William Lalobo: Of this my (Acholi) Heritage

When it comes to the things that define us; the exact things that make us the people that we are, for William OLwoch Lalobo, it has always been simplicity. It is untold joy to him when things get done the simplest way possible without having to raise any dust. In this, he has found the place to be a solution oriented person, something he has taught his children. “I don’t apologize,” said Tezira with a very stern face looking me direct in the eye, “… before I speak, I have to think through my words so they don’t cause me to apologize.” It is those little things that never change in our human form years after we have shifted attention, simple things like how one walks, the gestures or even laughter. Such acts are better exposed in the things we do as reflex actions. They rub off us as the rest of the world reads them out loud to be our character traits. Some of those things we have the power to change while others we don’t. For those we do, it is better to do them and do them well.

Simplicity is being able to do things others find to be very hard. One such a thing is identity. Often times our identity changes with the occurrence of events in to our lives. We change to fit in or to attain an assumed position that would redefine us as a better people.

“Knowing that you can make do with the simplest tools is the human being’s liberation.”

William’s identity has always been nothing but that of the land to which he belongs, Acholi. It is the blood that runs on the inside of him, the shade of his skin colour and the way of life that is Acholi to him. That is one thing has kept very close to his heart. Growing up in the Acholi rich culture, William found himself unable to shed it off. As he went off into the world to work, meeting people from the different walks of life, he could have chosen to have a redefinition of himself but he did not. Instead, that is when he began to deeply appreciate the uniqueness of his roots, the Acholi way of life.

As we sat down for dinner in the open courtyard with chairs spread in a smaller semicircle with a bonfire lighting up the darkness of the night joined by Christine, his wife and James, his brother, I was informed that this is the traditional Acholi sitting room, wang oo. Wang oo is an important place in the affairs of an Acholi household as that is the place where the day’s business comes to an end. Traditionally, recounts of the day were discussed there, by the fire. Then came dinner and the rest of the night burnt out with the burning faggots of wood in the wang oo. It is at this bonfire that education was passed on from the elders to the children and elders followed up on matters of national importance. For over 27 years when William and his family lived in Kampala, they never had a sitting room inside the house, it was always wang oo. The bonfire makes time static. Conversations carry on to the tail end without the need to rush. The clients at the lodge are always amused by this culture. They ask questions on the wang oo, the deero (granary) and the otogo (hut with the step thatching), an inimitable architectural design among the Acholi.

It is at the fire place that the traditional dances are presented from bwore to lakaraka to dingi dingi, each special and unique in its own way. The Acholi have a long list of traditional dances from which they draw a livelihood but most importantly depict their way of life. Every member of staff takes part in the traditional dance. “Every member brings on board an aspect of heritage with them.”

William holds no office. He has never held one ever since he left formal employment. He believes in breaking the rules that hold many captive. A similar trait has been picked up by his daughter Tezira who currently runs Paragon Hospital, another of William’s establishment. She seats at the reception much as she is the managing director.

This, he attributes to the rich culture of the Acholi. The Acholi are known among many other things to be communal when it comes to work. Anything that leads to individuality or isolation is not necessarily a good gesture.

At Heritage Safaris, William easily mixes with the builders at the site. He has developed a one on one relationship that he knows their individual stories. To some like Anywar, he has worked with them for over a decade.

This kind of flexibility endears him to them that they have picked up the principles that have caused a great change in their lives. By knowing them in person, the staff open up. They tell him of the goings on in their lives. Their children who were little girls and boys are now at university and some have found employment at the hospital. It is this very bond that is responsible for inculcating a discipline of hard work. As they go about their work, the staff knows they are not doing the work for their boss but rather for themselves. It is this kind of discipline that sees them clean up their work spaces once they are done.

The Heritage staff has a tendency of putting to hold whatever they are doing so they can tend to the guests. This attention to details that runs in the mind of each member of staff is the magnet that attracts the guest to come back every other time they are in the area.

William does not remember ever going out to advertise Heritage Safaris. It has been the individual role of every client they have hosted at the premises to carry the word to the world. And indeed the world has come. Currently, the company is building more cottages and remodeling the old in preparation for the bigger numbers coming later in the year. It goes back to the family model of working where everyone has a role to play.

