Resuscitating Stories: Some reflections on the “Ododo Wa” exhibit and experience

Gilbert Nuwagira

Growing up in south western Uganda, I would hear whispers of stories told in hushed tones; stories of what the River Kagera had brought in 1994 and of the then on-going Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency in Northern Uganda. The latter stories were relayed to us by people who had not been in northern Uganda. Going through school in the early 2000s, the curriculum was silent on the ongoing conflicts at the time. Although we learned of the rebellions leading to independent East Africa, I can see in hindsight that there was a notable silence on how the aftermath of those rebellions was handled. My young self was thus unaware of and removed from the multiple gross human rights violations that were happening in my country.

That stories need to be told is an understatement. Stories break the shackles of ignorance and tear down barriers as people gain a more nuanced understanding of their past and how it is actively shaping their future. Untold stories are like ulcers that continue to feed on the fabric of society even after the “guns go silent.” Failure to create spaces to share untold stories become active forms of silencing and a recipe for future conflict. The disruptions caused by conflict often remain unknown, which makes for an even stronger case for stories to be told. Communities need to reckon with their shared past and different experiences without negating other people’s accounts. Telling stories is a way of giving space to persons who have lived through tumultuous times and to acknowledge diverse histories whose trajectories are often otherwise erased. Acknowledging lesser-known parts of our history (whether they damn us or glorify us) is important for all generations, especially when this knowledge can inform policies, laws, practices, and frameworks that avoid repeating past wrongs.

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Telling my story through words and artefacts

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Grace Acan

As I think back about how it all started, I find truth in the common saying “a problem shared is a problem half solved.” Sharing a story like mine is not easy. It takes time and courage. When I escaped the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) after eight years of captivity, I was unable to do so. It took years and a book (A Lone Way Gone: Memoirs of A boy Soldier) written by Ishmael Beah for me to consider the possibility.

When reading Beah’s story, I found myself pondering how helpful it can be to share one’s story. As a child soldier during the civil war in Sierra Leone, Beah went through a lot more than I had imagined. He faced and escaped many dangers on the frontline of armed conflict. When I compared this to my own experience in the Ugandan war, I understood why they used to say that I was a civilian living amongst soldiers. My experience of captivity in the LRA was similar to Beah’s, but also quite different. I realized that I needed to share my own story.

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Sharing, healing, advocating

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Evelyn Amony

Much of my life is full of ups and downs, and I know it will keep moving on like that. At the age of 11, turning on 12, I was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)—a group of rebels that fought against the Ugandan government for over 20 years. Before my abduction, I lived with my parents and went to school in Gulu, a small town in northern Uganda. I was separated from my family and held captive for over a decade. Like many other abductees, I was taken to southern Sudan where I lived in an LRA camp. And, like many other girls, I was forced to marry a commander and to bear children.

I narrowly escaped death in 2005 when I was captured with my newborn child in a military ambush by the Ugandan army. The green skirt I was wearing that day is displayed in the exhibit presented at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It bears holes from the bullets that grazed my body as I put my arms up, holding my baby above my head.

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“Ododo Wa:” Researching and communicating difficult knowledge

Annie Bunting with Patricia Trudel

We often think of academic research as backward-looking. It documents the past, collecting data on lived experiences. While working with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), our SSHRC-funded (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) partnership—Conjugal Slavery in War: Partnerships for the study of enslavement, marriage and masculinities (CSiW)—disseminated research in creative ways. Mobilizing this research and lived experiences as “active history” is forward-looking. It brings the data to life and reaches new, diverse audiences.

The “Ododo Wa: Stories of Girls in War” temporary exhibit curated by Isabelle Masson of the CMHR and the travelling version of the exhibit are grounded in the experiences of Grace Acan and Evelyn Amony. Acan and Amony both survived abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda in the 1990s. They are now researchers and activists in northern Uganda, who collaborated closely with CSiW and the CMHR on “Ododo Wa.” The exhibit brings to life their experience of captivity and forced conjugal unions in a manner that informs visitors and transforms their understandings of women in war. The effective development of an exhibit of this nature necessitates mindful choices of focus, narratives, artefacts, images, and videos; the building of meaningful relationships of trust among all involved and the planning of nuanced communication methods in diverse sites is also vital.

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In memory of Jarrett Rudy (1970-2020), friend and colleague

(This week, historians across Canada are mourning the loss of an exceptional person and colleague, Jarrett Rudy (McGill), who passed away at his home in Montréal on 4 April 2020).

Magda Fahrni

Jarrett and I were the same age, both born in the fall of 1970. Over the 20 years that we knew each other and worked together on various projects, our shared age always seemed to me to be something that linked us, as historians: it gave us, I always thought, a common vantage point from which to assess the past and observe the present. We drew on the same pool of historical and cultural references and, like Gen-Xers everywhere, we shared an appreciation for irony and a slight suspicion of dominant groups and narratives. Continue reading

Curating Ododo Wa/Our Stories

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This week, we are honoured to share a series of posts reflecting on the development of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights’ exhibit, “Ododo Wa: Stories of Girls in War.” Today, you will read about Isabelle Masson’s curation of the exhibit. Tomorrow, professor Annie Bunting and Masters student Patricia Trudel discuss the role of York University’s Conjugal Slavery in War: Partnerships for the study of enslavement, marriage, and masculinities in the exhibit. Later in the week, you will read stories from Grace Acan and Evelyn Amony; the exhibit is largely based on the experiences of both of these women. Lastly, you will read a post by Gilbert Nuwagira outling the exhibit’s travel from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Kampala, Uganda and beyond. Together, this series of posts outlines a unique approach to the curation of human rights stories that serve as an example for collaborative and thoughtful museum work. – Carly Ciufo

Isabelle Masson

The exhibit “Ododo Wa: Stories of Girls in War” launched at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) on October 23, 2019. Located in the heart of the Rights Today gallery, the exhibit combines images, artefacts, and films presenting the stories of Grace Acan and Evelyn Amony. Both Acan and Amony were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda. They were forced into conjugal slavery during years of captivity.

