Using aspects of the landscape to linguistically capture the importance of cooperation: Reflections from the Lusoga and Acholi people

Today we returned to Makerere University to meet initially with the Basoga Society at the University. The Basoga Kingdom (one of five constitutional monarchies in present day Uganda) is located in the South east of Uganda between the Lake Victoria and Lake Kyoga. This land encompasses the districts of Jinja, Kamuli, and Iganga. The Basoga people speak the Lusoga language that is closely related to Luganda (both of which are Bhantu languages). There are 3 million speakers of the language according the 2014 census. There are a number of dialects of Lusoga and this can lead to contention relating to the correct pronunciation of words. The moto of the Basago people is: ‘Okwisania busoga n’amaani’ (literally: together Basoga is power/figuratively: unity is strength). This is similar to a Luganda proverb ‘Abayita ababiri bejjukanya’ which is literally translated as ‘Those who walk together remind each other’ (potentially reflecting risks to people that existed in rural ecologies), but is figuratively translated as ‘Unity is strength’. The emblem of the Basoga is provided below.


The emblem and motto of the Basoga people

In our group today there were six participants – five male and one female – all students at Makerere University. All of the attendees indicated that they spoke Luganda as well as Lusoga fluently. The dynamic of the group was markedly different from the Luganda group that we had with the day before. Whereas the group of Luganda trainee teachers were very focused and attentive, this group seemed to be a bit more playful. This was perhaps unsurprising – by virtue of their training, trainee teachers are well versed on how to engage in group based activities in an educational setting! The students were from a variety of different academic subject backgrounds. One of the group members had agreed to facilitate the discussion and to pose the questions for the other group members to answer. With Lusoga and Lugandan sharing some similarities, Rosco was also able to track the conversation and provide some co-facilitation. An issue that arose with Lusoga, but not with Luganda, related to the translation of the English word ‘phrases’ – English synonyms of the word had to be generated, which were then translated into Lusoga. As with previous sessions the intensity of the discussion tended to wax and wane at different points, but encouragingly everyone in the round contributed their thoughts. Some interesting Lusoga sayings that emerged through our discussions that resonate themes of resilience included ‘Esososisole bwelitata lituukakulyenyu’ (if a bird does not die it reaches the banana), and ‘Abasoga twulyofi nseete’ (Basogas we are like termites). The group explained that the latter metaphor captures the rapid progress that Basoga people can make through collaboration – one moment a termite hill is not there, and the next it is! The influence of ecology on linguistic metaphors was again evident in these sayings.

Termite Hill

Termites and their hills – a feature of the landscape that capture the power of cooperation

The session with the members of the Basoga Society spurred me to look further into literature that has been published in the language that may be of relevance to our work. Dr Cornelius Wambi Gulere, an academic based at Makerere University, has written a number of books in Lusoga including : ‘911 Lusoga proverbs: Endheso mu Lusoga 911’ ( A dedication that Dr Gulere has made on a number of his publications (e.g. reads: “Eri abaana abadhuuba okuguluka; aye nga maayabaidha kukuguka mu mbiro dh’amagezi” (To all the children to whom flying may be the yearning; but like the ostrich would excel in the race of wisdom). I have contacted Dr Gulere to check whether an English language translation of the text exists, and whether he would be available to meet with us in the coming days.

In the evening we had arranged to meet with the Acholi Makerere Student Association (AMSA:, which has about 40 members made up of the 120 Acholi students who attend Makerere University from a total student population of 35,000. The Acholi form a significant proportion of the Luo Nilotic ethnicity that predominates in the northern part of Uganda – they are consequently under-represented in the student numbers at Makerere University. The region where the majority of the Acholi people live is referred to as the ‘Acholi land’ and it spreads across the border between Northern Uganda and South Sudan – see the map below. The Acholi language is mutually intelligible with other languages spoken in Northern Uganda including Lango and Alur). Collectively, these western Nilotic Language are referred to Luo Languages. The 2014 census indicated that 1.5 million people in Uganda speak the Acholi language.


Acholi Land in Northern Uganda/Southern Sudan

It has been suggested that during the colonial era the Acholi were preferred by the British as soldiers and that this military ‘ethnocracy’ (i.e. a type of political regime in which the state apparatus is appropriated by a dominant ethnic group(s) to further its interests, power and resources) has contributed to a shaping of the Acholi ethnic identity over time. Further reflections on the Acholi identity are provided in the following article: The Northern Region of Ugandan was heavily impacted by the conflict that occurred over 2 decades from the 1986 to 2006. This led to huge levels of displacement of the local population. It has been suggested that since the 1980’s the Acholi have experienced discrimination and exclusion from senior government offices. There continues to be marked inequality between the living standards in Northern Uganda compared with the remainder of the country.

