Tuesday, April 21, 2015


The smell of gunpowder stays with you in much the same way as baby powder. You just remember it. After the trauma of the 70s and 80s I welcomed the opportunity to learn how to shoot an AK 47 machine gun as part of a controversial paramilitary course for all new Ugandan civil servants in the 90s. The journey to the training camp was deliberately tortuous. Somewhere in a swamp, in the middle of nowhere, the bus that was taking us conveniently stalled. We were forced to carry our personal belongings, which included a mattress and small suitcase; the rest of the way. We walked for about six miles through unfamiliar bush terrain with mosquitoes accompanying us most of the way. When we arrived in the middle of the night I was exhausted, angry and first thing in the morning I was sick with malaria. What I thought was supposed to be a great adventure, was fast turning into a nightmare. I got medical treatment but was left alone, lying on a thin mattress on a dormitory floor, getting sick in a basin for the first couple of days of training.
The first weeks were sheer agony and I cannot tell what kept us going. A couple of people escaped but somewhere in the haze of illness, psychological and physical torture, I adjusted to life in Kyankwanzi and actually started loving it. Waking up at the crack of dawn for the morning run, followed by a hasty breakfast and a day in the bushes cutting branches and finding materials to build our own huts was tough. We rolled in thorns and stopped feeling their sting. We drank water from a pond that a decent cow would scoff at but I never got ill again. The day's hard work seemed to be forgotten at night as we sang around a camp fire and listened to war stories. I soon became a platoon and then company commander. Our classroom was an open area under the shade of a large tree and here we slept through most of the classes but everyone was alert when we started learning about the AK-47. We belonged to a generation that had been tortured by the gun and we were anxious to demystify it. The depth of the trauma we had suffered was captured in one dramatic moment when Naitema, a fully grown man, burst into tears at the first sound of a burst of rapid fire from the instructor's gun. I remember we laughed and made fun of him but now I wonder what memories had been stirred by that sound.
Before they allowed us to touch the guns we went through a lot of training to ensure proper discipline including holding, walking and practically living with a stick that was our 'gun' for a couple of months. If you were ever found negligently pointing that stick anywhere but the ground, the punishment was severe. On the range we learnt how to fire with a measure of accuracy and felt the power of the gun against the shoulder as the bullet left the chamber. We learnt how to assemble and disassemble the AK-47 and how to clean it. I learnt that the relationship between a soldier and their gun is very intimate and protective. Those 90 days at Kyankwanzi changed my perception of guns and the people who use these weapons.

At 50 I know that the AK-47 is a weapon that can be used by just about anyone but how it is used has nothing to do with the weapon and everything to do with the person using it.

 — feeling accomplished.

No comments:

Post a Comment