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Gathering of the tribe: a year on at Lango Conference 2012

John Otim

Just days before Christmas 2012 there took place in the northern city of Lira (Uganda) a gathering of the tribe. The Langi, a major nationality group in Uganda numbering some 3 million converged on the war ravaged city from all corners of the land and from around the world. Decades of conflicts in Uganda had produced a disproportionately large Lango Diaspora. 

Once in Lira the delegates planned to confront the critical issue of development in the second decade of the 21st century for their backward but once prosperous region head on. How might a disadvantaged community propel itself forward by its own bootstraps? Were its attitudes to women blocking progress? What is the role of the family and the place of children within it?

Three days later by the time the last word was uttered at the conference hall in the city’s technical college, if nothing else, the conference had shown that the formerly much abused entity of tribe is alive and well in Africa. Despite the many recent histories of turbulence and mayhem across Africa replete with nasty tribal connotations, the tribe in Africa is alive in a real and positive way. And it could soon become the springboard to development rather the roadblock it is thought to be.

In Lango land the clan system, once a powerful a social tool that exerted control and influence is back again. Each of the 152 clans has a recognized clan head called the Awitong, meaning literally the head of the spear. The Awitong, always a distinguished individual, rises to his position through a combination of selection and election. In a still patriarchal society the Awitong is invariably a man. How long this arrangement might last given the tremendous push now exerted by women of Lango is not certain.

The clan is the custodian of history of customs and of tradition but today the clan is also the instrument of change, progress and development. In many instances the clan today takes off from where government and other institutions of society for one reason or another cease to be of much use. There are people who think that the clan should do more. They argue that the clan should become a kind of super nongovernmental organization pushing for economic development and social reforms, the equivalent in America of local and neighborhood organizations. In this mode the clan would according to James Nyankori operate as a kind of cooperative and in the words of Joseph Opio become the driving force for: people led, people funded, and people managed local development.

It was in this spirit of hope and a new sense of purpose that the all Lango Conference assembled in postwar Lira after 20 years of devastation that brought the region almost to its knees, to review the turbulence of the recent past and to chart the way ahead in a new Uganda, in which as a nationality the Langi (plural for Lango) need no longer be, as in the last 40 years of independence, the object of vilification, victimization, and marginalization by whosoever.

As would be expected of a people just emerging out of long years of depression, delegates invoked the tribe’s rich history along with its galore of past glories. It made them feel good. They recalled the time when the tribe’s military forces could hold at bay, at least for a while, the mighty forces of British colonialism, and in the process accord refuge to two of the most powerful kings in the whole of East and Central Africa. The Kabaka Mwanga of Buganda and the Omukama Kabalega of the ancient kingdom of Bunyoro Kitara as the two fled the advancing forces of imperialism in the closing years of the 19th century.

The past of the Langi was a past that in the second half of the 20th century saw the tribe become a force to reckon with in Uganda and beyond.

The Langi occupied an enviable leadership position in Uganda in politics in economics and most of all in athletics and football where its athletes and its players frequently made up as much as half of the national squad. John Akii Bua, the only Uganda World record holder to date and its first Olympic gold medalist was a Lango man. The craftsman turned soldier, John Okello, the man that made the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964 was a Lango man. Milton Obote, the man that led his country to independence was a Lango man.

It would be easy to accuse the Langi of being a people who love to dwell in their past glories. Be that as it may, the delegates at the great gathering of the tribe had their eyes firmly fixed on the present and on the future they wished to make for themselves, for their children and for their country. They envisioned it as the future of peace, unity and prosperity in Uganda and across Africa.

But they recognized that the past was the father of the present, especially the past of the last 20 years of suffering in which the tribe, a cattle herder people, lost amongst other things its most prized possession. Suddenly in the year 1986 it lost is teeming heads of cattle, the economic mainstay of the tribe. In a matter of weeks these seized in broad daylight and driven away by armed invaders who marauded at will in the region.

Now the delegates were instructing that the tribe should pull together and organize; should direct efforts at the things that count and bring about progress in education, in health, in food and agriculture and in economic activities generally. They were demanding that government provide the enabling environment and put in place such infrastructures as good roads, rail services, electricity and other amenities, nearly all of which were present in the region in the past.

A year on from the great gathering, the carefully drawn out plans of action and resolutions are gathering dust. The one significant area of progress is the emergence of the new Lira University College on the Bala campus.

The gathering of the tribe or the Lango Lira Conference was full of generalities about what ought to be done: improve education, it said. Improve health, and provide better nutrition. But the conference was short on details about what exactly needed to be done and how to go about it.

It is true Lango society today has advanced beyond what it was in December 2012 let alone what it had been five years ago. Anybody who today travels through Lango land can see that there has been progress: in habitation, in agriculture and in commerce and trade. But in the critical areas of health and education they have been no discernable developments. The schools are just as awful, the failure rate just as high, while the available hospitals and healthcare centers remain the disaster zones they were five years ago.

Professor William Boto of Ochan Self-help Alliance believes all this could easily change for the better and has called for a review of the 2012 Lango development agenda to work in a detailed plan of action.