ACHOLI PEOPLE: THE FAMOUS EAST AFRICAN SPIRITUALLY AND MARTIALLY POWERFUL PEOPLE WITH CULTURALLY UNIQUE MATO OPUT JUSTICE AND RECONCILIATION RITUALS CEREMONY
"Without culture you are no one, without culture you are dead"~Paramount Chief of Acholi, David Onen Acana II
Acholi dancers from northern Uganda
The Acholi or Acoli are part of Luo-speaking Nilotic people of East Africa who lives predominantly in Northern Uganda (an area commonly referred to as Acholiland), including the districts of Agago, Amuru, Gulu, Kitgum, Nwoya, Lamwo, and Pader; and Magwe County in South Sudan. Prior to colonialism, the people known today as the Acholi referred to themselves as An-loco-li, which means “I am a human being”, or “black” (Doom 1999, 10). . The label An-loco-li did not have any ethnic delineations or geographical boundaries initially, although the Acholi people had a collective identity encapsulated in cultures and customs that governed their existence for thousands of years. As a result of the Acholi people’s self-understanding as human beings, they embraced peaceful coexistence among themselves and their immediate neighbors (Doom 1999, 11). However, since the colonial period, the Acholi people developed a distinct ethnic identity that characterizes them as “northerners” or dark people, something that sets them apart from the people in the “South” commonly referred to as southerners. Another theory also posits that during the second half of the nineteenth century Arabic-speaking traders from the north started to call them Shooli, a term which transformed into 'Acholi'.
Acholi man performing Acholi tribal war dance
The Acholi were considered a martial people by the British, and many joined the military. Kasozi (1994) said there has been a developed myth that the Acholi are martial race and a warlike-people because former Ugandan president Milton Obote used their strength in the army to consolidate his government. However, one would realize that speaking Acholi is one of the gateways into the world of Luo, one of the major cultures of Africa spanning across southern Sudan and northwestern Kenya. Their complex customs and social organization, their traditions of conflict resolution, their variety of specialized dances,and their rich material culture are some of the attractions to studying the culture and arts of the Acholi people. It is estimated that approximately 1.677, 000 Acholi people lives in Uganda and about 58,000 lives in Southern Southern in Opari Disrict, Acholi Hills.
The Acholi are always in the international news since 1986 over wars in Northern Uganda and in recent times as a result of the warfare activities of one of their sons, Joseph Kony, leader of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army. Apart from Koney, the Acholi people have other important people of national and international standing such as Okot p'Bitek, poet and author of the Song of Lawino, Olara Otunnu, former United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict and UPC Presidential Candidate in 2011, Matthew Lukwiya, physician at the forefront of the 2000 Ebola outbreak, which took his life, Tito Okello, President of Uganda for six months in 1985 (though he referred to himself only as 'Head of State'), Geoffrey Oryema, exiled singer, Janani Luwum, former Archbishop of the (Anglican) Church of Uganda, murdered by President Idi Amin, Bazilio Olara-Okello, de facto Head of State for six months in 1985 and later Chief of Defence Forces, Alice Auma aka Lakwena, spirit medium and rebel leader etc!
Olara Otunnu,an Acholi tribe man, former United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict and UPC Presidential Candidate in 2011
Acholiland or "Acholi-land" (also known as the Acholi sub-region) is an inexact term that refers to the region traditionally inhabited by the Acholi. In the administrative structure of Uganda, Acholi is composed of the districts of Agago, Amuru, Gulu, Kitgum, Lamwo, Nwoya and Pader.
Acholi man standing on a rock,Gulu,Uganda. courtesy Charlie Shoemaker
Under the decentralisation policy of the government, creation of another district, Omoro, is in the offing. It encompasses about 28,500 km2 (11,000 square miles) near the Uganda-Sudan border.
Its current population is estimated to be around 600,000 individuals, or four per cent of the total national population. While Acholi also live north of the South Sudanese border, the Sudanese Acholi are often excluded from the political meaning of the term "Acholiland".
Map of Acholiland
The word 'Acholi' is a misnomer that became adopted for convenience over the years. It refers to people known locally as Luo Gang. That is why the Langi neighbours refer to the Acholi as Ugangi, meaning people of the home.
The Acholi homeland has been crucible of conflict since 1986. The Uganda Peoples Defence Force (UPDF), commanded until 2006 by General Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who is also the president of Uganda, has fought different insurgent groups such as Ugandan People Democratic Army (UPDA) under Udong Latek, the Holy Spirit Movement Forces (HSMF), under Alice Auma Lakwena, the Holy Spirit Movement Forces II of Severino Lukoya and the Lord`s Resistance Army/Movement (LRA/M) of Joseph Koney. Until 2006, the LRA/M of Joseph Koney remained the most resistant to defeat despite government`s highly praised military operations, such as "Operation Lightening Thunder" in December 2003.
Geoffrey Oryema,an Acholi tribe man and exiled singer. Read all about his songs here:geoffrey-oryema-african-odysseus.html
Acholi is a Luo-Nilotic language primarily spoken by the Acholi people in the districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader, a region known as Acholiland in northern Uganda. Acholi is also spoken in the southern part of the Opari District of Sudan. It spoken by about 1.735,000 people in Uganda and South Sudan. Song of Lawino, well known in African literature, was written in Acholi by Okot p'Bitek, although its sequel, Song of Ocol, was written in English
Acholi, Alur and Lango have between 84 and 90 percent of their vocabulary in common and thus are
mutually intelligible.The languageis spoken in three dialects: Labwor, Nyakwai, Dhopaluo (Chopi, Chope).
The number of speakers is believed to have grown to a total of more than a million people at theturn of the
Acholi tribe dancers,Uganda. Photo by Charlie Shoemaker
Legend asserts that Luo was the first man. He had no human parents. He is said to have sprung from the ground. It is taken that his father was Jok (God) and that his mother was Earth. The legend adds that Luo’s son Jipiti, whose mother is unknown, had a daughter called Kilak. Kilak is believed to have conceived a son, Lubongo, whose father was said to be the devil, Lubanga. Lubongo was the first in the line of Rwot – the chiefs of Payera, the dominant Acholi clan.
The Acholi people of northern Uganda are part of cattle-keeping Luo-speakers who migrated from their homeland along the Nile River in Southern Sudan in the sixteenth century and settled in different parts of East Africa (Atkinson 1994, 78.). The Acholi migrated south to northern Uganda from the area now known as Bahr el Ghazal in South Sudan by about 1,000 CE. Starting in the late seventeenth century, a new sociopolitical order developed among the Luo of northern Uganda, mainly characterized by the formation of chiefdoms headed by Rwodi (sg. Rwot, 'ruler').
Acholi family in the 1870s
The chiefs traditionally came from one clan, and each chiefdom had several villages made up of different patrilineal clans. By the mid-nineteenth century, about 60 small chiefdoms existed in eastern Acholiland. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Arabic-speaking traders from the north started to call them Shooli, a term which was transformed into 'Acholi'.
Acholi-Luo people.Circa 1910
Their traditional communities were organised hamlets, where their dwellings were circular huts with a high peak, furnished with a mud sleeping-platform, jars of grain and a sunk fireplace. The women daubed the walls with mud, decorating them with geometrical or conventional designs in red, white or grey. The men were skilled hunters, using nets and spears. They also kept goats, sheep and cattle. The women were also accomplished agriculturists, growing and processing a variety of food crops, including millet, simsim, groundnuts, peas, sorghum, vegetables, etc. In war, the men used spears and long, narrow shields of giraffe or ox hide.
Chief Awich (or Awichu) of Payira, Acholi land 1904. He was one of the first resistance fighters against colonialism. He even granted asylum to Omukama Kabalega at some point.
During Uganda's colonial period, the British encouraged political and economic development in the south of the country, in particular among the Baganda. In contrast, the Acholi and other northern ethnic groups supplied much of the national manual labor and came to comprise a majority of the military, creating what some have called a "military ethnocracy". Due to a changing economy, after the 1950s, fewer Acholi were recruited to the armed forces, but continued to be associated with them in popular mythology and stereotypes.
In the 2000s, James Ojent Latigo is among the authors who have described some of Uganda's social problems as based on the way the political elites have used ethnicities to divide the country. He has noted that the emphasis on distinction among ethnic groups has even been part of the internal government dialogue." He wrote, "Part of the structural causes of the conflict in Uganda has been explained as rooted in the ‘diversity of ethnic groups which were at different levels of socio-economic development and political organisation.’ (Ugandan Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Internal Affairs 1997.)
|English: Portrait of an Acholi woman 1877-1880(Photo credit:Richard Buchta Wikipedia)|
He has written further,
"Since independence in 1962, Uganda has been plagued by ethnically driven, politically manipulated violence referred to by some as a history of ‘cycles of revenge and mistrust’. Deep-rooted divisions and polarization remain between different ethnic groups, and these have been greatly exacerbated by the way in which the country’s leadership has developed since independence."
