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Identification. The Alur speak DhuAlur, a Western Nilotic language of the Lwo Group. They live in northwestern Uganda and in the neighboring parts of northeastern Zaire. The total Alur population at the time of the 1948 census was approximately 300,000. In censuses taken since then, the Alur have not been counted as a separate ethnic group, but their population can now be conservatively estimated at around half a million. Some two-fifths of the Alur live in Uganda and three-fifths in Zaire.

Location. Alur territory occupies the northwestern shores of Lake Albert and of the Albert Nile, which runs out of it. The lacustrine and riverine areas have an elevation of about 600 meters, and the land rises from the lake at a steep escarpment. Farther north, it rises more gradually to hilly plateaus, which average from 1,500 to 1,800 meters and which have the most rainfall (100 to 200 centimeters), the most fertile soil, and the densest population, as well as the coolest climate in the region. In contrast, the shore areas are very hot and humid. In Uganda, the density ranges from 25 persons per square kilometer in the lowlands to 43 in the highlands.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Finger millet, the staple food, has been partially displaced by cassava, which colonial authorities compelled the Alur to plant as a reserve against famine; flour from both crops is usually mixed in cooking. Maize has been extensively grown during the twentieth century, a great part of it used for brewing. Beans, simsim (sesame), spinach (both wild and cultivated), and, at lower elevations, shea butternuts are important elements of the diet. In addition to cattle, the Alur raise chickens, goats, and some sheep. Edible ants and seasonal swarms of grasshoppers are further supplements. Elephants, antelopes, buffalo, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, edible rats, rabbits, and porcupines were once hunted, but government regulations, population growth, and sparsity of game have brought almost to an end the hunting of these animals, except for the last three.

The highland areas consist mainly of grassland cleared from primeval forest, the lowland areas of savanna bush. Everywhere, cattle are kept to some extent, but they flourish best in the highlands, which have also been more favorable than the lowlands to the increase of human population. Cotton is grown mainly in the midland areas, and, since the 1960s, arabica coffee has been planted extensively in the highlands, superseding cattle as the main source of cash. The Alur of the lowlands fish in the lake and river, trading smoke-dried fish to the highlands and neighboring parts of Uganda and Zaire. Mineral salt is obtained from a few localities, and vegetable salt is made by filtering the ash of suitable grasses.

Industrial Arts. The Okeodo, an ethnic subgroup of the Alur, formerly melted iron and forged tools and weapons. Skins, leaves, fibers, and bark cloth were worn as clothing until after World War II, when imported cotton came to be universally adopted.

Houses, utensils, and musical instruments are still made domestically, by individuals who have developed special skills, from local materials that are accessible to all. The houses are now usually roofed with imported iron corrugated sheets instead of local thatch, however, and the availability of imported utensils and musical instruments has caused local production to dwindle.

Trade. There has always been some exchange of salt, iron goods, fish, livestock, and foodstuffs, but regular markets did not develop until after World War II; retail shops and and administrative centers can be found at a few crossroads. Some non-Africans, especially Arabs, and African Muslims were prominent in the early development of these retail and administrative centers, but the Indo-Pakistani retailers, pervasive throughout Uganda, were confined to the district headquarters town of Arua, which lay outside Alur territory.

Land Tenure. All Alur had free access to land through kinship and descent. Most people lived in territory that was under the control of a corporate descent group to which people belonged by agnatic descent, but some might also live in another territory, to which they were linked through a mother's brother or other close cognatic relative.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, there was a fairly clear division of labor by sex among the Alur. Women were responsible for the domestic economypreparing, cooking, and serving food, including brewing beer (and, for some of them, distilling spirits), collecting fuel, and maintaining the walls and floors of houses. Men cleared the land and hoed the fields, women weeded and harvested. The division of labor has become more diversified: both men and women work as teachers, shopkeepers, and medical staff (e.g., orderlies, nurses). Many women pursue careers away from home, especially around Kampala.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

