Gulu is the economic capital and largest city of northern Uganda. It is located approximately 320 km north of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, and takes between 5 and 6 hours to reach by bus. It has a population of roughly 150,000 inhabitants; however the urban centre is quite small by Western standards. A large proportion of Gulu residents reside in grass-thatched huts or “turkuls”.
The Acholi people are the predominant tribe inhabiting Gulu and its surrounding districts, numbering upwards of 600,000 individuals. This region of northern Uganda has been unofficially dubbed “Acholiland”, although this term does exclude Acholis living in neighbouring South Sudan. The official language of the Acholi people is Luo, however most Ugandans, particularly those residing near urban centres, speak fluent English.
Recent history of Gulu and northern Uganda has been riddled with violence and oppression. Under the rule of the notorious Idi Amin from 1971-1979, Acholis were among the groups that were targeted, oppressed, and unjustly murdered by his facist regime. Amnesty International estimates that Amin murdered upwards of 500,000 people during his 9-year reign, most of these being of the Acholi and Lango ethnic groups.
Between 1986 and 2005, Uganda was involved in a civil war with the Lord’s Resistance Army led by another infamous character; Joseph Kony. This war was fought primarily in northern Uganda, again with the Acholi people caught in the cross-fire. The LRA alone was responsible for the abduction of more than 30,000 child soldiers and the murder of more than 100,000 people. This does not include the extreme psychological damage that that was inflicted on the Acholi people during this conflict.
For “protection” purposes, the government of Uganda forced approximately 1.2 million northern Ugandans into internal displacement camps (IDP’s). This allowed for both the LRA and Ugandan government troops to further intimidate and oppress the Acholi people and facilitated the LRA’s work of child soldier abduction, rape, pillaging and stealing. It also created dependency among the residents of the IDP’s who could no longer work or provide for themselves and relied almost exclusively on external aid for food, shelter and protection.
Today, Gulu is considered to be a post-conflict community. There has been peace in the region since 2005, the IDP camps have closed, and the Acholi people are moving back to their ancestral land. The economy is growing rapidly, reflected by the recent establishment of large hotels, chain grocery stores and Western-style cafes equipped with WIFI.