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ETHNONYMS: Jo Lango, Langt


Identification. The Lango are one of the largest of the non-Bantu ethnic groups in Uganda. They are often classified together with their western neighbors, the Acholi, although they have long regarded themselves as being distinct from them. In the past, the Lango were generally regarded as the residents of a rural hinterland and as people whose activities had little effect on the nation as a whole, but, since Ugandas independence, the Lango have become integrated into national political life.

Location. The Lango live between 1°30 N and 2°44 N and between 32°15 E and 33°15 E. Their territory covers 14,820 square kilometers, including 1,300 square kilometers of open water and swamp. The gently rolling savanna of Lango territory lies at an elevation of 900 to 1,200 meters. Neighboring ethnic groups are the Acholi to the west, the Iteso to the east, and the Karamojong to the north.

Demography. There are about 410,000 Lango in Uganda. The population is most dense in the southern part of Lango territory, in the area between Lira and Lake Kyoga, where it reaches about 48 per square kilometer. In the northern and western portions of the Lango District, the population density is about 16 per square kilometer.

Linguistic Affiliation. Lango is a Nilotic language that is mutually intelligible with Acholi. Lango, Acholi, Luo, and Alure are usually classified together as the Southern Luo languages, which means that the Lango are linguistically related to the Luo of Kenya.

History and Cultural Relations

The Lango settled into their present location after first moving southward as part of the southerly migration of Luo-speaking Nilotic people, which probably took place in the fifteenth century. There is evidence that cultural distinctions between the Lango and the Acholi were well established by the early nineteenth century. The relationship between the Lango and their Paranilote-speaking neighbors to the northeast, the Karamojong, is unclear. Many Lango clan names resemble Karamojong clan names, and Lango cultural practices such as totemic observances and age grades, are similar to Karamojong practices and may have been borrowed from them.

The two most salient features of the history of the Lango within the nation of Uganda are that they are not Bantu and that they have had a stateless society. When the British came to Uganda in the mid-nineteenth century, the center of colonial power was established on the shores of Lake Victoria in the kingdom of Buganda, 320 kilometers south of Lango territory. The Ganda and the other Bantu kingdoms in the southern part of Uganda gained the respect of the British in large measure because of their well-organized states. The non-Bantu societies to the north of the "Bantu line" were stateless, and, for most of the colonial period, they were regarded as the poorest, the least tractable, and the most warlike societies of Uganda. By creating most of its important institutions in the south of the country, the colonial administration heightened the differences between the north and the south, and the Lango were effectively left out of colonial development.

Contact between Lango and Ganda during the colonial period was characterized by bitterness and a lack of understanding that persist even now. Antagonism between these two societies was particularly strong during the mid-1960s, the years immediately following Uganda's independence. A Lango, Milton Obote, led the Uganda People's Congress and became prime minister; he found himself opposed to the political power of the Ganda Kingdom, the people of which had organized themselves into a political party, the Kabaka Yekka. Ensuing political eventsthe overthrow of Obote, the divisive reign of Idi Amin during the 1970s, and the long years of civil warinvolved the Lango people in a series of opposition movements and guerrilla skirmishes. They have undergone considerable economic hardship and have all but lost any effective political voice in the national government.


In precolonial times, the Lango lived in villages of about a hundred people. These were abandoned in the twentieth century, and households came to be widely dispersed. This shift in residence patterns may have been stimulated by the cessation of intervillage warfare. The standard pattern now is for a household to be built in a small clearing and to be surrounded by fields and grasslands. As sons marry, they may build households nearby in separate clearings, far enough from other households so as to be barely visible. The clearing might be more than 20 meters in diameter; its principal building is the sleeping house, which is likely to be about 6 meters by 6 meters. Roofs are almost always thatched, but houses of wage earners often have corrugated metal roofs.

An area of about 2.6 square kilometers, which might include twenty households, is loosely organized as a neighborhood, or wang tic. Three or four men representing the most prominent clans in the neighborhood serve as an informal neighborhood council, but the wang tic is not an officially recognized entity. The local administrative official, the jon jago, administers an area of about 80 square kilometers. Schools, courts, police, and medical services are often located at the headquarters of the jon jago. The next level of government is that of the county, and there are seven counties in Lango District, which has its headquarters in Lira, in the approximate center of the district.