“You’ve got to be there. Be where your work is. You should have an idea of what happens there.”

The Acholi look at the ocoroboke (elephant) as a symbol of their identity. There are a number of traits that have been emulated from the gentle giant. The elephant always leads the way for others. As if that is not enough, it makes sure that the particular route ends up at a water source. Its sense of smell is very strong that it can point out the enemy among the good people. And when it comes to security, it is always there to protect those it loves.

Ocoroboke (Elephant)

When you follow a route and it leads you to a man’s house, there should be a water source. Among the Acholi, there is no fence, only the wankachi. Only the bold one can dare walk into another man’s homestead. Neither are there doors. This is what you find at the lodge. A homestead should be able to at least provide you with something to drink. At the Heritage lodge, their guests are always treated to a glass of tamarind juice, a fruit that is known to have long historical importance to the Acholi.

A few years back, the great grandchildren of Sir Samuel Baker visited at Heritage and they were blown away to find that the juice their great grandfather wrote about in his books was still held in custom by the Acholi.

A heritage is a cultural practice done mainly for posterity. Things start with you but should not end with you. There is no heritage if there’s no conservation, community and sustainability. The habit of planting a tree is one still held in very high regard at the lodge. You plant a tree not because you will sit under its shade but because your children will, said Chinua Achebe in his novel Things Fall Apart.

“Your output is useless if it doesn’t contribute to the continuation of the process.”

We each have a part to play. We are all a part of the whole. When it is your turn to do something, you do it and move on. The elephant in William has been doing just that; paving the way. He prefers to lay the foundation and then move on. At one point in his life he was a sought after computer wizard (as they referred to them then. They are now called geeks). With this expertise, he worked with the UN before journeying on as an academic teaching in seven universities across Africa and California. Thereafter, he concentrated on working on personal projects. This has been his way of life. It has been one project after another. The beauty is in the process of creating. When he creates, he finds the gratitude. Being able to put in place something where there was nothing previously is a joyous deed that melts William’s heart. That is why he believes projects should never get finished, there is always something new to add. A coat of paint will wear off and a new one will be called for.

It is in the moving on that his children have created a close relationship with their parents. William works closely with his wife Christine. They are always together at the construction sites. It is at these sites that their dear children have found their toys and anchored their dreams. Tezira picked the interest of becoming a civil engineer by working at these sites. Construction work was always during holiday time as a family get-together of sorts only to become a family culture.

“You only get the best when you get involved in the process.”

Seven years ago, there was need to lay a new foundation. A recent event had exposed the Lalobos to a piece of property which they thought they needed to develop. One afternoon, William and Christine stopped over to inspect the premise and they did not find a reason of leaving that very day. They decided to stay. That very evening, Christine drove to Pakwaach town and bought a tent and a few basic items that they needed (bedding and food containers) as William, together with one of their staff, a one Opio, cleared the ground where the tents would be pitched. They never left. To date.

This place became their home. They began the construction of the cottages one after another putting in a full 1% every day and the same still happens even as you read this story right now. There has always been something underway. The same formation has worked for their Tours and Travel Company which saw them bag last year’s big deal of driving Kanye West on a tour at the Chobe Safari Lodge.

In every piece of work William does, he minds the 1% full participation. It is this discipline that has sustained him in business. He prefers to do the best right now until the work gets done. Yet even with this great resolve, he seems to be just starting. The couple is set to open up a private game reserve in the near future and if approved, a floating lodge on the Nile.

The confidence with which William and Christine speak shows how much determined they are in achieving what they are set out to do. The projects that look to be so big to be done, they break them down into smaller portions and get them done.

An Acholi sitting room amid wang oo, the deero and the otogo

William’s heart is filled with gratitude and a joy untold. He fails to get the right words to define it because he knows that even without him, the companies will continue running. This is not just a thought, he has seen it work. The Lalobos no longer keep a home in Kampala, they stayed there for over 27 years and finished the work they had to do there. Their work is now in Pakwach and there all their attention is at the Heritage Safaris Lodge. They will stay until that work is done.

For William and his family, their heart is all out doing things the simplest way possible. As we part for night he asks me the same question I will leave you with, “What does your heart beat for?

“It’s easy for an individual to establish a company but its longevity must be in the hands of the many,” he reveals to me.

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