The Acholi share a lot of their cultural heritage with the other Luo tribes of Northern Uganda. Their language, Luo is mutually intelligible with the languages of other northern Uganda tribes like the Lango and Alur, as well as the Japadhola in Eastern Uganda and the Jaluo in Western Kenya.
They are a patrilineal society with many intricate ceremonies and rituals still practiced today that involve the family and village for all social milestones. Many Acholi continue to live in round, thatched mud houses in traditional fenced villages. The women are agriculturalists, growing a range of food crops, while the men look after livestock and occasionally hunt for meat.
Atonement, purification and reconciliation rituals performed by clan elders have always been a big part of Acholi culture, for the role they play in restoring and maintaining social harmony. One such ritual, nyono tong gweno, literally translated as ‘stepping on the egg’ is used to cleanse people and homes and has been used more recently to restore LRA returnees back into the community. Another, matooput, is performed in the event of a murder, and brings together the clans of the deceased and the murdered to establish the truth and settle compensation.
Dance is a fundamental part of the cultural heritage of the Acholi, who have 8 traditional dances. Dance and song are used to retell important events that happened in the past, to transfer cultural knowledge and tradition from generation to generation and depending on the dance, to celebrate different big ceremonies. Dancers wear very elaborate costumes that befitting of the dance being performed.
Larakaraka – is the courtship dance performed by young Acholi men to show off their dancing prowess and physical vigor in the hope of securing a marriage partner. It is widely believed in Acholiland, that poor dancers will likely die bachelors, so this dance is highly competitive and extremely vigorous. The Larakaraka starts with the young men dancing in a semi-circle with their legs interlocked while singing short repetitive songs. They wear large ostrich feathers on their heads and carry calabashes in their left hands, which they strike with wires to produce the beat for the song.
Across from them, the potential brides dance silently in front of the men, contemplating their choice. Once they have chosen their suitors, the women push the men out of the semi-circle and break off from the group to get acquainted with each other, before rejoining the group for a celebratory dance on finding a partner.
The songs that are sung during Larakaraka convey important lessons such as how to behave once married, how wives should be treated in marriage and the role of wives in a home.
Bwola – The Royal dance of Acholi was once only performed before the Rwot, usually at their installations as chiefs, when there were visiting dignitaries, or at special palace events. Today, bwola is a part of a variety of Acholi ceremonies, from weddings to graduation parties, but it has not lost it cultural charm. With large Ostrich feathers tied around their heads, all manner of animal hide around their waists, and jingling iron bells around their ankles, the men dance in a circle pounding hand small drums, and moving their feet to the drumbeat.
Their leader traditionally wears a leopard skin as a sign of distinction and dances in the middle of the circle, setting the dancing pace and leading the singing. Women dance in the own circle surrounded by the men. Like most Acholi dances, bwola is very active with dancers leaping and jumping in the air, spurred on by the singing crowd.
In ancient Acholiland, the dancers formed their circles around the Rwot’s palace, with the most fearsome of the village’s warriors forming the outer ring to symbolise the protection they offered the village and the Rwot in the centre.