views updated


ETHNONYMS: Acoli, Acooli; historically: Gani, Lango, Lo-Gang, Shuuli


Identification. The name "Acholi" is used for peoples living in the former Acholi District of northern Uganda (now divided into the Gulu and Kitgum districts) and the adjoining area of the southern Sudan. The term is derived from "Shuuli," first used by nineteenth-century ivory and slave traders who noted the similarity of Acholi Luo to the language of the previously encountered Shilluk or "Collo" of the southern Sudan (Crazzolara 1938, vii-viii). Despite their common language and ethnic designation, the Acholi of Uganda and the southern Sudan have distinct origins and developed along different historical trajectories; the remainder of this cultural summary will focus on the more populous Uganda Acholi.

Location. The Acholi occupy a 39,000-square-kilometer area, three-fourths of which lies within Uganda, extending roughly from 2°15 to 4°159 N and 33°25 to 33°45 E. Their neighbors include the Luo-speaking Lango, Paluo, and Alur to the south and southwest, the Central Sudanic-speaking Madi to the west, and the Eastern Nilotic Jie and Karamojong to the east. Situated 1,025 to 1,350 meters above sea level, the Acholi landscape is typical East African game countryrolling grasslands with scattered trees, streams, and rock outcrops. A single rainy season, from April-May to October-November, produces a reliable annual rainfall nine years of every ten, ranging from 102 centimeters in the central and western portions of Acholi to only 51 centimeters in much of the north and east. The dry season is long and hot, with temperatures that can reach more than 35° C.

Demography. The 1980 population of the Uganda Acholi was approximately 580,000 (Kasozi 1994, ii), up from some 465,000 in 1969 (Langlands 1971), perhaps 125,000 in 1900 and about 100,000 at the end of the eighteenth century (Atkinson 1994, 275-281). These figures represent population densities of 20.4 persons per square kilometer in 1980, 16.5 per square kilometer in 1969, and about one-fourth and one-fifth the 1969 densities during the earlier two periods. Twentieth-century densities have been consistently the second lowest in all of Uganda (after Karamoja).

Linguistic Affiliation. The primary language of Acholi today is Luo, a Western Nilotic language spoken by groups scattered across East Africa from the southern Sudan to Tanzania; many also speak English and/or Kiswahili.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological and linguistic evidence suggests that from early in the Christian era, Acholi was settled mainly by Central Sudanic (or "proto-Central Sudanic") speakers in the west and Eastern Nilotic ("proto-Eastern Nilotic") speakers in the east. Before the late seventeenth century, Luo speakers were limited to only a few peripheral areas of Acholi. All of these early inhabitants were ironworking mixed farmers, organized into localized patrilineal lineages or, in some cases, into temporary groupings of two to four such lineages.

A new sociopolitical orderand the basis of an Acholi identitywas established when chiefly institutions and ideology were introduced into Acholi by Luo-speaking Paluo from the neighboring kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara. Central to the new order were a set of notions about political leadership in which chiefs (rwodi; sing, rwot ) shared power and decision making with the heads of chiefdoms' constituent lineages; a system of redistributive tribute within each polity, with the chief at the center; and royal, often rainmaking, drums as symbols of sovereignty and authority. Over the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some seventy chiefdoms were founded throughout the area that became Acholi, leading to the development of a new social order and political culture, the spread of a new language (Luo), and the evolution of a new society and collective identity. This complex process was helped along by two major droughts, probably during the 1720s and c. 1790, which promoted larger-scale political leadership that held the promise of greater stability and security, and by the formation of neighboring identities against which members of an emergent Acholi could compete, compare, and define themselves.

Over the second half of the nineteenth century, Acholi was incorporated into international trade networks through the activities of northern, Arabic-speaking ivory and slave traders. This trade brought new wealth into Acholi that was unevenly accumulated, with rwodi and interpreters (and eventually their sons and other kinsmen) the major beneficiaries. The northerners also contributed to the further evolution of an Acholi identity, not only by introducing the name "Shuuli," which eventually became "Acholi," but by acting in ways that promoted Acholi as a meaningful ethnic and geographic entity.

