Last Words: Reflections on the African Traditional Conflict Resolution: Mato Opwut Among the Acholi in Northern Uganda

Patrick William Otim

March, 2009

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

The day my grandfather, Mr. Salvatore Okello, a British trained chief took his last breath; I was one of the few people who had a lengthy conversation with him. He was tall with light skin and was widely known among Acholi clans, not because of his height but because of his exorable wit and leadership skills. He was widely respected and whenever I would walk with him to attend some of the village meetings and resolve "conflicts" in different places, I would often hear people saying, "this is 'Okello the second."' They always thought he was training me to take after him but my interest was to learn and become conversant with my culture, something that I had missed because of my western education and peers' influence who regarded my culture as "useless and outdated." I enjoyed my grandfather's "celebrity status." I managed to shake hands, dine, and discuss cultural issues with chiefs from all over Acholiland and learned a lot about my culture, something that I would not have done had it not been for my grandfather.

I will always remember the day he passed away. It was a busy day for me right from morning. I was in my office finishing the last project report and thereafter, decided to go and see my ailing grandfather. He had wanted to see me for a few days but I could not visit him due to my busy office schedule. Midmorning, I left work in my car but quickly realized I was out of both fuel and the funds to refuel. I had to stop at the nearby ATM, but the line at the ATM was coiling; the soldiers had gotten their salary after a three-month pursuit of the Lord's Resistance Army rebels. I could not wait for the ATM. I decided to abandon my car and negotiate with a boda-bod (motorbike) man who was actually once my classmate in Gulu Public Primary School, Denis Ajal.

When I arrived at my grandfather's, he was very happy to see me and immediately picked up the newspaper I carried and read the headlines. I told him that I wanted to talk to him and learn more about mato opwut. He immediately sent for his reading glasses, read the story, and turned to me and said, "My son, this reporter does not know much about mato opwut. This is not what mato opwut is." I then started asking him questions and he gave me a long lecture that lasted nearly three hours. I was busy taking notes — not only in a diary, but also in the sport pages of The Monitor newspaper.

My first question to him was, "Why do we drink opwut for reconciliation?" The old man turned to me and said, "Otim, learn to ask good questions." He mentioned an Acholi proverb, "Pe icako yito yat ki I jange," ("You can't start climbing a tree from top"). He continued, "I want to start by telling you what opwut is. Opwut is a wild tree that was long chosen by our ancestors to be used in any meaningful reconciliation or building of relations amongst people when one has killed accidentally or even intentionally." To him, murder is the worst crime one can commit in Acholiland. Once you have killed someone, it is your immediate responsibility to report to your clan. He said "mato opwut, which is drinking 'opwut', helps to reconcile the people and end the conflict." He remarked, "I have not seen any revenge in Acholi after mato opwut. This is how we resolve murder in Acholiland. It is the most effective way of resolving conflict in our land."

He continued, "To understand why Acholi "mato opwut" or drink opwut, one must understand the philosophy behind why opwut was chosen among all the trees to be used in our reconciliation process." To him, "killing someone in Acholi is a bitter experience and opwut was chosen because it is a very bitter herb which symbolizes bitterness, hatred and anger, especially in the heart of the offended party." The bitter taste is to wash away bitterness from the people's hearts. The bitterness is to show that enmity is "bitter" and all efforts must be made to reconcile. This was a powerful philosophy for me to understand. The way he spoke and his body language left me with no room other than to continue having a watchful eye on him and take in as much as I could.

Secondly, he said that opwut was chosen because it is regarded as a symbol of unity. He said, "This is seen by how the opwut plant grows. Opwut grow in clusters; they do not grow alone like ordinary trees. Their growing together symbolizes unity and that is how Acholi people should be." He continued, "Once you have drunk opwut you must come and live together." He referred to himself and said, "Look at me. I am a leader and I want people to be united. If there is a problem, we must work hard and restore the broken relation and build trust among the people. As a leader, I believe nothing can defeat us when we are united like opwut." This was yet another very strong statement from my grandfather and I recognized what unity means in Acholiland -- how unity was important and continues to be important in Acholi society.

Finally, he said that the root of opwut has a reddish-like tone when mixed with water and symbolizes blood. With Acholis, bloodshed is never wanted. Because opwut is reddish, it reminds people that we do not want to see any more bloodshed as it has happened. He concluded, "Because you know why opwut was chosen, I guess you know why opwut is important and you can ask me other questions."

