Project Uganda: Blood Tears of Acholi Land

Is bitter drink the key to ongoing peace?

by Travis and Kaitlin Curtice

"Yes, they [the LRA] are to blame! But we too are the rebels,”
-- An Acholi man interviewed in Purongu 

The concept of Mato Oput was just that — a concept—until the day I saw Brigadier Kenneth Banya walking the streets of Gulu. He was walking upright. His gate, the straight-backed, rigid march of a life-long soldier was accentuated by his pristine continence: freshly starched shirt, pressed pants and grey hair gave him an air of superiority. It was easy for me to pick him out of the crowd, but difficult for me to fully grasp that this man was indeed who Phillip said that he was. “You know Brig. Banya?” Okullu Phillip asked. I had read accounts of Joseph Kony’s LRA’s third in command, Brigadier Kenneth Banya. “Yes, I answered Okullo Phillip, “but I know very little of him.” “Well,” Okullo Phillip whispered over our Stoney and Krest, local sodas, “that’s him walking behind you.”

Mato Oput is the Acholi ritual for reconciliation.
Men like these might form the bitter oput root to
symbolize the bitterness of disagreement.

The burning question that drives my research in Northern Uganda is how can the Acholi people who suffered so mercilessly at the hands of the LRA continue to offer forgiveness to the Rebels. When I first worked in Northern Uganda in 2007, I assisted and listened as trauma counselors worked for healing in the IDP camps of Gulu, Amuro, Kitgum and Pader. The daily stories we heard were beyond what any human being should have to experience: pregnant women repeatedly beaten and raped until they miscarried; children forced to slaughter their families; parents torn between accepting their children back or shunning them after they were abducted, and the daily humiliation of living displaced in the camps. Yet, even in the face of all the Acholi suffered by the hands of the LRA, they are willing to collectively forgive the rebels. In my attempts to answer this question I was led to Mato oput.

Mato oput is the Acholi ritual for reconciliation. To understand this ritual is to begin to understand why the Acholi people are so willing to collectively forgive the Lord’s Resistance Army for the atrocities they committed. Mato means to drink and oput is a tree that has a very bitter root that is crushed, boiled and then served in this ceremony.

In mato oput both the victim and the wrongdoer drink oput in the presence of a local, village or tribal leader who mediates between the parties. The bitter root, oput represents the bitterness shared by the one wronged and the one who committed the wrong. When they drink oput they must finish it and their doing so symbolizes that they are finished with the bitterness that would affect their community.

The Acholi people are a people who fall and rise collectively. They have a strong sense of community as well as a unique ability of describing how the community has been affected by the war and rationalizing the need for peace, even for a peace without accountability or justice for those like Brigadier Kenneth Banya, Commander Vincent Otti or even Joseph Kony. Despite the atrocities committed by the LRA, Joseph Kony and the rebels are still Acholi and their ability to withstand and even defeat Museveni is one reason why they are willing to forgive them. Another reason is that though the LRA have committed mass crimes against humanity the Ugandan troops also have dealt devastating blows across Northern Uganda. These blows have been either largely omitted from reports on the conflict or masqueraded in Ugandan media as the work of rebel faction groups.

Though this tradition seems difficult for us to understand, their concept of justice parallels western ideals and philosophies that have influenced our own society. In Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus, while arguing with Socrates, describes “justice” or “the right” as “simply what is in the interest of the stronger party.” The reason and impetus for mato oput in Northern Uganda is that as long as the Acholi will unite and forgive they will keep their collective strength and will be able to stand against Museveni.