As the colonial administration established itself, and as commerce and transport became important, there arose a number of trading and administrative centers that have become important foci of activity for the Lango. The most important of these is Lira, which is the site of a large hospital, numerous secondary schools, an airport, a prison, cotton ginneries, banks, churches, and retail shops.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Lango subsistence system is classified as a "mixed" system (i.e., a combination of pastoralism and agriculture). Millet and sorghum are the two principal food crops, and, because they are the crops that the Lango have grown for the longest period of time, these foods are integrated into religious and symbolic conceptions more than other food crops are. Other important crops are maize, groundnuts (peanuts), potatoes, and cassava. Lesser crops are bananas, tomatoes, sesame (simsim ), cowpeas, and various leafy greens. Most Lango labor goes into agricultural activities, but only half of the labor goes into the production of food; the other half of the agricultural labor goes into the production of cotton, which is the principal source of income for Lango peasants. After the introduction of cotton in 1912, the Lango people became integrated into the world industrial economy for the first time. The cotton was shipped to British textile mills, and the Lango were able to use cash from its sale to pay taxes and the school fees of their children.

Pastoralism requires much less labor than agriculture, but it figures very prominently in Lango cultural life. The Lango exemplify the East African cultural traits that Melville
J. Herskovits long ago dubbed "the cattle complex." Social status is marked by the number of cows a man has; cattle are used to pay bride-wealth, and they are prized for various attributes, such as loyalty or bravery, which are sometimes imputed to particular animals. As a source of food, Lango cattle are of limited value. They provide very little milk, but surplus cattle are slaughtered for feasts, and some are sold to traders who ship them to southern Uganda. Since about 1950, there has been a shift in attitudes: cattle are no longer regarded as a commodity that should be kept for the conspicuous display of prestige or for social exchange but as a commodity that can be sold for profit. During the civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s, however, most cattle were slaughtered, and at present the Lango have very few cattle and are thus unable to use them for ritual purposes and exchange, as they had in the past.

In the southern part of Lango territory, near Lake Kyoga, there is a lacustrine adaptation that is centered upon fishing. The lake is an abundant source of Nile perch and other fish, and these can be caught with traps, lines, and spears.

Industrial Arts. There are no Lango artifacts that are made by full-time specialists. In the past, blacksmiths and iron smelters were specialists, but their techniques have long been forgotten. Coiled pottery is made by women who happen to reside near suitable deposits of clay. Some people are known to be especially good at fashioning drinking straws out of reeds, or thatching roofs, or carving wood, or weaving grass mats, but they are not full-time specialists, and in fact many adults can perform these tasks to some degree. The introduction of trade goods and new forms of technology has led to a number of new crafts. In the trading centers, one finds tailors, bicycle repairers, furniture makers, motor mechanics, and carpenters.

Trade. A well-established long-distance trade network existed in precolonial times, involving sesame, which was traded northward into Sudan, much of it ending up in Egypt. The sesame trade dwindled in the twentieth century, but a new and much more complex form of trade was introduced during the colonial period. East Indian traders controlled this trade at both the wholesale and retail level. They operated numerous small shops throughout Lango District and sold such necessities as clothing, matches, kerosene, metal sheeting, bicycles, and pots and pans. The expulsion of East Indians from Uganda by Idi Amin has greatly disrupted this trade network. Supplies are now irregular, stocks are low, and money is scarce. There is also a system of local markets, which are held throughout Lango territory. These markets allow people to dispose of surplus crops or cattle, and they work well in distributing foodstuffs and permitting Lango people, particularly women, to earn small amounts of cash.

Division of Labor. The division of labor in Lango is based mainly on age and sex. As soon as they are 6 or 7 years old, girls assist in household tasks and in caring for younger siblings. Young boys look after cattle, and, by the time they are 10, they may be put in charge of a small herd. Girls often marry when they are 15, and they then take on the responsibilities of growing and preparing food for their households. Adolescent boys are allotted their own fields, so that they can begin their lives as active cultivators. As adults weaken because of age, their productive capacities diminish, and old people find themselves dependent on others for food, with the result that they are often malnourished and embittered.

The sexual division of labor involves men doing the heavy agricultural labor and women doing much of the rest. Men cut trees and brush to clear the fields and hoe the soil at the beginning of the rainy season. They also sow the crops and plant the potatoes and cassava, but after the food crops have been planted, the responsibility of weeding and harvesting falls mostly to women. The crops are said to belong to the women, who must dry them, store them, prepare them for consumption, and sell any surplus. Although women have considerable control over the food crops, men control the cotton. They weed, spray, and harvest the cotton crop, and they control the cash derived from its sale.

