Beyond Dichotomies: Complexifying Intergenerational Debates and Discourses on Post-War Society in Northern Uganda

Julia Vorhölter

Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Göttingen University, Germany


This article analyses intergenerational debates on the future of Acholi society following the war between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan Government (1986-2006).Specifically, it focuses on the generation that was born and grew up during the 20-year war. I present selected examples of the complex ways members of this ‘war generation’ position themselves in the ongoing debates and make use of the various discourses on culture, tradition and modernity in order to establish, maintain and contest the social order. I argue that while it is important to acknowledge the way generational location shapes social actors’ perspectives and positions in the post-conflict phase, overemphasising generational differences risks missing the many shared concerns and cross-cutting issues. By drawing on Foucauldian discourse analysis and Ferguson’s concept of cultural styles, I show how taking discourses rather than distinct groups as a starting point of analysis can help to overcome such a deadlock.


Since 2006, northern Uganda has been recovering from the 20-year war between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government. The post-war period saw the emergence of intense discourses and debates on the socio-cultural changes that had occurred throughout the war years and their implications for both the present and the future. At the centre of these debates were various visions for post-war Acholi society which contained a range of often conflicting notions of social order, norms and values. A central point of debate was whether peace building activities should be directed towards re-establishing former cultural practices and conventions and ‘retraditionalising’ Acholi society, or towards establishing ‘new’ social structures, values and norms and ‘modernising’ Acholi society according to what was commonly seen as Western ideals.

Both local perceptions and academic analyses, including my own work, have tended to associate these position with distinct societal ‘groups’, the most commonly identified being elders vs. youth and men vs. women. Older men, for instance, are generally taken to be stern supporters of retraditionalising Acholi society and its inherent patriarchal power structures, while youth are mostly portrayed as agitating for modernisation. More nuanced analyses have emphasised diversity within these ‘groups’ based on class and educational background, age, gender, family situation, political alliance or location. However, the general focus has remained on identifying groups of actors and attributing certain characteristics and positions to them. While such a perspective is beneficial in many ways, it also lacks complexity. By focusing on similarities within groups it risks overemphasising differences between them, thereby potentially overlooking points of overlap or convergence.

In this article I explore an approach that shifts the focus from groups to the discourses adopted by particular actors in specific contexts. Such an approach is able to capture the complexity of a social actor’s positioning by focusing on the interplay of individual characteristics and positions, situational context and societal discourses. It emphasises that positions are always shaped by speech contexts and are thus, to some extent, relative and contingent.

My material is based on 11 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Gulu Municipality in 2010-11. My research focused on the complex ways members of the war generation[1] positioned themselves in discourses on Acholi culture and how they evaluated the changes they perceived in Acholi society[2]. Most of the research consisted of participant observation among youth in their late teens and early twenties, along with their families and friends[3]. While my original aim was to explore the war generation’s perspective on the socio-cultural changes they had experienced and their imaginations of and hopes for future Acholi society, I soon realised the inherent difficulties of such an approach. The more time I spent with different interlocutors in different settings, the more I became aware not only of the diversity of their perspectives, but also how their positions shifted according to whom they were talking to and the social setting of the conversation. Even though people had strong convictions on matters of debate, whether and how they expressed them was always shaped by the speech context.

This is not to suggest, however, that their positions were arbitrary, or that their specific generational location did not matter. On the contrary, their ‘similarity of location’ (Mannheim 1928)[4] strongly influenced not only their outlook on life and the way they experienced the instability caused by the war and the post-war situation, but also how they were seen by society. In societal discourses the war generation was often portrayed as the link between past and future, tradition and modernity, Acholi culture and Western culture, and this liminal status placed its members in a particular situation of uncertainty and ambivalence which was reflected in the ways they strategically positioned themselves in debates about Acholi society.

Understanding how different social actors conceive of the future and their respective roles in bringing about this future is a crucial concern for researchers and practitioners involved in post-war peace building. First, because a (shared) future vision is the prerequisite for any peace building activity, and second, because negotiations of the future in societies that are recovering from war almost unavoidably entail (new) struggles and conflicts. A key debate familiar from other African post-war contexts is whether to return to or to break with the pre-war past, often referred to as ‘traditional culture’. The former usually involves re-establishing pre-war social hierarchies and power structures (frequently characterised by [older] men having power over youth and women), while the latter entails introducing new social orders and norms, often shaped by external discourses.

In northern Uganda, peace building discourses (at least in key fields like reconciliation, justice, political representation) have been dominated by a focus on retraditionalisation. Starting with the Kacoke Madit conference and the subsequently commissioned report ‘The Bending of Spears’ (Pain 1997), international organisations started to engage in reviving Acholi cultural practices, for instance by rebuilding the cultural institution Ker Kwaro or supporting the performance of rituals like mato oput (Vorhölter 2014: 165ff.). Widespread enthusiasm for these initiatives based on the belief that using Acholi traditional culture would be the best way to (re)create social stability meant that voices that did not wholly embrace this approach (coming, for instance, from those who had held largely subordinate socio-political roles in pre-war Acholi society, especially women, youth and the economically weak) were largely ignored. And even when these voices were represented, often by NGOs who were carrying out youth or women’s projects, they were often presented in monolithic terms, thus concealing the complexity and diversity of actual positions.

This article takes the perspective that any peace building measure must start by identifying, understanding and taking seriously the various and often incoherent positionalities of different social actors in a post-war society. This cannot be achieved by surveys alone but requires long-term ethnographic fieldwork and a frame of analysis which embraces rather than ignores complexity. As I will argue in the next section, discourses and cultural styles are two theoretical concepts which can be productively used for such an endeavour as they shift the focus of analysis to the context in which positions are established and presented rather than seeing a particular position as an inherent feature of an individual. Such an approach may help to discover cross-cutting issues and commonalities between groups of actors, which should be a central aim of any peace building attempt.

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