Living With Bad Surroundings : War and Existential Uncertainty in Acholiland, Northern Uganda

University dissertation from Uppsala : Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis

Abstract: War has ravaged Acholiland in northern Uganda since 1986. The Ugandan army is fighting a rebel insurgency group called the Lord’s Resistance Movement/Army. The study describes a brutal pattern of war, as it unfolds from historical material as well as from informants’ contemporary stories, collected during three phases of fieldwork from 1997 to 2002. Several themes are brought up for discussion, such as the imperial inheritance and contested political history; the discrepancy between the rebels’ violent insurgency practices and their written manifestos; the army’s counterinsurgency tactics and internal mass displacement; and the role of rumours, cosmology, religion and morality in war. The study acknowledges today’s global interconnectedness. Traders in war machinery have considerably fuelled the war. In addition, structural adjustment programmes and humanitarian aid become entangled with local socio-political realities. The study explores the various ways people in Acholiland struggle to establish control and balance in quotidian life in a situation of ongoing civil war. While it has been postulated that some cultures or ethnic groups in essence are more prone to war than others, it is argued here that this is not a fruitful way of analysing cultural life. Rather, as the ethnography of the study shows, cultural life is a means by which people both engage and try to comprehend existentially the realities of war and violence, and also struggle continuously to build hope for the future. This makes culturally informed practices the main means through which war and its effects are interpreted and acted upon, something that sustains people in their experience of war in social life, making war and its multiple forms of violence routines among other routines in everyday life. At the same time, the study discusses the informants’ distress about the fixation of meaning to a limited set of cultural and ethnic stereotypes that propaganda of war and chauvinistic politics impose upon the local moral world and the national order of things. Guiding tools throughout the study are the Acholi concepts of piny marac and piny maber: “bad surroundings” and “good surroundings.”

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