Culture in Economic Development under Condition of Marginalization, Unraveling the Lango Predicament

John Otim


John Otim, Editor of Nile Journal, Poet, Novelist and Critic




They took one long and collective look in the huge mirror held before them and were horrified at what they saw. A once proud community decimated and wasted and become self hating. What happened?

A Ugandan academic and playwright familiar with the history and culture of tribe and himself one of them held the mirror and did not pull punches.

As a people the Lango (or the Langi) are in trouble. Many of their good old values and practices no longer hold. The same values now act as roadblocks to progress and economic development. There exists in the community a culture of poverty and backwardness, characterized by petty jealousy, narrow mindedness and lack of vision. Today the Langi are what they are: a war ravaged community in war torn Northern Uganda.

Embedded in our language are attitudes and beliefs that entrench poverty and undermine our own social and economic progress

economic development is not going to happen in Lango land because of capital investment or because of good policies. In Dokotum’s opinion Economic development is going to require the cultivation and the adoption of positive attitudes that supports development.

Today in Lango land anyone who tries to rise above the average, either in subsistence agriculture, or in business or in education, or in whatever, is going to be pulled down by the culture. People are going to say to him, look stop this; you are no better than us.

The sense of community that once served Lango Society well and gave it cohesion will be turned against the man or woman who dares to do different. I wakere, i rek wok, i lanyo wa?* The negatives will spring at him like a lion enraged.

People will do all in their power to undermine him, to unsettle him and in the end to undo him. Should he persist and in the end succeed, the tribe will gather around him. The community will claim his success as their own. He must give back to the community what he does not owe them. There is in Lango land a poor sense of private property that harks back to the ancient days of communalism and subsistence. My brother’s Mercedes is mine!

Should the would-be entrepreneur in Lango land be a woman her situation will be worse. People are going to say, is she not a woman! What does she think she is? Dako a daka! Translation: Just a woman. Women have a raw deal in Lango land. They can’t own property, they can’t inherit property, they can’t engage in business.  Should they get pregnant, they will not be entitled to child support and the man will not be held accountable.

Within the family the education of a daughter is not a priority. Often the girl child is withdrawn from school for early marriage by a greedy father with an eye on the handsome dowry she will fetch. If anyone had a right to utter in real agony what the poet p’Bitek made his character utter in jest, the girl child of Lango land does: Mother oh Mother! Why was I born Black?

During the long years of war that wrecked Northern Uganda, her fate was worse than death. She was the object of abduction and rape and of the systematic spread of the deadly HIV virus by rebels and government forces alike. Once she got the virus everybody had it. Once the least AIDS infected part of the country, today Northern Uganda is the most heavily AIDS infected area..

At the height of the war in Northern Uganda, at Aboke Girls School near Lira, 139 girls were abducted in the middle of the night as they slept and taken for sex slaves. Throughout the long war that ravaged the North numerous atrocities were committed by rebels and government forces alike. The war became the instrument of marginalization. Several times government had the opportunity to end the war but it did not.

Dokotum’s expose of the Lango predicament was among the papers presented at the all Lango Conference of 2012 in Lira the old capital of Lango land. His thoughts bordered on the generally accepted proposition that within culture all is possible while outside of culture nothing can be done.

What undermines Dokotum’s analysis and ultimately his prescription for a solution is his failure to confront the central question. How did the Langi, a once proud and prosperous people, arrive at where they are today? Their once teaming heads of cattle that every family had in plenty gone, their once good schools, good roads and other infrastructures mere shadows of themselves. How did the Langi arrive at where they are, where their own culture and their own language speak to them with negative anti development messages?

The Langi were once a strong people whose reputation rang through East Africa. In the early years of the 20th century the powerful Kings of Buganda and Bunyoro Kitara sought refuge among the Langi as both fled the advancing forces of British colonization. For two years the Langi sheltered and protected the two rulers and fought off the far better armed British forces.

Yet today when the Langi wish to covey the notion of something mean and or something backward, they are going to say it is Lango-Lango. Translation: this is Lango-like! Other expressions of self hate in the language exist.

The slide from, prosperity and the sense of wellbeing into poverty and self loathing is the product of the last forty years as successive Uganda Regimes economically marginalized the community and inflicted atrocities upon the tribe. Few communities in the country have suffered as much and for as long.

The first post independence government of Milton Obote ignored the community, allegedly for fear of being seen partial. Obote was a Lango man. The regime of Idi Amin that succeeded Obote punished the tribe for its association with Obote, killing many members of the tribe and hounding hundreds more into exile.

Shortly after the present National Resistance Movement (NRM) came to power, the organized theft of millions of heads of cattle from the tribe the mainstay of the local economy was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The long years of forced existence in concentration camps where death was a daily experience made this period the worst in the history of the tribe. This is how the Langi came to be where they are: poor, disoriented and self loathing.

But something endured. Within Lango culture there still are many positive elements fully consistent with progress and economic development. The Langi retain their old reputation for honesty, courage and hard work. Their sense of hospitality towards visitors and strangers is intact.

Dokotum’s contribution is in identifying the problem existing in Lango culture and boldly stating it. It remained for others to plot the way forward. Dokotum’s suggestion that the solution was in correcting the negative elements in language and in the culture through the media and by way of education is no solution. How do you do it?

Culture as culture or as language did not create the problem in Lango society. Materil conditions associated with long periods of severe deprivation and marginalization did. To solve the problem in Lango culture and Lango community, it is necessary to correct and overcome the material condition that created the problem. Sekou Toure once said:

To take part in the African revolution it is not enough to sing a revolutionary song; you must fashion the revolution with the people. And if you fashion it with the people, the songs will come by themselves, and of themselves

University of Clemson Professor, economist James Nyankori offers some clue. Nyankori sees the future of the Lango Community primarily in the products of its plentiful fertile land and its good climate. What are needed are good access roads, a network of warehouses to store farm produce and the organizational capacity to get products to the market at the right time for the right price. Today individual farmers are not benefiting from the hard work they already put in. Farmers are robbed by middlemen.

Nyankori believes this can change. The old clan system that is still alive and well can be turned into an instrument of development. It can be organized to play the role of a marketing cooperative, eliminating the middleman, building warehouses, collecting and storing produce from individual farmers and negotiating a bargain price at the market place. In time the clan can establish a network of processing plants to turn farm produce into consumer products that fetch better bargains for farmers at the market place.

Nyankori is a believer in the proposition that seeing is believing. If the clan, working as a sales cooperative, can demonstrate its capacity to produce better results and better bargains for the farmer, the practice of the clan as a cooperative will catch. Success will produce success. With money in their hands the Community can take care of many local issues that today overwhelm the individual. The Community can improve roads, can look after local schools and improve health facilities and provide for sports and entertainment.

Given clear evidence of development everyone can see happening in the community culture will take care of itself. No man or woman seeking innovation and making investment need be afraid of being pulled down. People will get used to the idea that my brother’s Mercedes is not mine. Everyone will come to see that they too can work for something of their own.