Acholi people



The Acholi people (also spelled Acoli) are a Luo nation found in Magwi County in South Sudan and Northern Uganda (an area commonly referred to as Acholiland), including the districts of Agago, Amuru, Gulu, Kitgum, Nwoya, Lamwo, and Pader. Approximately 1.47 million Acholi were counted in the Uganda census of 2014, and 45,000 more were living in South Sudan in 2000


Demography and Geography

The Acholi in South Sudan number about 30,000 - 50,000 people inhabiting what is now Magwe County, originally part of Torit District east bank Equatoria. The nationality has been fragmented by the international border with Uganda with part of the Acholi found in northern Uganda.

Acholi people


Environment, Economy and Natural Resources

The Acholi land lies on the western slopes of Imatong Mountains and Acholi hills that rim the southern borders of South Sudan. This environment has influenced Acholi lifestyle and economy. They practice a form of mixed farming in which they keep cattle, goats, sheep and fowls in addition to subsistence agriculture; by growing sorghum, millet, simsim, beans, tobacco and sweet potatoes.

In recent times, just before the war, commercial farming of Irish potatoes, tea and rice had been introduced. A timber saw mill powered by a small hydro-electrical power plant was operational until 1992 in Katire. There is potential in minerals like gold and chromite in Kit River area.


Mythology and History

Different accounts attest that the Acholi group was formed from different people who inhabited the area as the result of Luo migration and therefore assert that the Acholi are a product of intermarriages between the Luo and the Madi; being Luo in language and custom and therefore closely related in history to the Alur of West Nile, the Jopadhola of eastern Uganda and the Joluo of Kenya, the Shilluk, Anyuak and other Luo groups in the Sudan.

Another legend asserts that Luo was the first man. He had no human parents. He is said to have sprung from the ground. It is taken that his father was Jok (God) and that his mother was Earth. The legend adds that Luo’s son Jipiti, whose mother is unknown, had a daughter called Kilak. Kilak is believed to have conceived a son, Lubongo, whose father was said to be the devil, Lubanga. Lubongo was the first in the line of Rwot – the chiefs of Payera, the dominant Acholi clan.


The Language

The Acholi speak leb Acholi which is close to Alur, Anyuak especially in syntax and structure. Like other Nilotic languages, the Acholi count only up to five which correspond to the five fingers of the hand. They then add one to five until ten literally meaning have become equal.



The Acholi can take as many as five names. The first one ‘nying kwan’ the name taken from some event at his birth e.g. Ulum -born in the grass; Okec - born at a time of famine.

Some of these names may be split into two or three, e. g, a man named Okec may also be called Langara (locust), because the famine at his birth was caused by locusts; flirtation name a curious name taken from some curious event and acclaimed by others e.g. olwiyo, she whistles - a man’s wife calls him to food by whistling for him; yo dok olan -a man courts his girl by telling her she sways her buttocks like a bell; okwuto cet pa mare.

He broke wind at his mother-in-law’s. There are war names . There are also drum names shared by the youth among themselves.

The act of naming a baby was of essential importance after birth. Names are not male or female, and a daughter often bears her father's name. The details or situation of the birth were therefore substantial. Otto means that many sisters and brothers have died. Oketch means giving birth during cultivating the land. The name Odoki was given when the mother has returned to her parents. Bongomin means that there are not brothers or sisters. Olanya states that the mother has left the child. If a woman gave birth to twins, this was seen as a "divine" sign. Normally, an elder woman (Lacol – midwife) helped with the birth. In case of an emergency, the medicine man (Won Yat) was called to help. Deformed children, who did not have a chance to survive, were drowned in the river, with this being presented as an accident.


Marriage and family

There are more women than men, and thus they are naturally inclined towards polygamy. Practically no woman lives unmarried her whole life. When she has lost her husband, she offers herself to a new one to get married.

Among the Acholi, marriage is a lengthy process. It begins by courting until the young man wins the girl’s consent. He goes to her father and pays a small instalment of dowry after which the pair is considered betrothed.

This may last for a long time depending on the final completion of dowry payment after which the bride’s status changes from girl and becomes a house wife . Acholi dowry is traditionally settled in sheep, goats, spears, hoes. In recent times, money is now accepted.

The Nilotic marry normally outside of their clan. Girls are betrothed at the age of six or seven, and their selected future spouse continually makes small presents to his father in-law until the bride becomes of nubile age. It is regarded as shameful if the girl is no virgin on her wedding day. The groom will then send her back to her parents, who then have to return the brideswealth and have to pay a penalty. The wife's adultery was formerly punished with death, and the capital penalty was also inflicted on young men and girls guilty of unchastity. They had to pay twenty sheep and two until six cows in total; the husband elected can claim his bride when he has made half of the payment. If a women cannot give birth to children in her life, the amount of her purchase is returnable by her father, unless the widower consents to replace her by another sister. The women are prolific, and the birth of twins was considered a divine miracle. This is considered a lucky event, and this occasion is celebrated by feasting and dances. The parents of the infants must stay in the hut for a whole month.

