Living with Bad Surroundings: War, History, and Everyday Moments in Northern Uganda

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Since 1986, the Acholi people of northern Uganda have lived in the crossfire of a violent civil war, with the Lord’s Resistance Army and other groups fighting the Ugandan government. Acholi have been murdered, maimed, and driven into displacement. Thousands of children have been abducted and forced to fight. Many observers have perceived Acholiland and northern Uganda to be an exception in contemporary Uganda, which has been celebrated by the international community for its increased political stability and particularly for its fight against AIDS. These observers tend to portray the Acholi as war-prone, whether because of religious fanaticism or intractable ethnic hatreds. In Living with Bad Surroundings, Sverker Finnström rejects these characterizations and challenges other simplistic explanations for the violence in northern Uganda. Foregrounding the narratives of individual Acholi, Finnström enables those most affected by the ongoing “dirty war” to explain how they participate in, comprehend, survive, and even resist it.

Finnström draws on fieldwork conducted in northern Uganda between 1997 and 2006 to describe how the Acholi—especially the younger generation, those born into the era of civil strife—understand and attempt to control their moral universe and material circumstances. Structuring his argument around indigenous metaphors and images, notably the Acholi concepts of good and bad surroundings, he vividly renders struggles in war and the related ills of impoverishment, sickness, and marginalization. In this rich ethnography, Finnström provides a clear-eyed assessment of the historical, cultural, and political underpinnings of the civil war while maintaining his focus on Acholi efforts to achieve “good surroundings,” viable futures for themselves and their families.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Living with Bad Surroundings . . . [is] a very good book, perhaps the best written on northern Uganda since the 1970s. It will be an ideal text for courses dealing with Africa and the local realities of modern armed conflicts.” - Tim Allen, Times Literary Supplement

“[An] insightful, compelling ethnography. . . . Finnström has important things to say about ethnographic intimacy, the phenomenology of fieldwork, and the universality of culture as human existence. The book offers a fine example of the merits of local, detailed ethnographic knowledge for understanding civilian life in a warzone, as well as glimpses of the emotional connections an anthropologist forms with informants and collaborators.” - Catherine Besteman, American Ethnologist

“I recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the problematic side of Africa. It reads more like the writing of a good and thoughtful war correspondent rather than a traditional social scientist. It what is useful and appropriate for understanding the world of contemporary northern Ugandans whom the author clearly liked and cared about.” - T.O. Beidelman, Anthropos

“Finnström’s analysis of the factors involved in the devastating conflict in Northern Uganda between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is a valuable contribution to the literature on contemporary armed conflicts. . . . Finnström’s careful examination is essential for students, scholars, and practitioners who want to understand the political, economic, historical, cultural, and religious complexities involved in ay armed conflict.” - Joanne Corbin, African Studies Review

“This is a moving, politically engaged and penetrating study. It has . . . page-turning qualities. . . . If you are going to read just one book on northern Uganda, this is the one to go for.” - Tim Allen, Africa

Living with Bad Surroundings is a lucid, compelling, in-depth, and detailed exploration of the vexed position of youth in poverty-stricken Africa; a painstaking and authoritative account of one of the most refractory and long-running wars on that continent; and a demonstration of how imperative it is to complement historical and political-economic explanations of Africa’s conflicts with ethnographic perspectives that encompass local symbolic reality, local readings of history and tradition, local expectations and desires, and local understandings of power, morality, and reconciliation.”—Michael Jackson, author of In Sierra Leone

“Riveting. Powerful. Evocative. Anthropology at its best. Sverker Finnström is a gifted researcher and writer: in his hands the Acholi become a lens for understanding very twenty-first-century forms of violence and survival. This is a book about one of the more destructive and bitter wars on the African continent and its global connections. But it is also a book about hope, about facing and overcoming crises—of every culture being all cultures in the opus of experience, of mango trees surviving the tides of war and global ignorance. About sorrow and laughter and moments of coevalness in northern Uganda and beyond.”—Carolyn Nordstrom, author of Global Outlaws: Crime, Money, and Power in the Contemporary World

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822341918
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2008
  • Series: The Cultures and Practice of Violence Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 848,000
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Sverker Finnström is a lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University.

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Read an Excerpt


War, History, and Everyday Moments in Northern Uganda
By Sverner Finnström

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4191-8

Chapter One



There is a place in southwestern Acholiland called "the Place of Many Hippos" (Paraa). Here the river Nile is mighty, calm, and wide. Today it is part of a national park. As the name indicates, hippos are plentiful here. There is no bridge, but a ferry takes travelers over the river.

