Guest Post I Peter Labeja: Time check 5:10Am. A strange noise in my neighborhood. The kind I experienced during my childhood. Residents are loudly banging on empty containers, their doors and saucepans. I can hear strange incantations. (Wuuu Wuuu Wuuu….Kati. Kati. Kati. Kabedo ni peke kany. Wot! Wot! Wot! Wang ceng oteri ci oteri). “Thieves?” a member of my household fired at me.
“Calm down!” I comforted. The rest is history. The practice is an age-old ritual among the Acholi community. I first came across it many years ago. It was ushering the New Year. A way of saying good-bye to a troublesome year. The one of today is not about a troublesome year. It is a spiritual warfare in African Spiritualism. A surprise attack on a ferocious and ruthless enemy. A werewolf devil. One on a genocide mission against the human race. It is warfare against the wrath of Coronavirus (the Gemo).
Under the Acholi culture, Gemo is a deliberately cruel spirit beast which often goes on rampage killing humankind and drinking blood. A sort of unseen vampire. Able to fly away un-noticed. Homestead after homestead, it stealthily attack and devour humanity. Sometimes wiping out members of the entire household.
The beast manifests through science baffling ailments and threatens the entire community. Boils. Measles or scabies. Being spiritual, the solution is also spiritual. Elders gather together in a haste to consult the medium. I will return to this later.
First, the incantation. Wuuu. Wuuu. Wuuu. An announcement of the intrusion of a merciless, angry and blood thirsty beast into human community. A call to action for men to rise to war as women morale boost by the sideline. During Ryemo Gemo, women watch over the Children to make sure they stay in the house –less they are snatched by the fleeing beast. The chief weapon of this warfare is noise – lethal to the mind of the beast. It is believed among the Acholi people that this beastly creature take refuge in welcoming households – those that don’t take part in the rite of exorcism. In such a home, the beast snatches people by striking them with a terminal sickness. A condition that knows no medicine or treatment.
Kati. Kati. Kati. Kabedo ni peke kany. This phrase means go your way you unwelcomed homeless beast. You have no place here. The essence of this is to say we don’t entertain your bloodbath here. Call it crude or refined if you like. This is spiritualism at its best.
Wot! Wot! Wot! Speedily disappear or we slaughter you with our bare hands. It is a fighting spirit of the Acholi people as if to say “if I could get a hold of you, I would tear (rip) you into pieces”. And this phrase is said in an angry high pitch. Even, the banging pattern changes. Loud and vicious. This is why metals are struck against each other (Goyo Debbe).
Wang Ceng oteri ci oteri. Disappear with the setting sun. We don’t ever need you in our territory. Perhaps this is why Ryemo Gemo begins from the East and reverberates towards the West. It is an orchestra in which the easterly homesteads pass onto their westerly neighbors – spiritually passing the beast to the end of the Earth. The end of the earth is where no mankind lives. It is an Oracle of the spirit world – home to only deadly beasts.
According to various Acholi elders, the ancestors invoked the rite of exorcism (Ryemo Gemo) to rid the land of bad spirits. The ritual dates back many centuries. And it is done with the express authority of the Medium which is often consulted in unfriendly situations. In the case of the rite held on March 31st, 2020, it is rumoured that the authority was secured from Got Lagoro, the resting place of Jok Lagoro (Oracle of Lagoro) in Kitgum district.
In Acholi Culture, various geographical features such as water body, mountain, hill, forests and hunting grounds harbor different Oracles. The oracles are petitioned during times of difficulties – droughts, famine, diseases or barrenness. Although the ritual last between 5-10 minutes, the one of March 31st lasted for up to 30 minutes. Whether Coronavirus was designated as a Gemo by the Oracle of Lagoro, is topic for another day. For now, Acholi communities in Gulu invoked the powers of Ryemo Gemo against Coronavirus.
Peter Labeja is a Pan African Award Winning Journalist, Bible Student and a Student of the Community. He has reported on different themes of Acholi Culture including Cremation.