HUMANITIES AT LARGE Jackman Humanities Institute Blog 26 October 2017
Letha Victor introduced her JHI project on spiritual pollution in northern Uganda by reflecting on the recent history of northern Uganda, on that history’s relevance to our theme of ‘indelible violence’, and on her entry points to sustained conversations with people there, and the broad questions that animate her research. Over the last decade, she has focused her research on the Acholi sub-region of the North, which is the home of about 1.47 million people, or about 4% of the Ugandan population as a whole. What is now Uganda was a protectorate of the British Empire from 1894 to 1962, and as in other outposts of the Empire, a strategy of divide and rule was employed by the administrators, which served to establish and then inflame a North/South divide and an accompanying set of political grievances that persist today. At present, three quarters of the Acholi populace lives in rural areas of the North, practicing subsistence farming in patrilocal village groupings, while the remaining quarter reside in the main towns of Gulu and Kitgum. In reality, most people have a “foot in town, and a foot in the village,” and so too does she when she’s been there. But when she first went to northern Uganda ten years ago, that reality was actually, “a foot in the camp, a foot in town, and maybe a toe or two in the village.”
Gulu Town. Photo credit: Letha Victor, 2013
This dispersal was due to war and forced displacement. After the Ugandan civil war ended in 1986 with the victory of the National Resistance Army/Movement, led by Yoweri Museveni (who today remains President), a new series of rebel movements began in different parts of the country. In the North, the most sustained and infamous eventually became known as the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, led by a man called Joseph Kony. The LRA followed closely on the heels of a group called the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces, which had failed in its ultimate goal to crush the southern-based Ugandan government and usher in a new type of Christian Acholi society, free of witchcraft and cen (ghostly vengeance). That group, the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces, was purportedly led by the spirit of a deceased Italian military general called Lakwena, who gave instructions through the body of the person he possessed, a young Acholi woman called Alice Auma. When Alice and the Holy Spirit Movement were defeated by government forces in 1987, a man called Joseph Kony claimed that Lakwena, amongst other spirits, was now possessing him. Northern Uganda was thus politically unstable and rife with low-level conflict from the late 80s until 2006 — or at least unstable in a different way in comparison to the colonial and immediate post-colonial eras. As popular support for rebellion waned early on, the LRA took to abducting recruits to fill its ranks and to looting to supply them. Many other scholars and researchers have written about the abductions of tens of thousands of Acholi youth and their lives in the LRA and, for many, about their lives after return to civilian life. The atrocities committed in norther Uganda prompted the International Criminal Court conducted its first ever investigations in northern Uganda, and in 2005 they unsealed warrants for five LRA commanders, charged with a litany of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Three of those five commanders have since died, Joseph Kony is still at large, and the final, Dominic Ongwen, is currently on trial in The Hague. In addition, from the mid 90s until 2006, the Government of Uganda forced residents into insecure, squalid, and underserved internally displaced persons camps. By 2005, 90% of the population of Gulu District (Acholi’s centre) was confined to camp life. Though the Government called them “protected villages,” this term was a misnomer. In reality, the camps exacerbated insecurity and added significantly to everyday suffering, deaths from communicable diseases, malnutrition, alcoholism, and interpersonal violence. Civilian movement was severely restricted and residents were dependent on food aid, as they were not permitted to go home and tend their fields. Civilians caught outside the camp boundaries by the government army were treated as rebels and risked death and torture, and civilians caught outside by the rebels were treated as government sympathizers and risked the same. The camps served to concentrate resources for the LRA, and so they were targeted for raids and reprisals against residents for their perceived disloyalty. An entire generation of youth was raised in the camps, and normative modes of cultural transmission between elders and youth broke down in those conditions. The LRA and the Government of Uganda agreed to a ceasefire in August of 2006 and spent two years negotiating a peace settlement across the border in Juba. During this period, Letha was hired as a researcher for an initiative called the Justice and Reconciliation Project, whose Ugandan and Canadian research team was inspired by the fierce debates around justice that were provoked by the ICC’s controversial intervention, by the fact that victim and perpetrator are often the same person in northern Uganda, by attempts to integrate formerly abducted persons into civilian life, and a whole host of other issues. Letha therefore assisted Ugandan colleagues in the documentation of massacres, in producing advocacy reports for the Juba talks, and in recording the narratives of abducted youth, particularly young mothers who came back to their home communities, only to be rejected by them. The talks failed at the 11th hour when Kony twice failed to show up to sign the final agreement, but the ceasefire has held and the LRA is no longer in the country. Letha herself went back to Acholi as a Master’s student, and wrote her MA thesis (in Anthropology at McGill University) about the experiences of those young women in the LRA and about their lives after return. Today, northern Uganda is best described not so much as at peace, but as absent of war. Letha went into her Master’s project from a perspective broadly based in an anthropology of law, which felt natural given the saturation of transitional justice rhetoric throughout northern Uganda, the polarity of the debate over so-called international versus so-called local justice (often articulated in the vernacular as “modernity” versus “tradition”), and the enormity of the humanitarian machine that had descended upon Acholi in the space of only a few years. Although those issues still remain deeply relevant, Letha came out the other end of her MA field work with different intellectual priorities. Consistently, her Acholi interlocutors—friends, “informants,” acquaintances—expressed their needs and desires to get on with the everyday business of living, of the immanent necessity to navigate the moral landscapes of crises that are chronic, but still quotidian and understated. These problems are not necessarily all rooted in war or recent violence, but they are inflected by them. These chronic crises are manifold, but Letha was particularly interested in the ones that aroused questions about the lives of humans in relation to the world of spirits. She witnessed people, of different walks of life and varied experiences, asking themselves questions such as:
Why is my child always sick? Is it because I fought with another woman at the well?