In 2000, I had an opportunity to visit the area with my parents. We stayed some days in the park on our way from Gulu to Kampala. I was driving a rental car with Tonny next to me. My parents were in the back seat. We were driving through landscapes well known to Tonny, who is an experienced hunter. His hunting skills made him the perfect guide to the riches of the wildlife of the area. The nights we spent at a luxurious tourist lodge at Paraa. A few years back, the lodge was carefully renovated, in the most colonial style, as I imagine it. The hotel personnel were all dressed in perfectly ironed khaki uniforms. A clan brother to Tonny, employed at the lodge, welcomed us as we arrived. They both come from Anaka, on the north border of the park. Old-fashioned boxes and big trunks were strategically placed just next to the reception, giving the impression that Ernest Hemingway or some historical dignitary had arrived just before us. Dark wooden details and brown, British-style armchairs around small tables dominated the corridors and the many lounges. Big fans in the ceiling rotated slowly. They were more for decoration than for any cooling effect. On the walls there were various images reproduced from nineteenth-century travelogues. Familiar scenes invited the tourist to consume exotica, such as the endless caravans of the European explorers, or the sportsman John Hanning Speke in a close encounter with elephants or perhaps a lion, or the many "ambushes" Henry Stanley's team endured as they traveled along the Congo River, or Stanley's famous encounter with Livingstone.

After checking in, I joined Tonny for a stroll through the many rooms and saloons. In silence and with great care he looked at the many images, one by one. He finally stopped in front of an image in a small frame. It showed the European traveler seated in his palanquin, carried by four Africans, his beloved dog running next to them as the equipage progressed through the bush. "This is very painful. Very painful indeed," was Tonny's only comment before we went to our room to unpack our luggage and enjoy a swim in the pool. Later, when I was back in Sweden, I spent some time reading the old travelogues dealing with Uganda. Samuel White Baker had visited the region, and his conclusions were harsh. "Human nature viewed in its crudest state as pictured amongst African savages is quite on a level with that of the brute, and not to be compared with the noble character of the dog," he wrote (1866: 174, vol. 1). His pet monkey was more civilized than the Africans, he repeatedly claimed.


This chapter introduces the Acholi people. Samuel White Baker and John Hanning Speke, friends and fellow explorers, were among the first Europeans to encounter the Acholi. They traveled to Africa in the mid-1850s, at a time when the explorative curiosity of European intellectuals was increasingly determined by the paradigm of the day, which was legitimated by the natural sciences and focused on the classification of humanity into mutually exclusive and hierarchically arranged races. In the effort to sketch the background to today's developments in northern Uganda, the chapter explores the interconnection of European imperialism and racist ideology. Of course, no imperial or colonial administration was homogenous. Rather, they were the result of conflicting social, political, and economic interests among their many individual stakeholders. Still, I will delineate some dominant traits of imperialism and colonialism in northern Uganda and develop the argument proposed by anthropologists such as Allen (1988-1989; 1991; 1994; 2006b), Behrend (1999a), and Vincent (1999), that Acholi ethnic identity and other Ugandan ethnic identities were reified or codified because of colonialism. But I also want to develop the argument, advanced by historians such as Atkinson (e.g., 1978; 1994; 1999), that Acholi collective belonging cannot be said to be a mere colonial invention, imposed from above.

My wish to unfold aspects of the imperial heritage of Europe in Africa is not new, but it is still important. When the imperialists arrived in the area that was to become Uganda, they applied their assumptions concerning others uncritically and without much reflection, basing their conclusions on already defined ideological hypotheses. They even claimed that the encounter between colonizer and colonized was dialogic, that colonial rule was wanted by the Africans. Maps were drawn and tribal designations were included in their reports. History was written. Little room was left for the colonized subjects to voice their concerns or even to steer their ways through the historiography. As the imperialists imposed their truths and acted upon the people to be colonized, the latter often experienced a crisis of control in everyday life as well as over their own fate. It was "the appropriation of a past by conquest," to make a parallel with Guha's (1997: 3) analysis of colonial India. The imperial agents tended to understand themselves as determining the periphery, filling with meaning the alleged void that had been discovered, almost with the claim to have invented it, while at the same time neglecting the ways in which their counterparts on the periphery determined them and their imperial centers (Pratt 1992).

