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

(The following is a repost from the Insights: Work at the John W. Kluge Center, written by Lucy Taylor, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Leeds and a 2015-2016 British Research Council Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center.)

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

Amongst the Acholi people of northern Uganda, dance represents a fundamental part of the cultural heritage. The Acholi, a Nilotic Lwo-speaking ethnic group, live predominantly in the central region of northern Uganda, an area collectively referred to as Acholiland. Before I embarked on my fellowship at The John W. Kluge Center, my doctoral research on pre-colonial indigenous Acholi perceptions of manhood and warfare had largely focused 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 that I began to truly appreciate the importance of dance for transferring knowledge between generations within a number of African cultures and societies.

Acholi men dancing

Acholi men dancing the Larakaraka, 1963. Photograph courtesy of the Judith Hanna Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

One such dance was the Larakaraka, an Acholi courtship dance that granted young men the opportunity to demonstrate their dancing prowess and physical vigor 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]

‘A man’s manliness is seen in the arena’

‘All parts of the body

Are shown in the arena!

Health and liveliness,

Are shown in the arena!’ [2]

During the Larakaraka, the young men danced in a semi-circle with their legs interlocked while singing short repetitive songs. They wore 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 before returning to the dance at a later point.[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 behaviors.

Throughout the pre-colonial period dance embodied an important instrument for education within Acholiland and a platform whereby accepted behavioral 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.

Dancers

Dancers preparing for the Otole. Photo courtesy of The Nigrizia,1932, Comboni Missionary Magazine.

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.

The Otole dance, or war dance as it is also 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 behavior 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.

photo

Photo courtesy of the Hesketh Bell Collection, 1906-1909, (Y3011C), Cambridge University Library.

The Judith Hanna collection is remarkable for the variety of resources it includes and its references to ethnic groups that are relatively marginalized within other research projects in the early post-colonial period, notably, the Acholi. Using that collection during my Kluge fellowship 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 Center, where the Judith Hanna Collection is housed, could not have been more helpful; if it was not for their enthusiasm and dedication, I would never have been able to extract such rich data from it. The photographs and motion picture featuring Acholi dances, of which the staff kindly provided me copies, are helping me to question whether the imagery or symbolism embedded within these dances was susceptible to individual interpretation depending on varying life trajectories. Additionally, by showing these images 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.

Lucy Taylor is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Leeds and a former British Research Council Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center. Her project at the Center was titled “Masculinites and Violence in Northern Uganda, 1860 to the Present Day.”

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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