YOLRED Hosts Annual Cultural Celebration to Promote Healing

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By Geoffrey Omony
Global Gather Fellow, Uganda

In Acholi, song and dance are fundamental parts of cultural heritage. They are used to retell important historical events as well as critique and pass on cultural knowledge from one generation to the next. With over 10 types of dances, the Acholi had a particular dance for almost every ceremony. They performed Bwola dance for the royals, Larakaraka and Ajere for courtship, Otole as war dance, and Myel Lyel for funerals. Other Acholi dances include Ayije, Dingidingi, Nanga, Acut, Okojo, Lacukucuku and Myel Jok. Apart from the dances, the Acholi also had a rich tradition of reconciliation (mato oput) which was widely used to settle misunderstandings and bring justice to the people.

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However, this rich bank of cultural norms came to the verge of extinction due to the nearly two decades of insurgency in northern Uganda which disconnected families and limited space for cultural practices. The new generation of Acholi can barely sing, dance or perform any of the cultural norms, either because they don’t know how to do it or they have been caused to believe that those practices are evil and dirty.

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But not all hope is lost as yet. Youth Leaders for Restoration and Development (YOLRED) is standing with the people to save their culture from extinction. Annually, YOLRED organises Community Festivals in which various groups of music, dance and drama artists gather to showcase their talents and compete for a prize. While these festivals are targeted at serving former victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as a form of therapy, they also help as platforms for exhibition of cultural dances, practices and promotion.

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On December 18, YOLRED held the third and 2019 Community Festival at the Palm Gardens and Restaurant in Gulu, northern Uganda. At least four groups participated in the event, where they exhibited Bwola, Myel Lyel, Dingi-dingi and Aguma (Ayije) dances, instrumentals and drama with messages advocating for peace, reconciliation and ending of domestic, gender-based violence.

As early as 8 O'Clock in the morning, sections of the participants had already started trickling in to the venue with their instruments. Travelling aboard trucks, the artists carried with them large saucepans, drums, calabashes, bow harps, thumb pianos, animal skins, beads, bird feathers, among other instruments and costumes for their performances.

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Soon, Local Council members, religious leaders, journalists, adjudicators, the Acholi cultural institution representative and spectators joined. The event started with welcome speeches from the chairperson, Local Council One and YOLRED leaders before the performances.

And when the artists finally stormed the stage, cheers, ululations and immeasurable excitement characterised the crowd. From the drama, to the instrumentals and the dances, all the teams showed high level of competition. For some reason, the crowd seemed not to get enough of the performances. They went into wild ululations, asking for more at the end of every performance. When the teams finally concluded, speaker after speaker showered them with praises.

“I am so glad that you are giving our people the chance to see and feel what the true Acholi culture is like. From what I saw today, I am encouraged today that the Acholi culture is not yet extinct. When I die, I want the kind of dance I saw here to be performed at my funeral, not the music systems that have dominated our ceremonies today,” Mrs. Rosalva Oywa, a social activist said.

Mrs. Poline Lukwai, the deputy Mayor of Gulu Municipality, said she was extremely excited by the unity, organisation and problem solving messages in the plays.

“I am so proud of you, YOLRED for picking up our culture and bringing it forward. This is a great challenge to our cultural institution and I want to ask the representative of the Ker Kwaro Acholi to go back and tell the Paramount Chief and his cabinet that this event that YOLRED has started needs to be supported in order to bring more people on board from all corners of Acholi,” Mrs. Lukwai said.

She urged the artists and everyone else in attendance to take serious the messages passed in the songs, dances and drama, and use them to ensure that peace reigns in society starting with their individual households.

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Sheik Musa Khelil, the YOLRED's Patron, said culture is very important because it sets uniqueness and create identity of a people.

“A person without culture is like a bird which wings have been plucked. I am therefore, so happy that this event is fronting the Acholi culture. If only donors knew, and if only they could come and witness this event, they would know that YOLRED is the right organisation to be supported,” Sheik Kelil said.

The adjudicators, represented by Ms. Grace Aber, said the event revealed how rich the Acholi culture was, and also reminded people of the need to guard against and preserve the culture.

Mr. Emmanuel Ochora Lagedo, the deputy Prime Minister at the Ker Kwaro Acholi who represented the cultural institution, said while YOLRED said the Community Festival was meant for restoration of the Acholi culture, he viewed it as cultural development and not just restoration.  “This programme is developing our culture, not just restoring it,” Lagedo said.

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He said everyone in attendance had learned a lot from what they saw and he hoped that they would return home and reflect on whatever they were not doing right as far as the Acholi culture was concerned.

Mr. Geoffrey Omony, the YOLRED Programme Director, said as an organization, they were moved to start the programme by the need they saw, resulting from the nearly two decades of insurgency in northern Uganda that devastated both the people and their culture.
Mr. Omony said through the festivals, they identify groups that they subsequently support to economically empower the members, irrespective of their academic and social backgrounds.

He said while YOLRED is interested in bringing more groups to the festival, it is incapacitated financially. But they were hopeful that more groups would be brought on board someday.

The 2019 festival was held under the theme: Performing Art Therapy for Community Transformation.

 

This article was written by YOLRED's Douglas Olum who was formerly abducted and forcibly conscripted into the Lord’s Resistance Army.

YOLRED shares its deep appreciation to Arigatou International and the Goldin Institute's global network of supporters, especially Board member Thomas Hinshaw, for providing the support to make this annual celebration possible.

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