The Acholi are one of the major tribes in Uganda occupying majority of the Northern Region. They are Luo speakers and are academically classed to be River Lake Nilotes. The Acholi people, currently recovering from a 20 year civil war, are reknown for their vast indigenous culture constituting a wide variety of traditional dances, highly nutritious and variable diet, a wide practice of remedial traditional medicine among others. The depth of the culture stretches to unprecedented knowledge of pandemic management, which founds the quest of this article.
In an address to the Nation, the President HE YK Museveni when told that the Acholi had conducted Ryemo Gemo, he pointed that corona was not an evil spirit and that Lawirwodi (Acholi Paramount Chief) and his people should stick to the scientific mechanisms. This was a surprising response by the President who has hitherto shown a deep enthusiasm for African anthropology and history, however, it does underline the contemporary attitude towards African cultures. This attitude, while trendy has and is costing us a vast wealth of knowledge fabricated through several centuries of African society. I hope through understanding Ryemo Gemo, we can open our eyes appreciating African tradition and its continued relevance.
An widespread outbreak of disease in the Acholi dialect is termed as Gemo. Like a wind, it sweeps through the communities bringing illness, death and grief, these indeed are dark times. Gemo in the past has included that of small pox, measles and most recently ebola claiming the beloved son of the land, Dr. Lukwiya.
Gemo, traditionally is associated with a dishonor of the gods who are represented by designated oracles notably Jok (god) of tura (hills, mountains, bodies of water). While seemingly, out fashioned, there is no doubt that the we are sick because the world is sick. An example is in Congo, where the vast deforestation and encroachment led to human-monkey interaction that sparked of the ebola. The gods therefore represents the disciplinarian nature of Mother Earth that has laws to be respected lest we face consequences in the form of pandemics, floods, famine, et cetera.
Once an illness is identified as gemo, a protocol for its prevention and control is implemented that is quite different from the treatment and control of other illnesses. I think this what the whole world is witnessing and adopting.
When an illness has been identified and categorized as a killer epidemic (gemo), the family is advised to do the following:
1. Quarantine or isolate the patient in a house at least 100 m from all other houses, with no visitors allowed.
2. A survivor of the epidemic should feed and care for the patient. If no survivors are available, an elderly woman or man should be the caregiver.
3. Houses with ill patients should be identified with two long poles of elephant grass, one on each side of the door.
4. Villages and households with ill patients should place two long poles with a pole across them to notify those approaching.
5. Everyone should limit their movements, that is, stay within their household and not move between villages.
6. No food from outsiders should be eaten.
7. Pregnant women and children should be especially careful to avoid patients.
8. Harmony should be increased within the household, that is, there should be no harsh words or conflicts within the family.
9. Sexual relations are to be avoided.
10. Dancing is not allowed.
11. Rotten or smoked meat may not be eaten, only eat fresh cattle meat.
12. Once the patient no longer has symptoms, he or she should remain in isolation for one full lunar cycle before moving freely in the village.
13. If the person dies, a person who has survived gemo or has taken care of several sick persons and not become ill, should bury the persons; the burial should take place at the edge of the village.
However, burial practices for Gemo death change. The body is not touched and is buried outside or at the edge of the village. The designated caregiver, someone who has survived the outbreak or an older woman, is responsible for washing and preparing the body for burial.
Several other ways exist to try to control gemo, including driving it away to the Nile by noisemaking (Ryemo Gemo). However, even while making noise and chanting, the factor of social distancing was maintained with this activity done within the household despite the act being a show of unity. This procedure was also conducted several times during the outbreak and is conducted every December 31 to chase away any potential gemo before the New Year begins. This culture is related to the Chinese culture, where fireworks were invented to chase away evil spirits at the start of a new year.
As illustrated above, it is clear the sheer amount of wealth in handling not only pandemics but a variety of societal issues. Modern intellect is therefore a vital force in history, but it can also be a dissolvent. According to Lessons Of History by Ariel, out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace. All the medicinal knowledge in the world around HIV/AIDS, yet still it is moral acts abstinence and faithfulness groomed over time that most effectively control infection. The sweet sounding terms of contemporary human biology may thus not be as effective to a local somewhere deep in Acholiland. This outlines the continued relevance of traditional handling mechanisms.
No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history. A youth boiling with hormones will wonder why he should not give full freedom to his sexual desires; and if he is unchecked by custom, morals, or laws, he may ruin his life before he matures sufficiently to understand that sex is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume in chaos both the individual and the group.
In conclusion, in the dilemma between modern medicine and traditional handling, both remain of great relevance. It is good that the old should resist the new, and that the young should prod the old, out of this tension, as out of the strife of the sexes and the classes, comes a creative tensile strength, a stimulated development, a secret and basic unity and movement of the whole.