Last December, the Acholi kicked off their cultural festivities. Fittingly, the first of such events was to celebrate the life and achievements of one of its foremost sons, Okot p’Bitek.
P’Bitek, who remains Acholi’s foremost scholar, novelist and poet, is credited with composing the Acholi anthem. But some researchers say Ker Kwaro Acholi has no such standard anthem, flag and colours, neither seal or logo, nor any coat of arms.
This debate points to the lack of storehouse of cultural standards of our Acholi heritage as pointed out by researchers, among them, Clare Paine of Aberystwyth University, UK. For this, the song of praise or lubara pa Acholi, presents two contested versions among the Acholi.
One is written by p’Bitek, and another popular version remains unsigned and its lyrics not annotated. The first version, Lubanga gwok Lawirwodi, celebrates the pre-eminence of the office of Lawirwodi and invokes divine protection of Lawirwodi, the unity of Acholi and good neighbourliness, and blessings over the land.
The second version, Lobo Acholi wamari mada, celebrates Acholi love for their rich and productive land and rallies them to its defence and pledges readiness to fight and die for that land. It also cheers Acholi love for equal education for both its men and women. The anthem also delights in Acholi’s peaceful leadership and living in harmony with its neigbours.
But the question remains over which of the two songs of praise is the standard Acholi anthem. Many say the second one was once a popular anthem taught and sung in schools.
But Dennis Ojwee, a veteran journalist and trained musician, says Lubanga gwok Lawirwodi is the standard Acholi anthem. Mr Ojwee says the anthem was composed by p’Bitek in 1956, six years before Uganda got Independence. He says the song was later rearranged into the four voices by a professional musician, Janani Norman Okot, in 2014.
It is the copy being used [by Ker Kwaro Acholi], unless challenged, or modified or a new one is produced, the one by Okot p’Bitek remains the original one,” Mr Ojwee argues.
Mr Ojwee, says his father, Lapwony Luka Labeja, a musician and music adjudicator and trainer in then Acholi District, put the launch date at 1958.
Lapwony Labeja, now 94, was born in 1928 and served in the first Acholi District Council in 1960. He was also a National Music, Dance and Drama Adjudicator.
Mr Ambrose Olaa, the premier of Acholi cultural institution, agrees with Mr Ojwee that the p’Bitek’s version was gazetted as Lubaro Pa Acholi by then Acholi District Council meeting in Gulu. Mr Olaa told Uganda Radio Network in December 2016 in Gulu that, indeed, p’Bitek composed the anthem in 1956.
Rwot Yusuf Adek of Pageya chiefdom also concurs but says the lyrics or tunes of the original composition by p’Bitek were later modified. Indeed, in 2016, URN quoted UPDF 4th Division junior music instructor Felix Apire Opoka, as saying there are at least four parallel versions or revisions of the anthem. He said attempts have been made to change the order of the wordings.
There are also claims that the anthem was also rearranged by retired music director at the 4th Division army headquarters in Gulu, Col. Abednego Orech. URN also reported that the original anthem had two stanzas, but the current one has three. Indeed, Mr Ojwee admitted to URN that the third stanza was introduced by Janani Okot.
But Mr Olaa then said the major change in the anthem was on the title of the paramount chief – Lawirwodi – which previously was Laloyo Maber, the benevolent leader.
Given the muddle over the standard version of the Acholi anthem, Ker Kwaro Acholi needs to move, not only to clear the air, but also harmonise, and aggressively popularise the standard anthem.
As Mr Ojwee says: “It should be now that Ker Kwaro Acholi stamped its authority and impressed on government institutions such as the police, the prisons, and the army bands to play the Acholi anthem at all national events in the sub-region, including on Janani Luwum Day in Mucwini, which is celebrated every February 16.”
The elephant or tusk?
Similarly, there have been debates over whether there is any standard design or logo of the Acholi flag and colours, its coat of arms, or even the symbolic elephant.
Rwot Adek says the original Acholi coat of arms had the inscriptions – Acholi ki ker megi, and Ribbe kacel aye teko, with lyec on both sides and also has kom ker or royal stool, drum and spear. Rwot Adek dismisses the current standard used by Ker Kwaro Acholi that has elephant tusks. He says the Acholi don’t honour elephant tusks but the elephant. Indeed, researcher Paine says the Acholi cherish the black elephant because it is majestic and exudes supremacy and signifies a peaceful nation.
But there is also debate on the posture of the elephant and whether it should look meek or aggressive. Rwot Adek says the original flag or beru had plain white background to signify leng cwiny or purity of heart, with a black elephant in the middle and walking head-on. But Paine says the black elephant in the middle of the current Acholi Districts’ Council flag is meek and has its trunk down.
This then questions whether the version hoisted by Gulu District Council on October 19, 2004, should be the standard one – with the flag designed in brown, green and light blue colours. The researchers say brown in the flag symbolises fertile and abundant natural resources, green for evergreen vegetation and light blue for abundant water bodies and reliable rainfall. But the researchers also concede that while the current flag have the same patterns with some earlier chiefdom versions, but the colours and the seal in the centre are slightly different. This version tallies with an account by Rwot Adek, who says the Acholi elephant on the original coat of arms stand on both sides and have raised head and trunk.
Lyec pa Tusker
But more recently, a one-ton-weight elephant monument has been erected by premier beer company, Uganda Breweries Ltd (UBL), to announce entry into Acholi City, Gulu. This has drawn harsh criticisms over whether it symbolises Lyec pa Acholi or Lyec pa Tusker.
While some have hailed it as a great landmark, some have pushed at the Shs5m monument to be torn down. They dismissed this Tusker version as clumsy, lowly, malnourished and a big embarrassment to the community.
One critic on Facebook mocked it, “Even the cow of Igongo in Mbarara is bigger than this elephant…. UBL is taking us for a joke.” Others knocked it as embarrassing, sexless, depressed and with its eyes invisible. They demanded one with two imposing tusks jutting out with its snout and ears raised, piercing the wind in show of strength.
But UBL had proudly tweeted: “Today, we unveiled a symbolic elephant monument in Gulu City in honour of the cultural significance of the mammal to the people of Acholi. The monument is a representation of the deep bond between Uganda Breweries and the people of Northern Uganda. #UBLGrowingUganda.”
The monument, which was unveiled at the Layibi traffic circle, some 3.9 kilometres from the heart of the city, depicts an elephant on a low platform. Above it is inscribed, “Welcome to Gulu, Home of Kodi Pa Lyec.”
But its critics said when lit at night, the billboard column illuminates not the elephant but the beer, Tusker. Some critics even joked that may be the elephant was drunk on Tusker beer, while some called it Lyec pa Tusker! Another was unhappy that UBL had invited a whole Paramount Chief to unveil a malnourished, sick and drunk elephant to the public and Acholi.
But UBL was happy that it had found a big Lyec to give-back-to the community to mark 100 years of successful brewing. But could have Ker Kwaro Acholi pushed for a grander carving to symbolise the Acholi elephant?
This bitter quarrel shouts out the lack of our cultural models. A call to address this urgently demands that Ker Kwaro Acholi stops being “an ambiguous entity” as Paine calls it, but step up to champion its mandate as the custodian of Acholi standards.
Both Ker Kwaro Acholi and UBL can still create a win-win deal and brand Layibi traffic circle with a majestic standard Acholi elephant. This can become Gulu City’s major tourist attraction and still have the billboard column dazzling with Tusker lagers.