Milton Obote, the first leader after independence, relied on Acholi and Langi Luo people in government. Idi Amin was also from north Uganda, but was of the Kakwa people. He overthrew Obote's government and established a dictatorship, ultimately suppressing and killing 300,000 persons, including many Acholi. General Tito Okello was an Acholi, and came to power in a military coup. He was defeated in January 1986. Despite the years of leadership by men from the North, that region continued to be marginalized economically after independence, and has suffered higher rates of poverty than other areas of the country.
After defeating Okello and his Acholi-dominated Uganda National Liberation Army, now-President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army conducted revenge killings in the north. Museveni has held absolute power since, surviving unrest, civil war, and numerous attempts at coups.
Tito Okello, a native Acholi and President of Uganda for six months in 1985 (though he referred to himself only as 'Head of State')
The Acholi are known to the outside world mainly because of the long insurgency of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony, an Acholi from Gulu. The activities of the LRA have been devastating within Acholiland (though they spread also to neighbouring districts and countries). In September 1996, the Ugandan government moved hundreds of thousands of Acholi from the Gulu district into camps, ostensibly for their protection. Since 1996 this policy has expanded to encompass the entire rural Acholi population of four districts, one million people. These camps had some of the highest mortality rates in the world with an estimated 1,000 people dying per week at one point. Malaria and AIDS have been the primary disease causes of deaths. The refugees in the camps have also been subject to raids by both LRA and government forces.
At the height of the insurgency, 1.8 million people in the north were living in camps. Peace talks beginning in 2005 promised some relief to these people, and some camps were closed in 2007 as security in the north improved. As of September 2009, large numbers of Acholi people remain in camps as internally displaced persons. The long civil war in the North has destroyed much of their society.
The majority of elected parliamentarians in the Acholi sub-region are members of the opposition.
True black hero Dr Matthew Lukwiya,an Acholi tribe man and physician at the forefront of the 2000 Ebola outbreak, which took his life
Before the wars, Acholiland was endowed by beautiful scenery, lush vegetation, rivers, game animals, birds and above all, abundant fertile land which has been communally owned, cultivated and handed down by Acholi families to their descendants from generation to generation.
The Acholi people who were prosperous two decades ago were predominantly agriculturalists practicing subsistence farming alongside animal husbandry as a major source of livelihood. Cotton, tobacco, coffee and maize were among the major cash crops grown by the people. Successful agricultural production was made possible because the sub-region had a well linked network of roads and rails that enabled transporting agricultural products to meet the market demand. In addition to marketing infrastructure, processing and storage facilities were also at their disposal.
Complimenting agricultural production in Acholiland was the widescale ownership of shorthorned cattle used for ploughing and serving as a source of wealth. Cattle were abundantly owned and would be sold as needed to support family activities.
Poverty, famine and drought were unheard of in Acholiland because of the conducive environment for agricultural production, a tradition of cattle and livestock ownership and being a hard working community. In short, the Acholi community was prosperous and self-sufficient.
The Acholi were excellent hunters, with the prey enriching the daily menue. They hunted in different ways: either as a group or alone as trappers (Okia); they used nets, pits, or they hunted the animals into the water and subsequently killed them with their spears. They fish in the river bodies around them.
Acholis fishermen. Unlike their neighbors Karamojong, the Acholi are an ethnic combining tradition and modernity. Photo by Sandra Andrea Renard and Alexandre Van Enst
The Acholi are considered to be peaceful people, but good fighters. Their weapons are mostly spears with rather long flat blades without blood-courses, and broad-bladed swords. Some use slings, and most carry shields.
Bows and arrows are also used; firearms are, however, displacing other weapons. Warfare was mainly defensive and intertribal, this last a form of vendetta. If a man had killed his enemy in the battle, he shaved his head on his return and he was rubbed with "medicine" (generally goat's dung), to protect him from the spirit of the dead man. The young warriors were made to stab the bodies of their slain enemies.
Ironworking, mainly but not entirely confined to certain lineages, appears to be almost as ancient as agriculture, going back perhaps to the first millennium B . C .
Acholi women selling pottery works,Kitgum,Uganda
Pottery and basket making were widespread and relatively non specialized arts, carried out by both men and women. In most chiefdoms, only members of designated lineages could make or repair royal drums. They also engage in beads making.
Precolonial trade, both within Acholi and throughout the region, focused mainly on obtaining iron ore and finished iron products in exchange for baskets or products of the farm, herd, or hunt. Significantly, iron-ore deposits were located mainly at or just beyond the western, northeastern, southeastern, and southern boundaries of what became Acholi, and trade for this iron created networks of movement and interaction that helped determine a collective identity within these boundaries. During the later nineteenth century, the emergent Acholi became involved in the international trade in ivory and slaves, which were exchanged mainly for cattle, beads, blankets, cotton cloth, and firearms. Colonial rule brought the penetration of a money economy into Acholi, along with the establishment of numerous rural and small-town trading centers and the two major urban centers of Gulu and Kitgum, where a range of local and imported goods are available.
Division of Labor
In the precolonial era, warfare, herding, and hunting were the domain of men. Men have also traditionally played a significant role in agriculture, especially for such time-limited, labor-intensive tasks as clearing, planting, and harvesting (often as part of lineage-based cooperative labor teams). Women also provide major labor in the fields, as well as being responsible for most child rearing and all cooking and other food-preparation tasks.
Acholi women carrying goods
The building of houses and granaries has historically involved both men and women, with each performing specified functions. Boys and girls are typically socialized into distinct gender roles, and do household and other chores accordingly. Since the entrenchment of colonial rule, an average of 10 to 20 percent of adult Acholi males at any one time have been involved in migrant labor or employment in the police or army that has taken them from their home and families. Relatively small numbers of Acholi have filled middle-level or senior civil-service positions in independent Uganda.
Traditionally, land rights were vested in localized patrilineal lineages, under the control and guidance of lineage heads and elders. This included both agricultural and hunting land. An individual had personal claim to land that he and his wife (or wives) had under cultivation or that had been cultivated but was lying fallow, and such rights passed from father to son. Given the low population densities and minimal land pressure, almost anyone who was willing to clear and work unused land has been welcomed by lineage heads responsible for such land and, while they functioned, by the rwodi of chiefdoms within whose domains the land lay. Girling (1960) notes that as late as 1950 there was still no system of individual land tenure in Acholi; however, such tenure has become increasingly common since independence.
Localized lineages have been the fundamental social units in Acholi, with chiefdoms providing a layer of organization above the lineages from the late seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries. While rwodi, members of royal lineages, and lineage heads all seem to have been somewhat better off than others before the latter part of the nineteenth century, social stratification appears limited, owing primarily to both limited wealth in the society and redistribution. Certain rwodi and interpreters began to accumulate some of the new wealth brought into Acholi by international trade, and descendants of some of these men used their inherited wealth to build up prominent twentieth-century families. Since independence, a relatively few Acholi army officers have managed to accumulate substantial fortunes, as have a few traders. More commonly, almost any salaried job in the public or private sector represents an income that averages several times that of a member of the majority peasant population.
Acholi tribe dancers
Changing Roles of Women
Historically, Acholi women were defined almost exclusively in relation to their reproductive role. The socialization of girls revolved around their preparation for the role of wife and later, mother. One of the most important lessons passed on to young girls was “how to respect and care for a man.” Elaborate ceremonies prepared young girls and women for these roles, including marriage and birth ceremonies which formally recognized a woman’s status within the family home she was married into, and validated her worth to the family and, by extension, the clan as a whole. The gendered division of labour followed. In the home, women were expected to care for children, tend the fields, cook and clean. In contrast, men were expected to dig, harvest and hunt, and to construct and maintain the compound.
Acholi tribe mother playing with her baby using flowers
The conflict has transformed traditional gender roles. Confined to camps, men are no longer able to fulfill traditional productive roles. Women, on the other hand, continue to be responsible for reproductive roles with the added burden of having to care for orphans and, in some cases, have been forced to assume a position as head of the household. “Men relieve their burden on women,” said Mego Dorothy Abwot.
Today, women are “responsible for feeding the family” [digging, planting, harvesting, food collection from WFP] and moral and universal education, areas in which men were once prominent. “Men only know how to drink now.” Yet men continue to dominate decision-making in the household and community.
In precolonial Acholi, lineage heads and elders were most responsible for social control, though one of the attractions that assisted the development of chiefdoms seems to have been the ability of rwodi to help settle disputes that involved more than one lineage.
Acholi people. By Charlie Shoemaker
With colonial rule came a new hierarchy of chiefs, clerks, and policemen, all under the authority of a district commissioner. Much of that hierarchy continued into the independence era. The essential lawlessness of the Idi Amin and second Milton Obote regimes, however, as well as of the various rebel groups, the Ugandan army, and Karamojong raiders (who have been active in Acholi since the mid-1980s) have led to a breakdown of any meaningful social control in the area.
