DiscoverComing of Age

I, Charles, From the Camps



Charles Agwok never asked to come into the world as a poor black African on the most terrible of continents. It seems especially unfair to him that it is a matter of chance whether he will sleep in a bed, find a job, marry, or die of hunger and disease. Yet although he never asked for his fate, now he must somehow find a way to survive it.

As he embarks on a coming-of-age journey to find meaning within a world that only recognizes violence, Charles does his best to endure the horrifying conditions that he and the other displaced people of Odek must face every day in the sprawling camps of northern Uganda. When a desperate need to find work leads him to the city of Kampala, Charles spends the next ten years as a bitter man frustrated with the unfairness of the world. Charles has no idea he has the power within to change his fate until he is reluctantly recruited to become a soldier in the Lords Resistance Army and must face his past as it rises up to meet him.

I never asked to be born African – to come into the world a poor black man here, on this the most terrible of continents. It seems oddly and especially unfair, being hobbled from birth – a chance event deciding whether I will sleep in a bed, find a job, build a life ‘more abundant’ like the Christian do-gooders say. If I will marry; whether I live, or die of hunger and disease. Ease or suffering; prosperity or that shadow existence that fades away. I suppose nobody ever does, accept their fate. I’m sure most people ask themselves in their own moments of angst “But why me?” It’s part of human nature to envy and to seethe. Be honest, if you were to be given a choice to arrive as you wished, where you wished – would you choose to be who you are? Or would you also envision for yourself something better, grander, with greater significance? With less pain, suffering and insecurity? Would you not have chosen the life of a prince, a king? A sportsman who dances atop polished wood? Do you not also dream of being one of those famous people that I have watched, seated as I have been so often on a broken down bench in front of an old television in a camp that you have never heard of? Having paid a few shillings for the privilege of losing myself in the extraordinary, forgetting my life – my suffering – for so brief a moment.

God, if He exists, hands down to His wretched creation what He wills, and it is our ration to bow our heads and accept the beating. That is it. That is all. Unlike others across the oceans, to whom He gave power and position and comfort and opportunity; we were given only our tribes. Our families, our culture, our rituals and rites and our constipated systems of subjugation. Tradition, those who study us call it, squatting as we have always been on the pounded earth in front of our tukuls – our small circular mud-and-wattle homes drinking the rancid banana wine to forget. To endure. Our destiny, they said it was, to attempt to make do on our tiny pieces of land; the rains that rarely come, the seeds that don’t germinate. Poverty. Our history.

Ah, but when that is not enough – like it so often isn’t when the fabric of our societies are shredded by one war, after another and another – do we not also have our muscles, the strength of our backs and the keenness of our minds to understand the danger and to discern friends from enemies? And do we not also have our understanding, to see the monumental events for what they are and to seize what we could from an unforgiving world? The will to resist, the courage to rebel, and the strength for the fight? We’ve been doing it forever, we blacks of tropical Africa. Our entanglements with authority have so rarely been productive. For as far back as our collective tribal memory reaches, ours has been the story of violence and conflict. The stories are commemorated in our ritual dances that our leaders ban out of fear; and in the sagas told over the campfire by our elders as we defy the boredom of our world. Our battles. We fought each other for the right to our pieces of land, to our families. We fought the wandering herdsmen who sought to turn our fields into their overgrazed pasturelands. We fought the Arabs and the Portuguese who sought to abduct us to work in foreign lands for no money. We fought the colonizers who willed that we labor even our own lands for their comfort, to increase the measure of their wealth, and at their pleasure. Now we have returned mostly to fighting our own people; those put above us by dark forces that we do not control. Elections and constitutions and representatives who exist outside of our consent, raiding the coffers and raping the ground to buy their luxury lives in the lands of the white people.

Yes, I dared to rebel against that. To fight with the people I knew and at the moment of my opportunity. I have learned from my time in the bush, under the stars and beside quiet waters. I have learned from the training and the battles; the hardship and the suffering and the occasional triumph. I have learned from the brutality; that of others over me, and my own brutality over those who challenged me. I have learned the most from my last, final flight which has laid out before me my mistakes. Is my story easy? No. You, who sit fat in front of television screens watching movies you did not make and reading books you did not write; who live in worlds you did not form and visit buildings you did not construct and eat meals you did not cook might criticize me, might stare down your long noses in disgust at my attempts to establish something of my own, for myself and mine. Have I failed? Yes. Because I built in blood, sure – what other material did I have? Blood is an insubstantial mortar; not favorable for cementing the efforts of man. Was I wrong? I ask you this one thing; if you were born a poor black African, faced with what I have known, would you have chosen a different way? And had you tried, would you have been any more successful than I have been?

I doubt it.

So, such as it is, this is my story. My confession, as I reach the end of my life. Not to you, hoping for forgiveness from a world that never considered me. But to God, if He exists. Not that I owe Him any explanations; for I am a child of His camps, after all. 

About the author

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work "The Unraveling: A Novel", a dystopian story about the fraying of the world. Hirst was a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the George W. Bush Institute. Graduate of Brandeis University. view profile

Published on April 01, 2020

Published by

90000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Coming of Age