I would like to assure you that spirits of the dead exist

The shade from the mango tree couldn’t dim the twinkle in the eyes of the 86-year old Acholi clan elder’s eyes.

He leaned over, touching my leg, and assured me in his customary growl that spirits of the dead do indeed exist (clip below).

I got the sense that he knew a fair number of things that I didn’t.

I was meeting Naptali Ococ, a respected elder in the community, to explain the importance of cleansing rituals in Acholi culture and how they’ve been used in aiding formerly abducted men and women returning from the bush.

Ococ says these rituals are vital to ensure that community members cannot single them out for stigmatization.

There’s a number of ceremonies, of which Ococ says he’s performed thousands of over the years.

There’s nyono tongweno (stepping of the egg) that is the traditional welcome ceremony for anyone who’s been away from home for a length of time. The majority of the 40 women I’ve interviewed underwent this particular ceremony.

Then there’s moyo cer growled Ococ.

Moyo cer, or cleansing of the land, is performed at the site of a former battlefield where a number of people were killed. Ococ says the Acholi believe dead spirits hover around the place where they were killed

There’s mato oput (drinking the bitter root) that helps reconcile 2 different parties, typically a returnee and the family of someone they’re accused of killing. The ceremony is supposed to remove guilt from the family of perpetrator and ensures that the spirit can now accept that something has been done to appease its family members.

Oput is a tree commonly found in northern Uganda. The elders squeeze the root to get a bitter juice. This is mixed with beer and ram’s blood and drunk by both parties. Afterwards, the family of the deceased is typically paid some money. From that day on the families are seen to have become friends again, and the spirit can now no longer haunt them.

But the journalist in me wanted to dig deeper.

Did Ococ really believe in spirits, or did he believe that cen was merely a manifestation of PTSD?

Also most of the women I interviewed underwent one or several of these ceremonies but said they didn’t understand why they were done, and that they had no impact.

Is Ococ afraid that the old Acholi ways and customs are being left behind as the north becomes more gentrified, more westernized?

Well, I’ll let him tell you.

Naptali Ococ, Acholi elder, on spirits, rituals and tradition by marcellison