My curatorial approach seeks to amplify women’s voices and foreground their agency by focussing on their experiences before, during, and after armed conflict. Spanning three years, the process of exhibit development was one of critical engagement in the (un)making of cultural representations of the experiences of girls and women in war. Curatorial decisions were taken in close collaboration with Acan and Amony as well as with our exhibit partner, Conjugal Slavery in War: Partnerships for the study of enslavement, marriage, and masculinities (CSiW). CSiW is a SSHRC-funded (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) research project and international partnership of organizations working with war-affected communities on the issue of sexual violence. It is directed by York University Professor Annie Bunting and coordinated by Véronique Bourget.

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Covid-19: An Unprecedented Militarization of the Canada-US Border or a Return to the Old?

“Alaska – Yukon boundary,” 1900, Library of Congress

By Benjamin Hoy

On March 26, 2020, news reports circulated across Canada and the United States that President Donald Trump was considering deploying more than a thousand military personnel near the Canada-US border.

The decision seemed baffling to many. Who President Trump hoped to protect Americans from was not altogether clear. Within a few days of the proposal going public, the United States possessed the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world (84,000 confirmed and 1,209 deaths). That number has only grown with each passing day. New York City alone had more instances of the disease (37,877 confirmed cases, 281 deaths) than all of Canada combined (3,409 confirmed cases, 35 deaths).

Numbers amidst a pandemic of course are always going to be tricky. Insufficient test kits and supply chain problems means we only have estimates. If the confirmed cases evenly vaguely represent the real number of cases in each country, Americans have more to fear from one another than they do from their northern neighbors.

So why is the United States considering deploying the military and what kind of precedent is there for using soldiers to guard the longest undefended border in the world?

Dozens of reasons may explain the odd behavior. President Trump may have hoped the policy would test the waters for future border policies, achieve economic concessions from Canada, or perhaps save face amidst an increasingly dire crisis. Whatever the case, stationing troops near the border is unlikely to be of any benefit to the public’s health.

If the proposed policy remains odd, is the deployment of troops unprecedented?

As weird as it may sound, the use of military troops to protect 49th parallel has historically been far more common than Canadians often remember. Continue reading

Listening During a Pandemic, and beyond

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Surveyor looking up a small tributary glacier, 141st Meridian, Kluane Glacier, Y.T. Credit: Canada. Dept. of Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-04465.

Laura Madokoro

In 2005, historical geographer Julie Cruikshank published her widely-acclaimed work, Do Glaciers Listen? : Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination (UBC Press) in which she explored the history of environmental change in the Pacific Northwest. She looked specifically at Athapaskan and Tlingit oral traditions to understand glaciers as actors, as sentient beings that “take action and respond to their surroundings.”[1] Her intention in doing so was to trace an environmental history of glaciers that took into consideration their encounters with humans, and vice versa, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the Little Ice Age and colonialism intersected. Cruikshank also wanted to highlight the tensions and connections between Indigenous and European ways of knowing, highlighting “struggles over conflicting meaning” and challenging notions of authority in the process.[2]

I have always found the title and the contents of Do Glaciers Listen? provocative, as if the onus was on the glaciers to do the listening. In my mind, I have always subtitled the work, And Can Humans Hear What They Have to Say? As societies around the world have wrestled with the potential scope and devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, I find myself thinking about issues around hearing, listening and, in some sense, responsibility. And so I have returned to Cruikshank’s work in recent days. With this post, I hope to share both how some of how Cruikshank’s ideas connect to our present condition and how the COVID-19 pandemic might invite a revisiting, or visiting, of her work and broader issues around what we hear, how we listen and how we make sense of things.

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Humorous History: Bram Stoker’s Wilde Side

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This is the first in our series on humour in history. Submit your tales of humour in the archives or historiography to

By Estelle Clements

A few years back, I was asked to reconstruct the wedding of Bram Stoker for the city of Dublin. In this capacity, I conducted archival research, focusing on his life, to formulate the script.

Stoker is known, predominantly, for writing Dracula, and being the manager of actor Henry Irving, but the material about his life gives a real sense of the man’s character, mischief, and humour. Continue reading

A Time for Research Distancing

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Alan MacEachern & William J. Turkel

Imagine being suddenly told that you cannot research online when writing history. No electronic journals, no ebooks, no Internet Archive, no Wikipedia, no search engines. You will instead be forced to rely exclusively on available print copies of books and journals, on microfilm, and, most important of all, on archives scattered across the country and around the world. Welcome to 1970.

This summer offers historians the very opposite predicament. We lack our accustomed access to most material sources, and physical archives are utterly unavailable. Beyond what we already had on hand, what we hurriedly pulled from the library before the lockdown, or what we’re able to buy on Amazon, all that we have to make sense of the past are the digital sources on the screens in front of us. Welcome to 2020.

And that’s fine, that’s enough. The historical material produced from 2020 research will not require an asterisk any more than the material of 1970 did. Historical research is never strictly about accessing everything we need, but about accessing what we can, and stopping when time, resources, and the availability of sources tells us to.

Faculty members may feel the shock if they are in the habit of summer trips to far-flung archives. Archival work is an important rite of passage in our discipline, and doctoral students may also need to adjust their research schedules, pushing off archival visits to 2021. But more than anyone it will be Master’s students who will have to adjust their research plans the most and the fastest. Fortunately, they might also benefit from having the fewest expectations of what historical research is and must be.

Research done this summer will be different, to be sure, in three key ways. Continue reading