Land Tenure. There is some variation in the forms of land tenure in different parts of Lango territory, depending mostly on population pressure. In the southern region, where land is scarce, there has been a tendency for fields to be small. In the northern part of Lango District, land is more available, and, until the 1970s, men had little trouble finding land to cultivate. Throughout the territory as a whole, there is no fixed ownership of land. People have usufruct rights to a parcel of land, but they do not actually own it. Attempts by the government to survey the land and establish a system of landownership have been steadfastly resisted by the Lango, who see landownership as the end of communalism and who fear that acquisitive individuals will take over large tracts of land. The Lango usufruct system, which worked well in the past, merely entails a young man asking the other men in his neighborhood if he may use a piece of land. As his household expands, and as he intensifies production, he may add additional fields, but his acquisitions are always limited by his ability to work the land. Neighborhood elders sometimes fail to give permission, and, occasionally, a man who causes trouble in the community is stripped of his land and must leave to take up residence in another neighborhood. Population pressure and soil erosion have made this system of usufruct less practicable than it was in the past, and conflicts over land are becoming more numerous.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is patrilineal, and localized descent groups of four generations play an important role in neighborhood affairs. A patrilineage called the jo doggola ("people of the doorway") is made up of about six generations and is the largest corporate descent group. Its members may be dispersed over an area of 50 square kilometers, but they participate jointly in a number of activities. There may be eighty adult male members of this lineage who can be called upon to pay blood money in the event that one of its members is deemed responsible for the death of a nonmember. Members of the jo doggola also attend important rituals, such as funerals and marriages, and the failure of one section of the lineage to attend such a ritual is often an indication of impending fission within the lineage. Lineage fission is brought on in several ways: the lineage can grow so large that members cannot keep track of one another, the membership can become too widely dispersed, or conflicts can take place. Typically, these conflicts occur between two senior brothers quarreling over cattle or over the rights to use certain fields. Within the jo doggola, people have a clear sense of genealogical relationships, but beyond six or seven generations genealogical knowledge becomes unclear. Nevertheless, a vague sense of kinship does persist among people who are patrilineally related, however distant the relationship may be. Each person sees himself or herself as belonging to a named patrilineal group that includes a large number of people and is made up of many different jo doggola. These clans, or sibs, are typically found throughout Lango territory, although they are unevenly represented in different locales. The members of a particular sib often claim a totemic relationship with a particular species and follow a number of ritual avoidances. At present, the only real importance attached to sib membership is in connection with marriage, in that a man and a woman of the same sib are believed to be patrilineally related to one another and therefore cannot marry.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is of the Omaha type.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Lango practice polygyny and attach considerable importance to bride-wealth. Men commonly extol polygyny as an ideal, but in the 1960s only about 20 percent of the men who were married at any given time were married polygynously. Men commonly find it difficult to arrange for the bride-price for a second wife, and many women do not want to be married as a second or subsequent wife; hence, polygynous marriages are not always possible. Another important factor is population pressure. In some locales, there is not enough land available for men to have more than one wife, given the fact that men are expected to provide all of their wives with fields of approximately equal size for cultivation.

One of the difficulties in polygynous marriages is the relationship between co-wives. A woman who allows her husband to marry a second wife often does so with the expectation that she will have some authority over the junior wife; thus the junior wife enters the marriage in a weak position. A woman who has failed to bear children in a previous marriage or who has the reputation of being troublesome or lazy is more willing to be married polygynously. Such a woman also commands a relatively lower bride-price.

