I said that it seemed to me that in a society where husbands had several wives and where the definitions of "brother," "sister," "mother," and "father" were elastic, a single family could extend quite far into a tribe. The tribe was almost another dimension of a person's family.
"That's very true," said Lam. "That connection is there because of the blood relationships. Of course people feel strongly about first-and-foremost family. But next to that is the tribe."
Since these families were so large, was there any concern about people marrying someone who might be too close a relation?
"The tribal elders keep track of all that, and generally before a marriage there's a sort of background check, sort of like how they do it here for jobs. They want to know who someone's father is. They want to know where he is. They check all the way back to the grandparents. And I think on a number of occasions the elders have had to say, 'No, you cannot marry. You're too close.' "
Did Lam, coming from a family of chiefs, think of his upbringing as privileged? Again, he paused.
"It's a part that I rarely want to talk about."
Perhaps Lam didn't want to boast. I couldn't tell. He did say that his family was educated and was Roman Catholic. He said that he'd attended a Roman Catholic missionary school that was run by an Italian religious order. He estimated that about 65 percent of the Acholi were Christian, 5 percent Muslim, and the rest practiced traditional African animism. Lam said that of the Christians, about 75 percent were Roman Catholic.
I asked if African Christians ever felt that Christianity was something that had been imposed on them from the outside. In their minds, was Christianity in any way related to colonialism?
"That perception I would say never came to my mind and especially not in the minds of the elderly people, people in the generation before mine. But with education, certain issues came up. Then the conflict that I saw very, very clearly between Christianity and our traditional culture was that a man is allowed to marry more than one woman.
"The other thing that I also recognized was that the Christian community that first came to Africa started grabbing land. That's an issue that caused some friction. And people used to joke, saying, 'They gave us the Bible just to keep us reading the Bible while they were grabbing our land.' But this perception is not one that's a big challenge to true believers."
Was it a big challenge for Lam?
"Not to me. It's not a problem because I know Christ. He's my personal savior."
I did a little math in my head. Lam was 8 years old when Uganda won its independence in 1962. He would have passed much of his childhood in an optimistic period of postcolonial African nationalism. He would have entered adolescence just as Uganda began its descent into turmoil. And Lam was 17 years old when Idi Amin overthrew the government and started torturing and killing many thousands of Ugandans.
I asked if Lam had any clear memories of Uganda's Independence Day.
"Oh, it was a big deal. I remember it was the 9th of October when Uganda got independent, and every year we used to go and parade downtown, marching and all that celebration. It was an all-day celebration. Yeah, I still remember that."
Sometime later, when I looked over the transcript of my conversations with Lam, I noticed that it was when we started to discuss politics that Lam spoke in fewer long paragraphs. My questions, too, became more brief. My questions jumped back and forth, from one year to another. I was trying to establish a chronology. I was also trying, blindly, to approach something that Lam did not want to talk about.
I filled these particular pages of transcript with lines and arrows directing me back and forth in the text, creating a kind of map or flow chart. I'd underlined one part of our conversation in yellow ink:
Q. When you fled Uganda in 1986, had you been politically active?
A. Yes, I was. This is a sensitive issue, here. I just want to be up front with you about it. Right now the Alliance has opened an office in Uganda, and we are working there...
Q. And so you want to be careful about what you say?
Lam told me that he became interested in politics when he was 12 years old. This would have been in 1966, when a series of scandals undermined the legitimacy of the Ugandan parliament. It was also at this time when the Ugandan constitution was suspended and when Colonel Idi Amin began to play a more central role in Uganda's affairs. Lam said that he started to think in a serious way about politics when he was 16 years old. This would have been when Uganda's government began to deteriorate rapidly.
Had religion informed Lam's social conscience?
"I think it had more to do with what we were going through at the time. I definitely think it had something to do with the values my parents taught me. But I wouldn't say they were the only reason. I was seeing people being killed here and there, and I definitely recognized that it was wrong. I think we were not given any freedom to practice politics. We'd had demanding dictators all along. Uganda wasn't really a country that was liberated."
I asked Lam what sort of teenager he was.
"Reading was a major thing for me. I read a lot of books. Nonfiction. Mostly African authors. Some were in the country. Some had been jailed. Others were in exile. They were writing about the state of African politics and the sorts of governments we were having.
"When I was in high school, there was a lot of killing going on in the life of Uganda. Our past bishop was killed, and several ministers were killed. The government claimed they were involved in car accidents, but they were just shot, killed, and then their bodies were dumped in a car."