The Acoli Love the Elephant

The Acoli have lived side by side with the Elephant from time immemorial. They love the elephant and adore it for its size and strength, its unfaltering memory, sharp sense of hearing, intelligence and its overpowering presence and dignity. They call him ‘Lyec’ generally, but have also praise names for him, such as ‘Ocoro-oboke’, ‘Nyam nyam’, ‘ wau wau’ or ‘Awau’, ‘Obel’, ‘Nimanima’ etc. The children love ‘wang-oo’ stories about him. There is no Acoli folke-lore without ‘Ocoro-Oboke’ in it. The Acoli women seem to have a particular sympathetic outlook towards the elephant and regard it owe rather than fear, probably because, like no other animal, its mammary glands with two separate tits are situated between the front limbs, like of the human being, and the leader of the herd is always the dominant female.
The Elephant is not a delicacy. The Acoli never set out to hunt it for food. However, they have always clashed over ripe sorghum ‘kabi’ and figure millet ‘kal’, which they all love to eat. When the rogue elephant became stubborn and refused to leave the fields and attacked and killed a person or took over a water well, then men would come to remove it by force. When men killed it, some men, varying from clan to clan, took the liberty to enjoy the meat, which usually caused very serious skin or swelling allergy to some people. One part of the elephant, if male, is totally useless to men, that is its phallus, which is abandoned or left behind in the bushes (even the ravenous hyenas do not eat it). Thus the Acoli saying for abandonment or for something that is totally useless.  ‘… calo cun-lyec makiweko i lil’. The very large ears make excellent drums and the ivory is exchanged in butter trade for cattle, beads and bracelets or better still, guns. The elephant, therefore, introduce the Acoli to international commerce long time ago, and played a major role in the defence of modern Acoli. The Acoli were able to defend themselves reasonably well against the slave hunters and hostile neighbours with the guns they ‘bought with ivory’.   It is said as a measure of pacification of the region, the British colonizers confiscated over 12,000 guns from the Acoli during 1911/14.There are other characteristics (cultures) too. The elephant looks after their young collectively, in a nursery, mourn their dead, bury or carry their dead to a common ancestral burial ground ‘dipo lyec’. These grounds use to be deep in thick forests, caves or ravines in the mountains. In the recent past, when ivory became marketable, these burial grounds were ivory treasure troves providing the needs for ivory. When they were exhausted, the market demand forced the Acoli to hunt the elephant for their ivory. With the arrival of the gun the elephant was now to be hunted almost to its extinction (at its peak, it is said some 4,000 tons of ivory flowed down the Nile in that one year alone).

The elephant played a major role in the migration of the Luo people. In the Acoli story of migration, the following of the elephant tracks was always mentioned, which when fresh is usually as wide as a highway. The elephant ‘graded’ the roads for the migrants through difficult terrain and thick jungles. The track always ran from one water hole to another. Where there was no water, he dug one. Where the elephant herd passed, dangerous predators like lions kept their safe distance, where it must cross a river or submerge to chew on the succulent swamp plants, dangerous and hungry crocodiles and stubborn hippopotamus ran away to hide. The elephant, therefore, provided security to the migrants, as its intelligence would soon determine that the migrants were harmless and could follow at a safe distance.

The Elephant is an intrinsic part of the famous Acoli mythology of the two feuding brother princes Labongo and Gipir. Labongo picked the nearest lance to hurry to chase away the elephant that had trespassed into the millet field. Labongo launched the lance, which pieced the elephant but did not kill it. The elephant walked away with the lance. The lance happened to be Gipir’s favourate lance. Gipir refused all sorts of replacement, compensation or compromise, and insisted in having his very lance. Labongo went out for several days and nights, risking his life, in order to find the elephant and recover the lance, which he returned to his brother Gipir. Another time sooner, Gipir’s little daughter mistakenly swallowed Labongo’s beads. Labongo insisted on having her very beads back, refusing any compromises. Gipir was jolted to memory, and had no choice but to slit his daughters stomach open to find his brother’s beads. The little girl died, thus ending the relationship between the two feuding brothers. Prince Gipir departed his way with his followers, migrated westwards and crossed the Nile River at Watlei ‘Wadelei’. It is believed that Gipir is the ancestor of the western Luo inhabiting part of West Nile and eastern D.R. Congo. The Atyak Jubi Dynasty at Okuro has survived as part of that Luo people and rwotship. This mythology strongly underpins the importance of concepts of admission of guilt and apology, compensation, reconciliation and forgiveness; a process called ‘mato opwut’, in Acoli culture and belief systems.

Another less known mythology is that of the Attiak people in Acoliland. There was a similar palace quarrel at the Atyak Jubi palace in Okuro in the Alur kingdom. Prince Atyak Acut lost the fight for the rwothship and therefore had to leave. He traveled northwards along the western banks of the Nile following elephant herds. He crossed the Nile over a natural bridge of vegetation over the Nile to the east bank where he married the princess of a Luo group or clan and eventually became its leader. The clan became to be known as ‘Attiak’. The Rwot of the present day Attiak is the direct descendant of Prince Atyak of Okuro. It is taboo for a full-blooded ja-Attiak to consume elephant meat, and kill the ‘Acut’ or the ’manyago (ngec)’. Atyak Jubi and Attiak Acut are some of few Luo clans who use animal emblems for identification.

The elephant, therefore, is popular, prominent and present in Acoli life. It is not difficult; therefore to see that, when the ‘significant’ Chief Oliya (1924) was asked by ‘Bwana Gweno’ to propose a symbol or emblem for the Acoli, his answer would have been ‘lyec’, the Elephant. No one Acoli would find a good enough reason to object. When the colonial government tried to requisition parts of Acoliland for national parks, the Acoli ‘Diwani’ refused to concede land and protested at the council and Legislative Council (LEGICO), until it was made clear to them that the parks were to protect the elephant, which seem now to have no ‘home’ and may all die.

When the colonizers discovered that the African responded very vigorously to symbols, it introduced symbols to identify the colonial administrative districts. The ‘Rhino’ identified Lango; I guess for no other reason than that rhinos abounded in this area. There can be other reasons. The Madi loved gambling and cockfighting as a pass time and wrestling as favourate sports. The winner in wrestling was called ‘au logo’, the winner Cock. Again as the Madi preserved the Cock as a mark of excellence and winner, the Cock symbol was adopted for the Madi District.etc.

Coming to think about it, the colonizers invented these symbols for their convenience. Should we really carry these colonial yoke and relics forward? Should they be issues that divide us? Inevitably, we are already carrying a lot of our colonial past with us and one other does not matter. I myself like symbols. I like the elephant as the most magnificent animal, but also as a symbol of strength, dignity and unfailing memory. I am sure Rwot Acanna would not mind beginning to walk and think like ‘Ocoro-Oboke’, like something not to be pushed about. But above all I like the elephant affinity for cohesion, to stick together come rain or sunshine or apocalypse. What would be more providential for the Acoli today than to stick together? In the face of threat of deliberate and ruthless fragmentation and separation of the Acoli in the name of administration districts, the Acoli rwotship is catapulted to urgent prominence. As the symbolism of the ‘lyec’ has endured its times and values as the symbol of both the Acoli people and Acoli District, there are clear advantages of the rwotship now to adopt the ‘lyec’ as an Acoli symbol of unity of the people and the indivisibility and unassailability of Acoliland.

Written by Akena Pa Ojok