Acholi tribe girls dancing
Prior to colonialism, the Acholi kingdom was composed of kaka (loosely knit clans), each headed by a Rwot Moo (anointed chief) derived from a royal clan. He was typically the Eldest son, although reportedly ‘the people’ could remove and replace Rwot Moo should he not represent or care for them well. Each Rwot Moo lived in a large, extended and polygamous household located within the domain of his clansmen. He was responsible for promoting unity and the social welfare of his clansmen; to provide for them in times of need.
Each Rwot Moo was supported by a Council of Elders through which he ruled based on consent, rather than force. The structure of the Council of Elders was complex with variations from clan to clan. Its main function was to “guide communities, solve disputes and create peace and unity among people”.48 Councils were present at all social levels, starting with the family level. Every household unit appointed an Apoka (Elder) to represent their voices. Apokas from the different clans formed a Council of Elders, which was presided over by the Atekere. The Atekere was the middleman between the Apoka and the Rwot Moo. Meetings among these actors were held regularly to discuss community issues and concerns.
His Royal Highness Rwot David Onen Ocana, leader of Ker Kwero Acholi,(centre) launched a six-month campaign to put an end to gender-based violence in Acholi
Under the British colonial administration, the Rwot Moo were stripped of power and replaced by the Rwot Kalam, translated to ‘men of the pen’ (educated men who served the colonial administration). Rwot Moo continued to exercise free, if informal, cultural leadership among his people, but was limited in the exercise of administrative power. Under colonialism, the Rwot Moo of the largest clan, Payira, emerged as a ‘leader’ among other Rwot Moo. However, until this era, the Acholi had no Paramount Chief. As one informant observed, “The institution of a Paramount Chief was a completely new one. In the past, there was no one
Rwot who was more powerful than the other.” During colonialism, however, Rwot Camo (1887) and Rwot Awich (1888-1946) of Payira, emerged as the informal leaders of Acholi. In post-independent Uganda, Rwot Adonga of the Payira clan was installed by Rwodi as ‘the perfect leader’ (laloya maber). However, the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin (1971-1979) displaced Adonga, resulting in the temporary lapse in leadership. At independence, the Rwot Kalam system was dismantled, and the Rwot Moo remained officially unrecognized in the Ugandan Constitution until 1995. Elders and Rwot Moo continued to play important cultural roles, but political structures by the time of independence had been slowly replaced by the
apparatus of the Ugandan state.
The on-going conflict in Northern Uganda has weakened both Rwodi and the Councils of Elders. Like the rest of the population, Rwodi and Elders were forced to leave their homesteads and live in IDP camps. In fact, the majority of Rwodi no longer live in the centre of their subject’s domains, but in town centres. As a result, many people today no longer automatically know their Rwot, nor what his role should be. When they do live in camps among ‘their people’, it is in a setting of extreme poverty, limiting the role they can play in cultural rituals, mediation or unity building.
The spirit of communalism that characterized Acholi domains in the past has been replaced with that of individualism. As one Acholi proverb puts it, “oyo man ki wino doge” – “each rat with its own whisker”. Respect tends to be afforded to persons with money or power, and yet Rwodi in camps have little more than their people. Research revealed that more IDPs could identify their Local Councillor (LCs), religious leader or camp leader than their Rwodi. However, when Rwodi do live in a camp, people are more likely to know their Rwot. Moreover, camps where strong Rwodi – those considered persons of good moral character – live, an increased level of respect was afforded to them.
dancing back identity in Acholiland
The duty of Elders in conflict resolution has largely been replaced by the work of camp leaders and LCs. As Ladit Eromasio Odara commented, the “Elder institution has been replaced with camp leaders and LCs who are not always able to pass the best advice. Their neutrality in handling cases is normally compromised because of money, nepotism and politics”. Elders have also become isolated from ‘their’ people, with whom they once had close proximity to in the village. Clans are often intermixed in camp settings, or in some cases, extended families are dispersed across different camps. “Elders are now scattered everywhere, they use to live with their people”. Displacement has also separated Elders from each other and poor security conditions prevent them from meeting regularly to discuss community issues. In short, Elders previously gained the ultimate respect of their communities because “they were seen as fathers by the younger generation. The way Elders conducted themselves was so extraordinary that many would refer to them as gods”. Elders were always approached for advice, however, the problems that have occurred in the camps are beyond the reach of the Elders, and thus render them unable to perform their duty.
Conflict resolution (Traditional Justice)
In traditional Acholi culture, justice is done for ber bedo, to restore harmonious life.Traditional justice was distinguished from formal justice in terms of the voluntary willingness of the perpetrator to confess. Part of the logic of Acholi cosmology is to illicit fear and shame if one broke a social norm and to encourage people to take the appropriate steps towards restoration. For instance, the powerful narrative of cen - that one would endure sickness and death until a wrong is made right - was a form of psychological punishment to
Acholi people relaxing under tree
In cases when a killer is well known but refuses to admit to his or her guilt or crime, then revenge by the spirit of the murdered victim is encouraged by Elders. This will result in misfortune of the offending clan. Otherwise, the offending parties may legitimately threaten revenge (a blood revenge), but this is said to be kept in check by a period of “cooling off” between clans and enforced by Elders. The community has an interest in avoiding revenge killings, and will do all it can to cool off the high level of tensions.
The process of establishing the facts of a particular conflict was considered by most respondents as essential to resolving the conflict. In general, a mediator (usually an Elder at the family and sub-clan level, a representative of the Rwot-Moo (anointed Chief) at the clan level, or the Rwot-Moo himself at the inter-clan level) would establish these facts in consultation with the involved parties, their relatives and witnesses. This was done either in a process of ‘shuttle diplomacy’ or in public meetings, depending on the circumstances.
Establishment of the facts (such as whether a crime was intentional or not) could determine the amount of compensation and the corresponding ritual or ceremony required to appease spirits and ancestors. Finally, establishing the truth was regarded as an important component for facilitating reconciliation between conflicting parties, at the family, clan, inter-clan, or inter-tribal levels. Women were involved only in instances when a conflict involving women or a “woman’s issue” arose. Senior women were limited to being witnesses to crimes committed, and women were never given the opportunity to preside over any open court.
Categories of crime and corresponding compensation exist in Acholi traditional by-laws, some of which have now been documented and are currently being translated into English.These include compensation on a wide range of family laws, including divorce, marriage, burial rites, and criminal laws including arson, theft, or murder. The circumstances surrounding the crime are always considered in determining compensation, including whether or not the crime was intentional. Compensation is largely paid in the form of livestock (cows, bulls, goats), or increasingly in the context of the displacement camps, the monetary equivalent of the required livestock. A chief Elder in charge of compensation receives it from the offending person’s entire clan. The clan or family of the wrongdoer will be expected to help contribute to raising the compensation.
Beautiful Acholi old lady,Uganda
Traditional justice in Acholi culture was described by informants as restorative rather than punitive, seeking to repair social harmony of a community, rather than establish individual innocence or guilt. In Acholi, one person’s crime extends to the entire family, and the family of the injured party is likewise affected. Thus one person’s crime causes a rift within the entire community that can only be resolved after establishing the truth, payment of compensation and followed by a series of rituals or ceremonies in order to reconcile ‘bitterness’ and chase away ill will or spirits that threaten the unity of the clan.
Prior to colonialism, crimes were handled in “open courts” held at different levels of social organization (household, sub-clan, clan, inter-clan and inter-tribal) according to the nature of the conflict (land, domestic conflict, arson, murder). Serious conflicts involved Elders and Rwodi at the clan or inter-clan level, whereas less serious crimes could be handled by Elders and peers at the familial, sub-clan or clan level. The voluntary admission of guilt was considered a necessary act for moving forward. Ideally, the decision regarding compensation and rituals for reconciliation was arrived at ‘consensually’ among Elders and in consultation with injured parties, and according to interpretation of traditional by-laws.
Janani Luwum, Acholi tribe man and former Archbishop of the (Anglican) Church of Uganda, murdered by President Idi Amin
During pre-colonial times, when a transgression occurred the Elders would gather the people and inform them of the problem. The Elders then met the involved parties to listen to both sides of the case before deciding what compensation was appropriate. Respondents often insisted this was a consensual approach, and no decision was taken until all parties agreed. While the introduction of the court system by colonialists did not appear to wholly undermine traditional court systems, it was not clear from respondents if traditional
mechanisms once practiced continue to exist in camps today (and therefore should be subject of further study). These included:
Family Courts: The won-ot (head of household, always a man), would be the first to attempt to resolve any domestic crimes or sources of conflict including quarrels between family members. The rituals of tummu-buru (incidents involving fire) or tummu-kir (all other incidents) were then performed to appease Jok.