If the first wife of the deceased is still alive, he will be buried in her hut, if not, beneath the veranda of the hut in which he has died. A child is buried near the door of its mother's hut. A sign of mourning is a cord of banana fibres worn round the neck and waist. A chief chooses, sometimes years before his death, one of his sons to succeed him, often giving a brass bracelet as insignia. A man's property is divided equally among his children.



The Acholi society is a sedentary, agrarian community organised in chiefdoms, which vary greatly in size but consist of a cluster of villages including the surrounding territory used for agriculture and hunting over which the Rwot exercise his authority.

This territory comprises of the aristocrats who are the agnatic kins of the Rwot commoners who are not related to the Rwot. The villages formed a protected ring around the royal village ‘gang kal’.

The structural configuration of the Acholi into aristocrats and commoners definitely is as a result of the unequal distribution of wealth and the social relations in the Acholi society. The members of the royal lineage kaka pa rwot are known as the ‘people of the court’ or ‘jokal’ (sing) lokal or jobito (sing) lobito or the ‘people of power’- joker, while the commoners’ lineage is called luak meaning bulk or mass. An ordinary person is known as dano.

The Acholi observe an elaborate system of social norms, customs and traditions:

Circumcision. The Acholi practise no circumcision.

Birth. A curious custom attends to the birth of a child. For three days after the birth of a girl (four in the case of a boy) the mother has to abstain from certain acts, varying from village to village, including eating certain foods and the baby is not allowed out of the house.

At the end of this period the mother calls her women friends together for meat and formally commits the previously forbidden act. The baby has various charms hung around the neck for protection against diseases and ‘evil eyes’.

Divorce. The Acholi women enjoy great freedom to divorce once not satisfied with their husbands but on condition that the new husband pays the dowry that her earlier husband had paid. Fornication and adultery are punished in the Acholi tradition. It costs 5 sheep for fornication and 15 for adultery.

Relationships.The Acholi entertain extended family relationships and this may affect distribution of wealth. However, the closest relations after the father and mother are his brothers by the same mother and next his maternal uncle.

A man has to give one tusk of his first elephant to his mother’s brother and one to the chief. Inheritance is always in the male line and runs roughly as follows: sons, brothers, half-brothers and then uncles. On a man’s death his son or failing which, his brother sson takes over all his wives.

Death. On a person’s death all the friends and relatives gather together f forthe death dance. Sheep are killed and sorghum beer is brewed and the man is mourned from 2 - 5 days according to his age and importance.

He is buried by the entrance of his hut, and trees are sometimes planted on the grave and a sheep sacrificed. Chiefs are buried in special chief’s burying grounds wrapped in clothes and placed on a bed.

The grave is kept open and watched by a young man and girl until decomposition sets in when it is thought safe to throw sand on the body and fill up the grave. The grave is then planted with trees and a fence built round it.

It is thought to be a great misfortune for a man to die a natural death and not be buried in his house. A man who is killed in the bush during hunting or fighting, however, is thought to be lucky, even though he is not buried at all and his body is eaten by vultures.

A special ceremony is then performed under the direction of the ajwaka to call the spirit back to the village.

Tatto and scars. Patterns with ornaments are tattooed on chest and stomach. For all men, even husbands, it is forbidden to touch the women's tails. Women are very respected for their independence and pugnacious nature, their honesty and their sexual morality. There are more women than men, and thus they are naturally inclined towards polygamy. Practically no woman lives unmarried her whole life. When she has lost her husband, she offers herself to a new one to get married.



They erected shrines (Avila) for the representative of the people, the so-called Jok. All rites as well as spiritual acts and worships were performed in the immediate surrounding of such shrines. They also worshipped this Jok as god and father of the people, who has come down from heaven and turned into a man. Additionally, they also worshipped the Dark Power, the devil, who was called Lubanga. Unfortunately, the Christians have used this name for the translation of God.
The legend says that the first man was called Luo; his father was the god Jok and his mother was Earth. In the family, there was a son with the name of Lagongo. He carried bells around his hips and ankles. His hair was decorated with feathers, he used to dance the whole day long. He had magical power. As his mother did not know who his father was, the story went that she had been made pregnant in the bush by Lubanga, the devil.

Neighbouring tribes to the southern are suspects, totemically. The religion appears to be a vague ancestor worship. In general, the Acholi have two other gods, called Awafwa and Ishishemi, the spirits of good and evil. To the former, cattle and goats are sacrificed. Similar to their neighbours, the Bantu, they have great faith in divination from the entrails of a sheep. Nearly everybody and everything is similar ominous of good or evil. They have few myths and traditions, with the ant-bear being the chief figure in their beastlegends. They believe in witchcraft and practise trial by ordeal. This is due to their fecundity and morality.



Those who live in the low-lying lands suffer from a mild malaria, while abroad they are subject to dysentery and pneumonia. Also epidemics of small-pox have occurred. Native medicine is the simplest. They dress wounds with butter and leaves, and in the case of an inflammation of the lungs or pleurisy, they pierce a hole into the chest. There are no medicine-men - the women are the witchdoctors.


