The Haunting of Patrick Okello

January 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, there was a fantastic article in The Guardian about Uganda and the long-term fall out of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army amongst the Acholi.  The Acholi live in northern Uganda, not far from South Sudan.  Joseph Kony comes from the Acholi.  One of the many things that struck me about the article is the story of Patrick Okello.  Okello is a haunted man.

In 1996, five years after a horrible massacre at Amoko on 6 December 1991, Patrick Okello and his brother came across the dismembered remains of his father about 8 miles away from home.  Another victim of the LRA:

My brother and I found his body cut up into small pieces.  There was a lot of blood. We buried him quickly in a shallow grave with sand near our home. Then we ran away in case the LRA were still in the area. I think my father is still vengeful about the fact that his last funeral rite has not been carried out. He always tells me he needs a proper burial. He is angry.

Journalist Will Storr posits that Okello suffers from PTSD.  But Okello, as Storrs notes, lives in a small village, far removed from the world of medical intervention.  Instead, Okello is haunted.  Storrs writes,

Demons have been visiting him in the night; he wakes to see a strange glow in his hut as they surround him, whispering Okello, Okello, Okello. Flies, rats and bats crawl over him. The other day, he stripped off all his clothes and ran up the hill. “That’s what makes him run,” says elder Martin Olanya. “Because they’re calling his name.” The villagers have a theory as to what’s behind the haunting of Patrick Okello. “Ever since the burials took place,” says Martin, “the people in this community have not been settled. We assume it’s the work of vengeful spirits.”

The Acholi believe in this spiritual world.  Like all cultures, they believe in elaborate burial rituals that allow the spirit of the deceased to journey onwards.  If those rituals are not observed, the spirit cannot escape and they remain to haunt those left behind.  And during the terror caused by Kony and the LRA, which visited the most destruction, death and mayhem on the Acholi because they wouldn’t, for the most part, support Kony, it was near impossible to observe these rituals.  Storrs tells of other survivors of the 1991 massacre who buried their dead in shallow graves, quickly, to avoid running into the LRA again lest they be killed as well.

I resent the tone taken by Westerners in describing these belief systems (though Storrs actually does a wonderful job in NOT taking the usual tone), which reflects this sense of Western superiority, that somehow we are rational (yes, I know, this is the entire mindset that justified imperialism in the first place).  As if we in the (post)modern world do not have such beliefs, we are entirely rational and modernised.

When I teach World History, I spend a lot of time dealing with religion for the simple fact that religion is, amongst other things, supposed to offer a means of explaining the chaos and disorder of the world, a means of understanding why bad things happen.  In other words, religious beliefs have long since ordered and organised cultures, including our own allegedly post-religious society.  And belief systems like that of the Acholi do exactly that, it explains why the world works the way it does.  And we all need belief systems that help us to understand the world, which is why this theme I’ve been exploring when I teach World History, the Terror of History, is so appealing to me.  Religion is one of the main means by which human beings have sought to escape the Terror of History, as religion allows us to rationalise it, to give us meaning for why bad things happen and why we are all going to die.

And so this is what the beliefs of the Acholi do: explain the world to them, and to help them understand why Kony happened in the first place.  Indeed, Dorina Adjero, one of Okello’s neighbours, says that Kony is possessed by demons, “That’s why he does all the killings and all these weird things.  A normal person who is acting in normal conscience wouldn’t kill people in this way.”  As for Okello, his demons appear to have been quieted by an exorcism of sorts performed by pastors from the local evangelical Christian church.


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