Clan Courts: The Atekere (The Atekere is responsible for safekeeping of royal cultural items, such as the drum, the royal arm band (Ogul), hoe, beads, or gourd (abino), and therefore also rituals required for performing purification. It was not clear if every clan had an Atekere or not) or Ladit Kaka settled disputes at the family level that could not be settled by the ‘family head’, and conflicts (over land, food, water) at the clan level. But most often, the Atekere was responsible for conducting rituals when kii occurs. Abomination (kii or kiir) is often an individual act or curse that symbolically jeopardizes the well-being of the family and therefore of the entire clan. It is often committed by a husband or wife who has exhausted all other avenues of communication or resolution. For instance, the act of throwing food at a person in anger is considered a grave taboo that will offend both the ancestors and Gods. Without an immediate ritual (in this case, sacrifice of a goat), “grave misfortune to the person and their family” will follow. Informants could identify a very long list of forms of kii, and Elders were adept at knowing the corresponding rituals necessary for lifting a curse cast by the act. Most cases of conflict also involved kiir that require purification rituals, usually the sacrifice of a goat or sheep to the ancestors. The guilty party played a central role, hanging his or her head in shame. Purification called relevant parties together for a discussion of the events which had occurred and to identify ways to prevent the offence or conflict from occurring again. The Atekere was responsible for overseeing the rituals.
Inter-Clan courts: Typically, inter-clan conflicts were mediated by the Rwot Moo from the two clans involved. A messenger – lakwena – would then act as a go-between to the parties involved and the Rwot Moo. Rwot Moo only became involved in cases of serious injuries, murder and in the interpretation and execution of by-laws determining compensation. In some instances, this involved holding court at the home of the Rwot Moo, and bringing in the advice of other Rwodi for determination of compensation.
Inter-tribal courts: To end a conflict, Elders from conflicting tribes would meet to discuss the source of conflict, develop prevention strategies and to warn the population to discontinue fighting. The mediator would bend the spear (Gomo Tong) to signify discussion is over and as a vow to end hostilities. It was reported to have been carried out both with the ceremony of Mato Oput and without, depending on the conflict.
Rituals to Establish Evidence
Different rituals are undertaken when the facts of a crime are not all available, and there is no way to establish the truth. In one version, a spear is put in the flames until it turns red. All suspects are made to hold or lick the spear. If one is innocent then the spear will not burn you. This can only be conducted by ajwaka or one who was born with the special gift to do this ceremony. Another way to determine innocence or guilt is digging a hole and all suspects jump over it. If the person is guilty they will fall in. A third way to establish truth is to have the suspects feed a hen using poisoned food. If one is guilty the hen will move towards the
offender and eat the poisoned food right away, if not guilty then the hen will run away. One can note that these rituals also play with the psychological conscience of the offender in the same way that the spiritual world does.
Another means of establishing the truth is to consult an ajwaka. A group of Elders consult up to three different ajwaka living in areas far from the area where the crime took place (this way the ajwaka would not know about the crime prior to the consultation). The ajwaka invite the spirits of dead and reveal the identity of the perpetrator. If the three ajwaka identified the same perpetrator then truth would be established.
It is important to recognize that establishing the truth will not necessarily lead to a ritual or a mediation of the conflict. It is always up to the individual, the offender, to initiate this process.
Under the British colonial administration, the cultural practices relating to justice were replaced with formal legal codes and the introduction of Local Courts (LCs). This significantly undermined the authority of Elders and Rwodi, although they continued to play an active role in the resolution of family disputes, and mediate community conflicts. In addition, the practice of paying compensation also remains and Elders continue to play an important role in mediating this process.
ACHOLI TRIBE DANCERS FROM GULU,UGANDA
However, the wisdom implied in the traditional system was viewed as corrupt in the modern Law Court system: “People look at justice [today] in terms of making someone suffer,” and indicating the individualist approach ran contrary to communal, restorative approaches. Elders maintained there was no such form of punishment in the past. Furthermore, Elders argued that the role of mediation in the past was absent in LCs. Thus, the ‘truth’ was replaced with the ability of lawyers to make a strong defence, regardless of the innocence or guilt of the party involved.
The practice of traditional justice has been further jeopardized over the course of the war. The intermixing of clans, poverty and extreme violence has broken down levels of social trust. In addition, mechanisms for socializing Acholi youth about social rights and wrongs, and about traditional rituals and beliefs, have been challenging obstacles in displacement camps. In the past, “people were united. If you were not on good terms with your neighbour, life may not be simple for you. This is because each and every person
depended on one another.”
Cases are resolved today by paying a price to the local judge or courts, run by Local Councils. As one Elder put it, “many people now look at justice in terms of money and imprisonment”. Another Elder argued that in camps today, “people look at justice in terms of force. They use the LC system, police and camp leaders. [Before the colonialists came] there was no force like now”. The Acholi commonly known saying 'Agoyi ci wa pida apida’ perhaps sums it up best ‘I beat you and then I win’, meaning as long as the perpetrator has the money to buy off the judge, he or she can do what they want.
Mato oput traditional ritual justice of Acholi people,Uganda
Despite all this, formal judicial bodies are respected by virtue of the law by Elders; in most cases, they make the distinction between national and traditional laws. For instance, Ladit Latim as well as other informants recognized that no one should interfere with or attempt to replace the law. “It is wrong for a cultural institution to appear superior to the law. The legal system takes precedent. At the end of one’s jail sentence, then traditional justice may come in. Until this is done, one is a social outcast.” Traditional justice may be a compliment but not alternative to the formal system. It is also required, according to Elders, to restore
relations between conflicting parties, and for one to reconcile with her or his-self to the spirit world. “Even if you win in court but you are guilty, you are able to bribe your way out of it, cen will still follow you. So at the end the offender will have to return to the Elders and tell them the truth of what really happened.”
The institution of marriage in Acholi was a central feature of Acholi culture. Historically, young boys are expected to ‘move out’ of the house to construct their own hut in preparation for marriage (the bachelor’s hut). Brideprice, traditionally in the form of cattle, was paid to the family of the girl, but held in trust for brothers of the girl for their own bride price. Given poverty and congestion in camps, this is not always possible.
Beautiful Acholi tribe woman,Uganda. Photo by Charlie Shoemaker
This has a twofold impact. On the one hand, a young boy may feel pressured to leave the house to find an independent livelihood – exposing him to greater vulnerability and potential exploitation. On the other, the idleness and frustration of young men who cannot provide traditional means for marriage may lead to increased tensions and violence within camps, as has been documented in other studies of conflict zones.
Beautiful Acholi tribe bride,Uganda. Photo by Charlie Shoemaker
According to Acholi cultural norms, boys and men are responsible for the protection of girls and women. As one Mego observed, this is no longer possible “because even the boys are threatened by rebels.” At the same time, men are also the greatest violators of women’s personal and bodily security. The sexual norms which once protected the virginity of girls and women before marriage – including a taboo against sex outside the institution of marriage that would result in infertility – have collapsed inside camps. In Pabo camp, rape is
reportedly the most serious threat of harm against women and girls. As one Mego observed, “After rape you are considered a public woman.” Prostitution has grown rampant as a means of survival among young girls – in Pabo, a lane for prostitutes is well known by locals. In a number of camps, women reportedly left their husbands for soldiers and militia who had a source of income.
Acholi groom and bride,Uganda
While women who are raped are considered prostitutes and still socially ostracized, the conflict has opened new avenues for women to “assuming the roles of men” and providing for themselves and their families. “Many can now afford to live without men and still take care of the family, not like those days when if a man was not there the family could not function.
Acholi tribe maidens,Uganda
Historically, the good health and happiness of the Acholi individual was always situated in the context of the harmony and well-being of the clan. The ancestral and religious spirit worlds provided guidance to the Acholi people, maintaining the unity of the clan. Conversely, conflicts, misfortune and poor health could be ‘sent’ by angry spirits, and extended not only to the violator of moral codes, but to his or her family and clan. Thus one
person’s actions always had ramifications for his or her family and clan who in turn assumed collective responsibility for the offence. It is this spiritual dimension of the Acholi which is little understood by non-Acholi.
Rituals to Jok for peace
Acholi culture produced a hierarchical social order rigorously maintained through social compliance to a central value system. These values were connected to a spirit world, which in turn was intimately connected with the conduct of persons in everyday life. A communal society, the Acholi valued first and foremost the unity of the clan. As a result, each member of the social unit was expected to fulfill different but complementary productive, reproductive, and cultural roles. The religious and spiritual worlds – through
spiritual representatives and selected human representatives – actively enforced codes of behaviour. The spiritual beliefs continue to be widely held by Acholi in camp settings, although conditions of the camp have led to a proliferation of abominations and decline in use of rituals
Acholi tribe old lady from Uganda sitting on a mat to perform traditional Mato Oput rituals of justice
Sacrifices were made to ask for favours or blessings, or to prevent disasters from occurring, or to give thanks to Elders, considered closest to Jok, made such sacrifices at the clan shrines. However, many shrines to Jok have been destroyed during the course of the conflict, purposefully and strategically targeted by both the Lord Resistance Army and Uganda Peoples Defence Force. Those that remain are often in areas inaccessible to the internally displaced person. Nevertheless, in general informants still appeared to believe in the power and presence of Jok, even if cut off from the means of communicating or worshiping them, or if their understanding of them has been transformed through the adoption of an external set of religious beliefs.