When Britain established its rule during the early twentieth century, both ideological predisposition and practical utility prompted the colonizers to consider the Acholi a "tribe" and to administer the area as a "tribal" unit. From the beginning, the Acholi were marginal compared to Britain's concern with Buganda, at the core of the colony. Acholi's role in the colonial economy was confined mainly to the peasant production of cotton as a cash crop and the provision of recruits for the colonial army or police and migrant labor for the more "developed" Buganda. Both Protestant and Catholic missionaries were active in Acholi from early colonial rule, providing written Luo religious, educational, and historical texts and producing a local educated elite, all of which fostered the further development of an Acholi identity within the colonial context of "tribal" culture, consciousness, and politics.

With independence, the Acholi remained marginal within the framework of Uganda as a whole, with one crucial exception: their disproportionate numbers in the police and army. Comprising less than 5 percent of the country's population, during the early years of independence the Acholi constituted more than 15 percent of the police force and fully a third of the army. This special access to Uganda's security forces has alternately presented opportunity and danger as a succession of regimes replaced one another in a cycle of political violence often played out in ethnic (or "tribal") terms. In the most recent phase of the cycle, beginning in the mid-1980s, Acholi has largely been on the receiving end of the violence. Uganda's current army, various local rebel groups (some headed by apocalyptic "prophets" such as Alice Lakwena), and heavily armed Karamojong raiders have all raped, looted, killed, and destroyed, making any kind of normal life in Acholi impossible.


Acholi chiefdoms ranged in population from under 1,000 to as many as 20,000 people and consisted of a number of fenced villages, each with recognized land rights vested in the patrilineal lineage (kaka ) at its core. Lineage heads, assisted by lineage elders, organized both production (based on cooperative village-lineage labor) and reproduction (through the control of the material means and ideological rules of marriage). They also oversaw village-lineage ritual and chiefdomwide ritual, were the main advisors to their rwot, and were responsible for most of the social control exercised in Acholi. Over the twentieth century, chiefdoms in Acholi have become vestigial institutions, and the fences that once enclosed villages have disappeared. Most Acholi, however, continue to live in neighborhoods (parishes) that not only consist predominantly of patrilineal kinsmen and their wives, but often carry the old lineage names. Most Acholi also continue to live in thatched, round mud houses, although wealthier Acholi and those who live in town or near major roads have square houses of mud or block, with iron or tile roofs.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. When not disrupted or dispossessed by the violence endemic since the mid-1980s, most Acholi remain primarily mixed farmers. The old staples of eleusine (finger) millet, sorghum, sesame, and various peas, beans, and leafy green vegetables continue to be grown, along with twentieth-century crops such as cassava, maize, peanuts (groundnuts), fruits, and cotton. As they have for centuries, Acholi farmers rely mainly on iron hoes and other hand tools. The most common domestic animals are (and have long been) chickens and goats, with some cattle, especially in the dryer portions of Acholi. Large, dry-season hunts were an important part of the precolonial economy; these gradually decreased in significance as the varied roster of both large and small game animals dwindled over the twentieth century.

Industrial Arts. 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. Pottery and basket making were widespread and relatively nonspecialized arts, carried out by both men and women. In most chiefdoms, only members of designated lineages could make or repair royal drums.

Trade. 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. 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.

Land Tenure. 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.


Kin Groups and Descent. Localized patrilineal lineages, some of which have "brother" lineages of the same or different name in other parts of Acholi, have long been the fundamental social and economic units in Acholi. Numbering between 400 and 500 by the turn of the twentieth century, these exogamous groups claim descent from a common ancestor (although means exist to incorporate many types of "outsiders" as well) and have special lineage shrines, ritual ceremonies, praise-calls, and totems.