The family is polygynous, patrilineal, and patrilocal, based economically on the house-property complex. A man with more than one wife is required to provide each woman with her own house, granaries, and fields. The elementary cell of the compound family is thus an independent inheritance group. Its land is inheritable by its male members; its female members inherit nothing except possibly a few ornaments, articles of dress, and household utensils from their mother. Most of the animals that are received at a daughter's marriage become the property of the elementary family, consisting of her father, mother, and brothers. The head of the compound family is the trustee of the property of each of its component elementary families. The compound family is a self-contained property-holding unit. Bride-wealth received within it does not go outside it, except for special debts, and only its members share in the inheritance at the death of its head. The eldest son of the first wife usually succeeds as chief heir, although any son of any wife can do so if he is considered better qualified; however, such a succession may cause a split in the lineage. The son who inherits is the formal guardian of any young children left by his father. He has the first choice in the leviratic inheritance of widows (other than his own mother), but if there is more than one, he does not inherit both, but probably allows one to go to a younger brother who is not yet married.

Neighborhood groups are usually composed of exogamous lineages, lineage segments, or composite clan sections, with possibly a few other individuals and families linked to them cognatically. A man has special ties and privileges toward his mother's brother's clan as a whole, although such ties and privileges are usually exercised only toward the mother's brother's own corporate lineage. The man's relationship to his father's sister is equally important, but, as sisters marry into different lineages, that relationship is usually centered on a particular father's sister, always involving her husband and his fellow agnates, all of whom refer to the man as "son of our brother-in-law." Of course, the new affinal relations created in one generation always become the cognatic relations of the next.

Because marriage is a lengthy process of contract between two lineages, the Alur try to avoid divorce, which involves costly and disruptive rearrangements of property. Barrenness of women, sterility of men (rarely admitted), witchcraft on the part of either, and gross failure in domestic marital obligations are all grounds for divorce. Most of the bride-wealth must be repaid in case of divorce, with deductions made for any children born of the marriage.

The Alur familial authority system, in relation to the individual, is essentially continuous, collective, and generalized. Within the permanent and pervasive groups, which are mutually interdependent, children are taught to assume generalized roles that impose their inevitable limitations of habit and whose pattern is easily extended to cover like groups. The individual's first experience of authority comes in the form of parental discipline, but training and discipline also come from a fairly wide group of senior paternal and maternal kin. Authority rests on a noticeably collective basis, and the parental role is much less marked than in Western family systems. Alur children go through a process of learning that begins with toilet training and feeding themselves and ranges to respecting persons and property, running errands, and generally emulating older persons of their own sex. Some aspects of this process invite comparison with those of the wider political system. The Alur describe their system of discipline as stern and rigid, yet observation of their daily life conveys the opposite impression. It must be that the stern enforcement of minimum rules of conduct on rare and exemplary occasions during maturation is sufficient to fix observance of these minimum requirements by the majority without any further reminders and with infrequent need for punishment. The tempo of their life is slow, their physical stamina is great, and they endure spells of exhaustingly hard work, but the greater part of life among the Alur consists of tasks that are monotonous but not exacting, which enables the young to have great freedom and yet to be inducted into adult life without any striking period of tension or ritualized initiation. Legitimate authority, both in the family and in the political system, cannot be directly challenged, but it can be evaded. In family life, the escape from authority, although usually more or less temporary, is also an integral part of the system and brings into play various categories of kinship without challenging the legitimacy of familial authority as such. The introduction of spheres of activity beyond the direct control of Alur society, such as schooling, migrant labor, and professional careers outside Alur territory, constitutes a much graver threat to the integrity of the Alur system of socialization.

Sociopolitical Organization

At one time, the Alur had begun to develop specialized political institutions, but they remained embedded in the extended kin-based structure of segmentary lineages through which political processes also were expressed. The ruling lines of Lwo descent reached their present territory some three or four centuries ago, as part of a larger Nilotic migration from what is now Sudan. They gradually established dominance over small groups from other ethnic groups (Okebo, Madi, Lendu) and incorporated them into a new society. This dominance seems to have been established with little or no actual warfare, by employing peaceful methods that provided a somewhat larger scale of organization, by instituting more effective methods of dispute settlement, and, above all, by supplying the nonmaterial means of production in the mystical form of rainmaking, which attracted the support and allegiance of all. Such mystical powers are held in exclusive possession by the hereditary heads of the principal Lwo lineages, which reached different parts of the country by various routes. With the passage of time and demographic growth, the major lineages themselves segmented, and the mystical services of rainmaking and sacred kingship proliferated and expanded to cover an ever larger territory.

