Project Uganda: Blood Tears of Acholi Land

Spiritual warfare a reality in Uganda

by Travis Curtice

Pictures of children
Chart correspondant Travis Curtice witnesses a
demonic attack in a girl much like these children.
The focus of the Acholi people is spiritual.

One moment she was just a girl in the crowd but the next moment Miriam was thrown into hysteria. She hurled herself violently in circles and fled away from everyone else. Though the noise from George and the generator was deafening, we could still hear Miriam’s haunting cries. I followed the sound of her screaming and found her staggering to and fro. She was violently flinging herself to the ground and rolling feverishly in the dirt and bush. Though this was the second time in this trip I had seen what the locals call a “demonic attack” (the first was the four girls in Atiak), my western mind still failed to understand or fully acknowledge the supernatural world the locals live with and claim as reality. This girl was not faking. Her symptoms were induced by something that I could not see or touch, something twisting and contorting her young body in pain.

Miriam stood back up and began staggering and spinning in cycles crying out. I walked up next to her and felt goose-bumps and a moment of intense fear raced through my body. I stepped forward and grabbed her hand as she spun. Her head thrashed violently and lifelessly. I held her neck and looked into her eyes and there was nothing but an intense darkness looking back. She pulled herself from me and flung herself again to the ground. I knelt down beside her with a local and two other aid workers, one a certified nurse practitioner. (I could hear Kaitlin singing in the background.) The thoughts ran through my mind, “This is not why I came here! I’m not a demon-hunter. I am not superstitious.” But yet here I was holding this little girl. I recalled old hymns that I used to sing as a child to my brother, Justin, when he was scared at night and started singing them.

The Acholi culture is an animistic society and the focus of their community is undeniably spiritual. Even the pivotal role that the advent and spread of Christianity has had on the Acholi people is profoundly shaped by these beliefs.

In the days before Kaitlin and I came to Uganda, Dr. Jill Greer, MSSU’s professor of sociology and anthropology, reminded me on the third floor of Webster Hall that cultural context is key to understanding and unlocking any and all situations. The cultural context of the war in Northern Uganda is impossible to understand without an understanding of the roles of spiritual warfare, “born-again Christianity” and Animism.

In an attempt to consolidate his control of Uganda and suppress any dissent, Museveni’s administration used brutally forceful tactics. In the face of this suppression a woman from the village of Opit, Alice Auma claimed a supernatural calling and “anointing” to lead a rebellion against him. In 1985, Auma, a tomato vender who would entertain the locals by mysteriously making small rocks explode, declared the she had been empowered and instructed by the spirit of “Lakwena,” which means messenger in Acholi, to cleanse the Acholi people of their “sins,” of the atrocities and human rights violations committed by Acholi government officials, and lead them to fight Museveni in the rebellion she named the Holy Spirit Movement.

In Heike Behrend’s book, Alice Lakwena and the Holy Spirits: War in Northern Uganda she explains how the religious sect, the Holy Spirit Movement, turned into an army known as the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces gathering over eighty disenfranchised Acholi soldiers to follow this charismatic woman and engage Museveni’s troops by using such bizarre battle techniques as “smearing themselves with Shea Butter before battle, singing hymns as they marched upright into battle, sprinkling the battlefield with holy water meant to deflect bullets, and hurling rocks that the soldiers were told would explode like bombs.” Despite these superstitious practices, the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces had tremendous success against Museveni’s troops and marched within fifty miles of Uganda’s capital, Kampala until their defeat in November 1987. After her defeat Alice Lakwena fled with a remnant of her followers to Kenya where she died in exile in the Ito refugee camp in January 2007.

A witch doctor's rattle
A witch doctor's rattle lies in the fields of Uganda.
Spiritual warfare is a reality in the African Nation.

Lakwena’s claim of profound spiritual experience and guidance opened a door for a young Acholi man; Lakwena’s cousin Joseph Kony, who, though raised Catholic, followed her tactics of coupling spiritualism with rebellion. Kony’s older brother had tutored him as the local witch doctor of Odek, a village just outside of Gulu.

Alice Lakwena’s claim to spiritual experiences affected and deeply shaped Northern Uganda’s insurgency but even her influence pales in comparison to the way in which Joseph Kony capitalized and exploited the Acholi people’s fear and beliefs in the supernatural.

In Peter Eichstaendt’s book, First Kill Your Family, he chronicles Kony’s progressive claims of spiritual possession. “Kony was possessed for three days by a spirit named Juma Oris.” Though Juma Oris, a minister under Idi Amin, was still alive, Kony claims this spirit directed him and guided him to wage war against evil. He joined the UPDA rebels eventually leading them in a new rebellion first called the Lord’s Army. By May 1988 Kony changed the name of the rebellion to the Lord’s Resistance Army and was leading over a thousand fighters against Museveni troops.

With the change of the decade Kony’s LRA spread across Northern Uganda. Kony claimed to be spiritually possessed by not only Juma Oris but also Lakwena and other spirits. They directed him to carry out the rebellion continuing his aunt’s practices. Though Kony was related to Alice Lakwena, the fact that they were relatives did not influence or motivate Kony in contrast when Alice’s father started a rebellion Kony took and beat him and reportedly stated “He would not tolerate any more Lakwenas.”

It is difficult to relay the level of control the fear of Kony has over Acholi-Land. This fear had been, so I believed, the “mind-forged manacles” of psychological warfare merely culturally constructed by years of superstition in the North and played upon by whack-jobs like Kony. But when I encountered Miriam’s situation I began to ask questions differently regarding the conflict, regarding spirits, and regarding Joseph Kony.

A testimonial taken in July 2003 from Human Rights Watch interviews said:

He [Kony] is not a Muslim, or a Christian, he is his own religion. He can sit and then talk from very far away and give orders. And then he can look at you and tell you he knows what you are thinking. Everybody is afraid of him. He promised us that he will take over the government and then we would be able to live in big houses and drive cars. We were forced to watch those who wanted to escape being killed. Nobody wanted to leave.

“Everybody is afraid” is an understated reality of the palpable tension that has become normalcy in Northern Uganda. A full year after the last rebel activity in Northern Uganda few villagers will even say Joseph Kony’s name let alone discuss the power he wielded over the area. In an interview with Greg Lewis, an international affiliate of Village of Hope, a NGO assisting and equipping the relocation of IDPs to the villages, Greg told me of a discussion he had with a local leader, “the fear is so great,” Greg asked him, “if it was now safe to freely discuss Kony?” The man responded to him, “You don’t understand, even by saying his name he [Kony] has you, his eyes burn like fire and he just has you.”

The next day after that night with Miriam her grandfather, Justin, told me her story. It is one that I will not forget. Miriam’s mother had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army Rebels when she was just a girl. For three years she was forced to live in the bush. There she was abused and raped by the rebels. Miriam was born in the bush, as a child of abuse and oppression.

After Miriam was born her mother was allowed to return to Lurutu, her home village. When Miriam was seven she began to be troubled by “demonic oppressions.” She was forced to quit school because of the attacks. When the demonic attacks came, Miriam would become violent and abusive to the other girls in the class. After Miriam was forced out of school her mother took her to a local witchdoctor in hope that he would be able to find the cause of the demonic attacks. The witch doctor used the situation to exploit the family and the attacks continued.

Miriam’s story is only one of the many stories that people told me of why they feared and continue to fear the spiritual world they believe to be manipulated by the likes of Joseph Kony.