The following is one of the articles from the 2016 NZCMS Snaptshot Magazine, our annual publication that gives you a ‘snapshot’ of NZCMS today. If you didn’t receive a copy please request one from email@example.com
During the war, Angee Santa lost a lot. She lost children, family members and her land. At one point she lost all hope – she attempted to kill herself. Along with her son, she turned to alcohol and became addicted. Drinking compounded her mental health struggles.
I sit with her now as she calmly sorts beans under the shade of her grass roof. It’s hard to imagine the drunken chaos she describes. Angee is hard to forget. She loves bright clothing, shiny headscarves and chunky jewellery. She speaks with passion. Her legs are swollen, scaly, and almost elephantine due to an unusual medical condition. Sometimes it’s hard for her to walk, but her eyes always dance.
Angee isn’t the only member of our Community Organizing group with a story about alcohol. Last month we buried Rose Lam’s eldest son. For months he wandered out of reach of his family, drinking and drinking. He failed to take his HIV drugs. Rose stayed by his side in hospital for a week while he died. Then there’s Abalo Helen looking after her struggling brother. He regularly steals her money to buy alcohol and comes home in a drunken rage, yelling and breaking her things. Isaac’s mother, Florence’s son, Miller’s brother, Paul’s neighbour. I could go on and on.
Twenty years of violence, displacement and loss has left so much brokenness here in Gulu. Money-hungry vultures prey on brokenness. Northern Uganda has the highest rate of alcohol consumption in the country, and Uganda has the highest rate in East Africa. There’s no regulation. Bars are open 24/7, and alcohol isn’t only sold in bars but in every tiny shop that sells everything from toothpaste to batteries. Worst of all, 40% strong spirits is sold in tiny plastic sachets of 100ml for 20c(NZ). The ethanol is imported from Kenya by various Ugandan companies who add flavours and colourful packaging. Forget the 50c mixtures; these are so cheap children buy them and slip them in their pockets to take to school. It doesn’t take many to knock you out.
Where is God amongst this brokenness? Where is God’s Kingdom? So often this world seems like a kingdom of capitalism. The king is the company and the ‘rule of law’ is the free market. And yet Jesus teaches us to pray to our Father, ‘your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in Heaven.’
I love the Message translation of Colossians 1, which tells us that through Jesus’ death “all the broken and dislocated piece of the universe, people and things, animals and atoms, get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies.” While the Kingdom is not fully here yet, sometimes we can see God starting to put things back together again. We can see the ‘vibrant harmonies’ of the Kingdom peeking through.
A couple of years back Angee came to know Jesus. God gave her the reason and the strength to stop drinking. This year, she walked into our little church to our group’s strategy meeting, ready to join our fight. Our small Community Organizing group, ‘Wakonye Kenwa,’ is about finding strategic solutions to address problems facing our community. We want to be part of God’s Kingdom project, putting back together just a little piece of the broken and dislocated universe. Specifically, we wanted laws regulating alcohol, including a ban on plastic alcohol sachets. So we tackled Gulu District’s local government.
Members like Angee walked around our community collecting data and personal stories about the impact of alcohol on people’s lives. We submitted a big report to the district government and lobbied till they agreed to start writing the law. As it turned out, government can be a slippery bunch. Keeping the law making process moving and making sure our major demand (the sachet ban) was included in the law proved the hardest part. So we started collecting signatures for a petition calling for a sachet-alcohol ban. We made friends with the biggest local radio station who let us run a six week series featuring former alcoholics from our group and the wider community. Each week we pushed for the ban on sachets.
It hasn’t been an easy year! Part way through the campaign, Angee spent a week in the mental health wing of the local hospital. Her son, who she thought had left his days of alcohol abuse behind him, got raging drunk again, resurfacing her past struggles. We visited her in hospital. Her usually spirited eyes were dull, staring blankly. She spoke about haunting voices and an uncontrollable sorrow.
The year was difficult for others in our group as well. The day before we filmed our short video calling for a ban on sachets, Paul’s neighbour died of alcohol poisoning. He spoke about it in the film. When Josephine’s hut was burned down by a drunken person, she told me she was thankful that at least the anti-sachet petitions she was collecting were stored in another hut, safe from the fire. For me, working closely with local government in Gulu has been like wading through a bureaucratic swamp of incomprehensible, head-ache inducing inefficiency.
Our campaign climaxed with a march through the streets of Gulu to present the 9500 signatures we collected to the district council. We invited the major religious and cultural leaders of the district to lead the march. That day I got to see the members of our group proudly marching through the streets, followed by hundreds of supporters. Only two weeks after returning home from hospital, struggling with her swollen legs, Angee made it all the way carrying her sign. No one chanted louder than her! The district chairman received the petition and with the media’s cameras rolling, publicly declared that the law would be passed by the end of the year.
I believe we’re starting to see moments of God’s transformation. Moments where broken, dislocated pieces of our universe are starting to be put right. Moments where people’s love for the King leads them to work to see the Kingdom grow in the here-and-now. Gulu’s new law banning sachet alcohol is on its way. Angee doesn’t define herself by the losses of her past, her disability, the drinking, or the demons in her head that still return to haunt her. She is God’s person, who marched boldly through the streets of Gulu demanding justice and praying ‘God, today your will be done.’