Need for restoration of Acholi cultural values, norms and practices

“Until the lion is able to tell its story, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

African proverb

  1. Introduction

The purpose for serializing these articles on various aspects of Acholi culture may simple be surmised as to interest the reader, “to know what Acholi culture is, and why they do what they do, and explain that culture so clearly that it cannot be misunderstood”. But more fundamentally, to integrate the principles, values and practices enshrined in culture to overcome the vices that bedevil the so called ‘civilized’ world for the good of humanity. For those who cherish the move towards cultural revival, their conviction best be expressed by opening statement by Mr. Latigo to his class on Tradition and Culture, thus:

“Cultural norms and values which are at the core of human development and informed coexistence are founded and bonded on specific set of principles that guide human behavior in favorable terms. Resort to culture should therefore not be seen through lenses that depict primitive undertones, but rather in such a way as to identify the values that will be useful to humanity”

Acholi sub-region and its people, after subjugation by the imposed colonial rule, were with time again trapped in over two decades of protracted conflict that destroyed their hitherto invariably self-sufficient homestead. Worst still, their cherished cultures were desecrated, coupled with the colonization project main object of “contest over the mind and the intellect”. Hopes for normalization of life coupled with quest for development have been mounting in Acholiland once prided the food basket of Uganda with highly productive land supported then by a natural ecological balance.

Indeed, Acholi worldview maintain that, “there is a symbiotic relationship between man, nature, and an irrevocable linkage to the spirit world”.

2.0       Acholi Community Description

2.1       The Pre-colonial Acholi

The people now known as Acholi are an ethnic group found in northern Uganda and South Sudan. Originally, they were called Luo-Gang or Jo-Gang – meaning ‘settled people’ or ‘home people’, part of the larger Luo group whose roots can be traced to the legendary Meroe Kingdom. Oral tradition maintains that prior to the advent of the colonialists, Luo-Gang was a nation of its own, governed by the people’s traditional and cultural norms, values and belief system for generations past.

The nation was constituted by a Luo Confederacy consisting of various autonomous states (chiefdoms) headed by divine ‘anointed chiefs’ known as “Rwodi-Moo”. These confederate states occupied massive land territory which extended across the equatorial zone from Lokoro Hill in the present-day South Sudan, southwards to Pawir located to the north of the Bunyoro region of Uganda. Then westwards, from “Kidibo Lyec” (Elephant Habitat), now called “Kidepo National Park”, located to the north-east of Uganda, down to the River Nile. Topographically, the land is largely plain Savannah grassland interspersed with exceedingly rich loamy woodlands, making the entire territory very good for food crop cultivation, cattle keeping and wildlife habitat.

The British Explorer, Sir Samuel Baker, who entered the Great Lakes Region from the north way back in 1864, wrote this about the Acholi society:

“After leaving the vast expanse of empty territories where wild tribes, without any permanent habitations, graze their invariably sickly cattle, we entered Shuli (meaning Acholi) territory up to the plateau. It was a relief to find ourselves in a pleasant climate with cool breezes. The first rains had started a few weeks earlier and turned the previously shrivelled vegetation into Luxuriant Green. There was a striking difference not only between the hot dusty air of Lowland and the affable climate up the plateau, but also in the pattern of land tenure. Shuli (Acholi) are farming communities who live in permanent settlements, separately built two or three miles from one another. One side of each settlement is kept exclusively for cattle grazing and the other side is taken up by neatly cultivated plots of simsim, finger millet, cowpeas, groundnuts and other green vegetables.

The natives believed in nothing. The curious fact remained that, without the slightest principle of worship, or even a natural religious instinct, these people should be free from many vices that disgrace a civilized community”[1].

Sir Baker recorded what he saw and observed at that time, way back in 1864. But his insinuation that the Acholi natives believed in nothing was perhaps ill-informed. We know that the Acholi people had well-developed traditional values and concepts, which constituted the foundation of their indigenous religion and belief system as well as a system of governance that ensured the welfare of all the people was maintained at all times. Thus, they were, like Baker said, “free from many vices that disgrace a civilized community”, because their indigenous religion had clearly defined for them what was morally good and what was evil. In such a society, everyone would satisfy their essential needs, achieve a responsible level of comfort, lead lives of meaning and interest, and share fairly in opportunities for social interactions and economic dividends given the culturally informed communal sense of responsibility they practiced. Internal conflicts were unacceptable, and any that may arise was resolved immediately by tested traditional mechanisms to ensure harmony and peaceful coexistence at all times.

2.2       A typical Acholi Traditional Social Order:

The social, spiritual and political systems of the Acholi are so interconnected that one cannot be well understood without reference to the other.

  1. The Household – Nuclear Family

In the social strata, the first level is the household or nuclear family formed by cohabitation between a man and his first wife, eventual marriage and birth of a child. Prior to the birth of a child, they would still be part of the parent’s household. Every household then forms part of the larger formation: the hamlet at the second level.