In a discussion of identity politics in postcolonial Uganda, Okuku (2002: 8) claims that "'tribes' themselves have usually been modern constructions through the intervention of colonialism, which froze the play of identities." Regarding Uganda and its postcolonial problems, this is somehow an agreed truism in scholarly writing. More generally, Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) famously concluded that traditions are invented. Their argument has been widely debated, and Ranger was inspired to revise the position, concluding instead that traditions must change to stay alive. Self-critically, he notes that "invention is too once-for-all an event," as if the invention thereafter can be patented (Ranger 1994: 23). Already in 1970, Taban lo Liyong, a Sudanese writer raised in Gulu, wrote, "To live, our traditions have to be topical; to be topical they must be used as part and parcel of our contemporary contentions and controversies" (Liyong 1970: x).

In the anthropological study of colonialism in India, Fox wrote a fascinating account of the Sikhs, in which he explicitly deals with culture as in a "constant state of becoming" (Fox 1985: 13). Still, the bias toward colonial times makes it difficult for me to accept that the idea of culture in the making really differs from the idea of the invention of culture, tradition, or ethnic identity. What about precolonial times? What about the manipulation of identities from below? And what about postcolonial manifestations of collective identity?

It is in the process of human communication that collective belonging is fostered. Ethnic belonging is basically about drawing boundaries, and differences and similarities are evoked as people orient themselves in the world. The social context will determine which measurement will be weighted against the other. With this emphasis, I follow the anthropological consensus that challenges the idea that social groups, ethnic or other, are or have been isolated from one another. My process and contextual approach makes it hazardous for me to say anything final on the possible essences of the various ethnic belongings that people worldwide produce and reproduce on a daily basis. Ethnic categories and labels are in some senses of the word inventions and therefore always have a certain degree of fixity about them. However, and more importantly, ethnic identity and culture are socially lived, and created and recreated in everyday life, making it irrelevant to divide the world into two, the pre-modern or traditional and the modern.


The Acholi people today generally consider themselves a distinct ethnic group. They call their language Acholi, or sometimes Luo. When today's Acholiland was made a contact zone between people living there and European agents who extended their travels to the area, the local people were most often labeled after the chiefdoms that the Western explorers encountered, such as Koch, Patiko, or Payira, to mention only a few. The Acholi (Acoli, Acooli) denomination is of contested origin, but the variants Shuuli, Sooli, and Shooli became broadly used at the time when Arab traders in slaves and ivory moved into the region in the 1850s (Atkinson 1978: 504-552; 1989: 37-39). Relying on firepower and local rivalries, these intruders into southern Sudan and northern Uganda soon "installed themselves with bands of armed retainers in fortified camps called zeriba, and proceeded 'to fuse trade with robbery'" as "native tribes were set against each other in a mindless, self-destructive struggle" (Markakis 1987: 29). The slave and ivory trade devastated the region. Europeans who arrived slightly later built their own fortified camps, and they referred to the local people as the Shooli (e.g., Baker 1866; 1874; Mounteney-Jephson 1890). In parallel to this outside label, the Acholi were sometimes called Gang or Gangi, meaning home or village in Acholi, a name given to the Acholi by their southern neighbors (Girling 1960: 1; p'Bitek 1971: 3-4).

Currently, the Acholi live mainly in Pader, Kitgum, Amuru, and Gulu districts, four of the northern districts in Uganda, of which two, Amuru and Kitgum, border Sudan. Acholi are also found in the southernmost part of Sudan. According to the 2002 national census, the population of Acholiland numbered 1,145,437. This makes up almost 5 percent of Uganda's total population of 24.4 million. The four districts however, constitute some 12 percent of the country's total area, or 27,871 square kilometers (Rwabwoogo 2002).

The districts of Pader and Kitgum correspond roughly to Acholi mamalo or the upper Acholi, that is, those who descended from the hills. Gulu and Amuru districts correspond to Acholi mapiny or the lower Acholi, as Acholi say. For short, they say lumalo (the ups) and lupiny (the downs) respectively. In addition to this, but "long time back," as Tonny's mother Rufina put it, Acholi who lived around Palabek and the Agoro hills in Kitgum district, as well as those on the Sudanese side of the border, were called lugot (from got, mountain). The river Aswa, running from the southeast toward the northwest, has naturalized the administrative border between the east and the west (Leys 1967: 18). In the colonial context, the lower Acholi were categorized as the western Acholi, with administrative headquarters in Gulu town, while the upper Acholi were labeled the eastern Acholi, with the colonial administration centered in Kitgum town.

This order has been naturalized over the years. Today many of my informants, as well as missionaries, hold that the upper Acholi are "more traditional" (a positive statement) or "more backward" (a negative statement) than their "lower" brothers and sisters. Acholi lugot (Acholi of the mountains), my friend Otim p'Ojok suggested, refers to "people who are strong or hard as stone," even "brave." Otim p'Ojok, who grew up and lives on the Gulu side, continued with an illustration that also said something about the gender hierarchy of the Acholi moral world. "It is like Gulu men who fear the stubbornness of Kitgum women," he pictured it. Actual marriages transcend such divides in everyday life.

