Uganda: The Acholi way of coping with the effects of war
13 March 2009

When returning to their land, many Ugandans had to find ways of making it peaceful and good to live in again for everyone, including this old man in Kitgum. (Peter Balleis SJ/JRS)
The traditional belief of the Acholis in spirits has a great implication on their psychology and social life.
Gulu, 13 March 2009 As reported by IRIN on March 13, internally displaced persons (IDPs) near Gulu, which have returned to their villages in northern Uganda’s Acholi sub-region after two decades of camp life have found human skeletons on their land. Since members of the Acholi culture believe that keeping these skeletons on their land will bring them misfortune, the discovery created fear among the returnees. The IDPs therefore demanded the burial of the skeletons and the cleansing of the land by the Rwodi Moo, their cultural leaders mandated to conduct the required rituals. In Gulu and Amuru Districts 13 skeletons have been buried and cleansing ceremonies performed in 17 villages to ensure a smooth resettlement of the IDPs.

A strong belief in the world of spirits is part of the Acholi tradition. Acholis believe that various spiritual forces are active in their respective areas. There are different categories of spirits such as the spirit of ancestors, the spirit that belongs to a clan or chiefdom and the evil spirit that possesses people, can cause harm, misfortune and illness.

Displacement destroys traditions

The 22 years LRA insurgency in northern Uganda has caused the loss of tens of thousands of lives most of whom have not had a proper burial. Skeletons of the victims and combatants are scattered all over the area. The case in Gulu is a classic scenario of how Acholis react to this unusual situation. They believe that the spirit of a person who died violently can seek revenge and can attack anyone. It is a common belief that in order to appease the spirit of the dead, a proper burial must be done and a cleansing ritual must be carried out to ward off spirit-related consequences.

The traditional belief of the Acholis in spirits has a great implication on their psychology and social life. It provides explanation for hardships in life and offers coping strategies. One traditional way of coping is the reconciliation of the world of the living with the world of the spirits. Acholis consider the spirits so powerful that they can even cause diseases. Mental illness and epilepsy have been seen as caused by spirits. The individual afflicted with a spirit-related illness requires undergoing certain traditional healing ceremonies in order to restore his or her well being.

Acholi rituals help displaced peoples cope with difficult situations

From a JRS perspective the returning IDPs in Kitgum seem to take the situation calmly compared those in Gulu. The issue of unburied skeletons was not an alarming topic among the returning communities. Some returnees did find pieces of skeletons on their land however they dared not touch them due to fear of “spirit possession.” One representative of the local council said a man had abandoned his hut after finding skeletons in it and had to build a new hut for him and his family in a different place. Those who discovered skeletons on their land reported the matter to the Rwodi Moo. In each sub-county there are at least eight or more Rwodi Moo who are authorised to collect and bury the skeletons and to perform the cleansing ritual. So far, it was not reported that the situation had driven returnees out of their land. 

Traditional Acholi rituals and healing ceremonies usually help people cope with the circumstances they live in. JRS, which highly respects cultural diversity, has shown a tolerant attitude towards these expressions of the Acholi culture. Thus, instead of contradicting the traditions, the organisation’s activities are intended to be complementary to the traditional ways of coping to enable a holistic healing of the wounds of war for the returning Acholis.

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