Kinship Terminology. The Acholi have a modified Iroquois kinship-terminology system, reflecting Acholi's patrilineal and patrilocal ideology. All lineage males, for example, are called "grandfather," "father," "brother," or "son," and all (likely resident) females "sister" or "daughter," depending upon their generational relationship to the speaker. All affines, meanwhile, are known as "mother." The relationship between (real) brother and sister is often very close, especially when one acts as the lapidi (nurse-child) to the other, as are the bonds between the children of sisters. After his own father, however, a man's strongest kinship ties are typically with his mother's brother.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. 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.

Domestic Unit. 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. 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.

Socialization. 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.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. 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.

Political Organization. During the colonial period, political leadership in Acholi was contested among those with traditional leadership qualifications and others who benefited from the new dispensation, including collaborators with the British and those who managed to obtain Western education. Administrative divisions within Acholi, however, both during colonial rule and since independence, have often reflected preexisting sociopolitical units: lineages at the parish level; chiefdoms at the subcounty level; and larger zones of the most intensive (and peaceful) interpolity interactions at the county level.

Social Control. 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. 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.

Conflict. The available evidence suggests that conflict in Acholi before the end of the nineteenth century, both among Acholi chiefdoms and with neighboring peoples, was neither rare nor endemic. When conflict did occur, however, it was usually limited in scope, with relatively few deaths. Recognized compensation and reconciliation procedures seem to have often limited or prevented serious conflict, especially among neighboring chiefdoms within the same zone. With the coming of the ivory and slave trades, and the firearms that accompanied them, conflict became more frequent, more deadly, and more widely spread. A rebellion in 1911 in response to the British confiscation of Acholi guns was the last large-scale conflict in Acholi until Amin came to power in 1971. During Obote's first term as president, and especially during his second term, Acholi soldiers played key roles in the massive conflict in other parts of Uganda, where hundreds of thousands of peoplemany of them innocent civilianslost their lives; from the mid-1980s into the 1990s, Acholi was the scene of similar levels of conflict.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Once chiefdoms were established, Acholi religious beliefs focused on three types of spirits (jogi; sing. jok ). There were the spirits of known relatives, especially lineage ancestors; a second type was the nonancestral jok of the chiefdom as a whole. Spirits of both of these types were generally beneficent. They were approached in regard to such general concerns as good health, fertility, and appeals or thanks for good harvests in ceremonies that usually emphasized the consciousness, cohesiveness, and continuation of their respective groups as functioning corporate entities. The third group of spirits were those of unknown persons and dangerous beasts; these were hostile, personified as ghosts, believed to cause sickness and other misfortunes, and dealt with by means of spirit possession.

Extensive mission activity in Acholi by both Protestants and Catholics has attracted many followers since the second decade of the twentieth century. Traditional beliefs, however, still persist, often meshed with Christian doctrine in complex ways. One illustration of this is the various spirit-possession-based millennial (and military) movements that have been prominent in Acholi during the extremely difficult period of the late 1980s and early 1990s, most famously the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena.

Religious Practitioners. Traditionally, lineage heads and elders were the most knowledgeable aboutand involved withthe lineage and chiefdom jogi, although rwodi also had a role to play in ceremonies involving the latter. In addition there were priest- or priestess-diviners, private practitioners who worked for the well-being of their clients, and witches, who worked in private for evil or destructive purposes. Contemporary versions or amalgams of these practitioners continue to function in Acholi.

Ceremonies. Each type of spirit had numerous ceremonies associated with it; many ceremonies included small offerings of food and drink. Historically, the most important public ceremonies were probably those associated with birth, planting, harvesting, and the killing of a large animal or another human being. Dances and other activities surrounding spirit possession seem to have been originally introduced from Bunyoro in the early nineteenth century and then became more wide-spread during the tumultuous years of the latter part of that century.

Arts. The major art forms of the Acholi have been drumming, singing, and dancing.

