Identification. The name "Acholi" is used for peoples living in the former Acholi District of northern Uganda (now divided into the Gulu and Kitgum districts) and the adjoining area of the southern Sudan. The term is derived from "Shuuli," first used by nineteenth-century ivory and slave traders who noted the similarity of Acholi Luo to the language of the previously encountered Shilluk or "Collo" of the southern Sudan (Crazzolara 1938, vii-viii). Despite their common language and ethnic designation, the Acholi of Uganda and the southern Sudan have distinct origins and developed along different historical trajectories; the remainder of this cultural summary will focus on the more populous Uganda Acholi.
Location. The Acholi occupy a 39,000-square-kilometer area, three-fourths of which lies within Uganda, extending roughly from 2°15′ to 4°15′9 N and 33°25′ to 33°45′ E. Their neighbors include the Luo-speaking Lango, Paluo, and Alur to the south and southwest, the Central Sudanic-speaking Madi to the west, and the Eastern Nilotic Jie and Karamojong to the east. Situated 1,025 to 1,350 meters above sea level, the Acholi landscape is typical East African game country—rolling grasslands with scattered trees, streams, and rock outcrops. A single rainy season, from April-May to October-November, produces a reliable annual rainfall nine years of every ten, ranging from 102 centimeters in the central and western portions of Acholi to only 51 centimeters in much of the north and east. The dry season is long and hot, with temperatures that can reach more than 35° C.
Demography. The 1980 population of the Uganda Acholi was approximately 580,000 (Kasozi 1994, ii), up from some 465,000 in 1969 (Langlands 1971), perhaps 125,000 in 1900 and about 100,000 at the end of the eighteenth century (Atkinson 1994, 275-281). These figures represent population densities of 20.4 persons per square kilometer in 1980, 16.5 per square kilometer in 1969, and about one-fourth and one-fifth the 1969 densities during the earlier two periods. Twentieth-century densities have been consistently the second lowest in all of Uganda (after Karamoja).
Linguistic Affiliation. The primary language of Acholi today is Luo, a Western Nilotic language spoken by groups scattered across East Africa from the southern Sudan to Tanzania; many also speak English and/or Kiswahili.