Historians assert that they are a product of intermarriages between the Luo and the Madi. They are Lwo in language and custom. And are closely related to the Alur of west Nile, the Japadhola of eastern Uganda and the Joluo of Kenya. They inhabit the districts of Gulu and Kitgum which formerly constituted the Acholi district. There are also some Acholi in the southern Sudan.
Like other Luo groups, they trace their origin to Rumbek in southern Sudan. It is believed that the major group of the Luo moved down wards under the leadership of Olum and settled at Pubungu near Pakwach.
Legend asserts that the Luo was the first man. He had no human parents. He is said to have sprung from the ground. It was taken that his father was jok (God) and that his mother was the earth. Legend adds that Luo’s son jijpit, whose mother was unknown, had a daughter called Kilak. Kilak was not known to have a husband. Then one time she got lost in the Bush form where she later emerged with a male child. It was believed that the father of this child was the devil, Lubanga.The child was named Lubongo. He was born with bells around his wrists and ankles and he had feathers in his hair. There were defiantly magical elements in Lubongo. It is said that he was found of dancing and as he danced, bells jingled.
When Labongo grew up, he married and had a child in a normal way inspite of his peculiarities. Luo‘s home is said to have been at Bukoba, near Pakwach. He possessed an axe which he is said to have driven in the ground and out came the chiefs of many Luo groups. Labongo became the first in the line of the Rwots (chiefs) of Payera. The same Labongo, whose full title was Isingoma Labongo Rukidi, is also remembered as being the first in the line of the Babiito Kings of Bunyoro-Kitara. He is said to have been the twin brother of Kato-Kimera who is remembered in some quarters as the first in the line of the Kings of Buganda. The first Namuyongo of northern Bugerere is also said to have been a son of Labongo.
Whether true or false, this legend brings forward the complicated interrelationships between the various peoples of Uganda. It is quite interesting that the Banyoro and the Acholi different as they seem claim common origin. Some groups in Acholi such as the Pajule trace their origin directly to the Bagungu of Bunyoro. It is said that after settling in Pawir, while some Luo (Biito) moved southwards, others also moved northwards and settled in Pajule.
The Acholi recognized two distinct birth customs namely the normal birth and the Jok Anywala (godly) birth.
During pregnancy, women were advised not to be away form home. There were no special arrangements for birth and there was no fixed place of delivery. When signs of labour were detected, a lacol (midwife) was sent for. The Lacol was in most cases an old experienced woman. If a lacol was not available, two of the women present were called upon to assist.
If the expectant woman happened to be inside a hut, she could hold the center post for support. A woman would support her from behind. The Lacol knelt in front of the woman and, if it was a straight forward birth, she would receive the baby in her outstretched arms. The baby was then washed with cold water. The Lacol would then cut the umbilical cord with any available instrument. Knives, spears, arrowheads, bamboo, slices of reed cane or sharpened stones could be used. The remaining part of the cord was tied with fiber.
The placenta would be buried outside the home under the woman’s granary, in the bush or by the river. Care was taken that the placenta was buried out of reach of those who might use it to charm the child. Among Many Acholi clans, the Lacol was not supposed to touch the ground with her hands when they still contained blood from the placenta because it was feared in such an event that the mother would become barren. After washing her hands, the Lacol would put the mother and the child in the house. If the mother was giving birth for the first time, the house would have been specially constructed for her. Payment for the services of the Lacol varied considerably. Sometimes she rendered free services but some times she was given a sheep. After the whole process, the Lacol was given awar me lakwnyi wino (food or beer) the food would be partly cooked to symbolize the child’s birth.
