Acholi (also Acoli) is an ethnic group from the districts of Agago, Amuru, Gulu,Kitgum, Nwoya, Lamwo, Pader and Omoro in Northern Uganda (an area commonly referred to as Acholiland), and Magwe County in South Sudan. Approximately 1.17 million Acholi were counted in the Uganda census of 2002, and 45,000 more were living in South Sudan in 2000.
The Acholi people of Northern Uganda have a rich and diverse cultural heritage. Most of it is expressed in a wide variety of dance and music genre that have been passed down by our fore bearers over many generations.
Unfortunately culture has not been immune from the ravages of the Northern Uganda conflict. Internal displacement and social degradation have wreaked havoc on Acholi culture and threaten its very survival.
Language of the Acholi People
The Acholi language is a Western Nilotic language, classified as Luo, and is mutually intelligible with Lango and other Luo languages.
The Song of Lawino, one of the most successful African literary works, was written byOkot p’Bitek in Acholi, and later translated to English.
Location of the Acholi People
Acholiland or “Acholi-land” (also known as Acholi sub-region) is an inexact term that refers to the region traditionally inhabited by the Acholi. It is composed of the districts of: Agago, Amuru, Gulu, Kitgum, Lamwo, Nwoya, Pader and Omoro.
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”.
History of the Acholi People
The Acholi are a Luo people, who are said to have come to northern Uganda from the area now known as Bahr el Ghazal in South Sudan.
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’).
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 transformed into ‘Acholi’.
Their traditional dwelling-places were circular huts with a high peak, furnished with a mud sleeping-platform, jars of grain and a sunk fireplace, with the walls daubed with mud and decorated with geometrical or conventional designs in red, white or grey.
They were skilled hunters, using nets and spears, and kept goats, sheep and cattle. In war they used spears and long, narrow shields of giraffe or ox hide.
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”.
This reached its height with the coup d’état of Acholi General Tito Okello in June 1985 (thus terminating the second regime of Milton Obote), and came to a crashing end with the defeat of Okello and the Acholi-dominated Uganda National Liberation Army by the National Resistance Army led by now-President Yoweri Museveni in January 1986.
The Acholi are known to the outside world mainly because of the 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 government of Uganda put in place a policy of forced displacement of the Acholi in the Gulu district into displacement camps.
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 were primary causes of the deaths.
The majority of elected parliamentarians in the Acholi sub-region are members of the opposition.
Religion of the Acholi People
Most Acholi are Roman Catholic, Protestant and, in lesser numbers, Muslim. Nevertheless, the traditional belief in guardian and ancestor spirits remains strong, though it is often described in Christian or Islamic terms.
Acholi (also Acoli, Akoli, Acooli, Atscholi, Shuli, Gang, Lwoo, Lwo, Lok Acoli, Dok Acoli) is a 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 South Sudan. As of 1996 there were reported approximately 773,800 Acholi speakers in the world.
However this has gradually grown to over 800,000.Song of Lawino and its sequel, Song of Ocol, well known among African literature, were written in Acholi byOkot p’Bitek.
Acholi is one of the Luo languages, of the Western Nilotic branch of Nilo-Saharan. Acholi, Alur and Langohave between 84 and 90 per cent of their vocabulary in common and thus are mutually intelligible.
Sounds of the Acholi People
Acholi has vowel harmony: all vowels in a word have to belong to a single class, There are two sets of five vowels, distinguished by the feature .\
Jok of the Acholi People
A Jok is a class of spirit within the traditional Acholi belief system that are viewed as the cause of illness. Traditional healers (known as ajakwa) first identify the Jok in question and then make an appropriate sacrifice and ceremony to counter them.
Alternatively if such an approach was unsuccessful the person possessed by the jok could go through a series of rituals to gain some level of control over the jok and then themselves become ajakwa.
The range of Jok is extensive and includes a number that have been influenced by the experience of colonization.
Traditional Marriage among the acholi people of Uganda
Traditionally, a young man was dependent upon his lineage head and elders both for permission to marry and for the material goods required for bride-wealth; elders of the woman’s lineage were also much involved in the discussions and negotiations surrounding the marriage.
Bride-wealth has varied over time but has usually included iron objects, domestic animals, and, in the twentieth century, money. Marriage has been typically patrilocal and patriarchal, with the husband and father as the undisputed head of the household.
Although polygyny has often been presented as an ideal, limited means have always made it rare in practice. Children are highly prized, and historically a couple did not set up their own household until the birth of their first child, living until then in the household of the husband’s mother.
Childlessness is one of the most serious misfortunes imaginable; women are typically blamed, and the marriage often ends or the husband takes a second wife.
Divorce, which can occur for numerous reasons, is not uncommon and may or may not involve return of the bride-wealth; children, as members of the father’s lineage, usually either stay with the father or return to him later.
Even bride-wealth marriages are now often mainly nuclear-family affairs, and other alternatives to traditional marriage are common.
These include Christian marriage (with or without bride-wealth), elopement, and single parenthood.
Nyom (marriage) in Acholi is a lengthy process which begins with a boy seeing a girl and starting to court her. She is typically expected to be coy and hard to get in order to protect her morally upright reputation.
The boy eventually wins her over as several encounters lead to her finally giving in and accepting the boy’s bead or a bracelet, a sign that she has agreed to be married to him. This pursuit is known as luk (getting to know each other).
Expression of love among the Acholi youth is mainly through ‘blood packing’ (making cuts on their bodies and tasting each other’s blood). This is the Acholi version of cementing a relationship.
In the event of a death, the surviving partner demands that a sacrifice in form of a goat be offered to the gods and the corpse is taken through the back door of the house. This partner never sees the corpse again.