Why am I haunted by the apparitions of the dead? Is it because I stepped on their bones in the bush?
Why does my classmate get more juice than me at tea time? Is it because she has pledged her soul to Satan?
Why are our children seemingly possessed, rolling around on the floor of their classroom? Is it because of the massacres that happened at the school during the war?
What might happen next? What should we do about it?
These are the sorts of questions that popped up over and over in Acholi. Since first learning about the LRA, Letha had been interested in the “spiritual” or “cosmological” aspects of warfare in Uganda—namely how non-human or dead human forces have been harnessed to achieve military goals, discipline soldiers, and wreak havoc on enemies. While the “spiritual” practices and factors of spirit possession in the LRA are, in many senses unique and violent, they did not emerge out of a cultural vacuum, and they are not, contrary to frequent journalistic assumptions, the bizarre inventions of a raving madman. Neither are ordinary problems with haunting, possession, sickness, the unexplained or the uncanny, understood by Acholi as automatically indicative of psychopathology. So when Letha went back to northern Uganda for her doctoral fieldwork in 2013, she wanted to know how people understand, speak of, and interact with the human shadows of the dead and a host of other non-human spirits that are neither ghosts nor ancestors; to think about why some dead people are ghosts and why some dead people are ancestors; to know why some bodies are buried at home and others are left in the wilderness, how the mass death and mass taboo-breaking of war has inflected people’s ordinary lives, and how relationships between the living and the dead and the human and the extra-human might be cultivated, manipulated, rejected, denied, or forged anew. And so, Letha went to places like Atiak sub-country, where rumours of “dirty things”—the often ill-defined, uncanny occurrences, sometimes attributed to ghosts—affect day-to-day life. During the most recent war, Atiak was a flashpoint in the conflict between the government army and the LRA, partly because of its proximity to LRA bases in South Sudan. But it is also the area from which its onetime second-in-command hailed, where residents have been deeply divided along political lines for the last century, and where several large-scale massacres, perpetrated by different parties, have left their indelible mark on the community. Long before this latest war, Atiak was an autonomous chiefdom, a waypoint for ivory and slave traders from Sudan, a marginal outpost under Anglo-Egyptian rule, part of the Protectorate of Uganda, and the site of an early 20th-century Roman Catholic mission. The mission’s school is itself is at the centre of what was for two decades an overcrowded, underserved, and insecure camp. Atiak camp was the site of public and semi-hidden extrajudicial killings in the 1990s and early 2000s, including an incident in which government soldiers are alleged to have tied up a known witch-hunter on a playground goal post in the camp’s centre, and then executed him. This happened in front of the large crowd which had gathered that day to collect food aid from a European-based humanitarian organization. His body, she was told by witnesses, was disposed of in a nearby pit latrine. This was surely not a good death. A good death in Acholi, as elsewhere, happens at home to an elderly person who has lived a long life and produced many children and grandchildren, who in turn provide adequate filial devotion to the body both before and after death. A bad death may be premature, may occur far from home, may be violent, or may involve the desecration—intentional or not—of a body. The body’s shadow (or “soul”), unable to rest, has the potential to become an angry and vengeful ghost, cen, tormenting the living with sickness, madness, ill fortune, and even death, until its grievances are satisfactorily addressed and its ritual demands have been met. Cen will attack living persons for several reasons. Most dramatically, a person may become “infected” with cen if he or she perpetrates or witnesses the violent death of another, if she or he desecrates a cadaver or stumbles upon human remains and fails to care for them in an appropriate way. But a living person’s intentions are not as relevant as his or her actions, and consequently the simple act of being a bystander—or in fact the child or grandchild of a bystander—may also provoke cen. To have cen is to be dangerously contagious, and so a person or family haunted by it, or just suspected of being haunted by it, may be ostracized from social and public life. Cen can lie quiet for years and even generations after a death. As such, the very reproduction of families and clans requires that cen be addressed communally. But how to determine whether or not a dirty thing is cen or something else — say, Satan— is a point of serious contention, and it follows that how to address the problem is equally contentious and caught up in competitions for ritual, moral, and political authority. It is fair