If the woman had problems during labour, the won yat (medicine man) was invited. He would administer the medicine and then rub the belly and back of the woman. A baby who would be forced out that way would be named oyat (boy) or Layat (girl). If the won yat failed, the jwara (diviner) would be consulted. She would give treatment involving the insertion of a bamboo stick into the woman. She would then hold a chicken by the legs and flutter it around the expectant mother’s head while uttering a prayer. As a result of such a straggle, the jwara would direct the umbilical cord to be buried in a special place to appease jok. Then a child would be given a special name on account of the place where the cord was buried. For instance Odwong (boy), Ladwong (girl) meant that the cord was buried under the Odwong tree. Odur (boy), Ladur (girl) meant that meant that the cord was buried in the rubbish heap. The mother and the child would remain in the house for three days if the child was a boy and for four days if the child was a girl. During this period, the mother’s food was cooked and given to her by a young female relative. The food was salt less because it was believed that if the mother touched salt, the child would go blind. No one was allowed to enter the mothers’ house during that period except the cook. If the child’s genitals were touched, it was believed he would grow up to be infertile. Therefore the mother could only speak to her husband. Besides, she was not supposed to look at the sky otherwise the child would become impotent. Alcoholic drinks were not allowed in the house. Reasons for this practice varied. Some believed that the child would grow up to be a drunkard; others believed that the child would die. The birth ceremonies varied from clan to clan and others from village to village.
The child was named after the third or fourth day. The process of naming the child went as follows; inside the house would be the mother, the child and some relatives. The delegation from the child’s paternal and maternal relatives led by the old woman who acted as the midwife would come to the house carrying adero (winnowing tray) in one hand, carrying ogwec (a knobbed stick used for stirring simsim into cooked food) in another hand. In addition, she would also be holding olobo kwon (a ladle used for stirring millet bread).
The old woman would knock on the door and in the process of opening it for the delegation. She would suggest a name for the child. There was no criterion for deciding which name the woman would choose. However, in abnormal circumstances, the mother’s choice would be given preference. Such a name usually told a lot about the circumstances of birth or the state of the family at the time of birth. For example, the name Otto suggested that many brothers and sisters had died; Oketch means that one was born during a famine; Odoki means that the mother had threatened to go back to her parents. Bongomin means without brothers; Olanya means that the mother felt abandoned.
After all the ceremonies, the mother would ease to put on her unmarried girl’s belt if that was her first born. She would begin to be addressed by the name of her first born child, e.g. min odoki (mother of Odoki).It is then that the woman would be accepted fully in the husband’s clan. In some clans, the husband would not eat the food prepared by the mother for several months. It was also common among the Acholi women to refrain form having sex until after weaning the child. All the ceremonies relating to normal births were not addressed to jok.
The abnormal births were said to be godly. The most common of such births were twins. Others were those born with physical deformities. They were given special names; for instance, Ijara (boy) or Ajara (girl) was given to a child with more than five fingers. If the mother was convinced that the deformity was so severe that child would not grow up to live a useful life, she would drop it in a river as if by accident. Many severely deformed children were killed in this way. When such children lived, they were never abused for fear of jok’s wrath.
When the twins were born, various ceremonies were conducted. Such ceremonies are now becoming outdated. The first of them was known as bilo jok. The ceremony was conducted around the abila (family shrine). Umbilical cords off the twins were cut and put in a baked clay pot called laum. In the morning when the ceremony would be performed, the laum together with the other objects which were used during the twin’s birth were placed by the abila. The mother sat on the skin with her back to the abila and her legs stretched. The first born of the twins was placed on her mother’s lap nearest to her while the second born was put on her knees.
The people present would stand in a line in the order of their age and offer prayers and sacrifices in the abila. After this, the leader of the ceremony would hold a white cock and allow it to flap its wings violently over the mother and the twins. The act was repeated in turn by every one present. The feathers that flew out from the cock would be stuck in the ground beneath the abila or beneath the okongo tree. Then a white hen was also brought and a similar process was repeated. Then one by one the people would dip their hands into a calabash full of water and sprinkle it over the mother and the twins. Besides, they would smear the necks and the bellies of the mother and her twins with moo yaa (oil form the yaa tree). With this, the ceremony would be over. The mother was then lifted up with the skin on which she had been sitting, with her twins still on her lap and carried into the hut. The women present would then go through the motions of making love to the father of the twins making jokes that they would also like to have twins. Thereafter, people would go out and drink and dance.
The Acholi believed in a supreme being called jok. The shrine for jok was known as abila. All sacrifices, private and public were offered inside the abila. The spirits of the dead were known to appear near the abila. However, these spirits had no permanent dwellings. There were believed to wander about and there thereafter appear by signs. They were worshiped so that they could assist the bereaved ones or exercise their power to make hunting successful or scare evil spirits away from the village. They were believed to help the surviving members of the families if they were treated well. Accordingly, they were offered meat, pudding, simsim and beer during the appropriate times of the sacrifices at the abila.
