Read this latest Blog Post by Lucy Taylor, an AHRC Kluge Fellow who worked on War and Masculinity in Uganda at the Library of Congress during 2016.
The post is re-published with kind permission from the John Kluge Centre at the Library of Congress. They are one of the AHRC’s partner organisations who provide placements via the AHRC International Placement Scheme for AHRC fellows around the world. Its the 4th such Blog from Kluge.
The Library of Congress holds some of the richest material concerning
African dance in the world. One of the most interesting collections−comprising
photographs, sound recordings, motion pictures, fieldwork notes and relevant
articles−was donated by Judith Hanna based on her research in Africa during the
early post-colonial period.
Dance represents a fundamental part of the Acholi people’s cultural
heritage. The Acholi, a Nilotic Lwo-speaking ethnic group, reside predominantly
in the central region of northern Uganda, an area collectively referred to as
Acholiland. Before embarking on my fellowship at the John W. Kluge Center my
efforts to access pre-colonial indigenous Acholi perceptions concerning
manhood and warfare for my doctoral research had largely focused on lingual
cultural forms that facilitate the oral transmission of knowledge, such as songs,
proverbs and folktales. It was only after I began to explore the Judith Hanna
collection at the Library of Congress that I started to truly appreciate the
importance of dance for transferring knowledge between generations within a
number of African cultures and societies.
The Larakaraka was an Acholi courtship dance that granted young men
the opportunity to demonstrate their dancing prowess and physical vigor in the
hope of securing a marriage partner. As Okot p’bitek, a famous Acholi poet,
suggested in his ‘Song of Lawino’, young women used to judge and assess
prospective partners based on their skill and endurance in the dancing arena.1
‘A man’s manliness is seen in the arena’
‘All parts of the body
Are shown in the arena!
Health and liveliness,
Are shown in the arena!’ 2
During the Larakaraka the young men danced in a semi-circle with their legs
interlocked whilst singing short repetitive songs. They adorned ostrich or cock
feathers on their heads and carried calabashes in their left hands. The young
women danced silently facing the men until the moko stage, when each woman
would identify her preferred male of choice, push him out of the semi-circle and
the young couple would retreat to a quiet spot to become better acquainted.3
However dancing the Larakaraka not only provided individuals with a chance to
excel amongst their counterparts, but the scripted moves, costumes and
instruments employed also reproduced and conveyed to the audience
appropriate gendered roles and behaviours.
Dance embodied an important instrument for education within Acholiland and a platform whereby accepted behavioral patterns and socially constructed norms and values were
demonstrated and disseminated. Although important to consider the extent to
which concepts are exaggerated within dance, sometimes for entertainment
purposes, dances such as the Larakaraka can help provide us with a better
understanding of what was admired and celebrated in terms of masculinity and
femininity in pre-colonial Acholi society.
Before the onset of warfare, or during important occasions organized at the
call of a chief, the Otole, a physically tiring dance involving mock fights, repetitive
jumping and running back and forth around the arena, was often performed.4
Men wore leopard hides, ostrich plumes to decorate their heads, and carried
spears and shields whilst women carried a lukile, a small axe.
The Otole dance, or war dance as it also now known, served a number of
complementary functions. The vigorous and energetic movements helped
physically prepare men for the demands of fighting, whilst the sequences
performed during the mock fights instructed men on formation patterns,
advance and retreat strategies alongside the manner of attacking and defending
with a spear and shield.5
In addition to this, the Otole served to emotionally prepare men for
violent encounters, acting as a mechanism for motivation and encouragement,
and for inciting military courage and confidence. The Otole further enhanced the
men’s combat readiness through eliciting popular support,and sanctioning the use
of violence and normally inappropriate behavior within the context of warfare.6
Thus, although trauma is rarely considered during discussions of pre-colonial African warfare, I would argue mechanisms such as the Otole dance, through freeing men of guilt or regret, helped further emotionally prepare men for war by relieving or reducing the psychological impact of participation in violence.
Thus, although trauma is rarely considered during discussions of pre-colonial African warfare, I would argue mechanisms such as
the Otole dance, through freeing men of guilt or regret, helped further emotionally prepare men for war by relieving or reducing the psychological
impact of participation in violence.
The Judith Hanna collection is remarkable in terms of the variety of
resources it includes and its references to ethnic groups that were relatively
marginalized within other research projects in the early post-colonial period,
notably, the Acholi. The collection provided me with a wealth of knowledge and
theoretical understanding concerning dance in Africa, and challenged me to
further explore specific Acholi dances, such as the Larakaraka and the Otole, in
relation to masculine identities and warfare during my own fieldwork in
Those working at the American Folklife Centre, where the Judith Hanna
Collection is housed, could not have been more helpful; if it was not for their
enthusiasm and dedication to disseminating this valuable collection, I would
never have been able to extract such rich data from it. In particular the
photographs and motion picture featuring Acholi dances, of which the staff
kindly provided me copies, are helping me question whether the imagery or
symbolism embedded within these dances was susceptible to individual
interpretation depending on varying life trajectories. Additionally by showing
this material to elderly Acholi people, I have the unique opportunity to gauge
their opinion concerning how dance has evolved and adapted over time. The
importance of the Library of Congress as a repository of cultural history in a
rapidly changing and often poorly documented world has never been more
apparent to me.
My fellowship at the John W. Kluge Center was facilitated and funded by the
AHRC through the International Placement Scheme. This support not only helped
me gain access to unique resources and pursue new areas of interest in relation
to my doctoral research, but importantly the scheme also granted me the
opportunity to forge significant contacts, and explore potential collaboration
opportunities for the future. Notably my forthcoming visit to Columbia
University to work under Associate Professor Rhiannon Stephens came as a
direct consequence of my research at the Kluge Center and the invaluable
conversations I had with other academics working at the Library regarding
innovative methodologies for researching pre-colonial African history.
1 Judith Hanna, Dance, Sex and Gender: Signs of Identity, Dominance, Defiance, and
Desire (The university of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1988), pp.4-5.
2 Okot p’bitek, Song of Lawino (East African Publishing House: Nairobi, 1966)
3 Okumu pa’ Lukobo, ‘Acholi Dance and Dance Songs’. Uganda Journal, Vol. 35,
1971, pp.55-61, (p.55).
4 Okumu pa’ Lukobo, ‘Acholi Dance and Dance Songs’. Uganda Journal, Vol. 35,
1971, pp.55-61, (p.55-56).
5 Judith Hanna, ‘African Dance and the Warrior Tradition’. Journal of Asian and
African Studies, XII, 1-4, pp.111-133, (p.114).
6 Judith Hanna, ‘African Dance and the Warrior Tradition’. Journal of Asian and
African Studies, XII, 1-4, pp.111-133, (p.115-119).