Gulu is a district in northern Uganda whose name comes from the main commercial center of the district, the town of Gulu. It is one of the historical homelands of the Acholi ethnic group. The district has been a central point for religious change, both peaceful and violent, being one of the locations where the convergence of Christianity, Islam, and the traditional religion of the Acholi ethnic group is giving birth to new formations. These novel developments involve the mutual infusion into each other of notions and practices from both Christianity and traditional religions.
Traditional religion among the Acholi can be understood in relation to that among the Luo people, to which the Acholi belong. It is centered in veneration of, and relationships with, a concept of spirit known as Juok, which is realized in terms of a Supreme Being, ancestors, and other deities. These spiritual beings are understood to participate in all the particulars of the daily life of the believers.
The Christianity of the Acholi is characterized by the variants represented by Catholic, Protestant, and African Independent churches. The latter are an effort to develop forms of Christianity that meet a broader range of the spiritual needs of the devotees than older Christian forms have done. This happens because the older forms are based on conceptions about the character of the universe that derive from the Western origins of the missionaries who established these churches. These conceptions are significantly different from fundamental aspects of the metaphysical conceptions that are endogenous to the Acholi.
The African Independent churches, in contrast, embodying a synthesis of Christian and endogenous metaphysics, are able to address concerns that emanate from the persistence of these endogenous beliefs and attitudes. These beliefs include a close physical proximity to spirits of various types, benevolent, malevolent, and ambiguous, who are in intimate relationship with humans. Therefore, the phenomena of possession by spirits, exorcism, and witchcraft, among others, feature significantly in the culture of these churches.
Gulu has also witnessed the development of a form of Christianity that is distinctive in Africa, a militant Christianity. The district is the birthplace of Alice Auma and Joseph Kony, the originators of this militant religiosity. Alice Auma is the founder of the Holy Spirit Movement. Joseph Kony founded the Lord's Resistance Army, which emerged under the impetus of the earlier movement after it collapsed. The earlier and later groups have had as their raison d'etre the engagement with the Ugandan army to create a religiously inspired government, but they use significantly different tactics that suggest different modes of synchretization of traditional and Christian forms. One of these differences is the quasipacifist character of the earlier movement and the brutally violent nature of the later one.
Alice Auma's and Joseph Kony's characterizations of themselves as empowered in their leadership by their roles as spirit mediums evokes the traditional Acholi as well as the Christian understanding of human beings as capable of possession by spirits who enable the individual with psychological and magical resources that privilege them to act as leaders in their communities.
The Holy Spirit Movement developed and operated according to a quasipacifist ideology that involved a strict practice of justice in relation to civilians. This ideology was intimately related to conceptions of justice rooted in a sense of natural order. This sense of order embodies ideas about agency in nature, both animate and inanimate, through which this order is expressed. This conception of natural order dramatizes, in a novel form, traditional Acholi notions of nature as vitalistic and agentive. The movement's conception of military activity as an effort to restore the harmony of nature violated by previous conflict in Uganda is a dramatization of a practical imperative emerging from this sense of natural order.
Another central influence on religion among the Gulu is Islam. Islam has also been described among these people as involving a juxtaposition of pre-Islamic and more conventional Islamic elements.
The development of religious forms in relation to the transformation of metaphysical conceptions under the pressure of sociopolitical experience continues in Gulu because the district is central to current conflicts in Uganda, in which religion and politics converge.
- Owuor O. B., Oketch-Rabah H., and Kokwaro J. O. Reinventing Therapo-Spiritual Fellowships: The Jolang'o in Luo African Independent Churches Mental Health, Religion & Culture 9 (5)(2006, December) 423–434.
- P'Bitek, O. (1971). Religion of the Central Luo. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.