The Acholi people (also spelled Acoli) are a Luo nation found in Magwi County in South Sudan and Northern Uganda (an area commonly referred to as Acholiland), including the districts of Agago, Amuru, Gulu, Kitgum, Nwoya, Lamwo, and Pader. Approximately 1.47 million Acholi were counted in the Uganda census of 2014, and 45,000 more were living in South Sudan in 2000
Demography and Geography
The Acholi in South Sudan number about 30,000 - 50,000 people inhabiting what is now Magwe County, originally part of Torit District east bank Equatoria. The nationality has been fragmented by the international border with Uganda with part of the Acholi found in northern Uganda.
The Acholi land lies on the western slopes of Imatong Mountains and Acholi hills that rim the southern borders of South Sudan. This environment has influenced Acholi lifestyle and economy. They practice a form of mixed farming in which they keep cattle, goats, sheep and fowls in addition to subsistence agriculture; by growing sorghum, millet, simsim, beans, tobacco and sweet potatoes.
In recent times, just before the war, commercial farming of Irish potatoes, tea and rice had been introduced. A timber saw mill powered by a small hydro-electrical power plant was operational until 1992 in Katire. There is potential in minerals like gold and chromite in Kit River area.
Different accounts attest that the Acholi group was formed from different people who inhabited the area as the result of Luo migration and therefore assert that the Acholi are a product of intermarriages between the Luo and the Madi; being Luo in language and custom and therefore closely related in history to the Alur of West Nile, the Jopadhola of eastern Uganda and the Joluo of Kenya, the Shilluk, Anyuak and other Luo groups in the Sudan.
Another legend asserts that Luo was the first man. He had no human parents. He is said to have sprung from the ground. It is taken that his father was Jok (God) and that his mother was Earth. The legend adds that Luo’s son Jipiti, whose mother is unknown, had a daughter called Kilak. Kilak is believed to have conceived a son, Lubongo, whose father was said to be the devil, Lubanga. Lubongo was the first in the line of Rwot – the chiefs of Payera, the dominant Acholi clan.
The Acholi speak leb Acholi which is close to Alur, Anyuak especially in syntax and structure. Like other Nilotic languages, the Acholi count only up to five which correspond to the five fingers of the hand. They then add one to five until ten literally meaning have become equal.
The Acholi society is a sedentary, agrarian community organised in chiefdoms, which vary greatly in size but consist of a cluster of villages including the surrounding territory used for agriculture and hunting over which the Rwot exercise his authority.
This territory comprises of the aristocrats who are the agnatic kins of the Rwot commoners who are not related to the Rwot. The villages formed a protected ring around the royal village ‘gang kal’.
The structural configuration of the Acholi into aristocrats and commoners definitely is as a result of the unequal distribution of wealth and the social relations in the Acholi society. The members of the royal lineage kaka pa rwot are known as the ‘people of the court’ or ‘jokal’ (sing) lokal or jobito (sing) lobito or the ‘people of power’- joker, while the commoners’ lineage is called luak meaning bulk or mass. An ordinary person is known as dano.
The Acholi observe an elaborate system of social norms, customs and traditions:
Marriage. Among the Acholi, marriage is a lengthy process. It begins by courting until the young man wins the girl’s consent. He goes to her father and pays a small instalment of dowry after which the pair is considered betrothed.
This may last for a long time depending on the final completion of dowry payment after which the bride’s status changes from girl and becomes a house wife . Acholi dowry is traditionally settled in sheep, goats, spears, hoes. In recent times, money is now accepted.
Birth. A curious custom attends to the birth of a child. For three days after the birth of a girl (four in the case of a boy) the mother has to abstain from certain acts, varying from village to village, including eating certain foods and the baby is not allowed out of the house.
At the end of this period the mother calls her women friends together for meat and formally commits the previously forbidden act. The baby has various charms hung around the neck for protection against diseases and ‘evil eyes’.
Naming. The Acholi can take as many as five names. The first one ‘nying kwan’ the name taken from some event at his birth e.g. Ulum -born in the grass; Okec - born at a time of famine.
