For several days, I thought about what gifts to present during my weekend visit to the chief of the Kabala clan. From experience, I knew the occasion would be highly ceremonial and that a typical guest would bring a couple of live chickens or a young goat.
I dreaded the thought. As a longtime vegetarian, I wasn’t fond of presenting animals for slaughter and perhaps most honesty, I’d developed a disdain for chickens that made the notion of a several hour motorcycle ride carrying the restless, squaking birds by their feet less than appealing.
Finally, I settled on a mix of local items and favorite American treats: Pader honey, sugar, and tea combined with coffee, popcorn, and packs of chewing gum my parents had sent from home. I boarded the motorbike hopeful that the chief would accept my inanimate offerings.
By late morning, after hours of motorbike travel on the pitted and puddled rainy season roads, I found myself at the base of a mountain surrounded by the lush greenery characteristic of Northern Uganda this time of year. While I was expecting a homestead of several mud-brick and grass circular huts, I found instead a four wall, small home with embellished windows and glass panes. The chief’s house, I would later learn, was a gift from the government of Uganda, an offering given to every chief of every clan in the country in recognition of their ceremonial and judicial significance.
Rwot Okot Francis Lafyet became chief in 1968, inheriting the position as the youngest son of his dying father. Long before Europeans came to Uganda, chiefs and kings ruled supreme in matters of material, judicial, and spiritual affairs. When disputes arose between clan members, chiefs were solely responsible for determining the truth and administering justice, often weighing material evidence alongside the readings of oracles. Today, the role of chief remains a mix of judge, spiritual leader, and sage.
For several hours, I sat upon a grass mat at the feet of Chief Okot listening to a description of his official duties which ranged from officiating over twin ceremonies (slaughtering a white goat and white hen and sprinkling the bodies of newborn twins with the blood as a blessing) to settling cases of murder (bringing together members of each clan and deciding the number of cattle that must be paid to the grieving family). As respected criminal arbiter and bestower of blessings, the chief received certain remunerations for his services. “That tree there, I can never pick from it myself. Others must bring me the fruit,” he told me, pointing in the distance to a mango tree with loaded branches. “I also must never dirty my hands working in my garden. It is to be the first planted every season and the first harvested, and the whole community contributes.”
Most fascinating to me was his historical account of the conflicts and wars that plagued his land during his 45 year governorship. First, there were the Karamojong, the warrior tribe inhabiting Northeast Uganda famous for cattle stealing and raids that often resulted in “bride prizes” and burnt Acholi huts. Chief Okot recounted three major conflicts with the Karamojong that began just after his coronation as chief, including one scuffle that resulted in the loss of his entire cattle herd, the mark of his once extensive wealth. “They left us completely poor,” he told me, “and we never recovered. As you see even now, I am a chief that cannot afford more than rags for my children or to welcome you with due honor.”
During the most recent protracted conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), chiefs played an important and unique role as peacekeepers. Respected by the Ugandan national military forces, civilians, as well as LRA militants, Chief Okot often found himself leaving the IDP camp to meet rebels “in the bush,” negotiating the return of abductees, relaying important information, and attempting to broker peace. “Many of those coming back from fighting would come to me first. I did cleansing ceremonies and sometimes arranged meetings with their victims’ families. Afterwards, they could be fully welcomed back into the community.”
With the patience one might expect of an elder and story teller, Chief Okot answered my questions one by one, using his son as a translator. After listening intently to stories about his role as chief, I couldn’t help but ask him to indulge me a little further. “Baba (Father), I have read many folktales through the years from throughout Africa, but I have yet to know of those most central to the Acholi tradition.” Chief Akot’s eyes sparkled as a wide, checkerboard smile spread across his face.
“Let me tell you the tale of the hare and the elephant,” he began. “We have so many stories about the hare.” For the next 30 minutes, I listened attentively from the mat at his feet as I heard how the hare tricked the elephant, lion, hyena and leopard in a series of clever maneuvers.
As the story drew to a close, the chief turned to me and asked if I would permit him to ask his own set of questions. He asked about my home, my family, the logic behind my names, and my experience in Uganda. “How would you compare life at home to life in this place? Why don’t you make your permanent home here?” I answered carefully but truthfully as I explained the major differences in social services between the two lands and the benefits and shortcomings I perceived in the two very different ways of life.
Satisfied by my answers, he told me it was time for us to take our lunch. With the guidance of one of his eighteen children, I was taken into the home, separated from the elders who would eat outside together.
We feasted on greens cooked with peanut butter, beans, and mashed white ants, a delicacy of which I could only bare the smallest taste. At the end of our meal, I returned to the mat outside, kneeled before the chief and presented him with my gifts. After he had accepted each one, he responded delightedly, “today, I am a rich man!”
Chief Okot blessed my journey and I bid his family farewell.
As I looked behind me from the seat of my motorbike, I thought of the life this man had traveled, from newly ordained chief, powerful and rich to where I met him today, sitting on the porch of his government-constructed home with few possessions, listening to stories of his leadership and sharing tales of my own. Though he had no phone or computer, the chief insisted I leave him with my contact details in the United States, hoping that we would someday share again.
A meal of mashed ants, beans, and greens with peanut butter.
Sitting with Chief Okot and one of his children.