It is interesting to note that there was the Christian idea of God among the Acholi as Jok. However, when the missionaries came, they forced the Acholi to adopt the idea of Lubanga to represent God. Formerly, among the Acholi, the term Lubaga or Lubaya was used to mean death or evil. Lubanga was known to cause evil and kill people. Every bad thing was attributed to Lubanga just as every good thing was attributed to Jok. No huts or shrines were built for Lubanga in the villages. Sacrifices, or cooking for Lubanga was done outside the village and the dung of fowls was often added in his food as another step to degrade him. Yet this same Lubanga is now the idea of God which the Christians forced the Acholi to adopt.
The Acholi usually sing about everyday incidents but some of their songs refer to well known incidents in the past. Songs are tuneful and dancing is communal. Solo dancing is rare.
The Acholi have eight different types of dances namely; lalobaloba, otiti, bwola, myel awal (winyela), apiti, ladongo, myel wanga and atira.
In the lalobaloba dance, no drums are used. The people dance in a circle. The men form the outer ring. A man may move and hold a girl’s hand above his head. There are no special occasions for this dance. All dancers carry sticks.
In the otiti dance, all male dancers carry spears and shields. The dancers encircle drums which are usually attached to a post in the middle of the arena. This dance involves more shouting than singing; in the end, spears and shields are put down and the dance is converted into lalobaloba.
The bwola dance is the most important. It is the chief’s dance and is only performed on his orders. The men form a large circle and each of them carries a drum. The movement of the feet matches rhythmically with the beating of the drums. The girls dance separately inside the circle without beating the drums. The dance had a definite leader and he moves by himself within the circle. He sets the time and leads the singing. He is considered an important person and traditionally he was among the few people community allowed to wear a leopard skin.
The myel awal dance was a funeral dance. The women wail around the grave when the men armed with spears and shields dance lalobaloba. Apiti was a dance for the girls. Men were not supposed to participate. The girls danced in a line and sang. It was usually held in the middle of the year when the rains were good.
Ladongo was danced following a successful hunt when the hunters were still away from their homes. In this dance, men and women faced each other in two lines and jumped up and down clapping their hands. In the myel wanga dance, men sat down and played their nanga (harps) while in front of them the women danced apiti. This dance was usually held after marriages or at beer parties. Then there was atira dance. It is now completely outdated. It was held on the eve of a battle. All the dancers were armed and they went through the motions of spear fighting and thrusting.
Although the colonialists preferred to rank the Acholi among the stateless societies, the Acholi had a system of centralized government. There were organized under chiefdoms each under a hereditary ruler known as Rwot. The Rwot was a central figure and he had executive, judicial and legislative powers. In addition he was the link between the living and the dead. It was his duty to offer sacrifices to the ancestors on behalf of his people.
The society possessed chiefly regalia such as drums, spears, and stools. The administrative structures were not well stratified. The general political organization could be likened to that of the pre-colonial kingdoms of Buganda, Bunyoro, Nkore, Toro and Buhaya states of Karagwe. In fact the larger chiefdoms such as Payera and Padibe were bigger and more organized than some of the similar pre-colonial kingdoms of the south.
The Acholi practiced mixed farming. They kept cattle, goats, sheep and fowls, in addition to practicing agriculture. The main food crops included sorghum, millet, simsim and a wide assortment of beans. They supplemented this with hunting.
The Acholi practiced various types of hunting. The first of such types of hunting was line. It took place during the dry season in December. Another type was dwar arum. This took place in the dry season when there was no grass and this involved a lot of hunters. The third type was dwar obwo. This was an ordinary type of hunt with spears and nets and it also involved a lot of hunters and dogs. Another type of hunting was called kirange. It was held during the early rainy season when the rivers would be slightly flooded. The game was driven into the rivers and separated in the water.
Normally, there was little opportunity for hunting during the rainy season because no organized hunting could take place. During this period, only the okai (trappers could go out after the animals. Their work was quite difficult because they worked alone. They used different traps according to the type of animal that was to be trapped. The common traps included okol (running a noose attached to a log of wood); tekke (a circular foot trap; twok (the falling spear trap used to kill an elephant which passed under the tree from which the spear was suspended. Bur (a pit dug in the game’s path. The majority of the other traps were intended for smaller animals and birds.