As he was answering my question, I noticed the tone in which he was speaking. I had never seen my grandfather talk with such a passion about Acholi culture -- our culture. So, I threw him another question. "How, then, is the ceremony performed?"

The old man, shaking his head, looked at me, smiled for the first time, and said, "That is a good question my son." I was happy to receive such a compliment from an elder like him. Strikingly, "in Acholiland, all ceremonies are voluntary." Even mato opwut is not a forced ceremony. To him, "mato opwut is reconciliation which involves cwinyi, tammi ki tipu meaning 'the heart, the mind and soul.'" Therefore, to perform such a ceremony, both clans must be willing. Both clans drink it willingly, which shows genuine reconciliation and an end to conflict. Once killing has taken place and there has been no mato opwut, he said, "the dead are not dead"; they will continue to come back to visit and cause atrocities on the clan, families, and relatives of the offender. It is therefore up to the killer to report to her clan members as fast as possible about what he or she has done and initiate mato opwut to appease the dead, for the good of his or her family and clan.

To Salvatore Okello, mato opwut is not a secret ceremony. It's a public event which is done to show everyone that killing is very bad and it must end with what has happened. It starts by the killer going voluntarily to the victim's family and clan for a confession, asking for an apology, and also asking for the family of the victim to accept his or her compensation. It will then be upon the elders of both clans (of the killer and the victim) to determine the compensation and also to agree on the time mato opwut should take place. This will depend on how the clans agree, but normally it should not take too long to avoid being "visited" by the spirit of the dead, nor can it be too soon. He remarked that, "the elders normally know how to navigate a ship even in the storm," meaning that the elders know when and how to start the process.

When the day for the ceremony comes, elders send for someone to go and uproot the opwut. When brought home, the roots are washed and immediately crushed. Later, they mix it with a local brew called kwete and put it in a calabash to await the ceremony. Elders will lead the ceremony by taking blood from the sheep and mixing it with opwut, which the two parties are made to drink.

My grandfather said that this is done in the presence of all parties and their relatives. The killer will be the first to take the opwut drink with their hands folded behind, signifying no more use of force between them. When the two have taken opwut, the close relatives start to come and also take the drink; this signifies that the rest of the clan members are also forgiving the killer.

When the drinking of opwut is done, the eating of the liver of lamb comes in. This is a roasted liver. The killer plays a key role in this part. He takes a piece and puts it into the mouth of the people he has wronged (i.e. the relatives), and then the mother of the victim puts the liver into the mouth of the killer. This is a significant moment. This is a moment of bringing back the lost relationship. According to my grandfather, when you hear someone say, "Wan ki ngadi-gi pe wacamme" it means "we don't eat with each other," signifying there is a broken relation between you that has not been repaired. Therefore, that sharing of the liver in the ceremony signifies an end to the broken relationship. When this is finished, there will be drumming to invite people to come and join (the other clan) for the celebrations. This means that both clans now live happily again after the murder.

As I listened to my grandfather narrate how the whole ceremony is done, I was amazed but I struggled to understand the implications of the ceremony on each of the parties. Seeing as he labored to answer my questions, I wanted to tell him to rest but I also knew that this was a moment that would never come again and I should use it properly to ask him all that I wanted to know about mato opwut.

I therefore ignored the pain he was going through, but told him, "This is my last question." He said, "Please, go ahead and ask all the questions." So, I asked him, "What is the implication of the mato opwut on the two parties?" He answered, "There are three major reasons why this ceremony must be performed: First of all, it helps bring back the loving relationship, and then it gives the victim and the killer's people inner peace, and finally it makes them rediscover a sense of purpose in life."

He looks at mato opwut as a ceremony, which brings back a loving relationship because it gives the parties the chance to rebuild the lost relationship. To him, everyone in Acholiland needs to be in loving relations with their families and with the clan as well. My grandfather sees mato opwut as something that reconciles the two parties and brings them back. The compensation given by the killer is not a payback but a sign that the killer is apologizing and, by this, requesting to be accepted into the loving relations that they were once in. In Acholi, building relationship starts by owning the mistake and asking for forgiveness. To emphasize the need for a loving relationship, he immediately asked me if I had heard about this proverb "Wat loyo lonyo" literally translated as "good relationship is better than riches." To illustrate his point, he told me this short story:

"Once upon a time, there was a very rich man who had everything. He was so bad that no one even would drink water in his home. He used to insult people and never socialise with his own people. One day when he died, there was no one who went to bury him. His wife could not bury him alone. He was left to the wild animals. Had he been in a loving relationship, people would have come to help."