Courtship of the Acholi People
A boy, on meeting a girl that takes his fancy, seeks the company of a friend and pays the girl’s home a visit. The two boys are taken to the girl’s mother’s house.
The girl’s mother vacates the house, leaving the groom-to-be alone with the daughter to chat, after which the girl gives the visitors a push on their way out. Later, the mother asks her daughter to identify the visitors, at which point the daughter announces the boy’s interest in her, and her opinion of him.
If it is positive, the mother goes ahead to inquire about the boy’s clan in order to verify that the two love birds are not related by blood.
The girl always looks out for the boy who owns plenty of cattle. However, a young man chiefly depends upon his lineage to get both the permission to marry a girl and the ability to provide the material goods required to pay her bride price (which is a must in the Acholi tradition).
After the visit, the boy satisfied with what he saw, tells his family, who subsequently find out about the young lady’s clan and family’s status socially.
Traditional Marriage of the Acholi People
When the boy’s family agrees, he is given a green light to marry the girl. He informs her and she in turn, announces to her parents that special visitors will be arriving on a given day to conduct the marriage ceremony.
The girl’s mother then informs the girl’s entire family. In preparation for the visitors, the structures in the girl’s homestead receive a new layer of mud mixed with cow dung. Seats (mainly animal hides) are set.
On the agreed day, the boy, his father, brothers and other family members (as invited) go to the girl’s home and are welcomed into the house of her mother. The visitors are not allowed to stand, but kneel throughout the introductions, with the girl’s father asking the questions. He asks the visitors who they are and the boy’s father responds appropriately. The girl is asked to ascertain she knows them.
The items to be delivered as bride price (which is a practical way of saying thank you to the girl’s mother) are discussed and a specific date set for the delivery.
This though, does not necessarily mean that the items must all be brought once. Installments may be accepted. After this ceremony, the girl becomes part of the boy’s clan. It might take a while to complete dowry payments but the girl’s status changes from nyako (girl) todako ot (wife) immediately.
Nyom (dowry) can take the form of cattle, goats, sheep, household items or money. Often, the girl’s dowry is not consumed/spent but saved to offset her brothers’ dowries when it is their turn to marry and pay.
Dowry refunds are made in the event of a divorce, although the value refunded depends on the terms agreed upon when the dowry is paid.
Although marriages were sometimes organized without the consent of the boy and the girl in the past, such scenarios are rare today, with most people embracing the modern ideal of freedom of choice.
In the past, if a father preferred a friend’s daughter over other girls for his son, it was possible for the two fathers to strike a deal and compel their children to get married to each other. Because it was often the father’s wealth that afforded the boy the bride price, there was little he could change.
The Acholi attach so much significance to the marriage ritual that failure to marry is considered a curse (or an abnormality) and the elders are called in to monitor events. Childlessness is counted as one of the most serious misfortunes to befall a couple, with women typically taking all the blame.
In such cases, the marriage could be dissolved or the husband allowed to take another wife. For the Acholi, children are the ultimate goal of any marriage.
Indeed, historians say that an Acholi couple of the past could not set up a home until their first child was born. Until then, the newly married couple lived in the groom’s mother’s house. In cases where a girl conceived before the official marriage, the nyomwould not take place until she had given birth, to confirm that the child belonged to the groom.
Importance attached to marriage by the Acholi
Rejoicing and celebrating a new marriage is one thing the Acholi can’t fail. Chanting and singing to the sound of sauce pans hitting the ground, congratulations are offered to the new couple as they are bid farewell to their lives as singles. This rejoicing is called nakub kub.
Polygamy is a highly regarded arrangement and a man can marry as many wives as he afford. The man is always the head of his family and his authority is virtually unquestionable. Men carry out such duties as farming, hunting and ensuring the general well-being of the family, while the females do domestic chores like cooking.
The Acholi are one of the few tribes in Uganda where family lineage is highly valued, the reason most men live closer to their parent’s homes and clans. This makes closer, more cooperative communities which share almost every activity. It is typical to have a big homestead with a father’s house surrounded by his sons’ houses.
This exceptional lifestyle of the Acholi, however, has been disrupted by the two decade-long Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion that has left most of the Acholi population displaced and their cherished traditions on the verge of extinction.
Domestic Unit of the Acholi People
A typical household consists of a nuclear family (husband, wife, and unmarried children), although aged parents, unmarried siblings, offspring of deceased siblings, or others are often household members as well. All members of the household acknowledge the authority of its head, the husband; each wife or other adult female in the household has traditionally had her own fields, granaries, and kitchen or cooking hut.
Inheritance among the Acholi People :
Inheritance has been, and largely remains, patrilineal. Apart from land, the rights to which were passed on equally to all sons, the eldest son was traditionally the designated heir of the father’s property, although he was supposed to provide for the needs of his younger brothers.
Specialization of the Acholi People
Mothers are responsible for the initial care of their children and for much of their socialization. After weaning and up to the age of 5 or 6, however, much of the day-to-day caretaking of a child has customarily been done by an opposite-sex sibling or other preadolescent (often a member of the father’s lineage), called lapidi (nurse-child).
From early on, girls and boys learn gender-appropriate behaviors and activities, and these are reflected in both their play and their chores and other responsibilities. Sons have traditionally learned about farming, hunting, herding, and lineage and chiefdom traditions from their fathers and other lineage males; girls learn farming and domestic duties from their mothers.
Since independence, formal schooling has provided a strong socializing influence from outside the home for more and more Acholi, especially those attending secondary school.
Army membership has also supplied a distinct, if largely negative, socializing influence on many Acholi young men. Some Acholi mothers exclaim that they do not know their sons after they have been away in the army.