What would Okot p’Bitek tell Museveni about ‘gemo’? (Part II)

Sunday April 12 2020

What would Okot p’Bitek tell Museveni about ‘ryemo gemo’?

Sunday April 05 2020

During one of his briefings on the coronavirus pandemic, President Museveni was told by the head of his media team, Linda Nabusayi, that there’s a practice called “ryemo gemo” in Acholi which requires people to bang jerrycans, pots and pans in order to chase away the evil spirits that the people believe are responsible for coronavirus.

She basically called the belief system and the practice that stems from it archaic and retrogressive as far as the fight against the coronavirus is concerned.
The President concurred with the harsh judgment of his media chief.

He then proceeded to announce that he would talk to the Lawirwodi (paramount chief) of Acholi, Rwot David Onen Achana and ask him to ban the practice. When I heard the President say that, I concluded that the fight against the coronavirus pandemic will require an interdisciplinary approach.

I’m now convinced the President requires a medical anthropologist. That will protect him from having the vision of a well frog as he leads Ugandans in what is likely to be a protracted people’s war against the coronavirus.

Ryemo gemo, or chasing evil spirits that cause epidemics, is part of a belief system. If our literary giant Okot p’Bitek was alive, he wouldn’t have kind words for those who on the basis of a very shallow and superficial understanding of the practice attack and ridicule it.

Someone should get Linda Nabusayi and the President copies of Okot p’Bitek’s book, The Religion of the Central Luo. As a companion book, they should also get copies of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Decolonizing the Mind. Hopefully, that will cure them of their obsession with Westernism.

As a matter of fact, the practice of ryemo gemo is in the same category as the time tested reconciliation and healing mechanism of Mato Oput and Gomo Tong (the bending of spears).

Mato Oput is being studied worldwide as a unique avenue for restorative justice as opposed to punitive justice. Like gomo tong, it promotes relationships rather than interests. It is thus a superior method of building sustainable peace among communities.

In 2006, Mr Museveni jumped over the carcass of a white bull in Juba. Many people criticised him and accused him of practicing witchcraft. In his defence, a Dinka elder (Peter Deng) explained that this honoured practice is called “kweng”.

It is a practice that has to be undertaken by anyone who visits a Dinka homestead as a friend. He added that the Dinka believe in blood as a source of life and white as a symbol of peace.

According to his own confession, while still a guerrilla in the bushes of Luweero, he was confronted by villagers who told him the war was not going very well because the spirits of the ancestors needed to be appeased.

He was then subjected to a ritual of jumping a number of times over the carcass of a sacrificial animal. Maybe he didn’t believe in the ritual, but it was obviously a nagging issue affecting the morale of the peasants who formed the bulk of his rebel army.

So what is ryemo gemo? Let me quote at length a study titled the Cultural Contexts of Ebola in Northern Uganda by Barry S. Hewlett and Richard P. Amola. This study, done in 2003, can shed light on ryemo gemo.

During the Ebola outbreak, “residents began to realise that this outbreak was more than a regular kind of illness and began to classify it as two gemo (two [illness] gemo [epidemic])”. Gemo is a bad spirit (type of “jok” (spirit) that comes suddenly and causes a mysterious illness and death in many people within a very short period of time).

Gemo reportedly comes like the wind in that it comes rapidly from a particular direction and affects many people, but the wind itself does not necessarily bring it.

Acholi have experienced other types of gemo (e.g., measles and smallpox). The researchers reveal that “49 of 50 adults interviewed indicated a belief that Ebola was a type of gemo. The term two gemo was also used in health education posters and music.”

Gemo is said to be mysterious in that it just comes on its own, but several people indicated that it comes because of lack of respect and honour for the gods. Elders indicated that in the past, lack of respect for jok of tura (hills, mountains, bodies of water) was the major cause of gemo. The practice is carried out before daybreak.


This subject and my take on it kicked up a media storm, promoting this sequel. I was glad to see the chairperson of the Acholi Parliamentary Group explain the belief system and practice on the floor of Parliament. Ryemo gemo is thus not a mark of desperation or surrender. While banging pots and pans has been singled out as the only thing that is done during ryemo gemo, in reality the practice is based on a long held belief system among the Acholi and the Luo generally. Therefore, while it would be irresponsible to assert that ryemo gemo per se is a vaccine against pandemics, its protocols confer some benefits on the participants.

Quoting from the earlier source, we note that once an illness is identified as gemo, a protocol for its prevention and control is implemented that is quite different from the treatment and control of other illnesses. When an illness has been identified and categorised as a killer epidemic (gemo), the family is advised to do the following:
1) Quarantine or isolate the patient in a house at least 100m from all other houses, with no visitors allowed. 2) A survivor of the epidemic should feed and care for the patient. If no survivors are available, an elderly woman or man should be the caregiver. 3) Houses with ill patients should be identified with two long poles of elephant grass, one on each side of the door. 4) Villages and households with ill patients should place two long poles with a pole across them to notify those approaching. 5) Everyone should limit their movements, that is, stay within their household and not move between villages.

6) No food from outsiders should be eaten. 7) Pregnant women and children should be especially careful to avoid patients. 8) Harmony should be increased within the household, that is, there should be no harsh words or conflicts within the family. 9) Sexual relations are to be avoided. 10) Dancing is not allowed. 11) Rotten or smoked meat may not be eaten, only eat fresh cattle meat. 12) Once the patient no longer has symptoms, he or she should remain in isolation for one full lunar cycle before moving freely in the village. 13) If the person dies, a person who has survived gemo or has taken care of several sick persons and not become ill, should bury the persons; the burial should take place at the edge of the village.
Several other rituals exist to try to control gemo, including driving it away (westwards) to the Nile by noisemaking (ryemo gemo). During ryemo gemo the participants bang any object that can bring out a loud sound and chant wang ceng ote ci ote (may the rising sun set with this epidemic). That is the reason why the practice is carried out before daybreak.

The shallowness with which the critics of ryemo gemo have responded to the practice reminds me of Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino and the character of Ocol, who embodies the neo-colonial mentality of the culturally alienated African petty bourgeoisie - the intellectuals and political leaders of Africa.
Lawino on the other hand is an authentic spokesperson, an uneducated woman who has become highly conscious of the necessity for her race to preserve its own culture and identity. While critical of those who have swallowed wholly the coloniser’s culture, she does not overtly claim that African culture is superior to European culture. Let the critics of Ryemo Gemo listen to Lawino:

Listen Ocol, my old friend,
The ways of your ancestors
Are good,
Their customs are solid
And not hollow
They are not thin, not easily breakable
They cannot be blown away
By the winds
Because their roots reach deep into the soil.
I do not understand
The ways of foreigners
But I do not despise their customs.
Why should you despise yours?


I do not understand
The way of foreigners
But I do not despise their customs.
Why should you despise yours?
Listen, my husband,
You are the son of a chief.
The Pumpkin in the Old homestead
Must not be uprooted!