In addition to Jok, there are ancestral spirits who provide guidance to their respective lineages on how to maintain the communal and unified whole. Like Jogi, the spirits of ancestors protected and guided a moral and social order, sending misfortune or illness whenever that order was disturbed, particularly at the family level.
Sacrifice to Jok,the supreme deity of Acholi people in Mato Oput justice rituals sacrifice
Prior to the conflict, ladit kaka (Elders) would conduct a series of rituals within village settings and household compounds in order to appease the ancestors and ensure the moral order was upheld. According to Ladit Alfred Adonga, “all rituals…are meant to inculcate good behaviour.” He elaborates that, “for good behaviour to be entrenched in Acholi, all acts of misbehaviour are linked to the spiritual world. Anyone who acts contrary to established norms displeases our ancestors and rituals should be performed to appease them. If the ancestors are annoyed…they cast curses in the form of death, diseases, drought, madness and so on.”
Most Rev. John Baptist Odama of URI addressing Acholi people in Uganda
Most Acholi are Protestant, Catholic and, in lesser numbers, Muslim. Nevertheless, the traditional belief in
guardian and ancestor spirits remains strong, though it is now often described in Christian or Islamic terms.
Acholi man dancing
Cen spirits (mediums)
According to Acholi cultural leaders, cen is sent when a wrong against the dead has been committed. The phenomenon of cen illustrates the centrality of relationships between the natural and supernatural worlds
in Acholi, the living and the dead, and the normative continuity between an individual and the community.
Cen was described by Elders and Mego as the entrance of an angry spirit into the physical body of a person or persons that seeks appeasement, usually in the form of a sacrifice or, in the case of a ‘wrongful death’, compensation and reconciliation between the clan of the offended and offender. The spirit manifests as cen, which will ‘haunt’ the wrongdoers by entering their mind or body in the form of visions and nightmares that may result in mental illness and sickness until the wrong is made right. Cen can also send nightmares and sickness to the rest of the family of the individual involved, so threatens not only the individual, but the family and community.
Cen manifests over a period of time in several ways,cen could take decades to manifest, but typically attacks the family or subclan of a person who: 1) treated the dead or dying in an ill-manner (a form of kii – or
abomination); 2), committed murder or manslaughter; and, 3) inherited the wrong-doing from a parent or grandparent. Ladit Jurubabel Ojok also argued that a family of a person who committed suicide were also susceptible to cen.
First, treatment of the dead and dying are central processes and practices in Acholi. For example, if one dies “in a bad way” (through neglect by family members, by being forced from the family home in anger, or because they were denied food), the spirit of the dead will not rest, or, will actively seek to correct the wrong committed in the form of cen. As a result, elaborate burial and funeral rituals and ceremonies have evolved to show respect to the dead, and are considered vital to maintain the well being of the clan. Cen also haunts those who have disrespected the dead, either by failing to provide a proper burial, or for failing to show adequate respect. For instance, Ladit John Moro argued cen could be ‘got’ from a spirit of a mother who died if her relatives were not given proper paneyo, that is, a type of contribution or compensation (usually livestock), wasn’t paid by people attending the funeral.
During periods of extreme violence during the conflict, they would pass dead bodies in the street on their way to school and were instructed by their parents that they must always place a leaf of the olwedo tree (or any other in its absence) on the body to show respect, and ward off cen. Likewise, as many may pass the dead on the road – due to accidents or violence related to the conflict – the same practice is required. Cen can gather in places where a person’s death occurred, and enter one who moves through this place. Hence, people are reluctant to move through or live around sites of cen, such as places where traffic accidents occurred or, too commonly in Acholi, massacre sites.
Second, cen manifests in persons who purposely committed an act of murder that is unresolved. In some clans, this extends to accidental death or manslaughter. In either case, the responsibility for setting things right falls not only on the individual, but the family and community of Elders within the clan. One Elder gave an example of what the spirit might say if contacted:
"I’m very annoyed with you the Elders. When I was murdered you didn’t ask for
compensation from such and such clan. Or, when I died you didn’t bury me at home
[referring to a person who died in the bush]. Or, when I died, you didn’t perform last funeral
rites (guru lyel). I therefore demand a sheep, hen, cow, revenge, compensation etc."
Third, persons can inherit cen from the wrong doings of a parent. Cen is said to manifest over a long period of time and therefore, may manifest only in the second generation of the wrongdoer. It is said that a baby can be born with cen, if the mother or father also had cen. Alternatively, cen might not even manifest in the wrongdoer themselves, but in future generations; a reason why Elders are concerned about future generations of former rebels. As one Elder stated: “If cen is not ritualized, it may follow the family lineage of the killer.”
Beautiful Acholi ladies from South Sudan
The types of rituals used to “chase cen” depend on the clan affected and the act which led to cen. In most cases, the sacrifice of an animal, or the slaughter of an animal is used to chase away “bad spirits” to the setting sun. In the current context, many Elders argued poverty limited their ability to carry out rituals. In some cases, livestock was substituted; for instances, herbs were used in Acholi-bur when no livestock was available.
Often, when the source of cen is not readily apparent, Elders may consult one another and the affected family or sub-clan to determine the circumstances that must be addressed. If this fails, Elders will often call upon diviners, or healers, ajwaka. An ajwaka believe that when the spirit contacts her, it provides visions that assist her with her work, particularly of where certain herbs are kept in order to heal those that are ill or instructions on the type of herbs to use for certain sicknesses. Ajwaka are able to look into the future and frequently consult the ancestors on pressing matters.The spiritual powers of ajwaka can come either “in a form of a human beings (although they unable to identify the identity of the person prior to their contact) or directly through them.” Using ‘powerful rituals,’ ajwaka are adept in interpreting whether or not a person has ayweya (a collection of bad things) or cen, and if so, where it was derived from. They are believed to have a strong communication link to the spirit worlds, and ability to heal those afflicted. In Acholi-bur, is ajwaka described as a last resort when Elders, Rwodi or courts of law fail. Using traditional instruments such as the ajaa (a shaker constructed out of a gourd) to contact the supernatural world and, with their guidance establish the ‘truth’ about a particular incident, such as theft. Ajwaka are believed to be able to perform good and evil deeds. For instance, should her or his power be denied, they are able to cast a curse on the family of the individual in question. That some ajwaka might do so in order to amass power and wealth, has led to witch-hunting in Acholi-bur. Witch hunts can involve a ‘serious warning’, or, in extreme cases, lynching.
Acholi tribe ladies,Gulu,Uganda
Norms (The Generation Gap: Children and Youth )
In traditional Acholi society, children and youth were to be looked after and provided by adults. Until married, they lived with their father and mother(s). Although they were expected to assist with household tasks, the responsibility of providing basic necessities broadly fell to parents. Beyond this, in times when parents were unable to provide for their family, the responsibility fell to the extended family and Rwodi, due to the communal nature of the Acholi culture.
Youth and children thus held societal roles of obedience to adults, particularly Elders. Young people were expected to possess proper respect for Elders, and in turn, Elders taught youth societal values to guide their actions. As Ocitti Francis elaborated, “[Elders played an] advisory role. [They] imparted discipline into children [and] socialized the young into culture.” Through formal (wang oo) and informal (traditional dancing, private counsel) mechanisms, cultural leaders played a key role in facilitating the transfer of social knowledge,
which provided the cultural and behavioural codes that shaped Acholi society. In addition, children and youth who commute nightly into towns have little interaction with their family structures anymore.
Acholi beautiful ladies,Uganda
Years of conflict and displacement has had a fundamental impact on the dynamics that shaped both the role of Acholi children and youth as well as their relationships with their parents and to Elders in society. Youth are no longer cared for and protected to the extent that was accorded them previously. Today, instead of being the object of protection, they are targets of physical attack from either side of the conflict, creating a range of security threats for youth. There are no formal protection measures in place for youth and children, and they are thus forced to adopt informal strategies “by relying on their basic senses. They have learned to be observant of their environment at all times, they are quiet when they spot the LRA, or they run away when the UPDF is trying to harm them.”
Acholi tribal war dance,Uganda
Additionally, the ratio of youth to adults has risen, and the economic burden of providing food and other non-food items falls increasingly to young people. They are now considered the ‘productive force’ of their families, which is a departure from traditional practice, where adults provide for them. In order to access survival items, such as firewood, water and vegetables, they must risk moving outside of the camp, exposing them to serious physical threat.
Furthermore, the critical lack of educational and economic opportunities within camps have caused many youth to become ‘idle.’ A significant proportion of youth have likewise turned to drinking and are ignoring sexual taboos, causing an increase in sexual activity, particularly of rape and other sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). Moreover, there is a large group of returnee youth and children who have difficulty in adjusting to expected social norms after living in the bush and who are often ostracized by the community. The outcome of these factors is that a significant number of Acholi youth are engaging in socially
objectionable behaviour according to Acholi cultural norms.
IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp in Acholiland
Finally, although they form the largest proportion of Acholi society, youth are unable to properly voice their opinions and needs. While there is a youth representative at the district level, this office lacks resources and assistance from other government bodies or NGOs. Moreover, there is a palpable lack of youth representation within the camps; while some camps have adopted youth representatives, this occurs infrequently and informally. The result is that children and youth form a particularly vulnerable, as well as large, group in society, but lack adequate support from parental, guardian, Elder, governmental, or NGO
Music and Dance
Acholi folk music is, like most Ugandan music, pentatonic. It is distinctive with choral singing, in parts with a lead voice. Songs are also accompanied by a string instrument, the harp-like adungu, and numerous percussion instruments.
The vocal lines of the songs of men and women are in polyphonic style, and they tend to create a counter-point effect. Songs are performed at various occasions. The singing is melodic, and dances are performed collectively. Solo dancing is rather rare. The Acholi have various kinds of dances:
Various dances are performed on certain occasions like, for example, birth, funeral, wedding, rituals (ancestral worship, beginning of a hunt, victory over enemies) and the celebration of the seasons (for example, thanksgiving).
- Apiti Dance was only danced by girls. The men were not admitted. The girls danced in a line and sang. It was a dance which was danced in the middle of the year, when it was raining.
- - Atira Dance was a war dance. Fighting scenes were performed with spears and shields.
- Bwola Dance is a court dance (in the king's palace) of the Acholi, who live in the north of Uganda. This is a circular dance that is performed by the older men and women, and the circle represents a fence that surrounds the palace court. Many events and conversations take place during this dance, so it may last for many hours.
The main dancer is mostly dressed in a leopardskin and conducts the scenes. The men carry and beat the drum. This dance is a very rhythmic one.
- - Ding-Ding Dance dance is performed by the young girls of the Acholi, and their movements are meant to imitate birds. The girls dance to attract the young boys, so the dance is usually held on bright days, when the sun is out.
- Ladongo Dance was danced after a successful hunting event. Men and women danced in one line facing each other, with clapping of hands and running up and down while jumping.
- Larakaraka Dance is a ceremonial dance of the Acholi, who have borders with the Sudan. It is primarily a courtship dance that is performed during weddings. When the young people in a particular village are ready for marriage, they organise a big ceremony where all potential partners meet.
As a sign of friendship, food and alcoholic drinks are served during this ceremony. Only the best dancers will get partners, so there is a lot of competition during the dancing. In Acholi, if you are a poor dancer, you are likely to die as a bachelor.
- Lalobaloba Dance is performed without drums. The people dance in a circle, with the men building up the outer circle and putting their hands on the girls' heads. The men held sticks in other hand.
- Myel Awal Dance is a funeral ceremony, in which the women dance around the burial site and the men make up the outer circle with spear and shield.
- Myel Wamga Dance: Men set in circles on the floor and played the harp (ennanga), while the women danced the Apiti. This dance was performed on the occasion of weddings or beer festivities.
- Otiti Dance: Dance in which the men carry spears and shields. The drummers are arranged in the middle, and the people dance more than they sing.
Acholi tribal dance
Traditional Rituals and Ceremonies
Despite the degradation of culture, traditional rituals continue to hold an important value to people of Acholiland and those inside camps. Although restricted by a lack of resources, where possible people
continue to either enjoy contributions by the community, or in some cases, have adapted by selecting less expensive cultural items to replace more expensive ones (such as a hen instead of a goat, seeds instead of an egg, or herbs instead of a hen). The extent of cultural practices largely depends on the participants and the role of cultural leaders in camps. For example, if Elders continue to play a prominent role they are more likely to promote and perform rituals when they are needed.
Acholi people of northern Uganda. Photo by : Charlie Shoemaker
Nyono Tong Gweno
The ‘Stepping of the Egg’ ceremony welcomes home a member of the family that has been away for an extended period of time. Absence may have been caused by some domestic dispute or may have been voluntary, such as for education, hunting or work. In either case, there is a perceived need to receive a person back home in order to reconcile any problems or feelings of alienation that may have resulted from their extended absence, and to ensure that the person feels once again a full member of the family. This ceremony has been adapted to facilitate the reintegration process of returnees. The ceremony involves the
returnee stepping on an egg (tongweno) placed on a ‘slippery branch’ (opobo) and a stick with a fork (layebi), traditionally used to open graineries. The egg is said to symbolize purity. “The egg has no mouth, and cannot speak ill of others”70. The egg also symbolizes that which is ‘soft’, ‘fragile’, suggesting a restoration of innocence. The opobo is a soapy, slippery branch, which helps to cleanse the returnee from any external influences he or she might have encountered in the ‘bush’ that might be calling them back. The layebi is a symbol of welcoming a person back into the home, where the family members will once again share food together. Such cleansing ceremonies were mostly practiced in the private domain of the family home or compound and involve a ritual practice. Since 2003, communal ‘Stepping on the Egg’ ceremonies have been initiated by His Highness, Rwot Onen David Acana II, for large numbers of returnees living in camps. This ceremony has also been conducted for former Lord Resistance Army commanders upon their return home.
A form of prayer before initiating any rituals, it is a way to call or communicate with the ancestors and the spirit world in order to ask them to accept your ceremony. For example, Agat is done when you sacrifice a goat to Jok (Acholi god). If it is not done, you are not notifying the gods and the ritual can fail as a result. This is normally practiced before every ritual by Elders involved in the ceremony.
Blessings by an Elder or Elders using saliva or water, which is typically spit on the chest or
palm of a person.
Tum (sacrifice) is done to cool a conflict, appeal to or consult with the spirits of the ancestors and/or Jogi regarding a naturally occurring problem facing the clan, or to prevent harm or bad weather. There are many different types of tum, with variations across clans, and for different reasons and purposes. Sacrifices usually involve sheep, goat or chicken.Increasingly in camps, cheaper animals are substituted for more expensive ones. For instance, in Acholi-bur, Elders reported that due to poverty, a hen was sometimes used to sacrifice in the place of a goat.
Tumu Kii is a sacrifice to appease to the gods for an abomination (kii) that has occurred. The various types of abominations result in different types of sacrifice. This involves specifically a goat, sheep, and herbs.
Mediation conducted by the Elders and Rwodi in times of conflict. People who are specifically involved in mediations are called Lupii (plural), or Lapii (sing). In the past before waging any war, Lapii were consulted for their approval. If support for the war was given, they would give olwedo (leafs) for protection – this is considered a blessing. In the current war, it is speculated that some Elders had given their blessings to Kony and this is why the war is not ending. Elders cannot undo a blessing once it has been given.
Ryemo Ojwee / Gemo
Ryemo ojwee or Ryemo Gemo is undertaken to ‘rid’ an area of cen. Organized by Elders and senior women at night, it involves the beating of calabashes, saucepans, doors and other general noise-making. It is believed that cen is afraid of the noise and will be driven out of the area towards the West (sunset). Women prepare “lawinya plus moo yaa” (shea butter), then entertain the people with acut (a cultural dance for the women). The occasion is typically marked by drinking alcohol.
Moyo Piny / Tumu Piny
Tumu Piny or Moyo Piny loosely translated means ‘sacrifice’ and ‘cleansing’ of an area. The ritual can also be termed as Ryemo cen (chasing away cen). This ritual of sacrificing a sheep is conducted by Elders to appease Jogi whenever there was a significant amount of acena (cen in the area). This can manifest in various forms: sickness, death and strange behaviour, for instance. The Acholi believe cen lingers in places where ‘bad death’ has occurred, such as forests (hunting expeditions that resulted in death, improper burials, traffic accidents and so on). In the context of the conflict, a high level of cen is found in sites of massacres.74 After
the ritual is completed, Elders and other participants such as ajwaka (diviner or witch-doctor) must walk away without looking behind them.
The ‘cleansing of the body’ ritual involves the transfer of cen from a person to an animal. The ritual has many variations. In one, a chicken is swung around a person. In another, a goat is speared by the person involved and if successful, the evil spirit is thought to be chased away. In still another version, the person steps on the body or blood of the sheep, as a sign of transferring the cen to the sacrificial goat.
If, after doing all the necessary rituals to chase cen from a person, abnormal behaviour continues in a person, an ajwaka is consulted and asked to perform this ritual. The ajwaka is in charge of the entire ritual, and slaughters a goat or chicken and throws it into the site where the spirit thought to be causing the harm dwells such as rivers, wells or rock outcrops.
Lwoko pig wang
‘Washing of tears’ ceremony is conducted when a person had disappeared and was thought to have died, but returns to a family. Luko pig wang literally refers to washing away the tears a family shed in mourning the death of the person. Symbolically, it is to wash away ‘the thought of death’ that may manifest in a bad omen or can attract bad spirits to the family when the person returns. “This is because when the living mourn the dead, the dead may call you to join their world”.