The meeting took place a short distance from the Makerere University Guest House. The group had assembled in the relative cool of a grassy area between university buildings that doubled as an outdoor meeting space. The group had kindly agreed to set aside time during their routine meeting to talk with us. This was by far the largest group of people that we had met with – approximately 35 people. As the discussion evolved it became apparent that a subsection of the group were contributing to the discussions, whereas others were more reticent. It was agreed that we work with the sub-group of AMSA members, so that the others could progress with the other items on the agenda of their meeting. This meant that 10 people were left to interact with the Acholi speaking facilitator of the group (Mr John Stevens Opio).


The setting for our meeting with the Acholi Makerere Student Association

Hearing the Acholi language spoken by the students instantly brought me back to the time that I spent in Northern Uganda in April 2015. I was able to share pieces of the related Lango language that I had picked up during my time in Lira (see blog entries below relating to the work that we completed at that time). To my eyes and ears, the sharing of these basic pieces of language had a marked impact on the interactions that I had with the AMSA members. The fact that I had some, albeit small, knowledge of the Luo language seemed to facilitate a deeper sense of connection. As I listened intently to the discussions I was able to hear people make mention of linguistic descriptors of problems we had noted during our fieldwork in Lira e.g. ‘laro lobo’ (land wrangles – relating to disputes over the ownership of land that people had been displaced from). Clearly, the difficulties of the past continue to cast long shadows over the experience of the Acholi people. The discussions progressed well as the sun began to set – the encroaching darkness coinciding with the tapering of the discussions.

Prompted by a number of students approaching me to enquire about the possibility of studying in the UK, I addressed the larger group to provide some advice about applying for scholarships. Schemes like the Commonwealth Shared Scholarship Scheme ( although highly competitive can provide important opportunities for post-graduate study in the UK. My hope is that in spite of the current political climate, the UK will continue to invest in the development of young people in low income settings, and that the supported individual can cascade their knowledge and expertise to benefit individuals around them. Although, the first two days of the trip have been enriching, the energy levels have dipped as we adjust to the recent travel and the new surroundings. A good night sleep is required!

Cliodhna’s reflections:

“To start the day we met a small group of Basoga students at Makerere University. The sense of multilingualism was even more evident in this group because of the presence of three languages: Roscoe gave instructions in a mix of Lusoga and Luganda, while a member of the student group who was fluent in Basoga and English co-facilitated. Moreover there were discussions amongst the students about who spoke Lusoga ‘properly’ as well as talk about the fact that some members of the group did not seem to be aware of certain Lusoga rituals, songs, or phrases that were being discussed. These factors contributed to a greater sense of uncertainty within this group compared to the last student group. However it should be noted that the latter were part of a group that celebrates their culture so they may have been better versed in discussing the topic of the questions that we were asking.

Meeting with a large group of Acholi students in the evening at the very least taught us some lessons about conducting interviews in groups of over 30 people! After a couple of questions it was agreed that a smaller number of students would partake in the group interview while the rest carried on with their arranged meeting. The student who was helping to co-facilitate told us that the students were expressing their thoughts on the negative things affecting their lives at the moment. They were still eager to continue to talk as darkness crept up and it was clear that they have a lot of pressing concerns, in particular about their futures.

By the end of today I was more aware of the differences that had existed between all of the groups – and I presume that it will continue that way. However despite these differences, they have all had in common a sense of being invigorated or energised by the end of the interviews; perhaps because of talking amongst peers about cultural practices and symbols that they have in common, or from getting a chance to express their views on the negative issues affecting them.

Some of the difficulties of researching multilingually were also highlighted today- I noticed that if Ross asked a question in English everyone (naturally) answered in English and we, perhaps confusingly, had to explain that we wanted them to answer in their mother tongue. Moreover people seemed to have difficulty with the translation of the word ‘phrases’ which we didn’t anticipate, and to a lesser extent the phrase ‘everyday objects’. I pondered whether this had been translated as objects that we specifically use every day as opposed to ‘common’ objects present in our lives. It is clear to me that there are unanticipated obstacles in researching across a number of languages, often present in the smaller details.”


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