope to build has given her the courage to imagine that life in the north would be possible for her again.

Betty is not alone in her long struggle to overcome the atrocities that Kony’s LRA rebels inflicted on the Acholi people. In the absence of psychological resources, community plays a vital role in healing. Now that they all have to leave the Kampala home they've been living in for 20+ years, the Family Transition Center will help others like Betty and her family to find their way back to their Acholi roots in a way that feels safe, constructive and peaceful.

Please share Betty’s story, and pledge toward making the Life in Africa Family Transition Center happen if you can.

Time is of the essence! This campaign will end on 23 June - ANY pledge you can make toward the campaign tipping point TODAY is both urgent and greatly needed by this well deserving community. See http://startsomegood.com/lia for more details on the plan.

(This post was updated with new links on 3 June)

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