The bride-price in Lango is about fourteen head of cattle and a significant amount of other goods such as goats, cloth, cooking pots, and hoes, which are paid to the family of the bride. The problem of accumulating the bride-price can be very complicated, and boys must start planning how to solve it during their adolescence. A boy may obtain the support of his mother, who will attempt to get some of the cattle from her husband's herd for the boy's bride-price. Boys also are linked to their sisters; they must wait until their sisters are married so that they can obtain part of their bride-prices to pay for their own marriages. One other possibility is for boys to solicit cattle from members of their lineage or from their mothers' brothers. A kinsman who sponsors a marriage may expect the young man to reside near him after marriage and to serve as his dependent. Thus, men who have no sons sometimes acquire the loyalty of young members of their own lineage by sponsoring their marriages. If a man sponsors the marriage of his sister's son, the children born to the marriage will belong to the lineage of the sponsor (i.e., they will belong to the descent group of their father's mother's brother). This, of course, is a deviation from the normally strict rule of patrilineal descent, but the Lango see this arrangement as entirely consistent. They say that a child belongs to the descent group of the person who paid the bride-wealth of its mother. Normally, a woman's husband receives the bride-price from his own descent group, and a boy is discouraged from asking his mother's brother for bride-wealth. Children born to a woman for whom no bride-wealth has been paid belong to their mother's descent group (i.e., the descent group of her father). If a man subsequently marries the woman by paying bride-wealth, he may pay an additional amount to her father and procure her children for his own descent group. Because of the difficulty that is encountered in paying bride-wealth, a young man cannot reasonably expect to be married before he is 21, whereas girls commonly marry at about age 16.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit consists of a woman and her husband, together with her unmarried children and, possibly, a young married son and his wife who live in a small, temporary house near the young man's mother's house. If a man is married polygynously, each wife has her own house and resides in a separate clearing. This means that a man must clear land and build a house for each woman he marries. The households of co-wives are usually within 50 meters of one another, but each household functions independently. A man alternates between the households of each wife, sleeping for three nights with one before moving to the next for three nights. The domestic cycle begins when the man takes a wife and establishes a new household with her.

Inheritance. There are few formal rules of inheritance among the Lango, although there are certain principles in operation. Old men are usually dependent on their offspring, and, by the time they die, they no longer have significant possessions. Cattle are the only significant wealth that figures in inheritance, and when a man who owns cattle dies, it is expected that his cattle will be divided among his sons in such a way that the oldest son receives somewhat more than all the others. In practice, this principle can lead to great problems. If a man has more than one wife, the sons of the senior wife are likely to claim a larger share, and a conflict may ensue between the two wives and among their offspring.

Socialization. There is a postpartum sex taboo of one year; hence, children tend to be spaced about two years apart, although this pattern is affected by a high infant-mortality rate. Children are not weaned until the mother becomes pregnant again, or until the mother decides that nursing is no longer practical. Boys are treated more leniently than girls and are given fewer responsibilities in childhood. Tension is likely to develop between boys and their fathers as boys reach adolescence and begin to press claims for their fathers' cattle so as to accumulate the necessary cows for bride-wealth. Mothers commonly side with their sons in these disputes, and as sons draw away from their fathers, they draw closer to their mothers, who see sons as a source of support in their own struggles with their husbands over money and other resources.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The key to understanding Lango social organization is to recognize that it is both patrilineal and patrilocal (see "Kin Groups and Descent"). Men tend to reside near their fathers; hence, there are clusters of patrilineally related kinsmen in each neighborhood. Men often marry women who live 8 to 24 kilometers away from their own neighborhoods, and, consequently, women are introduced to their husbands' neighborhoods at marriage. Lango ideology is also "patricentric," in that people see a strong relationship between patrilineages and particular locales, and they regard males as being fixed in particular locales, in contrast to women, who change residences at marriage. Women often describe themselves as "strangers" in their husbands' neighborhoods. The Lango exemplify the classical problem that has been examined by anthropologists: that of the incorporation of women into the residential and kin groups of their husbands.

In addition to lineages, social organization in the neighborhood involves a corporative work group that cuts across kinship ties. All the members of a neighborhood are expected to assist one another in cultivating and harvesting, and a person who works alone jeopardizes his rights to land within the neighborhood. This neighborhood work group often meets informally for work followed by beer drinking, and it is probably the most important group to which a man belongs. In the past, there were age grades in Lango, but this seems to have died out sometime in the middle of the twentieth century. Another entity that is fast fading away is the traditional group comprised of the elders of five or six different patricians that were linked together for certain ritual purposes. In the past, these ritual linkages were also associated with military alliances, but the necessity for such alliances died out shortly after the imposition of colonial rule.

Political Organization. Traditionally, a local-level leader was called a jon jago, and a higher-level leader was called a rwot, but they were really ad hoc war leaders rather than chiefs. These leaders were important primarily during times of conflict, when they could organize armed groups, sometimes raiding rival groups to acquire cattle, territory, or wives. The jon jago served as a client to a rwot, who might exert influence over an area of 260 square kilometers. These leaders did not preside not over a state organization; Lango was a stateless society, and the relations between individuals and groups were largely determined by kinship groups. The imposition of colonial rule after 1910 led to the creation of a formal governmental apparatus in which local chiefs served under county chiefs, who in turn served under a district commissioner.

