Ryemo Gemo In Acholi Is Using Culture To Raise Awareness In Face of Pandemic

The writer, Mr Martin Aliker

By Martin Aliker 

Editors Note: In his address  to the nation last evening,  the president’s press officer Lindah Nabusayi brought it to the attention of the president that Acholi cultural leaders had appeared on a local radio in Gulu and given out  messages which were interpreted to go contrary to the  national strategy in the fight against the Coronavirus. In this blog post from Martin Aliker, originally posted on his Lagulu blog, he offers perspective on the practice of Ryemo Gemo in Acholi and argues that is in tandem with the government’s message of social distancing. 

Scientist are busy in their laboratories desperately working on a vaccine for the Covid-19 virus that is causing untold turmoil around the world. Christians are seeking divine intervention.  Traditionalists have resorted to traditional cosmology to make meaning of the virus.

In Gulu, residents performed the Acholi cultural ritual of ”Ryemo Gemo.” This continued on in many districts in the Acholi region; jerrycans, basin and other loud objects were banged in homesteads sending a collective din aimed at cursing the Coronavirus (Covid-19) Gemo (Spirit).

 What is Ryemo Gemo in Acholi?

 Gene Luen Yang once said that ‘‘Religion and culture are two important ways in which we as humans find our identity.”

Some millennials with shallow roots in their identity and cosmology treat the act of Ryemo Gemo as modern-day madness. Far from that.

Different people understand Ryemo Gemo differently depending on how old they are, the source of their knowledge, and their upbringing.

In this article, I will borrow from an Acholi elder, William Okidi (London)whose expertise in understanding Acholi cosmology is widely acknowledged. In a Facebook post on Facebook on March 30, 2020, Okidi wrote an in-depth and very insightful post on Ryemo Gemo.

According to Okidi, traditionally Acholi called pandemics that are not well known Gemo. Acholi believed they were caused by malevolent spirits. In the event of a Gemo attack, elders in consultation with cultural leaders mobilized every homestead to prepare with calabashes, animal hides and skin, containers, saucepans and any other items that can make loud noise. They would bang this item at a given time and day from their homesteads producing a din that would travel for miles, from homestead to homestead. The aim being chasing away the malevolent spirit.

Acholi believe pandemics come as punishment by malevolent spirits as a result of the immorality of individuals or the community. The community urges a cleansing and for people to keep away from immorality the same way Christians say suffering is wages for sins.

Historically, the ritual of Ryemo Gemo is performed when measles, chickenpox, smallpox, and syphilis and other pandemics strike. Patients were not allowed to move and mingle freely. The public were cautioned from touching the sick, just like Coronavirus patients. As a result, chicken pox was called ‘‘gwok Iguda” (Okidi, 2020). Gwok Iguda literally means ‘‘don’t touch me’’.

Acholi referred to those who touched the sick with the pandemic who eventually got sick as ‘‘oyee nyac pa lakware” meaning a patient’s sacrifice has led to syphilis from his grandchildren.

Normally elders were the ones who got closer to patients suffering during a pandemic. It was a form of sacrifice on the part of the elders and a show of willingness in the process of taking care of patients.  Just as is the case in the Coronavirus where some take the risk of potentially dying from the diseases to keep others safe.

Understanding African cosmology?

African Cosmology is simply the way Africans perceive, conceive and contemplate their universe; the lens through which they see reality, which affects their value systems and attitudinal orientations. It is the African’s search for the meaning of life, and natural tendency to arrive at a unifying base that frames meaning to them. This thinking is what holds the African value system, philosophy, and concepts of life intact.

Gemo as Acholi Cosmology

In a report on ‘‘Roco Wat I Acholi’’(renewing relationships)  by Liu Institute of Global Studies, Gulu District NGO Forum, Ker Kwaro Acholi,  contend that  traditionally Acholi believe in the world of the “living-dead” and divine spirits hence malevolent spirits too. Their belief in this world plays a significant role in shaping how Acholi see the role of malevolent spirits in upholding community values.

What is the Wisdom in Ryemo Gemo?

Why do Africans turn to their roots whenever faced with a challenge that seem to defy prayer and science? Acholi cosmology and wisdom as evidenced above results from centuries of a historical experiences of learning adopted to cultures and traditions. The Acholi logic of Ryemo Gemo during pandemics is in its belief, wisdom, and logic tested over centuries.

The wisdom in Ryemo Gemo is that in the face of any pandemic, banging items mobilizes awareness of the community about the pandemic and reminds elders of every home to make preparations to mitigate the pandemic.

Every homestead gets to know what the reasons for banging of items and what is being cursed. This information automatically prioritizes the pandemic just the government is doing to Coronavirus.

The stay at home campaign is no different from” Gwok Iguda” (don’t touch me) because by staying at home you limit contact in the community in the face of a pandemic which could increase prevalence.  This is the same science that informs the World Health Organization’s (WHO) and Ministry of Health’s guidance on social distance and staying at home to keep sage from the Coronavirus.

Ryemo Gemo calls on everyone to unite and listen to their cultural leaders. Similarly, in the coronavirus fight, we have been called to unite and listen to our leaders.

In conclusion, the WHO logic of Keep Safe, Stay Home and let’s fight Coronavirus TOGETHER is exactly the Acholi wisdom of Ryemo Gemo and contributes to the fight against the of Coronavirus.

Mr David Aliker is a Gulu- based blogger & opinion leader. This piece was originally posted on his Lagulu blog