The Acholi/Acoli people are a Luo nation from Agago, Amuru, Gulu, Kitgum, Nwoya, Lamwo and Pader in Northern Uganda (an area commonly referred to as Acholiland) and Magwe County in South Sudan.


They are said to have come to northern Uganda from the area now known as Bahr el Ghazal in South Sudan between 1400-1800 AD. The Luo-speaking Nilotic people wandered around Uganda, searching for pastures for their cattle and goats. A conflict arose between their leader Gipir and his brother Labongo over a bead swallowed by a child. Gipir moved west, and his descendants include the Alur. Labongo's group moved east of the Nile by AD 1500, and it was from this group that the present-day Acholi and Langi emerged.


Arabic-speaking traders from the north started to call them Shooli, a term which transformed into Acholi during the second half of the nineteenth century. They drew the similarity of Acholi Luo to the language of the previously encountered Shilluk or Collo of southern Sudan.


They speak the Acholi language, a Western Nilotic language classified as Luo and mutually intelligible with Lango and other Luo languages. The language is spoken in three dialects: Labwor, Nyakwai and Dhopaluo. Its current population is estimated to be around 1.7 million people.


Traditionally, the Acholi had chiefdoms headed by a chief (Rwot). The chiefs came from one lineage, and each chiefdom had several villages of different patrilineal clans(kaka). Some of the big clans had sub-clans and sub-chiefs. Their traditional communities were hamlets of circular huts with high peaked rooves, furnished with a mud sleeping platform, jars of grain and a fireplace. 


The Acholi were skilled hunters, using nets and spears, and clans owned the hunting tracts. In war, they used spears and long, narrow giraffe or ox hide shields. Presently, they keep sheep, goats and cattle but are not as committed to pastoralism as other Nilotic peoples. Millet is their staple food, and tobacco is grown for trade. Corn (maize), sorghum, beans, squash, peanuts (groundnuts) and other savanna crops also are grown. Stream and swamp fishing are also important.


Acholi religious beliefs focused on three types of spirits (Jok/Jogi). There were the spirits of known relatives, especially lineage ancestors, and a second type was the nonancestral jok of the chiefdom as a whole. Both spirits were beneficent. They were approached regarding general concerns such as good health, fertility, and appeals or thanks for good harvests in ceremonies that usually emphasized the consciousness, cohesiveness, and continuation of their respective groups as functioning corporate entities. The third group of spirits were those of unknown persons and dangerous beasts; these were hostile, personified as ghosts, believed to cause sickness and other misfortunes, and dealt with using spirit possession.


The Acholi have different traditional dances for various occasions and reasons. Music in Acholi-land was and is still used to transfer cultural knowledge through generations. The most common are:

Larakaraka dance

It was a courtship dance that allowed young men to demonstrate their dancing prowess and physical vigour in the hope of securing a marriage partner. 

The young men danced in a semi-circle with their legs interlocked while singing short repetitive songs. They wore 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 and push him out of the semi-circle. The young couple would retreat to a quiet spot to become better acquainted before returning to the dance at a later point.

However, dancing 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 appropriate gendered roles and behaviours to the audience.

Otole dance

Also known as the war dance, the Otole dance served several complementary functions. The vigorous and energetic movements helped prepare men for the demands of fighting, whilst the sequences performed during the mock fights instructed men on formation patterns, advance and retreat strategies and how to attack and defend with a spear and shield. It also emotionally prepared men for violent encounters, acting as a mechanism for motivation and encouragement and inciting military courage and confidence.

Apiti Dance

Girls danced this. They danced and sang in a straight line. It was performed in the middle of the year when it was raining.

Atira Dance 

It was a war dance. Fighting scenes were performed with spears and shields.

Bwola Dance 

It was a court dance (in the king's palace). A circular dance that was performed by the older men and women, with the circle representing a fence that surrounds the palace court. Many events and conversations took place during this dance, and it lasted for many hours.

This dance was a very rhythmic one. The main dancer always dressed in a leopardskin and conducted the scenes. The men carried and beat the drums.

Ding-Ding Dance 

Young girls danced, and their movements were meant to imitate birds. The girls danced to attract the young boys and were usually held on bright days when the sun is out.

Ladongo Dance

It was danced after a successful hunting event. Men and women danced in one line facing each other while clapping hands and running up and down while jumping.

Lalobaloba Dance 

No drums were used for this dance. The people danced in a circle, with the men building up the outer circle and putting their hands on the girls' heads while holding sticks with the other hand. 

Myel Awal Dance 

This was a funeral dance in which the women danced around the burial site while the men made up the outer circle with a spear and shield.

Myel Wamga Dance

Men put in circles on the floor and played the harp (ennanga) while the women danced the Apiti. It was performed at weddings or beer festivities.


Traditionally, a young man depended on his lineage head and elders for permission to marry and for the material goods required for bride-wealth; elders of the woman's lineage were also much involved in the discussions and negotiations surrounding the marriage.

Bride prices have varied over time but usually included iron objects, domestic animals, and money in the twentieth century. Marriage has been typically patrilocal and patriarchal, with the husband and father as the undisputed head of the household.

Although polygamy has often been presented as an ideal, limited means have always made it rare in practice. Children are highly prized, and historically a couple did not set up their household until the birth of their first child, living until then in the household of the husband's mother.

Childlessness is one of the most severe misfortunes imaginable; women are typically blamed, the marriage ends, or the husband takes a second wife.


Judith Hanna, 'African Dance and the Warrior Tradition. Journal of Asian and African Studies, XII, 1-4

Okot p'bitek,  Song of Lawino (East African Publishing House: Nairobi, 1966) 

Okumu pa’ Lukobo, ‘Acholi Dance and Dance Songs’. Uganda Journal, Vol. 35, 1971.

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2019, August 22). Acholi. Encyclopedia Britannica.

GROVE, E. (1919). CUSTOMS OF THE ACHOLI. Sudan Notes and Records, 2(3), 157-182. Retrieved April 27, 2021, from


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