The Acholi ideology of social organization is oriented to patrilineal descent with decentralized and exogamous lineages or clans called kaka (Girling 1960: 18, chap. 8). These groupings, Allen (1994: 128-129) suggests, may perhaps better be portrayed as close relatives, as they also can refer to women who have married into the group and people related on one's maternal side, with whom marriage is forbidden. Atkinson (1994: 76, n. 2) notes that the Acholi do not represent any "classic, segmentary society" in line with the ethnographic model presented by Evans-Pritchard (1940) in his account of the political organization of the Nuer of southern Sudan. As Evans-Pritchard (1949: 57) himself observed, "All these terms are relative and are used in a more or less comprehensive sense according to the context." A strong matrifocality colors everyday life in Acholiland, as noted by Girling (1960: 50-51). As a young adult, my friend Tonny took two names-Odiya from his late father, and Labol from his beloved mother-in this way stressing both the patrilineage and matrifocality. Also recall Ladit Abic, the old man who carefully nurtured his ancestral shrines despite war and oppression. Central to the ancestral shrine of the family was an old grinding stone, which represented the first "granny" of the clan, as Abic put it. "In a sense all kinship is through the mother, even kinship with the father and hence with the paternal kin," wrote Evans-Pritchard about lived kinship and neighborliness in Nuer society (1951: 156; see also James 1990).

Before war arrived in northern Uganda in 1986, many Acholi families kept cattle. During the course of the war, however, most cattle have been looted or killed by the fighting forces, and the majority of people depend on relief handouts. Only 2 percent, or some few thousand head, of the prewar cattle remain (Weeks 2002: 35). Cattle have never been the main source of income or subsistence for the great majority of Acholi (p'Bitek 1971: 19; Atkinson 1994: 56-57), but the symbolic significance of this cultural loss should not be underestimated. Many Acholi, especially older people, regard cattle as the most prestigious form of wealth. The Acholi also keep goats, sheep, and pigs. They have managed to keep these animals to a higher degree than cattle during the period of war and great social unrest. Agriculture, however, is the primary activity of subsistence for most Acholi. Although war and life in displacement have limited or even deprived the majority of Acholi from growing their own food, millet and sorghum remain the staple crops of choice, prepared as a kind of porridge or dough, or sometimes as beer. These crops are central in the Acholi imagination of a good, healthy life. If "you are what you eat" is a valid dictum, many old Acholi would refer exactly to millet and sorghum as being at the heart of a proper upbringing, both bodily and morally (odoko dano, to become a person, as Acholi say). As p'Bitek has it in a widely acclaimed poem that is required secondary school reading in Uganda:

Do you know Why the knees Of millet-eaters Are tough? Tougher than the knees Of the people who drink bananas! Where do you think The stone powder From the grinding stones goes?


The Acholi are millet eaters, so the poem goes. This would make them tougher than peoples living in southern and central Uganda, among whom the green cooking banana (matooke) is a daily staple. I had read the long poem several times, but it was a young unmarried man in Gulu town, a teacher by profession, who eventually pointed out the verse to me. According to him, the poem illustrated the senior generation's promotion of ethnic sentiments at the cost of a national Ugandan future (see also Oruni 1994: 15).

To the extent they can, the Acholi also grow maize, sweet potatoes, sorghum, cassava, peas, beans, sesame, groundnuts, squash, and various vegetables, as well as other savanna crops, largely for consumption. Before the war, avocados, mangoes, pineapples, and other fruits were grown for commercial use. Today people grow fruits mostly for personal use, though sometimes they are grown for small-scale businesses. Tobacco, cotton, sugarcane, sunflowers, and rice are grown for trade and consumption, but these activities too have been heavily affected by the war. In the late 1990s, imported rice from Pakistan made the market price fall in Uganda, which makes it difficult for farmers to sell their rice harvests with any profit at all.


Excerpted from LIVING WITH BAD SURROUNDINGS by Sverner Finnström Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


ORIENTATIONS: War and culture in Uganda....................29
CHAPTER 1: Acholi worlds and the colonial encounter....................63
CHAPTER 2: Neocolonial legacies and evolving war....................99
CHAPTER 3: Rebel manifestos in context....................131
CHAPTER 4: Displacements....................167
CHAPTER 5: Wartime rumors and moral truths....................197
CHAPTER 6: Uprooting the pumpkins....................233
REORIENTATIONS: Unfinished realities....................245
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