to say that the last ten years of social science scholarship about and increasingly from within Acholi has produced a very particular type of knowledge and self-knowledge, concentrated primarily within testimonial-style narratives about egregious suffering and harm wrought by war. Where cosmology has figured in the analysis—primarily in discussions of people haunted by war ghosts—the implicit assumption (particularly in transitional justice literature) has tended to be that people are motivated to repair pre-existing and damaged relationships with humans once alive but now dead. The narrative form follows a fairly paradigmatic plot: A person, usually a young former combatant, is haunted by frightening visions and unexplained sickness. He or she seeks the counsel of an elder or a spirit medium, who questions the person to determine the source of the cen. They determine that the sufferer witnessed or perpetrated a violent death or the desecration of a corpse, and it follows that the spirit of that person is causing the problems. They arrange a cleansing ritual and/or a sacrificial rite to appease the offended spirit. This redresses spiritual imbalance and promotes reconciliation between the families of the deceased victim and the living perpetrator.
An ajwaka (spirit medium) displays his gagi (cowrie shells and other ritual paraphernalia). Photo credit: Letha Victor, 2014.
This story is “true,” but it is not the only story to be told of cosmological pollution and response. The figure of the self-traumatized perpetrator—the child soldier—has especially garnered sustained and fascinated attention from those looking in, and the more-general trope of Acholi as “war-torn” has been taken up by many residents themselves in the interests of subjective legibility. The shame of not being able to take care of one’s kids without aid, of abandoning the care of one’s ancestral shrine, of leaving land untilled and school fees unpaid, of not being “self-sufficient,” the shame of intervention itself is occluded when the war-wound is the only object for adjudication. This is once more the intersection of the emotional and capital economy that JHI Faculty Research Fellow Emily Gilbert has written about, but here the affect also intersects with a therapeutic citizenship that purports to be “culturally appropriate.” In this frame, one cannot be tortured by malevolent demons, because that is the language of an insensitive and long-passed age of European missionaries. One’s children cannot be distressed by the manifestations of neglected ancestors, because the ancestors were not violently murdered by the children themselves. In this frame, ritual never fails, whether it is administered by a doctor of the biomedical kind or the “witch” kind. The many-handed construction of a particular type of injured self, with specific rights and responsibilities, the outcome of temporally-contained acts of violence, is entangled within certain logics about (supposedly discrete) categories of experience in which people understand themselves and other forces to exist. This type of subject, so the logic goes, must be either religious or secular, traditional or modern, forgiving or war-mongering, cultural or cosmopolitan, a victim or a perpetrator, a believer in the supernatural or a believer in science. In the suffering-focused gaze of this diffuse liberal and juridical intervention, there is no room for doubt, for shame that goes off-script, or for the traversing of epistemological boundaries that in fact happens regularly. Letha therefore seeks to elucidate in her work, how people in Acholi understand their own challenges, and how they confront them through time, in the light (or darkness) of “dirty things.” In her thesis, she describes lived experiences that exceed the limits of language or knowledge, which is to say human life in a particular time and place. Her interests lie (in the language of phenomenological anthropologist Michael Jackson) in the “border situations" of existential uncertainty, in the oscillation between “life as lived” and those (insufficient) concepts that make life intelligible. She asks, following the work of Michael Lambed, how people “live that gap” between what they say and what they do, how they address contingencies and challenges, and how ordinary life forces the exercise of judgment, often in the face of passion and irony (in the sense of not knowing one’s own self — such as in the case of spirit possession). In this way, Lambek has argued, underdeterminism is the existential condition. We are always in an interval, an aporia, but what do we do about it? All of this is to say that spirits, be they living or dead, human or extra-human, are subjunctive. They are not factual beings, objectively known, they are not clearly defined and composed. They have unclear intentions, desires, and beliefs, and their purposes are often unknown even to themselves. Something might happen, a latent force could haunt, a dead shadow might speak through the mouth of a living child. A revenant has the potential to burst forth from the past and demand the transformation of time, place, and being.