My grandfather's major emphasis was that in Acholi, loving relationships come before anything. We need to be in loving relationship, not only with our families but also with the wider community because your family cannot meet all your needs. He concluded that, "if you kill and do not want to undergo mato opwut people will disown you and even revenge."

Secondly, the Acholi concept that "the dead are not dead" is a very strong concept amongst Acholis. Once you have killed, you will never have inner peace until mato opwut has been performed. To my grandfather, to have inner peace, you must not have "blood on your hands." "As a young man you cannot marry anyone's daughter with blood on your [hands]." He looks at inner peace as another significant aspect of the ceremony. He mentions that everyone needs to have "inner peace" and once you do not have it there is no easy pathway to peaceful and loving relationships. He said, "Inner peace means clearing up all the terrible or horrible things you have done by apologising to people you have wronged and asking for forgiveness." He then began a story. "When I was growing up, my father once told me this proverb: 'A tree cannot argue with an axe.' Do you know what it means?" he asked me. He said:

"Sometime back, there was a boy in this village who killed another boy when they were playing. Realizing that his friend was dead, he came back home and never reported. After a week, the family sent for information about the loss of their son. A week later, there was a search for the body and he was eventually found dead. His friend kept quiet and denied the knowledge of the death. He was buried but only after one month. The boy confessed because he was never at peace with himself. The tree could not argue with an axe. He could not argue with his guilt. Do you know why he came out? He had no inner peace."

He concluded that once you decide not to report a killing and undergo mato opwut, you will never be at peace. He said, "There will be a continuous nagging by the killing; this will never let you rest and be at peace with yourself and the community."

Finally, he summed up the importance of mato opwut by saying it helps the parties to rediscover the sense of purpose in life. "There is only one thing that has defeated us and that is death," he said. Death is a very painful and bitter experience for the entire family. According to my grandfather, moving from that experience and rediscovering that lost sense of purpose starts with acknowledging your wrongdoings, then asking for forgiveness and giving compensation. This makes the victim's family come to terms with what has happened. Their son or daughter is no more but they now need to rise up and meet the challenges of the world without him or her. To my grandfather, knowing tyen too (what caused the death) helps the victim's family and community come to terms with death, which in turn enables the victim's family and community to forgive after apology and compensation. As my grandfather mentioned, "There is a song that says, 'If I had known the death that killed my (loved one), I would rest.' Coming out and owning up to your mistakes, asking for forgiveness and giving compensation makes the family of the deceased live at peace. As for the 'killer,' it pinches his or her ears. It shows us that it is because people value life, that is why they are not revenging and it's a lesson for the killer, to value life and never kill again."

Realizing the context of mato opwut which was in the newspaper, I discovered the debate was on whether mato opwut is relevant in the context of the Lord's Resistance Army insurgency or not. I decided to find out his thoughts on this important issue. I had to make my question sound as if it was not a question and ask it with low energy. So I asked, "Would you support that the Lord's Resistance Army rebels undergo mato opwut or be tried by the International Criminal Court?" He said, "If you want to deal with relationships, reintegrate the former abducted children and above all see a peaceful society in Acholiland, please go for mato opwut and if you want to see revenge and possibly eventual return to conflict, go to the ICC."

After the discussion, I was so happy that I had learned a lot from my aging and sickly grandfather. He was also quite happy that I had learned something on mato opwut -- Acholi conflict resolution. He said, "Let other people also learn about this." He even gave me a handwritten book, Acholi Traditional Rules, as supplementary reading for me to learn much more about Acholi cultures and tradition. Little did I know this book was going to be my last gift from him. I did not know that the jokes and laughter we had shared would end that evening. Little did I know that the long conversation on my culture with him was going to be our last. Five hours later, the "long hand of the death took him away". I got a call from my uncle that he had passed away and I stood to thank God for providing me such a time to talk to him before he met his creator. Mr. Salvatore Okello, this article is your story.