The ritual involves variations, but generally a calabash of water is passed from Elder to Elder who cleans their hands in it. The water is either sprinkled over a person to provide a blessing or placed over the entrance of the hut and is dribbled over the person as they enter the door
This ritual involves a sacrifice for a person who was injured in an accident in order to appease the ancestors, prevent further illness as a result of the injury, and to facilitate recovery. Respondents gave the example of instances when this ritual was practiced in camps: in response to landmine injuries or huts that had collapsed causing injuries. In the case of returnees, many return in poor health and with significant injuries, although the
researchers could not establish if this ritual has been adapted to their circumstances.
This ritual is completed in order to prevent a reprisal blood feud after a murder takes place between two clans. According to Elders, moyo remo means the ‘cleansing of the blood’. The ritual involves the sacrifice of a goat in order to cleanse the blood that had poured from the killing, and to prevent the loss of more blood. In Corner Kilak, moyo remo was done on at least one occasion as a temporary measure to stop conflict between two clans after a murder had occurred between them. While they had initiated the process of reconciliation and established an amount for compensation, the final ceremony of Mato Oput could not be
accomplished until further funds were raised. Thus the Elders explained that “the ritual was a temporary one amidst the prevailing conflict.”
Goat being slaughtered for sacrifice,AcholilandDwoko Ayoo
This particular ceremony is performed typically to reconcile a conflict between members of the same family or clan, in the belief that such conflict offends the ancestors and as a result, ushers in ‘bad spirits’ and brings misfortune. In some cases, it has been adapted when a person has returned from captivity in order to “restore hope, promote cleansing [of] evil spirits [and] cool people’s hearts [in the family and extended community.” The ceremony is composed of several elaborate rituals. The ceremony begins with a ritual blessing by the Elder of the family using a spear (tong) and cow broom (oywec dyang) on which he spits and
calls upon the ancestors to ‘sweep away all evil spirits’ (In Acholi, the saliva of an Elder is considered to be sacred and clean, and is often used to provide a blessing). A special cock called a latwol (snake) is then swung around the head of the returnee (This is done three or four times, depending on the sex of the returnee) and his or her extended family, again calling on the evil spirit (kipwola) ‘go towards the setting sun’. The cock is then killed. In the third ritual, a goat is speared and the contents of the stomach (wee) is removed and smeared on the chest of the returnee and siblings of the returnee to ‘cool people’s hearts’ of any tension. The washing of tears ceremony is then performed, followed by a feast of the sacrificed goat and
cock by all witnesses to ‘avoid the relapse of the evil spirit’. The bones of the animals are collected together. Elders drink kwete and blow the drink over the bones to also ‘cool them’. A celebration usually follows.
Road through Acholiland,Uganda
This symbolic ritual is not known to have been practiced since the 1980s. Gomo Tong (Bending of Spears) is a vow between two clans or tribes engaged in violent conflict to end hostilities. It is done both with Mato Oput and without, depending on the conflict. Elders from conflicting clans or tribes meet to discuss the source of conflict, develop prevention strategies and to warn the population to discontinue fighting. The mediator bends the spear to signify discussion is over. In the act of bending the spear, the spirits of both sides are evoked and promised killings would stop. If, without due cause, conflict started again, the tip of the spear would turn back against the aggressor.
This ceremony is performed after a conflict involving another clan, when a foreigner has been killed by returning soldiers; or, alternatively, when a dangerous beast has been killed.
Acholi tribe man from Uganda
The ceremony of Mato Oput comes at the end of a long process of confession, mediation and payment of compensation to reconcile two clans after a murder has occurred between them.
Mato oput reconciliation rituals
The ceremony itself has various forms across different clans, but common characteristics include the slaughter of two sheep which are cut in half and exchanged by both clans, and the drinking of the bitter herb Oput by both clans to ‘wash away bitterness’. The ceremony continues to be practiced to date, although it was learned that a number of cases continue to be pending due to a lack of resources required for the elaborate ceremony.
Mato oput ritual ceremony,Acholiland,Uganda
The Mato Oput Ceremony of Acholi
Beating of the Stick: The beating of the stick seems to be broadly symbolic of the restorative motivation for a Mato Oput, although it was more specifically defined by Elders in various ways:
a) The stick symbolizing the ‘next person’ who would be killed in revenge,which the mediator stops the families from doing;
b) The beating of the stick symbolizes the “anger, bitterness” which could lead to fighting and acts of revenge if not mediated;
c) The beating of the stick illustrates to the spirit of the murdered person that he or she is cared for; a mediator symbolizes that without mediation, more death would have followed through revenge killings.
d) In another account, the stick symbolizes the ‘truth’, described as important to restoring justice. After beating the stick, the offending side runs away, symbolizing the acceptable guilt of the murder.
Mato Oput - Bitter Root - traditional justice Acholiland North Uganda
Slaughter of the Sheep and Goat: The sheep, supplied by the offending clan, is a symbol of the cen that haunts the clan whose member has committed murder or manslaughter. In another account, however, the sheep was said to symbolize humility, because a sheep is a humble animal. The laroo (goat), supplied by the injured clan, is a symbol of unity, signalling that the injured clan is willing to forgive and reconcile. The sheep
and goat are cut in half, and the opposite sides are exchanged among the two parties. In one account, the sheep and goat represent the two parties prior to Mato Oput (separate entities), and the cutting and mixing symbolize the uniting of the two parties. The mouths of the sheep and goat are held together to prevent them from ‘crying’ out during the slaughter, which would be a bad omen.
Eating Spoiled Boo: Boo mukwok (spoiled boo, or local greens) is a sign that tension existed long enough for food to become spoiled. Eating the Boo mukwok symbolizes that the clans are ready to ‘Mato Oput ’ (reconcile) after such a long time.
Drinking of the Bitter Root: Oput (bitter root) is a symbol of the bitterness that exists between the two clans. Drinking of Oput by both parties symbolizes the washing down of bitterness in people’s hearts, acting as a ‘medicine to cure the bitterness’. Participants drink while kneeling down, with their heads bowed and hands clasped behind their back in a show of respect to the murdered person. In another account, hands were clasped behind backs to convey sincerity of never wanting to fight again. A representative of each party drinks at the same time from the calabash. Before drinking they yoko wic (literally ‘knocking heads’) to symbolize that where “heads have been separated before, they are now united.”
Eating of the Liver: In the process of the ceremony, the acwiny (liver) of the sheep and goat are cooked and eaten by both parties. In humans, the liver is thought to be the place where all bitterness is stored, or variously the source of life, where all ‘blood is stored, and blood is the source of life and the unifying factor of all clans’. The liver of the sheep and goat are eaten by both parties to illustrate that their blood has been mixed and united through the goat and sheep. The eating of the liver also symbolizes the washing away of all
bitterness stored in the blood of the human liver. In one account, the eating of the liver also symbolizes ‘kweyo cwiny’ (calming down the conflicting parties by the mediator). Okutu Lacac/lacaa/lacaro is the instrument used to feed the liver to each of the parties.
Okutu Lacac symbolizes that tensions existing prior to Mato Oput would be ignored from that day forward. Another interpretation was that the thorns symbolized the thorny relationship between the two clans, resolved upon completion of the ceremony. Yet another account is that a thorn is used instead of hands, because the hands of the murderer are considered unclean and would contaminate the food.
Mato Oput reconciliation rituals ceremony of Acholi people,Uganda
Eating Odeyo: Consuming Odeyo (what remains of a saucepan, used for mingling) is one of the last rituals of the ceremony. It is thought to free the involved parties to eat together again.
Eating of Food: Eating of all the food prepared for the day is an important part of the Mato Oput process. No food should be taken home afterwards, or the Mato Oput will not be considered to be complete. Finishing the food symbolizes no tensions or bitterness is left between the two clans.
Mato oput rituals
THE LORD`S RESISTANCE ARMY
"Although intermixed with elements of Christianity and Islam, the Lord`s Resistance Army (LRA) practice many of the same ritual practices and beliefs of Acholi culture. This suggests such cultural practices could have a positive healing effect on returning rebels and abductees themselves, although this needs careful handling by cultural leaders. The report findings suggest that cultural leaders have built some confidence with the LRA, but that more needs to be done to reconcile violent differences between them."
In order for a ritual to have an impact, one needs to understand and believe in it. This was underscored by one returnee’s neighbour, who stated that “the effects of staying in the bush is determined by what the child was doing while in the bush and their belief in getting affected [by traditional rituals].” The researchers attempted to examine the cultural and spiritual aspects and aspirations of LRA commanders in order to analyze how cultural leaders are attempting to counter these tactics and hasten sustainable return and reintegration.
According to Acholi people, the Holy Spirit drives the continuation of the conflict. Former rebels stated that LRA Commander Joseph Kony claimed that the Holy Spirit of the Trinity communicates directly through him, and is powerful enough to overthrow the Government of Uganda. Kony is reported to have several spirits which enter him, although these were referred to be of “another world,” that is, not Acholi. However, former commanders were reluctant to divulge information regarding Kony’s spirits, or claim to be confused or not know about them.(Former LRA Commander Michael Opio, on the other hand, disagrees Kony has any jok. ‘He only talks about God’, implying his power is derived directly from the Holy Spirit, not Acholi Gods. Former LRA Commander Kamdulu differentiated between tipu marac and tipu maleng (the Holy Spirit), although expressed that it was difficult to always tell the difference between the two.)
