The First Step Towards Reconciliation

The Role of Truth-Telling in Acholi Traditional Ceremonies

By Vicki Esquivel-Korsiak and Kate Lonergan

In exploring the relevance of traditional mechanisms to the unique justice needs of Northern Uganda, JRP’s Documentation department   found that truth-telling forms a central part of some reconciliatory ceremonies. In this article, mato oput and moyo kum specifically are examined vis-à-vis their role in truth-telling and the JLOS proposed transitional justice policy in Northern Uganda.

 In July 2012, Uganda’s Justice Law and Order Sector (JLOS) proposed the formulation of a national truth-telling process to be informed by community-driven truth-telling processes at the regional, community, and/or local level. (Justice Law and Order Sector, “Implementation of the Recommendations of the Traditional Justice  and Truth-telling Study Recommendations”). The national transitional justice policy is expected by the end of 2012.  As we wait for this policy to be elaborated, it is important to note how traditional mechanisms are filling the current gap and providing an important avenue for truth-telling in affected communities in the north.

Traditional Acholi justice and reconciliation mechanisms such as mato oput and the myriad of cleansing ceremonies all involve aspects of truth-telling. Mato oput is generally performed in cases of accidental or intentional killing to reconcile the clans of the parties involved. Truth-telling is a key first step toward reconciliation, usually taking the form of negotiations. (The Mato Oput Project, “Community Perspectives on the Mato Oput Process: A Research Study by the Mato Oput Project,” 2009, 35 ). Elders are enlisted as mediators and engage in shuttle diplomacy between the two clans to establish the facts of what occurred.

In one study of mato oput, 59% of respondents remarked that such negotiations were a key aspect of mato oput as practiced in their village and one respondent noted, “Negotiations are at the root of mato oput in order to arrive at a common understanding and to encourage commitment to reconciliation.” (The Mato Oput Project, 14) During this initial step, witnesses from both sides are invited to share what they know until all can agree on what took place. There is no timeline for this process and it can often take years.  Once the truth has been established, compensation is decided upon and the elaborate mato oput ceremony takes place.

Each side is required to provide materials for the ceremony, from goats and sheep to new calabashes, kwete (local brew), and roots from the oput tree. Though the specifics of mato oput differ across clans, they all share the same general principles of voluntariness, mediation of truth, acknowledgment of wrongdoing and reconciliation.  The ceremony itself generally involves ritual killing of sheep or goats, the sharing of a large meal, and drinking of kwete mixed with the oput. The ceremony as a whole symbolizes the end of bitterness between the two groups and the restoration of relations.  It hinges on the perpetrator’s admittance of guilt during the negotiation (truth-telling) phase and the victim’s willingness to forgive.

Traditional ceremonies such as moyo kum (cleansing of the body), laketeket (cleansing a person of a bad spirit that disturbs them – similar to moyo kum, it can be done for a group or individual) and moyo piny (cleansing of an area) that are intended to cleanse bad spirits also involve elements of truth-telling. In order to determine the appropriate type of cleansing ceremony, traditional elders and ceremony performers must first determine the truth about the atrocity committed. When ex-combatants return to their families from the LRA, a trusted family member often sits down with them during the first days and weeks of return and tries to determine what took place in the bush.

One returned LRA fighter explained, “I shared the experience with my parents, because when I came back, a month after my parents had to put me down and ask me, ‘You are from the bush, you need to tell us what you experienced from there. Because could be that you might have killed, and we believe the spirits are following you, so let us know what happened to you in the bush so we see what to do.’” (Male respondent, age 24, individual interview, Lapul sub-county, 15 June 2012)..

Because the consequences of violating Acholi taboos on killing and mistreating dead bodies can extend to the whole clan, family members often take collective responsibility for initiating a process of truth-telling in order to prevent spiritual retaliation.

A detailed account of the atrocity is necessary in order to ensure that the ceremony adequately appeases that spirit of the victim. Even if this account does not come from the returnee himself, it will often be revealed when the ceremony performer consults the angry spirit in order to determine its specific demands. One ceremony participant described, “The elders and other traditional leaders took me to the ajwaka (traditional healer) where I was questioned to explain what actually took place while I was in the bush. So I explained it. Then at the ajwaka’s place, I was made to go through the process of moyo kom, where a goat was killed for cleansing me from those bad experiences.”( Female respondent, age 35, focus group discussion, Paicho sub-county, 19 April 2012.) Although the act of truth-telling exists as part of a larger spiritual cleansing process, it is an integral first step to that process.

By and large people feel that the process of establishing the truth is one of the most important aspects of reconciliation through traditional measures. That said, people are not able to engage with traditional ceremonies as widely as they would like. The long period of war caused a decline in Acholi culture and the youth in particular lack the knowledge to engage with traditional mechanisms. However, since 1999 a strong push for cultural revival has been underway, starting with the restoration of the traditional chiefs (Rwodi). Communities have since been slowly making use of the traditional ceremonies. The primary impediment to engaging in traditional ceremonies, particularly mato oput, has to do with the high cost of materials and compensation. In addition, in the context of war atrocities, it is often difficult to know who the perpetrator was and what clan he/she came from. Despite these issues, people are eager to make use of traditional ceremonies and have “made numerous pragmatic, creative suggestions about adapting [traditional ceremonies] in order to address the unique needs and changes of war.” (The Mato Oput Project, 5.)

As JLOS puts in place a transitional justice policy for Uganda, it is important to consider the role which traditional ceremonies could play in furthering the goals of truth-telling at the local level. Traditional measures can be complementary to state efforts and serve the purpose of fostering healing and reconciliation in addition to truth-telling. ▪

Vicki Esquivel-Korsiak is a Documentation Officer with JRP’s Community Documentation Department. For more information on women and youth experiences with traditional justice see: “Gender and Generation in Acholi Traditional Justice Mechanisms,” JRP, Field Note XVII.