Medicine. In the past, medical problems were addressed through approaches to various spirits, by visits to diviners, and by the use of herbs, roots, and other folk medicines. Many contemporary Acholi continue to use these treatments, although nearly all with access to clinics and hospitals rely on these as well, whenever they can.

Death and Afterlife. Acholi conceive of death as an inevitable, personal defeat and tragedy, against which there is no ultimate defense. The personal and group loss resulting from death is acknowledged as real and permanent. Traditionally, a grave is dug as soon as a person has died, following which a small and brief ceremony is held in the deceased's house prior to burial. All procedures are conducted with care, to attempt to ensure that the spirit of the departed does not become angry. Further tidying up and smoothing over the grave take place within the week. Then a final dance and feast takes place at a time chosen to make possible the maximum attendance by relatives and other interested people. The size and nature of this occasion depend on the age and status of the deceased, with the most lavish and festive celebrations taking place when the person who died was both aged and important. In terms of the afterlife, although spirits of the dead are believed to continue to exist and manifest themselves, there is no belief in a heaven to reward the virtuous or a hell to punish the sinful.


Apoko, Anna (1967). "At Home in the Village: Growing Up in Acholi." In East African Childhood: Three Versions, edited by L. K. Fox, 43-75. Nairobi: Oxford University Press.

Atkinson, Ronald R. (1989). "The Evolution of Ethnicity among the Acholi of Uganda: The Pre-colonial Phase." Ethnohistory 36(1): 19-43.

Atkinson, Ronald R. (1994). The Roots of Ethnicity: The Origins of the Acholi of Uganda before 1800. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Behrend, Heike (1991). "Is Alice Lakwena a Witch? The Holy Spirit Movement and Its Fight against Evil in the North." In Changing Uganda: The Dilemmas of Structural Adjustment and Revolutionary Change, edited by Holger B. Hansen and Michael Twaddle, 162-177. London: James Currey.

Crazzolara, J. P. (1938). A Study of the Acooli Language: Grammar and Vocabulary. London: Oxford University Press.

Crazzolara, J. P. (1950-1954). The Lwoo. 3 vols. Verona: Editrice Nigrizia.

Dwyer, John O. (1972). The Acholi of Uganda: Adjustment to Imperialism. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International.

Girling, F. K. (1960). The Acholi of Uganda. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

Hansen, Holger B., and Michael Twaddle, eds. (1988). Uganda Now: Between Decay and Development. London: James Currey.

Hansen, Holger B., and Michael Twaddle, eds. (1991). Changing Uganda: The Dilemmas of Structural Adjustment and Revolutionary Change. London: James Currey.

Kasozi, A. B. K. (1994). The Social Origins of Violence in Uganda, 1964-1 985. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Langlands, B. W. (1971). The Population Geography of Acholi District. Occasional Paper no. 30. Makerere University (Kampala), Department of Geography.

Malandra, Alfred (1939). "The Ancestral Shrine of the Acholi." Uganda Journal 7(1): 27-43.

Ocheng, D. O. (1955). "Land Tenure in Acholi." Uganda Journal 19(1): 57-61.

Odongo, J. M. Onyango-ku-, and J. B. Webster, eds. (1976). The Central Lwo during the Aconya. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau.

Okeny, Kenneth (1982). "State Formation in Acholi: The Emergence of Obbo, Pajok, and Panyikwara States c. 1679-1914." M.A. thesis, University of Nairobi.

Okot p'Bitek (1963). "The Concept of Jok among the Acholi and Lango." Uganda journal 27(1): 15-30.

Okot p'Bitek (1971). Religion of the Central Luo. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau.

Uma, F. K. (1971). "Acholi-Arab Nubian Relations in the Nineteenth Century." B.A. Graduating Essay, Department of History, Makerere University (Kampala).

Wright, A. C. A. (1936). "Some Notes on Acholi Religious Ceremonies." Uganda Journal 3(3): 175-202.