The Politics of Sleep

In this week alone, I have spoken to two different women who had to leave abusive relationships. Neither of the women know each other, but what struck me in speaking to them, was that both mentioned that after leaving the abusive relationship, they were able to sleep. Really sleep.

It is very easy to take sleep for granted. And I guess many of us do. It’s only when you suffer sleeplessness, that you realize how precious sleep is. Trauma and abuse of any kind can cause sleeplessness. There is a whole generation of Ugandans that suffered sleeplessness due to the political instability and violence of the late 1960’s to the mid 1980’s. It was hard to sleep during the time of coups. It was hard to sleep when all around all manner of gunshots were going off, some very close, others in the distance. It was very hard to sleep when a relative did not come back home and you feared the worst – that he or she had been kidnapped or killed. It was hard to sleep when you were not sure whether or not marauding thieves dressed in military fatigues, would come knocking on your door to loot or rape or maim. It was hard to sleep when the panda gali trucks indiscriminately took away young men from towns and villages. It was hard to sleep, not knowing when the brutal hand of the regime would be stopped. It was hard to sleep when you knew you belonged to the ‘wrong’ tribe or the ‘wrong’ political party.

Then came the dawn of sleep in 1986, when the National Resistance Movement (NRM), took over government. That was when people started talking of being able to sleep. That’s when despite any ills or shortcomings of the NRM, people were willing to overlook them as long as they were able to sleep. There is a generation of Ugandans who said whatever happens, “kasita twebaka ku tulo”, loosely translated as “at least now we sleep”. Ugandans had learned not to take the simple things of life for granted, simple things like sleep.

It is easy to laugh at or denigrate those who, for now, despite all that is going wrong and the democratic reversals the country is experiencing, still enjoy their sleep. It is also easy to abuse those who sleep, to fuel impunity, mistaking the sleep for dormancy. But that is not so. People who have lived through trauma will hang on to the last shreds of sleep, because it is precious, but that does not mean, when pushed to the wall, they cannot or will not resist those who disturb their sleep.

We have seen this resistance against impunity in Apaa village in Amuru, where elderly women in the community have pushed back against and expressed dissent at the impending land grab. We have seen this resistance in the Black Monday Movement, a citizen led, anti corruption movement. We have seen this resistance in the Walk to Work protests. We have seen this resistance every time workers in Uganda lay down their tools and strike for better wages and better living conditions. We have seen this resistance in the yellow pigs protests by young people, or their resistance to the government move to have unemployed graduates go to work as housemaids in the Middle East. We have seen this resistance when wives of policemen protested the poor living and working conditions of the police force.

Trauma, whether at the family level or at the national, political level, robs people of sleep. We must thus desist from laughing at or abusing the rights of people who for now are enjoying sleep, for they are the wiser for it. They know what it is not to sleep. They know what it is to live in fear, to live through violence, and they will defend their right to sleep at all costs.

So the next time someone tells you they can now sleep do not dare take it as a license to run roughshod over them. They are very awake to their right to sleep!

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