Ajosi dance is a magnet for the Iteso

Ajosi dancers from Gweri Sub-county in Soroti District get ready to perform at a function. PHOTOS | SIMON NAULELE

What you need to know:

  • Ajosi dance has gained popularity after companies started organising cultural galas. Some have been sponsored to go and perform the traditional dance outside the country. The dance is also performed on big functions to entertain people, Simon Naulele writes

It started as a song composed by the chief praising himself, his clan and women who made the best local brew made out of millet flour, commonly known as ajon or malwa.

The elders, who used to go for social gatherings at the chief’s home every evening after the day’s activities, decided to make some modifications on the song and eventually came up with a better version, which they now join to sing alternately.

Years later, men started stamping one of their feet on the ground as they sang along to give rhythm to the song while occasionally sipping on a pot of ajon.

Women later discovered that the hide emitted a loud sound when placed over a hole that they used to ferment millet flour locally called ebiso. The hide was fastened to a log known as ejos, which means a drum.

This is a brief description of one of the most exciting dances in Uganda- Ajosi dance of the Iteso people in north eastern Uganda.

It is a royal dance performed in Teso and by the Iteso, especially in Soroti, Amuria and Serere districts.

Vincent Enyutu Piopio, a teacher at Opar Primary School in Soroti District, says the Iteso used to live in small clans headed by clan leaders.

As clans grew bigger, they were subdivided according to doors and each was headed by a door head. Their daily activities were mainly hunting and cultivation of crops such as millet, sorghum, cassava, peas and groundnuts.

Each door head manned a group of families that originated from one man in the clan and were answerable to the clan leader, who eventually became the chief whenever a clan expanded.

Every evening after work, elders would converge at the chief’s home to drink ajon. 

Every clan had big granaries of millet and sorghum. Women were required to provide ajon for men every evening. As men enjoyed the local brew, the chief would sing. Men sang along, while women sat inside the house for protection.

State minister for Works Musa Ecweru (centre) participates in ajosi dance in Amuria District.  

Men got off their seats to stamp the ground as they sang and they would occasionally choose the best dancer. Women also joined the dance. Whenever men got tired of dancing, they would turn to their pot of ajon. 

Composition of songs 

“Men sat on traditional chairs as women sat on skin hides locally known as ejamu, which were also used as beds. This went on in every clan,” says enyutu, adding that the dance later became competitive.

Chiefs started composing songs announcing how they outcompeted other chiefs.  This gave chefs a sense of pride and became a symbol of identity and a royal instrument which nobody was allowed to possess.
Winners and losers 

Enyutu says as one clan chief performed the song from his village, another chief in another village with his people listened and analysed their song. This helped them to modify their own versions to counter their competitors. 

“Your drum is useless.’’ “Our sound is better than yours. We can seize your clan with all your women.”  These were some of the insults that featured in their songs. The drum became a symbol of power.

At one time, a losing clan organised and hid the sticks on the way near the dancing ground. When the fight became tense, they retreated. Another team followed them up to where they had hidden their sticks, chased them and beat them up.

As time went on, chiefs from two sides staged competitions down the valley to determine the winner. The winner took the opponent’s royal drum and women.

Women were taken to celebrate with the winning team for some months before they were released one by one. Some of them ended up in marriage. Because of this, the sticks became part of the dancing prop. Winners also celebrated their victory by slaughtering bulls and dancing in the chief’s home for a week. The tails of the skinned bulls were used to decorate the dance sticks as a way to ridicule losers. 

According to the Iteso tradition, the sticks are called ejus, hence the drum took the name ejos and the dance was named ajosi after the drum. Some sources say the name ajosi came from the Ateso word ajiosi, which means they were fighting, because the dance always ended in a fight to determine the winners.

For safety, all the women were taken to the side of the winners. Later on, other accompaniments were created such as the ankle bells, to give a loud beat to alternate with the main beat of the drum ejos.

State minister for Works Musa Ecweru (centre) participates in ajosi dance in Amuria District.  

