Acholi - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Once chiefdoms were established, Acholi religious beliefs focused on three types of spirits ( jogi; sing. jok ). There were the spirits of known relatives, especially lineage ancestors; a second type was the nonancestral jok of the chiefdom as a whole. Spirits of both of these types were generally beneficent. They were approached in regard to such general concerns as good health, fertility, and appeals or thanks for good harvests in ceremonies that usually emphasized the consciousness, cohesiveness, and continuation of their respective groups as functioning corporate entities. The third group of spirits were those of unknown persons and dangerous beasts; these were hostile, personified as ghosts, believed to cause sickness and other misfortunes, and dealt with by means of spirit possession.

Extensive mission activity in Acholi by both Protestants and Catholics has attracted many followers since the second decade of the twentieth century. Traditional beliefs, however, still persist, often meshed with Christian doctrine in complex ways. One illustration of this is the various spirit-possession-based millennial (and military) movements that have been prominent in Acholi during the extremely difficult period of the late 1980s and early 1990s, most famously the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena.

Religious Practitioners. Traditionally, lineage heads and elders were the most knowledgeable about—and involved with—the lineage and chiefdom jogi, although rwodi also had a role to play in ceremonies involving the latter. In addition there were priest- or priestess-diviners, private practitioners who worked for the well-being of their clients, and witches, who worked in private for evil or destructive purposes. Contemporary versions or amalgams of these practitioners continue to function in Acholi.

Ceremonies. Each type of spirit had numerous ceremonies associated with it; many ceremonies included small offerings of food and drink. Historically, the most important public ceremonies were probably those associated with birth, planting, harvesting, and the killing of a large animal or another human being. Dances and other activities surrounding spirit possession seem to have been originally introduced from Bunyoro in the early nineteenth century and then became more wide-spread during the tumultuous years of the latter part of that century.

Arts. The major art forms of the Acholi have been drumming, singing, and dancing.

Medicine. In the past, medical problems were addressed through approaches to various spirits, by visits to diviners, and by the use of herbs, roots, and other folk medicines. Many contemporary Acholi continue to use these treatments, although nearly all with access to clinics and hospitals rely on these as well, whenever they can.

Death and Afterlife. Acholi conceive of death as an inevitable, personal defeat and tragedy, against which there is no ultimate defense. The personal and group loss resulting from death is acknowledged as real and permanent. Traditionally, a grave is dug as soon as a person has died, following which a small and brief ceremony is held in the deceased's house prior to burial. All procedures are conducted with care, to attempt to ensure that the spirit of the departed does not become angry. Further tidying up and smoothing over the grave take place within the week. Then a final dance and feast takes place at a time chosen to make possible the maximum attendance by relatives and other interested people. The size and nature of this occasion depend on the age and status of the deceased, with the most lavish and festive celebrations taking place when the person who died was both aged and important. In terms of the afterlife, although spirits of the dead are believed to continue to exist and manifest themselves, there is no belief in a heaven to reward the virtuous or a hell to punish the sinful.

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