  • Hamlet – Extended Family

As the sons of one man or several brothers marry, they set up their own household in close proximity to those of their parents, their huts face a common Dye-kal (courtyard), and they share the same wang-oo (evening fireside where learning & joint planning takes place). In the past, and to a decreasing extent today, new huts continue to be intercalated among the old ones until there is no more room to expand. When this stage is reached, separation takes place and a new village is found. The hamlet is given no formal recognition in Acholi, and its members are known by their sharing the same wang-oo, fire-place. However, the hamlet is characterised by high degree of internal economic cooperation. As a corollary to this, joint activities, in production and consumption also take place in common. All the male members of the hamlet tend to share the evening meal, cooked by their separate wives. The main part of the hamlet is made up of agnates but there are sometimes non-agnates, too. There may be some household heads who are the brother-in-law, nephews, or uncles of one of the household heads of the agnatic stem.  From the structural point of view, the hamlet may be characterised as an extended family: the descendants of a common grandfather and grand-grandfather to which affine and others have attached themselves. In all of them, the genealogical connection of the separate household heads is known.

  • Village – Agnatic Lineage

At the third level, the grouping of the household and hamlets in their inter-relationships with one another may either be known territorially as a village or structurally as a lineage core with some non-agnates attached to it. The first term stresses the politico-territorial aspect of its organization – their forming a compact village united in acknowledging the authority of their elder. The second affirm the nature of the social relations within the group – the fact that the majority are bound by the principles of agnation, and that they form the main part of the group. All the members of the village co-operate in agricultural work, together with members of neighbouring groups. Male members take part in hunting on their own hunting ground called tim dwar – stretch of bush land allocated and preserved specifically for hunting. The members respect the words of their lineage elders in the settlement of internal disputes and in relations with other villages within the domain.

Anthropologist F.K. Girling observes of the Acholi of the 1950s that;

“the village is a living reality, it [particularly for members of the core clan of the village] is the social group into which they are born and spend the greater part of their lives, [and] it plays a major part in regulating their relations with other Acholi.”[2]

  • Domain – Aristocratic Lineage

The fourth level is the domain built out of the system of relationships derived from mutual opposition of like groups within and outside Acholiland. The population of domain combined for defence, for attack where necessary often following provocation, and the need to do so gave the unit its internal cohesion. The political-territorial aspect of the formation may be summed up in the term domain. The social relations prevailing within it may be defined as those of the main lineage, with its numerous branches; the aristocratic lineage, with the commoner lineages, many of whom had developed from ancestors seeking the patronage and protection of a Rwot-Moo of a Chieftainship. The whole domain was known by the name of the aristocratic lineage’s eponym.

The domain formed an embryonic state. But the relations between the domains which constituted the society contained irreconcilable conflicts and were inhibitive of further political development – ‘Arwot ki oda’ dictum (I am a Chief in my own house). The domain derived its internal cohesiveness from external opposition of like groups. The precarious level of subsistence at which people lived made an increase in the total density of the population unlikely. The depredations of the slave-traders depopulated wide areas and further increased internal anarchy. Had the process of Acholi political development at the end of the nineteenth century continued undisturbed, it is not unlikely that a more centralised form of polity might have come into existence, in which within the chiefdoms, the village-clans provided the social, economic, and ideological foundations of an emerging Acholi identity.

  • Acholiland

The fifth and last level is Acholiland. The numerous domains which made up the society of Acholiland formed a heptarch of chieftainships. A number of cultural factors, which were present at all levels of the organization, served at the societal level to define the limits of the formation. These included language, myths, tradition, customs, marriage, and common territory in which similar ecological conditions existed.

The Acholi, like the other Luo people, experienced certain events: contacts with other ethnic groups, the presence of Arabs and Europeans, and inter-group fighting, which inspired their traditions. In spite of a great deal of minor divergences, there is sufficient internal agreement to regard the Acholi traditions as one. Many of the versions record the same events from the point of view of different persons.

One of the most important factors, which brought about the degree of internal homogeneity which exist in Acholi society, was the fact that most marriages took place within the society. Similar principles and processes were supposedly present throughout the different systems of relationships which form the traditional, political and social order of the Acholi. Up to the fourth level of organization: the domain, there was an increase in the degree to which the separate parts formed a cooperative assemblage; the co-ordination, combination and mutual dependence of the parts, and constituent parts was progressively extended.

Importantly in Acholi, communal land rights were vested in the core clan of each village – for settlement, agriculture, grazing, hunting, and other purposes. These communal land rights were organised and managed by the hereditary heads of clans, assisted by clan elders, for the benefits of the living and future generations. Within this set-up, there was no reported conflict related to land. People lived in harmony. The incursion of British rule made a continuation of that development impossible; it resulted in the disintegration of an organization which depended for its existence on sound moral values, norms, belief system intertwined with respect for and use of na

[1] Samuel White Baker: Ismailia Vol II: Macmillan & Co. London, 1874, page 460

[2]Girling, p. 56.

2 thoughts on “Need for restoration of Acholi cultural values, norms and practices

  1. Thanks for the initial article in attempting to serialize Acholi Culture. This should be followed up by more articles that depicts restoration of Acholi indigenous knowledge, the philosophies, meanings, practices and applications.

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