The Art of Revolution: Spoken Word, Video, and Performance Art to Change The World — Juliane Okot Bitek
Juliane Okot Bitek knows the power of narrative. An award winning writer living in Vancouver, Canada, Okot Bitek is also an Acholi woman who calls Gulu in Northern Uganda home. Considering the civil war (1986- 2006) that plagued northern Ugandans, it’s no wonder much of Okot Bitek’s passionate writing focuses on social and political issues. In the last decade, through her poetry, essays, fiction, nonfiction and opinion pieces, Okot Bitek has fought both to make sense of, and to expose the tragedies of her homeland.
Okot Bitek comes to writing through an impressive lineage. Her late father is the famed Ugandan poet, essayist, novelist and academic, Okot p’Bitek, who was, shortly before his death in 1982, appointed as the first professor of Creative Writing at Makerere University in Kampala. Things weren’t always so rosy, however. As a result of her father’s work, Okot Bitek and her family spent the early years of her childhood in exile in Kenya. As a result of this history, Okot Bitek is no stranger to political strife and social unrest. Still, in spite of this, she describes the pleasure of growing up in a house full of books and lively debates between her parents and their literary and artistic friends. Some of Africa’s luminaries were regular houseguests: Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and David Rubadiri were men she called uncle, and on a given day they might be filling the Okot Bitek household with their intellect, their opinions and their friendship.
Growing up in such an environment would make anyone sensitive to the importance of storytelling. As Okot Bitek says, “Stories are everything. Without a story, none of us exists.” But it’s not just the significance of narrative that is so dear to Okot Bitek, she is sensitive to the invisibility and the silence that shrouds those whose stories don’t get heard. This is evident in the work she has recently completed, which is provisionally titled Stories From the Dry Season. Collaborating with Dr. Erin Baines of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia and Grace Acan, a women’s advocate and LRA survivor, Okot Bitek took on this work as a way to tell the stories of women from northern Uganda who were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (L.R.A) and who eventually returned to civilian life after long and terrible years of abuse and assault.
A doctoral student at UBC herself, Okot Bitek recently participated in a poetry reading at the Liu Institute for Global Issues with one of the subjects of her book and co-author, Grace Acan. In 1996 Acan was abducted, along with many other girls, from her school in Uganda when she was only 16. For eight years she was the captive of rebels, living a terrifying and unstable life in the bush as a “rebel wife”. She bore two children during this time, but tragically, one of her them was killed in an attack by the Ugandan army. Attempts at escape by other bush wives were met with brutal beatings, even murder, but eventually Grace did escape and she is now a university student who is also involved in the Women’s Advocacy Network, a local NGO that seeks justice for women affected by the war in Uganda.
More on Grace Acan can be found here.
And an interview with Grace Acan can be heard here