Social Control. Traditionally, social control was effected by kin groups as well as by local councils of elders from several different kin groups. Men could be banished from a community and stripped of their rights to use land. Accusations of sorcery were sometimes used against people, and various forms of physical punishment were imposed upon people who committed offenses; for example, a woman who committed adultery might have her nose cut off by her husband's kinsmen. Since the imposition of colonial rule, social control has mostly been relegated to the formal legal system. People regularly take one another to court for a wide range of offenses.

Conflict. The two principal sources of conflict are marriage and cattle, and the two come together in questions of bride-wealth. There is often a permanent state of conflict between affines over claims that the bride-wealth payment was insufficient. Death is another serious source of conflict, because the Lango believe that a death is always caused by someone. Disputes between lineages are no longer as serious as they were in the past, when long-lasting feuds were common and sometimes led to hostilities.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Lango religious beliefs are very diffuse and have been affected by the introduction of Christianity as well as by contact with neighboring societies. The Lango believe in a creator spirit called Jok, who is regarded as an all-powerful deity, and who is often equated with the Judeo-Christian God of the missionaries. There are also lesser deitiesthe spirits who bring sickness and cause trouble; the term for these deities is also "jok." These spirits are of two sorts. The first, associated with the wind, are seen as freefloating spirits who dwell in out-of-the-way places and attack people, often for no good reason. They are harmful and capricious, and people believe that it is important to take precautions against them. The other sort of jok is the shadow, or soul, of a deceased person.

Ceremonies. Most Lango ceremonies are either rites of passage or rituals associated with problems of spirit possession and fertility. Beginning around 1920, rituals that centered on spirit possession spread from the neighboring Bunyoro people into the western part of Lango District. The spirit-possession rituals had great appeal to women, and women were predominant in many of the possession activities, both as patients and as the principal performers. As possession rituals became more popular in the 1940s and the 1950s, the traditional rituals, which had mostly been performed by men, began to decline. Younger men lost interest in the traditional rituals, which came to be held less often. Since the 1960s, women have been more active than men in performing rituals, most of which involve an attempt to cure someonetypically, a womanwho is believed to have been possessed by a spirit.

Arts. Plastic arts are nearly nonexistent; for example, there is no tradition of wood carving except for the occasional carving of some useful object, like a stool.

Music and dance are important aspects of Lango life; the finger piano, drum, and flute are the principal instruments. Singing is done mostly by women, some of whom are recognized as virtuoso solo singers, but groups of people also enjoy singing in unison. Groups of young people compete with one another in public dance contests.

Medicine. Many plants are believed to have medicinal properties, and certain individuals have a knowledge of these plants. With the increasing popularity of spirit-possession rituals, however, curers have made less use of plants and have come to rely more heavily on the belief that illness is caused by spirit possession. The decline in the use of medicinal plants is also related to the declining popularity of the traditional rituals performed by men. The men who performed these rituals were also experts in the use of medicinal plants, and, as interest in the rituals waned, fewer men acquired expertise in the use of medicinal plants. Many traditional medicines have also been replaced by Western medicines, which were widely available to the Lango from the 1940s until the early 1970s. Since the 1970s, Uganda's political unrest has led to a deterioration of the government medical system, and there some indication that the use of traditional medicines is being revived. There is particular concern over the AIDS epidemic in Uganda, and there has been a renewed use of magical cures and folk medicines throughout Lango territory.

Death and Afterlife. The Lango believe that the soul, or shadow, departs from the body as it is being placed in the grave and takes up residence in the bush, near the living kin of the deceased. These shades often dwell in caves, in rocky outcroppings, or near sources of water, and they continue to maintain an active interest in the affairs of their living kin. There is no notion of the afterlife as a reward for a virtuous life or as a punishment for evildoers. Instead, the afterlife represents another stage in social life, because death merely transforms a person into an ancestor spirit, which then plays a role in the ritual life of the community. In general, the importance of an ancestor spirit is a reflection of the importance of that person during life; thus, children and women are not as likely to be regarded as prominent ancestors.


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Haley, T. T. S. (1947). The Anatomy of Lango Religion and Groups. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Tosh, John (1978). Clan Leaders and Colonial Chiefs in Lango,
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