A Eulogy for an African Big Man: Walter Ochora R.I.P.

Colonel Walter Ochora, rebel leader, President of Uganda (for all of three days), Governor of Gulu District, the Regime’s man in the North – and my friend – is dead.  He passed away last week at Kampala International Hospital.  He was fifty-four years old.  Col. Ochora was an African Big Man in every sense of the word.  A newspaper article written after his death summed up best the life of one of Uganda’s most notable characters, “Ochora (…) fought militarily in the bush against every regime since Idi Amin. He also worked in an official capacity in every regime since Idi Amin.” 

I met Walter on my first trip to Gulu, the defacto capital of northern Uganda.  It was
a sunny morning, the children were walking barefoot down the paths to school, laughing and playing as children everywhere do and kicking up the dust of
the dry season.  The rains were late, and people were becoming worried.  There was a light breeze that was swishing in the trees above the destroyed shell of Walter’s office.  

I was on a mission for the US Government, to figure out whether the newly arrived peace in Uganda – reeling from twenty-five years of civil war – was lasting; and whether we would support the transition.  Walter was the Resident District Commissioner of Gulu District, in charge of the security services.  His office had once been a majestic British building, built by the colonizers in 1931 to administrate this far away corner of their massive empire.  Years of neglect and war had let the roof collapse, the walls cave in and all manner of rodents take over the unused rooms.  As I sat on a broken down plastic chair waiting for the Colonel to arrive, I thought about my task.  Whether or not we would ask the people, who had been living in the squalid camps for twenty-five years – 95% of the local population – to return home.  Whether it was safe.  Whether the army could protect them from any return of the rebels.  Weighty topics that would impact the life of millions.  Naturally, my first meeting was with the head of security.  

The Colonel walked in, and I was taken aback.  He was a larger than life figure – a cartoon character of himself.  He was dressed in the traditional loose, colorful African shirt that resembles so much a Panamanian Guayabera – all the more comfortable around his 350 pound frame.  His lamb-chop sideburns framed a large face and bright eyes that always seemed to discern more than was being said.

Over the two and a half years while I worked the transition in northern Uganda, I became good friends with the Colonel.  During long official dinners with Ambassadors or visitors from Washington he would regale us with stories of the rebel wars that plagued Uganda for decades after independence.  Often he would join a group of us for dinner at the Bomah Hotel or the Acholi Inn.  While the bats screeched and wheeled overhead and the generator hummed in the background, lighting up the pitch black central African night, he would talk about his march into Kampala to take over the country from Milton Obote – and how he had been president for three days.  He would always ask for the same – a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label and a Coke.  After finishing his bottle he would stand, bid us all goodnight, and walk slowly into the night.  

Together we attended many hours-long inauguration ceremonies of clinics, schools, community centers and government offices.  Under the pounding African sun and through the endless formalities of a British educated elite the Colonel would wait patiently for his turn, heave his massive frame from his chair and lecture “his people” on what they had to do to rebuild their lives.

Colonel Ochora exemplified so much of the bizarre qualities that I have come to love about Africa.  A man of war who was buried as a peacemaker.  A formidable rebel leader who became the government’s most trusted man.  Somebody who loved life, a hard drinker and a man of excess – who never missed a meeting or renigged on a responsibility.

My last meeting in Uganda was with Colonel Ochora.  Not a fan of goodbyes, I had hoped to just sneak away.  Finding out, he came to my office and scolded me, “In our culture, we must celebrate our friendship.  We must kill a goat together and say goodbye the right way.”  I smiled and nodded, and drove the four hours to northern Uganda for a farewell lunch.  The Colonel had been struck with a case of malaria, but came nonetheless to say goodbye.

Walter Ochora was laid to rest yesterday in Gulu, his home town.  His funeral was attended by President Museveni, dignitaries, ministers and thousands of mourners.  His name is to be forwarded to the Central Government to be included on the list of the Nation’s Heros, for his tireless fight to bring peace to northern Uganda – his homeland.  A street in Gulu town will be renamed in his honor.

I am proud to have called Walter a friend, and to have worked with him to bring lasting peace to northern Uganda.  He was, after all, a good man who loved his life and loved his homeland.  He will be fondly remembered. 

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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