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Dance, Manhood, and Warfare Amongst the Acholi People of Northern Uganda

Dr Lucy Taylor, an AHRC-funded early career fellow based at the Library of Congress, Washington, tells us about dance, manhood, and warfare amongst the Acholic people of Northern Uganda.

The Library of Congress holds some of the richest material concerning African dance in the world. One of the most interesting collections - comprising photographs, sound recordings, motion pictures, fieldwork notes, and relevant articles - was donated by Judith Hannah based on her research in African during the early post-colonial period.

Dance represents a fundamental part of the Acholi people's cultural heritage. The Acholi, Nilotic Lwo-speaking ethnic group, reside predominantly in the central region of northern Uganda, an area collectively referred to as Acholiland. Before embarking on my fellowship at the John W. Kluge centre, my efforts to access pre-colonial indigenous Acholi perceptions concerning manhood and warfare for my doctoral research had largely focussed on lingual cultural forms that facilitate the oral transmission of knowledge, such as songs, proverbs and folktales. It was only after I began to explore the Judith Hanna collection at the Library of Congress that I started to truly appreciate the importance of dance for transferring knowledge between generations within a number of African cultures and societies.

The Larakaraka was an Acholi courtship dance that granted young men the opportunity to demonstrate their dancing prowess and physical vigour in the hope of securing a marriage partner. As Okot p’bitek, a famous Acholi poet, suggested in his ‘Song of Lawino’, young women used to judge and assess prospective partners based on their skill and endurance in the dancing arena.1

2. Okot p’bitek, Song of Lawino (East African Publishing House: Nairobi, 1966) p33-34

During the Larakaraka the young men danced in a semi-circle with their legs interlocked whilst singing short repetitive songs. They adorned ostrich or cock feathers on their heads and carried calabashes in their left hands. The young women danced silently facing the men until the moko stage, when each woman would identify her preferred male of choice, push him out of the semi-circle and the young couple would retreat to a quiet spot to become better acquainted.3 However dancing the Larakaraka not only provided individuals with a chance to excel amongst their counterparts, but the scripted moves, costumes and instruments employed also reproduced and conveyed to the audience appropriate gendered roles and behaviours. Dance embodied an important instrument for education within Acholiland and a platform whereby accepted behavioural patterns and socially constructed norms and values were demonstrated and disseminated. Although important to consider the extent to which concepts are exaggerated within dance, sometimes for entertainment purposes, dances such as the Larakaraka can help provide us with a better understanding of what was admired and celebrated in terms of masculinity and femininity in pre-colonial Acholi society.

Before the onset of warfare, or during important occasions organized at the call of a chief, the Otole, a physically tiring dance involving mock fights, repetitive jumping and running back and forth around the arena, was often performed.4 Men wore leopard hides, ostrich plumes to decorate their heads, and carried spears and shields whilst women carried a lukile, a small axe.

Otole Dancers
Otole Dancers in preparation for their performance

The Otole dance, or war dance as it also now known, served a number of complementary functions. The vigorous and energetic movements helped physically prepare men for the demands of fighting, whilst the sequences performed during the mock fights instructed men on formation patterns, advance and retreat strategies alongside the manner of attacking and defending with a spear and shield.5 In addition to this, the Otole served to emotionally prepare men for violent encounters, acting as a mechanism for motivation and encouragement, and for inciting military courage and confidence. The Otole further enhanced the men’s combat readiness through eliciting popular support, and sanctioning the use of violence and normally inappropriate behaviour within the context of warfare.6 Thus, although trauma is rarely considered during discussions of pre-colonial African warfare, I would argue mechanisms such as the Otole dance, through freeing men of guilt or regret, helped further emotionally prepare men for war by relieving or reducing the psychological impact of participation in violence.

The Judith Hanna collection is remarkable in terms of the variety of resources it includes and its references to ethnic groups that were relatively marginalized within other research projects in the early post-colonial period, notably, the Acholi. The collection provided me with a wealth of knowledge and theoretical understanding concerning dance in Africa, and challenged me to further explore specific Acholi dances, such as the Larakaraka and the Otole, in relation to masculine identities and warfare during my own fieldwork in northern Uganda.

Those working at the American Folklife Centre, where the Judith Hanna Collection is housed, could not have been more helpful; if it was not for their enthusiasm and dedication to disseminating this valuable collection, I would never have been able to extract such rich data from it. In particular the photographs and motion picture featuring Acholi dances, of which the staff kindly provided me copies, are helping me question whether the imagery or symbolism embedded within these dances was susceptible to individual interpretation depending on varying life trajectories. Additionally by showing this material to elderly Acholi people, I have the unique opportunity to gauge their opinion concerning how dance has evolved and adapted over time. The importance of the Library of Congress as a repository of cultural history in a rapidly changing and often poorly documented world has never been more apparent to me.

My fellowship at the John W. Kluge Center was facilitated and funded by the AHRC through the International Placement Scheme. This support not only helped me gain access to unique resources and pursue new areas of interest in relation to my doctoral research, but importantly the scheme also granted me the opportunity to forge significant contacts, and explore potential collaboration opportunities for the future. Notably my forthcoming visit to Columbia University to work under Associate Professor Rhiannon Stephens came as a direct consequence of my research at the Kluge Center and the invaluable conversations I had with other academics working at the Library regarding innovative methodologies for researching pre-colonial African history.

Otole men fight, from the Hesketh Bell Collection
Otole men fight, from the Hesketh Bell Collection

1.Judith Hanna, Dance, Sex and Gender: Signs of Identity, Dominance, Defiance, and Desire (The university of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1988), pp.4-5.

2.Okot p’bitek, Song of Lawino (East African Publishing House: Nairobi, 1966) p33-34

3.Okumu pa' Lukobo, 'Acholi Dance and Dance Songs', Uganda Journal, Vol.35, 1971, pp.55-61 (p.55)

4.Okumu pa’ Lukobo, ‘Acholi Dance and Dance Songs’. Uganda Journal, Vol. 35, 1971, pp.55-61, (p.55-56)

5.Judith Hanna, ‘African Dance and the Warrior Tradition’. Journal of Asian and African Studies, XII, 1-4, pp.111-133, (p.114)

6.Judith Hanna,‘African Dance and the Warrior Tradition’. Journal of Asian and African Studies, XII, 1-4, pp.111-133, (p.115-119)

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