Once considered a very unsafe place to visit because of the protracted war and civil strife in the region, Acholiland is once again a safe place to tour. Acholiland is adjacent to the Kidepo Valley National Park, and the most used route to access the park by road crosses two main Acholi districts, Gulu and Kitgum.
Around 1,000AD, Luo / Nilotic people from the Bahr el Ghazal region of modern day South Sudan migrated into Uganda and settled in Northern Uganda, while others moved further south into Eastern Uganda and even into Bunyoro in Western Uganda. Several hundred years later, in the late 17th century, the Luo of Northern Uganda were organised in centralised chiefdoms governed by chiefs called Rwodi (singular Rwot) that translates as ‘rulers’ in Luo.
Traditionally, Rwodi were chosen from one clan, Payira, and each chiefdom had several villages made up of different patrilineal clans. At this time, the people known today as the Acholi referred to themselves as An-loco-li, which means ‘I am a human being’. Arab traders called the people of this land ‘shooli’, which over time evolved to Acholi. By the middle of the 19th century around the time of the arrival of the British colonialists, about 60 hereditary Rwodi ruled small independent chiefdoms.
The Rwot had full executive, judicial and legislative powers and was also the spiritual intercessor between the living and their dead ancestors to whom he made sacrifices. He possessed chiefly regalia including drums, spears and stools, and ruled through a Council of Clan Elders.
During the colonial era, the British paved the way for one Rwot to become the Acholi Paramount Chief and rule over all the clans of Acholi, to better centralise colonial rule. Rwot Awich was the first of over 20 Paramount Chiefs to have ruled Acholi since 1900. The Acholi Chiefdom suffered the fate of Uganda’s Kingdoms when the 1967 constitution passed by Obote abolished all cultural institutions in Uganda, but the Paramount Chief were reinstated in 1995 by the new regime.
During the colonial period, the British concentrated infrastructure and education development in the southern half of the country, marginalising the Acholi and other tribes from Northern Uganda, and giving them a distinct ethnic identity that today still characterises them as ‘the dark people’ or ‘northerners’. The British recruited most of the Protectorate’s manual labourers and soldiers for its military and to date many local stereotypes associate the Acholi with the armed forces.
Starting in the mid-1980’s and until only recently, the Acholi were victims of protracted war and civil strife in their homeland. First, the apocalyptic prophet Alice Lakwena and following that, the insurgency caused by the Lord’s Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony that displaced millions of Acholi. Finally the war is over and Acholiland wakes up to renewed hope that its people can rebuild their lives.
The current Acholi Paramount Chief is Lawirwodi Rwot David Onen Acana II who ascended the throne in 2005. He is the 25th Paramount Chief and oversees 54 smaller chiefdoms.