UGANDA: Reconciliation rituals

21 May 2008
UGANDA: Reconciliation rituals

by Bob Holmes

Uganda is recovering from the violence of civil war. How does a victim community reconcile with those members who have done the killing?

Twenty years of war between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the government forces in Northern Uganda drove all the people off the land and into IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps. Now fragile peace talks are in process, resettlement on the land has begun and LRA soldiers are returning to their communities with amnesty. The LRA abducted many of the soldiers from these communities as children but they have committed horrible massacres. Is reintegration possible? How can justice prevail?

Bishop Baker Ochola II, retired Anglican bishop and member of the Acholi Religious Leaders Initiative, spoke to us of the traditional Acholi practice of transformative and restorative justice different from the Western perspectives of justice. The first step is truth telling. The offender must confess and accept responsibility for wrong done with no lies or deception. In the ritual, the wrongdoer has to name his father, mother, maternal uncle, etc. in the understanding that all have participated in the wrong and are asking forgiveness of the community.

The community then must forgive him/her. An egg is placed before the one who has confessed guilt. That person then steps on it to symbolize the destruction of the sanctity of life that has happened. The breaking of the egg that the community places before the offender also symbolizes that the community now shares that guilt and receives the one who has sinned back into the community. The offender makes some form of reparations, and then the offender and victim drink bitter liquid from the same calabash—because they have both tasted the bitterness of violence—to ritualize the peace. They make an oath that the offense will not happen again, which is binding for generations. The ritual ends with a shared meal.

The international community is calling for war crimes trials of the LRA leadership—a retributive justice system to punish those who have committed crimes against humanity. Ugandan religious leaders say, “No. Let us do this in the African way.” A UN Human Rights worker believes that while Acholi practice of transformative and restorative justice might work on the community level, the leaders of the LRA are not about to enter into “truth telling,” nor will the leaders of the Ugandan forces ever admit and accept responsibility for the many atrocities committed on their part.

Maybe both African and Western perspectives on justice are applicable—one on the community level and another for the leaders.