The Acoli tribe lived in close association with wildlife for generations. The tribe’s claim to the guardianship of wildlife is embedded in the Acoli custom, folklore and culture – perhaps in the DNA as well. Here is the Acoli and the wildlife story. It spans several generations.
Southern Luo Migration
In the southern Luo migration from Rumbek region of South Sudan passing through difficult terrain and dense jungle, elephant routes compacted hard underfoot, and clear of vegetation were followed. Where there is no water one was dug by the elephants without going on strike, belabouring politics or seeking any reward. Man-eating lions and leopards kept their distance. The Acoli gave, the elephant, the additional name – “Ocoro Oboke” for their bush clearing or trail blazing role. The odyssey of Luo migration through difficult ground was “unknowingly” reshaped by the elephants.
Rennie Berre the first Chief Game Warden of Uganda’s National Park, described in “The African Elephant” (Arthur Baker Limited. London & Golden Press. New York 1966) a vivid account of the elephant tracks as witness first-hand in 1932:
“Today few of these old elephant roads still operate. They are quite distinct, beaten hard underfoot with vegetation browsed back by the elephant’s habit of feeding on the move; these animals have a remarkable capacity for finding the best route across country particularly over difficult ground”
The elephant routes which served the Acoli well during their migration, proved to be the saving grace and the preferred landing site in 1954 when Captain Marsh, the pilot, was forced to land the bird-stricken single- engine Cessna carrying Novelist Ernest Hemingway in Murchison Falls area.
The Heritage Safari Lodge is located in the place of origin of the Acoli tribe. In the southward Luo migration, Olum a clan leader settled in the area. His feuding sons Gipir and Labongo parted company to found Alur and Acholi tribes now living astride the Nile.
Gipir, surprised by a marauding elephant at the homestead, used Labongo’s ceremonial spear to drive off the elephant. The elephant escaped into dense jungle with the spear sticking on its body. Labongo, the heir, was incensed by the loss of the spear and the symbol of authority entrusted to him. He demanded, uncompromisingly, the recovery of the spear. This triggered the quarrel which led the brothers to part-company to found the Alur and Acoli tribes.
Gipir crossed to the western bank of the Nile at a place named Wang Lei – driving an axe on the river bed, swearing never to return. Today Wang Lei is under the guardianship of the Chief of Pugungu – the area across the river. A ritual sacrifice is undertaken whenever the Chief travels across the Nile to the eastern bank of the Nile.
In 1906 the British Protectorate administration established an administrative post in Pakuba a little distance upstream from the place of origin of the Acoli tribe. This was moved, in 1909 -10, to the more central location in Gulu when sleeping sickness epidemic threatened the area.
Acoli and the elephants
Here is the elephant again. The Acoli are very sentimental about elephants – they call “Lyec”. The Ocoro Oboke, the additional name given because of the elephant’s bush clearing role remind Acoli women of their duty as the home maker. With homestead located in remote location, the elephant tracks facilitated access to the water hole. The trees previously uprooted by the elephant are found dry and ready for hewing. They adore the elephants for looking after calves collectively, and for adopting orphaned calf just like them. The elephants mourn the dead just like them in a process called – “dipo lyec”.
The Acoli – Won Tim
Hunting and the preservation of wildlife was a well organised affair with very clear line of responsibility for well-defined tasks. Won Tim – the “Father of the Wilderness or the Jungle” is responsible for Tim – “the jungle hunting area” measuring on average 20 – 30 square miles, but determined largely by lay the out of streams, valleys and hills in the area.
Rennie Berre wrote in “A Cuckoo’s Parting Cry. Life and Work in Uganda 1930 – 1960:
“the Fathers of the Forest, the men responsible for hunting manors into which the whole country was divided. They not only controlled the hunting but also the grass-burning which preceded it, as grass for thatching had to be protected from the annual fires which swept through the grasslands early in the year.
Hunting was a necessary means of securing food. It also had a high social value as a test of courage and endurance and training for manhood among the youth of the tribe. But control was necessary, and this was well understood by the Fathers who restricted the big tribal hunts to one or two forays each year. The result was to preserve a reasonable ecological balance between man and wildlife.”
In an increasingly complex environment with rapidly expanding human settlement, extensive road network, and over grazing by wildlife, the moral and ecological governance framework which worked well between the traditional Acoli way of life and the natural environment required supplementary managerial, scientific and legal inputs. The British Protectorate Government and the subsequent independent Uganda Government implemented the bottom-up developmental approach grounded on the Acoli management of “Tim.”