Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Alice Auma (1956 - 17 January 2007) was an Acholi spirit-medium who, as the head of the Holy Spirit Movement, led a millennial rebellion against the Ugandan government forces of President Yoweri Museveni from August 1986 until November 1987. The primary spirit she purportedly channeled was that of a dead Italian army officer called "Lakwena", which means messenger. The combined persona of Alice Auma channeling the spirit Lakwena is often referred to as Alice Lakwena.


Alice Auma was born in 1956. After two marriages in which she proved infertile, she moved away from her hometown. She eventually converted to Catholicism but, on 25 May 1985, was purportedly possessed by a spirit, Lakwena, and went ‘insane’, unable to either hear or speak. Her father took her to eleven different witches but none could help. According to the story, finally Lakwena guided her to Paraa National Park where she disappeared for 40 days and returned a spirit-medium, a traditional ethnic belief.

Prior to the defeat of Tito Okello, Alice Auma was one of many spirit-mediums working near the town of Gulu as a minor oracle and spiritual healer. In the midst of the chaos of the anti-NRA insurgency of the Uganda People's Democratic Army and the increasingly brutal counterinsurgency of the National Resistance Army, it is claimed that on 6 August 1986 Lakwena ordered Alice to stop her work as a diviner and healer, which was pointless in the midst of war, and create a Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) to fight evil and end the bloodshed. Through this divine mission that coincidentally required the retaking of the capital of Kampala, the Acholi would redeem themselves from the violence they had collectively done to the civilians of the Luwero triangle and initiate a paradise on earth. An explanation was given in a letter given to local missionaries:

The good Lord who had sent the Lakwena decided to change his work from that of a doctor to that of a military commander for one simple reason: it is useless to cure a man today only that he be killed the next. So it became an obligation on his part to stop the bloodshed before continuing his work as a doctor.

This came in the midst of a profound spiritual crisis matched only by the threat posed by the occupying southern forces. The increased level of societal tension and number of deaths was attributed to witchcraft. Simultaneously, the soldiers fleeing back into Acholi from the defeat at Kampala often refused purification ceremonies to protect the community from the vengeful spirits of the people they had killed, and the elders found that they no longer had the authority to force compliance. These new evil spirits could then be used for even more witchcraft, creating the sense of a religious crisis spiraling out of control.

The insurgency led by Lakwena required that Alice be possessed by numerous other spirits to achieve its aims, which was unusual in the context of Acholi spirit-behavior. After a series of spectacular victories, Alice led the Holy Spirit Movement south out of Acholiland towards Kampala, where she garnered much support from other ethnic groups that had grievances with the Museveni government. However, the military setbacks inevitably suffered by the HSM prompted some followers to accuse Alice of being a witch using spirits for destructive ends. As the HSM suffered its final defeat under withering artillery fire in the forests near Kampala, Lakwena left Alice and she fled.

Alice Auma lived in the Ifo refugee camp near Dadaab in northern Kenya for the remainder of her life, and claimed to have been abandoned by the spirits. In November 2004 she was implicated in child trafficking from Gulu to the refugee camp. In 2006 she claimed to have discovered a cure for HIV/AIDS. Auma died on 17 January 2007, after being sick for about a week with an unknown illness.

The Tale of Paraa

While Alice’s practice as a medium immediately after returning to Gulu does not seem to have been particularly successful, the tale of Paraa became the central text of the Holy Spirit Movement, in particular in the discourse about the insurgency being a rebellion of nature itself, and deserves explication. According to the story, Lakwena first held court with all the animals of the park on the theme of the ongoing war in the south and destruction of the environment by warring parties:

Lakwena said to the animals: ‘You animals, God sent me to ask you whether you bear responsibility for the bloodshed in Uganda.’ The animals denied blame, and the buffalo displayed a wound on his leg, and the hippopotamus displayed a wound on his arm.

Lakwena then questioned the water about the war:

Lakwena said to the waterfall: ‘Water, I am coming to ask you about the sins and bloodshed in this world.’ And the water said: ‘The people with two legs kill their brothers and throw their bodies into the water.’ The spirit asked the water what it did with the sinners, and the water said: ‘I fight against the sinners, for they are the ones to blame for the bloodshed. Go and fight against the sinners, because they throw their brothers into the water.

After briefly returning home, Lakwena led Alice to Mount Kilak, which greeted their arrival with large explosions, to deal with the issue of witchcraft:

The spirit Lakwena said to the mountain or to the rock: ‘God has sent me to find out why there is theft in the world.’ The mountain answered: ‘I have gone nowhere and have stolen no one’s children. But people come here to me and name the names of those whom I should kill [by casting spells]. Some ask me for medicine [to bewitch]. This is the sin of the people. I want to give you water to heal diseases. But you must fight against the sinners.

In the climax to the story, God Himself specifies who is to blame for all of the suffering and bloodshed:

God said that there was a tribe in Uganda that was hated everywhere. This tribe was the Acholi. And God ordered that a lamb be offered, so that they should repent their sins and to put an end to the bloodshed in Acholi.

(The authoritative, and perhaps only significant, source of information on the intersection of Acholi traditional beliefs and the religious inner workings of the Holy Spirit Movement is: Behrend, Heike. Mitch Cohen, trans. Alice Lakwena and the Holy Spirits: War in Northern Uganda, 1985-97, James Currey, 2000. ISBN 0-8214-1311-2. (Originally published as Behrend, H. 1993. Alice und die Geister: Krieg in Norden Uganda. Trickster, Munich.)


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