Some of these names may be split into two or three, e. g, a man named Okec may also be called Langara (locust), because the famine at his birth was caused by locusts; flirtation name a curious name taken from some curious event and acclaimed by others e.g. olwiyo, she whistles - a man’s wife calls him to food by whistling for him; yo dok olan -a man courts his girl by telling her she sways her buttocks like a bell; okwuto cet pa mare.
He broke wind at his mother-in-law’s. There are war names . There are also drum names shared by the youth among themselves.
Divorce. The Acholi women enjoy great freedom to divorce once not satisfied with their husbands but on condition that the new husband pays the dowry that her earlier husband had paid. Fornication and adultery are punished in the Acholi tradition. It costs 5 sheep for fornication and 15 for adultery.
Relationships.The Acholi entertain extended family relationships and this may affect distribution of wealth. However, the closest relations after the father and mother are his brothers by the same mother and next his maternal uncle.
A man has to give one tusk of his first elephant to his mother’s brother and one to the chief. Inheritance is always in the male line and runs roughly as follows: sons, brothers, half-brothers and then uncles. On a man’s death his son or failing which, his brother sson takes over all his wives.
Death. On a person’s death all the friends and relatives gather together f forthe death dance. Sheep are killed and sorghum beer is brewed and the man is mourned from 2 - 5 days according to his age and importance.
He is buried by the entrance of his hut, and trees are sometimes planted on the grave and a sheep sacrificed. Chiefs are buried in special chief’s burying grounds wrapped in clothes and placed on a bed.
The grave is kept open and watched by a young man and girl until decomposition sets in when it is thought safe to throw sand on the body and fill up the grave. The grave is then planted with trees and a fence built round it.
It is thought to be a great misfortune for a man to die a natural death and not be buried in his house. A man who is killed in the bush during hunting or fighting, however, is thought to be lucky, even though he is not buried at all and his body is eaten by vultures.
A special ceremony is then performed under the direction of the ajwaka to call the spirit back to the village.
The Acholi had a centralised system of government organised in chiefdoms under a hereditary ruler known as Rwot. Like the Räth of the Shilluk, the Acholi Rwot exercised judicial, executive and legislative powers.
He also enjoyed spiritual prowess linking the two spheres of living and the dead. He offered sacrifices to the ancestors on behalf of his people. The Rwot’s wife exercised authority over the junior co-wives and adjudicated their petty quarrels.
A chief establishes his reputation and maintains his following by the hospitality he is able to provide. He is expected to provide for the marriage of his indigent subjects lacan by giving them a girl or cattle for bride-wealth. This form of distribution is considered both a duty and a privilege.
The regalia of the chiefly power i.e. traditional right to the chieftainship consisted of a sacred drum , a leopard skin garment and a sacred spear , on which he administers oaths.
The position of the war-leader was clearly distinct from that of the chief or Rwot. He was appointed by or with the approval of the warriors of the chiefdom.
However, he had no authority of his own to engage in war without the approval of the Rwot or his counsellors. Spirituality, Belief and Customs
The Acholi believe in the supreme being God to whom they build a shrine where all sacrifices are performed. The spirits of the departed are worshipped and offered meat, pudding, beer and simsim in order to protect the living from diseases or to assist in successful hunting.
The Acholi culture is expressed in songs, music and dance. The Acholi compose tuneful songs to incidences of interest and colourful communal dance . As a result they have evolved different instruments and artefacts for music and dance.
The Acholi neighbour the Madi to the west and southwest, the Lokoya and the Lotuka to the east and northeast, the Lulubo and Bari to the north. The Acholi have cordial relationships with the Madi but not with the Lotuka or Lokoya.
The Acholi land was affected by the first and the present wars. Many of them took refuge in Uganda, where they settled among their kins.
The southwards displacement during this war was accelerated by the influx of displaced people from Upper Nile and Bahr el Ghazal and the differential or rather selective favourable treatment at the hands of the international humanitarian agencies.
The Acholi have moved en masse and now live in northern Uganda; A small Acholi Diaspora exist in the Americas, Europe and Australia.