They lived on a mixed economy, land cultivation and livestock breeding. They hunted in different ways: either as a group or alone as trappers (Okia); they used nets, pits, or they hunted the animals into the water and subsequently killed them with their spears

 Both men and women work in the fields with large iron hoes. In addition to planting sorghum, eleusine and maize, tobacco and hemp are both cultivated and smoked. Both sexes smoke. But the use of hemp is restricted to men and unmarried women, as it is thought that this might injure child-bearing women. Hemp is smoked in a hubble-bubble.

They cultivate sesam and make an oil from its seeds which they burn in little clay lamps. These lamps are of an ancient saucer type.

They make salt, effected by burning reeds and water-plants and passing water through the ashes; furthermore they practise the smelting of iron and ore (confined to the Bantu tribes); pottery and basket-work.


Settlements and live

They live in strong stone-walled villages. Some huts are partitioned off to provide for a sleeping-place for goats, and also the fowls sleep indoors in a large basket. Skins form the only bedsteads. In each hut there are two fireplaces, about which a rigid etiquette prevails. Strangers or distant relatives are not allowed to pass beyond the first fire, which is near the door and is used for cooking. At the second, which is nearly in the middle of the hut, sit the hut owner, his wives, children, brothers and sisters. Also the family sleeps around this fireplace. Cooking pots, water pots and earthenware grain jars are the only other furniture. The food is served in small baskets. Every full grown man has a hut to himself, and one for each wife. Father and sons eat together, usually in a separate hut with open sides. Women eat apart therefrom, and only after the men have finished. They keep cattle, sheep, goats, fowls and a few dogs. Women do not eat sheep, fowls or eggs, and they are not allowed to drink milk except when mixed with other things. The flesh of the wild meat and leopard is esteemed high by most of the tribes. Beer is made from eleusine.


Social and Political Organisation, Traditional Authority, etc.

The Acholi had a centralised system of government organised in chiefdoms under a hereditary ruler known as Rwot. Like the Räth of the Shilluk, the Acholi Rwot exercised judicial, executive and legislative powers.

He also enjoyed spiritual prowess linking the two spheres of living and the dead. He offered sacrifices to the ancestors on behalf of his people. The Rwot’s wife exercised authority over the junior co-wives and adjudicated their petty quarrels.

A chief establishes his reputation and maintains his following by the hospitality he is able to provide. He is expected to provide for the marriage of his indigent subjects lacan by giving them a girl or cattle for bride-wealth. This form of distribution is considered both a duty and a privilege.

The regalia of the chiefly power i.e. traditional right to the chieftainship consisted of a sacred drum , a leopard skin garment and a sacred spear , on which he administers oaths.

The position of the war-leader was clearly distinct from that of the chief or Rwot. He was appointed by or with the approval of the warriors of the chiefdom.

However, he had no authority of his own to engage in war without the approval of the Rwot or his counsellors. Spirituality, Belief and Customs

The Acholi believe in the supreme being God to whom they build a shrine where all sacrifices are performed. The spirits of the departed are worshipped and offered meat, pudding, beer and simsim in order to protect the living from diseases or to assist in successful hunting.



The Acholi are considered to be peaceful people, but good fighters. Their weapons are mostly spears with rather long flat blades without blood-courses, and broad-bladed swords. Some use slings, and most carry shields. Bows and arrows are also used; firearms are, however, displacing other weapons. Warfare was mainly defensive and intertribal, this last a form of vendetta. If a man had killed his enemy in the battle, he shaved his head on his return and he was rubbed with "medicine" (generally goat's dung), to protect him from the spirit of the dead man. The young warriors were made to stab the bodies of their slain enemies.


Culture. Songs, Nusic and Dance

The Acholi culture is expressed in songs, music and dance. The Acholi compose tuneful songs to incidences of interest and colourful communal dance . As a result they have evolved different instruments and artefacts for music and dance.

Acholi folk music is, like most Ugandan music, pentatonic. It is distinctive with choral singing, in parts with a lead voice. Songs are also accompanied by a string instrument, the harp-like adungu, and numerous percussion instruments.

The vocal lines of the songs of men and women are in polyphonic style, and they tend to create a counter-point effect. Songs are performed at various occasions. The singing is melodic, and dances are performed collectively. Solo dancing is rather rare. Various dances are performed on certain occasions like, for example, birth, funeral, wedding, rituals (ancestral worship, beginning of a hunt, victory over enemies) and the celebration of the seasons (for example, thanksgiving).

The Acholi have various kinds of dances.


Neighbours and Relationships

The Acholi neighbour the Madi to the west and southwest, the Lokoya and the Lotuka to the east and northeast, the Lulubo and Bari to the north. The Acholi have cordial relationships with the Madi but not with the Lotuka or Lokoya.


Latest Developments

The Acholi land was affected by the first and the present wars. Many of them took refuge in Uganda, where they settled among their kins.

The southwards displacement during this war was accelerated by the influx of displaced people from Upper Nile and Bahr el Ghazal and the differential or rather selective favourable treatment at the hands of the international humanitarian agencies.



The Acholi have moved en masse and now live in northern Uganda; A small Acholi Diaspora exist in the Americas, Europe and Australia.