Alice Auma aka Lakwena, Acholi tribe woman, spirit medium and rebel leader.in her flowing green dress and head wrap, says she is ready to lead another "holy war" against the Ugandan Government. She promises it will be swift, if given just two guns; she can take the whole country, she says, in three days.
Nevertheless, speculations about the origins and nature of Kony’s spirits abound and a number of informants referred to the concept of Jok to describe them. Originating from the Palaro clan in Odek, some Elders believe that Kony acquired his Jok (in this sense, spiritual power) from his grandfather who died as he was carrying a small rock on his head while crossing the River Aswa.( Rivers and rocks or rock outcrops are places where Jok are believed to be concentrated, according to traditional Acholi culture. Hence many people avoid rivers and rock outcrops in fear of encountering an evil or bad Jok). Reportedly, Kony found the rock and Jok entered him. Others argue Kony’s Jok derived from the rock outcrops in Aswa, while still others suggest the Jokpossessed first Kony’s brother and, upon his death, was transferred to Kony. Perhaps the most commonly known story about the origins of Kony’s Jok is that he derived them from his cousin, Alice Auma, former commander of the Holy Spirit Movement which ended in 1988.
A number of rituals and cultural items appear in LRA practices. For example, the majority of FAPs interviewed reported that soon after abduction they underwent a cleansing ritual that involved smearing moo-yaa (shea butter) on the chest which could not be washed for three days for men, four days for women. Persons undergoing the ritual had to walk with bare chest during this time. Reasons for this initiation ritual were to remove the “civilian way of life” from abductees, or “so that if someone escapes, he or she can be easily traced, identified or caught.” In Acholi culture, shea trees are sacred, and its butter is used for
blessings and the anointment of chiefs.
According to several Acholi people, cen did follow fighters returning to base camps and required rituals similar to Acholi to cleanse them. Former LRA Commander Michael Opio described one ritual involving the slaughter of two sheep that resembles Yubu Kum rituals in Acholi. In it, the one sheep was burnt to ashes and disregarded, the ash considered to contain the essence of cen. The other was slaughtered and placed across a hole which soldiers would round and then step on. In doing so, any cen within the soldier was released into the dead sheep. Instruction is then given for each member to enter a river to cleanse them of cen. Afterwards, one had to move without looking back until they reached their home in the bush.
Joseph Kony,Acholi tribe man and leader of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army
New comers to the LRA were also thought to have cen, and the initiation ritual was to cleanse them of this. Every month, each person in one girl’s battalion were submerged in water (3 times for boys, 4 times for girls) to cleanse them of any cen or evil spirits they may have possessed. Blessings were also given before going into battle by sprinkling water on soldiers to build their confidence. While for a different purpose to that of Acholi culture, these rituals are also found in Acholi-land.
However, there are a number of LRA practices which significantly contradict Acholi culture. For instance, newcomers to the army were often forced to sleep or eat with the dead. They reported being forced to eat without being allowed to wash their hands after ‘killing,’ and forced to cook using a panga that had also been used to kill human beings. All of these acts are deep abominations of Acholi culture, and a great offence to the ancestors. They could be interpreted as a means of quelling any desire of the abducted to escape and return home (where shame and stigma is too great). However, they are also potentially a form of integrating new members into the LRA belief system that understand the Acholi as morally corrupt and therefore, no longer human beings deserving cultural respect.
Acholi tribe kids in Gulu, Uganda
There is also great deal of intermixing of culture and religion in the LRA. In the bush, preachers, or lupwonye dini, teach the LRA about the gospel and the Holy Spirit with the goal of training each person to conduct prayers. Before commencing an attack, and upon return from one, prayers are conducted by the LRA. The Holy Spirit is prayed to each time a person escapes, to ask for the person to return. Upon the death of a member, prayer ceremonies and burial rites were also observed.
According to one group of returnees, Kony was a ‘seer’ who could predict the future with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Kony was described as being able to predict attacks, attempted escapes, or betrayals. Claiming the Holy Spirit commands him, Kony will take actions to thwart any danger or betrayal that he predicts will happen. If the Holy Spirit predicted danger, rituals were undertaken to ward off offensive attacks. For example, in Sudan, one girl reported that she was told to step on the wee (ruminant) and blood of a freshly slaughtered sheep “to stop opposition fighters from pursuing them on return.” Fasting and tying palm leaves to their hands was practiced to ward off attacks. Going into battle, a number of returnees reported they tied stones to their wrists to protect them from bullets.
After returning from battle in Uganda, returnees reported that they were told never to look back to Uganda to avoid being followed by cen. The practice of ‘not looking behind’ is also a frequent last act after a ritual is performed in Acholi culture. Other returnees reported that both good and bad Jok existed in the LRA belief system, and were used as a way to discipline behaviour. The LRA were forced to follow strict codes of conduct. If broken, the person in question was punished not only physically, but the Jok would hasten injury or death during battle. Adultery, sex during a woman’s menstrual cycle, or eating during a fasting period are
examples of abominations, insulting the Holy Spirit and resulting in sickness, injury or death on the battlefield. Like former rebel commanders of the Holy Spirit Movement, Alice Lakwena then, LRA injuries or death on the battlefield was often blamed on violations of the codes of conduct outlined by the Holy Spirit.
Moreover, the relationship between the top commanders and Acholi Elders and Rwodi is complex. While deeply suspicious of the Acholi people, particularly Elders, Kony and others are said to respect certain Elders and Chiefs. In December 2004, Kony called the Paramount Chief of Acholi to ask for a meeting between LRA and their ‘forefathers’ before any official meetings took place with the Chief Mediator Betty Bigombe. This meeting took place, and the Paramount Chief provided counsel to the rebels to discontinue their attacks on civilians. Commanders have met other chiefs on a number of occasions and have released
their wives and children to them in good faith.
Lord’s Resistance Army Colonel Thomas Kwoyelo, a senior rebel officer, arrived in Uganda Wednesday after his capture during the offensive against guerrillas in the Congo. (James Akena/Reuters)
However, after the failed peace talks in 1994, Kony is said to have viewed Elders as having betrayed him and the LRA. He therefore instructed his company to no longer respect or trust Acholi Elders. This rift was recently reiterated by an unidentified former commander at the Paraa retreat of Acholi leaders:
"Then on the war, let us look at it truthfully. Was it started by Kony? I want to say to you,
that before I came here for this meeting; I hated all of you. I hated you all because you have
been cowards. At the beginning of the war many supported it. But later you all turned away
without giving guidance to the ones who had remained in the bush. That is what I term as
After the people began to comply with the UPDF’s military campaign, Kony also extended his distrust to the Acholi people. Hence, mass abuctions, mutilations, massacres and ambushes were seen as justified and part of Kony’s Holy war to terrorize people. The reconciliation talked of today in Acholi, then, is one between the LRA and the Elders who reportedly turned their backs on Kony. Many proverbs and claims are made in Acholi to this end. Additionally it sheds light on the fact the Acholi leadership have played their own part in the conflict and, through their diverse efforts at talks, confidence building, amnesty and promoting forgiveness, they all play an important role in laying the foundation to end the conflict. This is a delicate and complex process.
Acholi tribes people of Lord`s Resistance Army
Finally, Finnström has argued that the discourse of reconciliation in Acholi potentially further alienates LRA leadership, rather than builds their confidence in returning home. As implied in the Amnesty Act and Acholi traditional justice, there is a need to admit guilt and to be forgiven by the offended party. LRA leaders continue to resist any wrongdoing but instead emphasize their political agenda which Acholi leaders continue to abandon.
Support by the Government of Uganda to traditional institutions and practices, and the unanswered questions regarding how traditional justice would extend nationally may further fuel suspicions. All of this begs the question, how far can a purely ‘neutral’ cultural approach to peace and justice go to address the political differences which so bitterly divide parties to this conflict? Despite the evident contradictions, future policies on justice and reconciliation would be ill-informed if the cultural and spiritual dimensions of this conflict were not taken into consideration.
Acholi tribe man,Uganda. Photo by Charlie Shoemaker
Alice Lakwena,Acholi brave woman who inspired people to fight with sticks and brooms
Geoffrey Oryema, exiled singer.
Acholi woman carrying her baby on the back and covering it with calabash to protect it from scorching sun
Julianne Okot p’Bitek, Acholi woman
Acholi little girl
A group of four Acholi men. They are all holding shields and wearing feather head ornaments and animal skins (leopard and possibly monkey) around their shoulders. The image seems to have been taken sometime in January 1879 when Buchta travelled through Acholi country, Northern Uganda, en route to Bunyoro.
A group of Acholi men and youths of South Sudan standing in front of a homestead at the foot of a hill with large rocky outcrops behind. They are all holding shields and spears and a number are wearing feather head ornaments and animal skins around their shoulders. The image seems to have been taken sometime in January 1879 when Buchta travelled through Acholi country en route to Bunyoro.