African Legend of Origin in Tom Omara’s Exodus

John Otim
John Otim: Editor of Nile Journal, Poet, Novelist, Critic.




The little known piece of epic is the work of a young writer published in 1972. In the light of what happened in Africa in the decades that followed, Tom Omara’s The Exodus  was remarkably prescient and it is full of reverberations for the politics of today.

It was Ali Mazrui who called Africa the Garden of Eden in decay. In Tom Omara's play we encounter a Garden of Eden still in pristine form. And we watch as things begin to fall apart. The location is a fairyland a stone throw away from the magic land of the  Murchison Falls, one of the prettiest and most powerful water falls in the world.

According to local legend the first man that ever lived descended from the heavens and landed here. Where you can hear the mighty Nile blast its way through rocks so ancient and gorges so narrow you would think you could leap across and touch dry ground on the other side. The ancient Acholi who lived here thought so.

A grand symphony of insects is playing. Occasionally the awesome roar of the mighty lion shutters the harmony and the peace of the night. At such moment time stood still. All sounds but the trumpet of the King, ceased.

On this paradise by the river, night has fallen. The First Man and his family are gathered around the fireplace, in the open air under moon and star lights so bright you could read a book. In our own day, till the war came and emptied the land and drove the descendants of the First Man into concentration camps where they perished in numbers, this was a scenario still common place in northern Uganda. Today local folks still  talk about those good old days.

According to Acholi legend, long, long ago, when the world was new and the earth was empty, the Molder or the Nameless One, parachuted the First Man and placed him by the great River under the steady sprinkles of the raging waters. There for years, the First Man lived and prospered, lord of all that his eyes beheld. There he grew a family and founded a clan. Long after he was dead and buried his great granddaughter gave birth to triplets, all boys, Labongo, Gipir, and Gipul. Out of the brothers sprang all the people that live in the world today.

Time passed! Generation after generation came and went. Tom Omara locates the world of the Exodus in the middle of the 18th century well before the European scramble for Africa began. As the play opens we are at the fireside, where the First Man and his family would have been. Stories and tales fly. Kids are in their elements.

Excited and excitable youth  churn out tale after tale to a receptive and indulgent audience of adults. Many of the tales have a familiar ring. But once in a while an uncle or auntie breaks the youthful monopoly of the evening with a stirring new story that no one had heard before. In those days at such moments all competitions stopped. Everyone is ears. Who can talk when the gods are speaking?

In Omara's Exodus such a moment arrives.

“Tell me my children”, it is the familiar baritone of the much admired uncle. “Tell me tonight whether it is true that we today in Acholiland, whether we people east of this mighty river, this Nile, think of those living to the west or south of the river as brothers.” A pregnant question! One that people in several African countries might ask of themselves even today.

 Consider the gist that the Nile at the Karuma Bridge marks the single most important boundary in Africa south of the Sahara. Africa is full of boundaries. It happened that Karuma Bridge is near the spot where the First Man landed. It happened that for nearly the last thirty years the Karuma Bridge has been under armed guards who check everyone who crosses the Nile. Such a spot of beauty! One may not tarry and indulge one‘s self! No photography!

This is the boundary that in Tom Omara's play symbolizes the predicament of Africa. Is my neighbor my brother or my enemy? In northern Nigeria under the spell of the deadly Boko Haram the answer is enemy. In Kenya the day after the 2007 general elections in which thousands were massacred, the answer is enemy. In Mali even before the Tuareg rebellion that cut the country in two, the answer is enemy. In many parts of Africa the answer is enemy!

But in the play a kid has a different answer. “Why should we not be like brothers?” He challenges.  Everyone turns to look at him. Tom Omara puts this on the lips of a kid. Nelson Mandela would have agreed even as Robert Mugabe probably would not.

 “Ah, ah, ah!” laughs the uncle, “does this mean you do not know the story of the beginning!”

“No we don’t! Tell us Uncle. We want to know.” Young voices clamor.

“The story of the beginning? Yes I know it!” cries one kid.

“That’s my man!” Uncle is delighted. “Tell them my son, tell your brothers and your sisters. Tell your generation what your mothers should have told you!”

So began the evening with the story of the Spear and the Bead; which is the story of the beginning. But the story of the beginning is also the story of the calamity that befell a society through the action of its leaders.

Rather than simply recite the story the children at the fireside decides to enact the drama of the tragedy. Tradition demanded they open the play by singing the anthem of calamity. And so they do. A moving and more heart wrenching song there never was.

Can na! can na! Wilobo Mumiya
Can na! can na! Wilobo Mumiya
Atima ango ci! Anga makonya
Adok kwene! Anga makonya

And so now the story of the Spear and the Bead unfolds. The two Lwo brothers quarrel over Labongo's Ancestral Spear that Gipir in an emergency, hurled after a marauding elephant in the fields. The elephant disappears with the spear still stuck to its body. Labongo wants his spear back, will not accept a replacement! Ancestral Spears are not negotiable!

Gipir is compelled at great perils to his life to roam through forests infested with wild animals in search of Labongo's spear. Three long years go by and Gipir is not back. People fear he is dead eaten by wild beasts. After much hardship, with the help of a friendly spirit of the forest, Gipir recovers the lost spear and returns home alive. But he is a man consumed with rage for what he has suffered.

Time passes, calm and peace return between the brothers. The community prospers. When one day Labongo’s young daughter accidentally swallows a piece of royal beads that a kindly spirit of the forest had given Gipir and bade him not to part with. Despite Labongo’s pleas Gipir would not accept a replacement. Gifts from the gods are not negotiable!

The die is cast. Dark clouds hung over the land. With a knife Labongo rips open the belly of his own daughter and restores Gipir's lost bead. Women are in tears! The community is devastated.

Admittedly the two brothers faced a difficult situation. At great costs to themselves and particularly to their community they fail to rise to the occasion and respond and act humanely. There are many African parallels. Think of Laurent Gbagbo and Alassan Qwattera in the Ivory Coast.

Only in the death of the totally innocent kid do the brothers wake up to the enormity of the horror their own deeds had wrought. They could not live together anymore. They make a vow to split and never to meet again except as enemies on the battle field. Gipir and his followers cross the Nile to the west bank. Labongo and his people remain on the east bank. Today in the 21st century within the same country armed soldiers guard a crossing on the Nile.

Tell me my children. Tell me tonight whether it is true that we today, whether it is true that we people east of this mighty river, think of those living to the west or south of it as brothers

It was the genius of Tom Omara that he took a well known Acholi legend that he knew from his childhood days at Anaka near Murchison Falls, and clothed it in the theatrical garb of the stage. For a sixteen year old still in high school, who watched the gala opening of his play at the grand Makerere University Main Hall, it was a remarkable achievement. Professor David Cook of the Department of English, who introduced the young playwright to the University audience, later deservedly anthologized the work in the collection Short East African Plays.

The day after the successful performance of his play on the stage of his own school at King's College Budo near Kampala, Tom Omara vanished like thin air never to be seen again. No official investigations were launched. No reports of his disappearance were filled. The Garden of Eden was truly in decay.

*Oh sad sorrow filled world
oh sad sorrow filled world
what do I do, who will help me
where do I go, who will help me