Mama Peace

When the bombs started falling in 1986, Mrs. Rosalba Oywa was a secondary science teacher. Over thirty years later, she has become one of the leading grassroots leaders of peacebuilding and reconstruction in Northern Uganda.

An ethnic Acholi, Rosalba grew up in Gulu district in Northern Uganda. Even though she was the youngest daughter in a culture that favors boys’ education, she was given the opportunity to pursue higher studies. She excelled at every turn, ultimately earning a bachelor's degree in chemistry and biology from Makerere University in 1977.

Shortly after the National Resistance Army took power in Uganda in 1986, the Acholi prophetess Alice Lakwena sparked what was described as an “uprising of the Holy Spirit” against the NRA government; this provided the initial foundation for Joseph Kony’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) movement. In the initial months of the conflict, Oywa lost multiple family members and had to flee for her own life. She and her children remained displaced for much of the next three years.

Rosalba’s experiences of deprivation, combined with the ongoing reality of war and instability in the Gulu area, led her directly into advocacy work. Shortly after resettling in Gulu, she worked with the Gulu District Women’s Development Committee to organize a city-wide women’s protest that briefly halted the war in 1989. A lay Catholic, Oywa in 1992 collaborated with the Archdiocese of Gulu and other religious communities to initiate a “March for Peace” in Gulu town. Since 2006, she has also worked with the Archdiocese on their annual “Peace Weeks,” regional events that combine reflection, prayer, and social analysis.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Oywa served as a lead Uganda analyst for the British-based Agency for Cooperation for Research and Development (ACORD). For Rosalba, this role helped her to “amplify the local voice” for a larger international community. Drawing on oral testimonies from women in particular, Oywa worked with a team of researchers to document both LRA and government abuses in Northern Uganda. Exposing the latter was especially risky. She began receiving death threats after ACORD published accounts that upwards of 1,000 internally-displaced people (IDPs) were dying from disease due to atrocious camp conditions. Yet she ultimately persevered. “God was protecting me, and we were working for the truth,” she says.

One of her most notable local initiatives has been the “People’s Voices for Peace,” a network she founded in 1995 to give voice to female survivors of war and gender-based violence. She also played a key role in reviving the famous Acholi ritual reconciliation process of “Mato Oput.” It is no wonder that Rosalba Oywa was included among the 1,000 “PeaceWomen” nominated for a collective Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. “Mama Peace” – to use the nickname shared to me by one local Acholi chief – remains a sign of hope, determination, and her steadfast conviction that ultimately, “the truth will win out.”