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Reviewed by:
  • Living with Bad Surroundings: War, History, and Everyday Moments in Northern Uganda
  • Joanne Corbin
Sverker Finnström. Living with Bad Surroundings: War, History, and Everyday Moments in Northern Uganda. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008. xi + 286 pp. Maps. Photographs. Notes. Acronyms. Figures. References. Index. $22.95. Paper. $79.95. Cloth.

Finnström’s analysis of the factors involved in the devastating conflict in Northern Uganda between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is a valuable contribution to the literature on contemporary armed conflicts. This book explores the impact of this conflict on the daily lives of individuals and families, the ways they make meaning of these experiences, and the actions they engage in to maintain a sense of agency. Although Northern Uganda is the focus, Finnström’s careful examination is essential for students, scholars, and practitioners who want to understand the political, economic, historical, cultural, and religious complexities involved in any armed conflict.

The strength of Finnström’s work is that he challenges any simplified explanations of the conflict (such as those based on ethnic mistrust, or religious and spiritual beliefs) to expose how these often touted explanations perpetuate the cycle of violence. However, a limitation of the book is that in his attempt to create a balanced understanding of the factors that led to the LRA conflict, Finnström creates a feeling of sympathy for the purposes of the LRA. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that he states that he does not want to diminish the LRA’s responsibility for its role in the violence.

In the opening pages the reader is introduced to one family’s experience of living with the direct and indirect violence resulting from armed conflict. Their example provides an overview of the economic, historical, political, religious, national, and international factors affecting everyday life for the people there; these are explored in greater detail in subsequent chapters. The first chapter describes the political, economic, and cultural effects of the colonial experience on Uganda, especially on the ethnic identities, livelihood activities, and sociopolitical traditions of the Acholi people. By means of this discussion, Finnström explores the origins of Uganda’s intergroup hostilities and its international dependency. The second chapter examines the neocolonial period from 1979 to the present and the impact of Ugandan leaders—Amin, Obote, the Okellos, and Museveni—on the political, economic, and ethnic tensions. This chapter also lays out factors that led to the rise of the LRA, including economic underdevelopment, North–South divisions within Uganda, and the government’s own involvement in violence. Chapter 3 examines the LRA’s written documents to answer the question, “What does the LRA want?” From this analysis Finnström dispels any simplified explanations of the LRA’s motivations; this chapter is critical for understanding the dangerous and fragile relationships among the LRA, the government, and the population. The fourth chapter analyzes the structural dimensions of oppression and violence that have resulted from mass displacement of the Acholi population [End Page 188] into IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps. The lack of order and security within these camps has led both to oppression and violence at the hands of the military and to attacks from the rebels; in these circumstances, even humanitarian assistance becomes intertwined with military oppression. This chapter highlights the precarious nature of daily life as it is negotiated between the demands of the military and the threats of the LRA. The fifth chapter looks at the function of rumors, both helpful and destructive, for the population. Chapter 6 looks at how the Acholi cultural orientation and spiritual beliefs function to help the people develop meaning out of everyday experiences—and at the threat that such culture and spirituality pose to state actors vying for power.

The book concludes by returning to the overarching issue of how one constructs meaning in war-torn areas. Finnström describes the role of reconciliation in addressing the personal issues of fear, sorrow, and the reestablishing of relationships. In doing so he reminds the reader that people are active agents in making meaning of their lived realities even in the midst of bad surroundings.

Joanne Corbin
Smith College...


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pp. 188-189
Launched on MUSE
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