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In and Out of Culture: Okot p’Bitek’s Work and Social Repair in Post-Conflict Acoliland

From: Oral Tradition
Volume 28, Number 1, March 2013
10.1353/ort.2013.0008

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In 2008, on my fifth visit to Northern Uganda, I was staying with Nyero’s family in Padibe Internally Displaced Person’s (IDP) camp, in what is now Lamwo district. At that time, the cease-fire of the previous year and a half had changed things considerably. People all over Acoliland (Northern Uganda) had begun to return to their villages after a decade of forced displacement into squalid camps, where inhumane conditions killed—according to one study—in excess of about 1,000 individuals per week (UMH 2005). Like much of the 90% of the population who had been forcibly displaced, Nyero’s family was planning to return to their “traditional” village at the end of the year. Finally, land was being cleared, seed sown, water wells checked, gardens planted, grass cut, and huts built.


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Fig 1. 

Padibe Internally Displaced Person’s Camp, Northern Uganda. January 2007.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos are by the author.


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Fig 2. 

Beatrice and Kilama start to clear land for farming after living in Padibe IDP camp for 5 years. July 2008.

At the same time, however, Acoli men, women, children, youths, families, and villages struggled to deal with the past two decades of war between President Museveni’s Government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group. Forced displacement, confinement, poverty, and social torture (Dolan 2009) by the Government of Uganda, together with brutal abductions and terrorization by the LRA, squeezed the population between the two sides.

Children and youths who grew up only in the congested, squalid conditions of the camp were reintroduced to “normal” village life primarily based on subsistence agriculture. Youths who escaped from the LRA struggled to reintegrate into their families and villages. Extended families tried to cope with the brutal effects of the decades of violence and internment, as well as the humiliation of their forced dependence on humanitarian aid. Conflict over land was common, and food was not yet plentiful. Tens of thousands of youths were, and still are, missing with their whereabouts unknown. Tens of thousands of deaths have not been properly mourned. Bones have not been buried. Ghosts roam free.

While relieved from the threat of armed violence (from both rebels and the Ugandan military) and the confinement, hunger, and disease of the IDP camps, some of the rural youths I spoke with in Padibe expressed anxiety about their disconnection from tekwaro (culture/tradition/history). Their angst was shared by many of the rural adults and elders who feared that youths who had grown up only in the IDP camps or with the LRA did not know, or were “out of,” tekwaro. It was intriguing and somewhat perplexing to me that rural elders, adults, and youths repeatedly used the concept of youths’ disconnection from, or ignorance of, tekwaro to communicate their post-conflict reconstruction and/or reconciliation concerns. Although scholars have written about how contemporary intrastate conflict in Africa tends to overturn generational structures (Richards 1996; Hoffman 2003; Cheney 2007; Finnström 2008; Honwana 2005), there has been little research on how the overturned structure affects the intergenerational transmission of oral tradition, and what impact that effect itself has on post-conflict processes of social reconstruction, reconciliation, and social repair. Interested in the community’s concerns about tekwaro in this post-conflict context, and heeding calls from Baines (2010) and Finnström (2010) to study the social processes that order morality and relations in post-conflict Northern Uganda, I therefore returned to live with Nyero’s family in their rural village of Pabwoc for the better part of 2012 as part of my dissertation fieldwork.

Fundamental to my understanding of what is happening in Pabwoc today—and other places in Acoliland as well—are Okot p’Bitek’s academic works that explore how Acoli oral tradition shapes moral agents’ formations and understandings of their place in the universe (p’Bitek 1962, 1963, 1973, 1986). He views oral tradition as a form of social action that accounts for how people act and make meaning in the world, and he emphasizes the performative, intersubjective processes involved in the transmission and performance of cultural knowledge. According to...


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