The bells were introduced to the dance after the Iteso started barter trade of cattle and metal with the Banyole. Metal was used to make bells. Earlier on, the bells were dug out of wood and stone dropped inside and covered with cloth. Other small drums were also introduced to give coordinated rhythms and add flavour to the dance. 

Due to the fight, the construction of a high platform was introduced, where the chief would climb and sit and have clear view of all the dancers as he selected the best dancers. 

The best dancer was then lifted up on another dancer’s shoulders to show the best styles and skills. This would win him many women who danced while fanning him with hand clothes. 

Best dancer gets an award

The person who carried the best dancer was always rewarded with a he-goat. The ejos (the big drum), together with other two smaller drums “itelelei” (one small and one smaller with a higher pitch) are played under the constructed platform for safety of the drum and the players.

Ejos is played by a woman on a basic beat using the palm of one hand and the other two small drums are played by a man using the small sticks locally known as ideteta.

The dance later became a royal dance to celebrate big occasions and would only be organised by the chief in his homestead or other places where he visited.

Occasions may include coronation of a new chief, celebrating a new harvest, celebrating victory, passing a message across to the chief, entertaining the chief and twin ceremony, among others. 

The time of the dance

The Ajosi dance is mainly performed in the evenings locally known as ajotet in Ateso. According to Enyutu, originally it used to be performed by the elders. Today, even the youth can perform the dance at schools festivals.

Enyutu says ajosi dance has no limit for the number of dancers since it is danced in the open. However, for competitions’ and awards sake, the organisers may limit the number to meet the costs.

The formation

“The dance was originally performed in a circular flow; two circles surround the drum instruments. The inner one is for women and the outer is for men, who dance on the same spot facing the drums,” says Enyutu. 

The entry and exit to the dancing floor is done in linear position with a different solo and chorus song, different from the main message. 

In schools today, more groups have been created to meet the demand of the festival and the performance. 

Enyutu says dancers come in walking or with a dance move in two lines; one for women and the other for men or three lines with one for women in between the men.

After surrounding the drums in two circles, the leader signals with his dancing stick and the dancers respond with jubilations. One singer starts with a slightly higher key, while stamping on the ground. The second singer quickly begins with the right key and others join in the dance.

“The song is always in A,B,A (alto, base, alto) form, sung as  women alternate with men. At the end of the dance, the leader signals the end, where both women and men sing in unison to emphasise the message in the song,” says Enyutu.

At the end of the song, they demonstrate ejus - a fight, as women jubilate and some men do the recitation. Another song is started solo with the chorus as the group marches out of the arena.

The levels of the dance

There are three levels; low level, middle level and high level. At low level, a dancer can squat or kneel down. At middle level, a dancer stands while bending slightly forward. At high level, dancers jump while others are lifted to dance on people’s shoulders. Costumes for men include egeyei (waist skin), apatirisi (a ribbon), apel and ewula (elbow wear), decorated structures with coloured beads worn around the waist, chest and face.

Women’s costumes include bedsheets or other coloured sheets worn in a traditional style, head cloth and beads around the necks and waists. 

The props

Dance sticks used by male dancers for protection and hand cloth by the female dancers for wiping sweat from the male dancers. Some few men also carry horns that they blow during the dance. 

The leader also has a whistle that he blows to mark the climax during the dance, especially when the best dancer is lifted up. 

According to the late Jonah Emong Otwal’s book titled Aboliasio Ka Awaragasia Nuka Iteso (Dances and Proverbs of Iteso),  he says in 1977,  the then President Idi Amin Dada’s government sent the people of Asuret Sub-county in Soroti District to Nigeria to dance ajosi.  And in 1980, the people of Asuret again went to Tanzania to dance ajosi.

Ajosi has become popular 

In 1980s and 1990s when there were insurgencies in Teso, most people lost their property and lives including cultural practices such as Ajosi.

But in the late 1990s, when schools resumed the music festivals, school children started learning how to dance Ajosi. Schools invited the few surviving elders to teach youth the traditional dance. 

Ajosi dance gained momentum when some companies started organising cultural galas. Some have been sponsored to go and perform the traditional dance outside the country. The dance is also performed on important functions to entertain  visitors. 


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