Joy and sorrows of Acholiland in war torn Northern Uganda

Daneen Peterson
Daneen Peterson: worked in Gulu 2010-2011,  now lives in Kenya where she and her husband are involved with Christ’s Gift Academy ( and Suba Lakers Girls Football Club (





Thunder blasts grow louder and more frequent. Peals of lightning illumine the darkening sky. The sun is setting in shades of red, orange and yellow; a marvel to look at.  Across the flat plains of Northern Uganda you can see storms approaching from a far. The grass is still surprisingly green but the dust from three months of the dry season has become unbearable. The approach of rain is a joy. 

I am on the pillion of a taxi motor bike. The local name for this mode of transportation is boda boda; translation: from border to border. In the days when the country was less stable, the motor cycle was a means of escape from danger, hence the name boda boda.

Red dust from the dirt road is everywhere. In a hapless bid to escape the dust I hide behind the broad back of Okello Loum, my favorite boda-boda driver. Loum is determinly chasing the clouds, in a bid to get me home before the pounding rain drenches us. But soon it is clear that it is useless to continue. We take shelter under the veranda of a primary school classroom. The much welcomed rain was not going away. Loum suggests we look for a better shelter.

We’re back on the boda boda riding through puddles. We reach an area with a few homes; we stop and enter a house. An old woman with a glowing smile welcomes me. From a large thermos she pours me a cup of tea, speaking only in her native Acholi. As the rainstorm dissipates to a drizzle, Loum drives me home.  He’s not just my boda boda taxi man; he’s a friend who takes pride in caring for my safety. 

This is the heart of Acholiland.  

Once a war torn town in northern Uganda, Gulu is now world famous.  When people hear of Gulu, they are quick to associate it with the Lord’s Resistance Army of Joseph Kony, with children night-commuting to town center to seek safety, with child soldiers and of course with Kony2012.  While these are fair and true associations, much is missed across the international news reportage.

Gulu is home to the Acholi people whose dances and music are some of the most colorful. The Acholi are an ethnic group within the Luo nation that migrated south from Bar el Ghazal along the Nile River. Throughout much of Uganda’s history, the Acholi people have been marginalized and Northern Uganda kept underdeveloped. The highway between Kampala and Gulu is beautifully paved until you cross the Nile River at the Karuma Bridge, the border between South and North in Uganda. After the steel bridge, almost instantly the tarmac disappears and the remaining 1 hour journey to Gulu becomes a challenge.

Despite the unpaved roads, the lack of stable or consistent electricity and the 25 years of war and conflict, Gulu is full of life, hope and beauty.  Next to their great gift of hospitality, what I find amazing about the Acholi is their ability to move on after the horrible tragedies they endured.

Outsiders like me can’t begin to comprehend the circumstances the Acholi lived through.  Yet the ready smiles on their faces will make you think they are the happiest people in the world.  Barefoot children find great joy in the ability to simply shake the hand of a stranger or a foreigner.  The friendly women in the market love it when I buy from them while speaking in my limited Acholi. Their prayers and praises are full of passion and belief that the Lord who carried them this far through their trials will see them through.

Throughout Acholiland there are hundreds of orphans from the war but few orphanages because extended family members are quick to accept the additional children as their own.  The Acholi hospitality is far above that of Western society and perhaps the most beautiful aspect of their culture. A mother, who might lack the ability to feed her family more than 1 meal a day, will ensure that any visitor receives at least tea or a soda, if not a full meal. It’s possible to show up at a friend’s house unannounced and they invite you in as if they had been waiting for you to arrive!

Over the past few years, Gulu and Acholiland have made great strides towards restoration and improving individual livelihoods. As a result of many NGO’s focused on long-term sustainability and not simply charity or aid, job opportunities have permitted many families to become self-sufficient. Secondary schools are working hard to achieve academic excellence. National and international banks are scattered on nearly every street corner in town.  Gulu and Acholiland are recovering..