Walter Lam and the Alliance for African Assistance seemed to have anticipated any service an African immigrant might need. The organization's creation and maintenance obviously required significant intellectual and emotional stamina and an ability to manage and work with many different kinds of people. The Alliance required the sort of considerable talent and ambition that a person like Lam might have used to start his own business or rise high in the corporate world. But Lam had chosen not to forget Africa. I wondered why.
Lam and I met on a steamy weekday afternoon. Despite the heat, Lam was wearing a suit and tie and looked refreshed and cool. His office is large but not fancy. He's decorated it with a few African masks and statues. The office, like Lam's clothes and appearance, suggests calm and order. Lam himself is not so much a reserved person as he is a very careful listener. I told him that I was interested in learning who he was.
"I was born in 1954 in northern Uganda, in a town called Gulu. I would say it's the capital of northern Uganda. I would say there are maybe about half a million people in the Gulu district, which is like a county. It's beautiful there. In Uganda we know two seasons. That's the rainy and the dry seasons. The rainy season starts in March and goes all the way to September."
I asked Lam about his family.
"This is an interesting thing, and I always rarely talk about it. You see, I come from where all my grandparents, going back to my great-great-great-grandparents, were chiefs. But my father was not a chief. My grandfather chose my father's older brother to be chief.
"We belong to the Acholi tribe. Our language is Acholi. Our traditional way of making money was trading in crops and trading in animals. People need animals all the time. Cattle. Goats. Cattle and goats and all that kind of thing. The major crops in our area were sesame, for sesame oil; beans; sweet potatoes; corn, the kind of corn for eating; and manioc."
I asked Lam what the Acholi were well known for.
"In Uganda, people would know that dancing was something that was very important to our people, traditional dancing. It's ceremonial. We do the dances during holidays but more so when you have guests coming, like on Independence Day. That one, you prepare for it. And it's my tribe that has been taken around Uganda to perform traditional dancing. And we have even gone overseas to perform our dances. We are famous for that.
"You start learning the dances when you are young. I started learning when I was four years old. There aren't formal lessons. You just see others dancing and you join them. There are dances that are purely meant for women. There are all kinds of dances -- one that is the war dance, and there's another kind where the young girls and boys meet. It's like a courting dance. And there are other dances that are just for fun.
"It was very nice. I remember when I was so young, on the final day of school they would invite parents to come and all that. We would prepare and do the traditional dancing in front of them."
I knew that it was common for tribes to have a totem, a sort of spiritual symbol, usually an animal, that represented certain values or traits. Did the Acholi have a totem?
"That would be the elephant. And I guess it was chosen because the elephant is known as a very strong animal and also for being very, very intelligent.
"I would also say that in Uganda people know that you don't mess around with Acholi people, because the Acholi stand up for themselves. People have really tried to crush this tribe and make them lose morale and everything. We're very, very reliable, but you don't want to get an Acholi upset. You don't have to really wonder what an Acholi is thinking because he will tell you."
I wanted to learn more about Lam's family. He told me he was the fourth child of eight children: three boys, five girls.
"I was raised in a compound of about 50 people; probably three-quarters of them were children. Generally the male, the father, has the final say over everything and beyond. It's always the father, and he's generally the breadwinner. He goes out to work, and the wives are generally taking care of children. So that's the way it is."
Did Lam's father have only one wife and eight children?
"My father had 4 wives and 32 children."
On such a large scale, how was family life organized?
"We usually all came together only for meals. The wives know how to set it up. The girls sit by themselves over here. The boys over there. The little ones over there. The mothers and father over there. It all works out.
"Everyone is treated equally. You naturally pay more attention to your biological mother and to your immediate brothers and sisters. But you think of all the children as your brothers and sisters, even your cousins. You're all raised together, and everyone helps raising the children. This sometimes causes conflicts for Africans who want to immigrate to the United States because when they apply to bring their brothers and sisters with them, they think of all those people -- their cousins, the children from their father's other wives -- as brothers and sisters.
"What is difficult for Americans to understand is that in such a situation, all the adults help raise the children. And the traditions are a little different. With uncles, for example. Uncles are far more important in Africa than they are here. For example, my uncles -- my father's brothers -- I would call them my dad. All of them. They're all my father. And you know, the interesting thing about it culturally is that we respect the uncles more than our real fathers. One reason is that your father can forgive over a lot of issues, but your uncle, well, you don't mess around with your uncle. He can never forgive you for certain things. So you pay a little more attention and respect to your uncles than to your dad. You can mess around with your daddy and he will forgive you. But with uncles, it's different."