The Spear and the Bead in Luo History and Culture

MacBaker Ochola
MacBaker Ochola, peace maker, retired Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Kitgum in Northern Uganda



The history of migrations and settlements of the Luo people in Northern Uganda had its share of trauma and tragedy. These have been preserved in archives of stories, proverbs, riddles and folklore. The lessons they impart have shaped Luo understanding of community, leadership, justice and fair play. Perhaps the most famous of the narratives is that of the separation of two Luo brothers: Labongo and Gipir over the Spear and the Bead.

Among the Luo, the spear is an instrument of authority and the symbol of power and leadership.  The ancestral spear, in particular is a mark of respect for the first born and heir to the family.  That is why in the Labongo and Gipir story, there is a ceremony for handing over the ancestral spear to Labongo, the elder son, by his old father, before he went to the ‘place of no return’.

The royal bead, on the other hand, is a symbol of beauty and elegance for the Central Luo of Northern Uganda. This is also true for other Nilotic communities of the Nile Basin. So the separation of the two Luo brothers, Labongo and Gipir, over the loss of the Ancestral Spear and the swallowing of the Royal Bead, and the death that ensued in the family, is ultimately a Luo narrative of the consequences of fundamental disagreements within a tightly knit social group over identity, royalty and leadership.

The story goes like this.

Labongo was the elder son and Gipir the younger.  As their father was on the verge of death, he invited his two sons to his bed side. He asked Labongo to swear upon his Luo ancestors, that he would guard and defend the Ancestral Spear with his life if necessary, and when his time came, he would pass it onto to his own elder son. Labongo took the solemn oath before his dying father that he would do so.  Then his father performed the ceremony of passing on the Ancestral Spear and died not too long after.   

In the course of Luo migrations from Sudan southwards along the River Nile, Labongo, Gipir and their families settled down along the River Nile, in the geographical area of present Northern Uganda. It was in this new settlement that Gipir lost the Ancestral Spear! This is what happened.

One morning on a misty day, an elephant invaded the fields of cowpeas belonging to Labongo who, was out hunting and was nowhere near home.  His wife made an alarm and Gipir, who happened to be at home, came out and rushed into Labongo’s house and picked one of the nearest spears around. He dashed out and with all his might speared and badly wounded the elephant that started to run away. Unfortunately the spear got stuck on it even as it escaped deep into the forest. It was then that Gipir realized he had picked and used the sacred Ancestral Spear! The wounded elephant went with the Luo Ancestral Spear and died deep into the forest.  

In the meantime, Labongo returned home from his hunting expedition in the wild only to hear the story of the elephant that got away with the Ancestral Spear. His eyes became red with anger. He demanded Gipir follow the elephant and bring back the Ancestral Spear. Gipir pleaded with his brother that it was an emergency; and that he was not aware he had picked the Ancestral Spear till it was too late. He begged his brother to accept another spear in replacement.

Labongo would have none of it. Gipir should have used any other spear but the Ancestral Spear, however pressing the emergency! This was a betrayal of the highest order. It was the betrayal of the sacred ancestral lineage bond which he Labongo swore to guard even unto death. He could not imagine violating the solemn oath he made before his own father. How could he when the time came fail to pass on the ancestral spear to his son and heir. He ordered Gipir to go after the elephant at once without any delay and warned him never to come back home without the Ancestral Spear.

Feeling guilty for losing the Ancestral Spear, confused and helpless because he thought he did the next best thing in such an emergency, Gipir set out into the wild in search of the Ancestral Spear.

For months nothing was heard of Gipir. Many people back in the Luo settlement thought he may have been eaten up by wild animals in the forest. Nevertheless, Gipir eventually reached the deepest part of the forest where all the dead elephants were. He was extremely exhausted and his sandals were worn out. His feet were full of sores. He was sick and needed care.

Fortunately, there lived an old woman in the deep of the forest who came to Gipir’s help.  She nursed him back to health until he felt strong.

With her help, Gipir was able to recover the Ancestral Spear that had fallen at the spot where the elephant died. Then time came for Gipir to return home.  The old kind woman gave him some dry food (peke, in Luo), a new pair of sandals, and some of the most beautiful royal beads the Luo people had ever seen! The royal beads greatly excited Gipir who started the journey of many months back home.  

Early one bright morning, the people in the Luo settlement heard what sounded like Gipir’s bila. Indeed, it was Gipir returning home, blowing his bila (horn). The women and the children ran to greet him to welcome him home. But he went past them as if he had not seen them. Gipir went straight to his brother’s compound and shouted: ‘Labongo, come out!’  He was shaking with anger. As soon as Labongo came out, he called out: ‘Here is your spear!’ and then stuck the Ancestral Spear into the ground right in front of Labongo, and it made the sound, ‘ting’!

Before Labongo could respond and utter a welcome back to his brother, Gipir marched away still burning with anger.  He walked straight to his compound, found a stool to sit on, brooding with his head cusped in both of his hands.

Days and months passed and everybody in the settlement had forgotten the loss of the Ancestral Spear and Gipir’s journey of many months in search of it. One morning Gipir picked the skin bag in which he kept the royal beads that the kind old woman gave him. He began to thread the beads. His wife and his children, Labongo’s wife and her children, all gathered round him admiring the beads.  Some of the beads dropped on the ground. Alas, Labongo’s youngest daughters picked and swallowed one of them.

Gipir took the child to her father and his elder brother and demanded for his royal bead right there and then. Labong beg Gipir to accept another royal bead to replace the one swallowed. Gipir said no. How about waiting till the girl passed it out in her stool? Gipir said, “No, I want my royal bead now!”  Labongo’s pleas were all in vain as Gipir was ready to have his ‘pound of flesh’.   

Labongo remembered how he refused to listen to his brother’s pleas over the ancestral spear. He felt ashamed and was furious. Straightaway he had his little daughter cut open, the royal bead retrieved from her stomach, whereupon he gave it back to Gipir. And the girl died.

It was a tragic and avoidable death. It lead to the bitter separation of the two Luo brothers.  They buried the axe (latong) at the River Nile in Pakwach as a sign of their irrevocable separation. Gipir and his family crossed the River Nile to the western side at Pakwach and became ancestor of the present day Alur of Northwester Uganda and the larger Alur population in Northeastern DRC.  Labongo and his family remained on the eastern side of the Nile and became ancestor to the Acholi people.