Two chief mechanisms led to this proliferation and expansion. The king would send an unruly, troublesome son out to live among as yet unincorporated groups of non-Alur. The son would go with followers and cattle, providing feasts and receiving gifts in return, setting up a new cycle of economic and marital exchange and redistribution, mediating and arbitrating disputes, and providing a channel of privileged access to the rainmaking powers of the king, his father, which eventually became powers exercised by himself and his heirs in their own right. Alur lineages and clan sections sometimes petitioned the king to send them one of his sons to be their local ruler, making them more highly respected by neighboring groups, who might also have done the same, and providing them with the same mystical, political, and economic services. These rulers did not endeavor to eliminate interpersonal violence altogether. Compensation for offenses, including homicide, could be sought by the men of the lineage concerned, and lineages could even fight if they failed to agree. To continue fighting was an offense against the king's stool (i.e., his mystical authority), however, and had to be resolved by payment of a fine. If a group refused to pay, the king's only ultimate recourse was to call other groups to join with him in plundering the offenders. This was a rare but feared deterrent.

In sum, the segmentary state was characterized by an elementary political sovereignty that was restricted to a small, central-core domain, but a general ritual suzerainty spread out more widely. This relationship of sovereignty and suzerainty at the center was repeated on a smaller scale at the peripheral centers that were derived from it, creating a pyramidal structure.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The central religious concept of the tradional Alur was jok, which could be perceived either as a pervasive unity or as a composite entity of innumerable particular entities that were associated with prominent or extraordinary manifestations of nature, rocks, trees, wells, and streams and also with the ancestral spirits of the lineages. Every family head built one shrine for his patrilineal ancestors and another for the spirits of female and cognatic kin. The shrine that was built by a lineage head was more important, and the shrine of the ruler, although also dedicated to his ancestors, virtually amounted to a shrine for the polity as a whole and received the largest attendance for seasonal sacrifice and celebration. The diviner (ajuoga ) and the witch (jajok ) or sorcerer (not terminologically distinguished) were thus linguistically linked to jok and were manifestations of the same power. There were various methods of divination, whereby the ajuoga diagnosed the nature and discerned the cure of a patient's afflictions and ascertained the cause of a death. Accused witches were subjected to ordeals in which poison was administered to chickens, which were watched to see which suspect they pointed to in their death throes. Witches convicted in this way formerly were put to death, and they still may be forced to move to another community. Many afflictions emerge in the form of possession by spirits, which are also various manifestations of jok. Possession is dealt with by having the appropriate diviner exhort the patient with drumming and by dancing on the part of those who have previously been cured, in order to accept and welcome the spirit, allow it to come out, and "dance" in its honor. This is called idho jok, "to climb jok."

Cuts were made in certain parts of the body for the insertion of medicine, and foreign bodies implanted in the body by sorcery were said to be extracted by sucking them out through horns. Curative bloodletting was also practiced.

The death of prominent people is marked by a mourning "dance" (ywak ), which allows the free expression of grief and also of aggressive hostility toward death and its presumed human mystical instrument. The real dance (myel ) of the Alur is a joyous celebration that brings together people of many neighboring corporate groups in a mystically enforced truce, secured by ritual, that provides an opportunity for young people to become attracted to each other and proceed to courtship and marriage.

Alur artistic expression is evinced in singing; dancing; playing drums, harps, and horns; and making aesthetically pleasing objects of practical use. Herbal medicine is part of the practice of diviners. The Lendu who have been incorporated into Alur society have contributed a rich body of herbal lore. Cicatrizations were made by girls on the forehead and belly, and by the young men of some areas, in patterns that varied regionally. Because the latter tended to spend long periods away from home under foreign influence, they discontinued this practice long before girls did.

Death is marked by sacrifice, feasting, beer drinking, and inquisition into the causes of death, involving an extensive rehearsal and a sifting of all the accumulated tensions, disputes, and witchcraft episodes that have marred the harmony of the local community.


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