Research Note


Paula Hirsch Foster:
Anthropology and Land Tensions in Acholiland, 1954-1958

By Martha Lagace

Department of Anthropology, Boston University, USA




Paula Hirsch Foster, a Hungarian-born student from Chicago’s Northwestern University, conducted doctoral research in Acholiland between 1954 and 1958. Despite her fascination with Acholi life, her fluency in the language, and her promise as a scholar, Foster (1930-1997) never published her research or completed her PhD. Drawing upon the Paula Hirsch Foster Collection of field notes at Boston University’s African Studies Library, this research note introduces Foster and the collection. Its main contribution is to provide evidence that Acholi concerns about land alienation go back at least to the 1950s. Her field notes demonstrate that Acholi fears for their land are not new and not simply the result of the war between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army.

‘In late 1954, a Ford Foundation Research Fellowship was granted to me to study the changing status and role of women in Acholi society ….’

So began the thesis outline of Paula Hirsch Foster, an anthropologist in the making. During four years of field research—nowadays an inconceivable luxury of time—Foster moved between West and East Acholi living in homesteads, mastering fluency in the language, and writing copious notes about everything she saw, heard, and experienced. For a while—how long is not clear—she also put her Acholi language skills to use as a court interpreter.

Foster traversed the physical distances in her rugged Opel van, usually giving a lift to locals. She attended funerals, dances, ajwaka divinations; interviewed male elders about Acholi principles, and schoolgirls about their own life stories. Even 60 years on, one can sometimes meet older men and women around Gulu town who remember her fondly or at least recall her Opel van rumbling past; and babies were named Paula after her. In that sense she made her mark.

Unfortunately, Foster never published the thesis or any other work about her time in Acholiland. This may be why her deeply researched, pioneering study has continued to slip under the radar of many contemporary scholars of Acholi. Nor did she attain her PhD degree—despite her absorbing interest in Acholi, her many personal and professional relationships there, and her promise as a scholar.


‘Paula Hirsch Foster (centre) and friends in Acholiland’, 1950s

(Photo courtesy of Boston University Paula Hirsch Foster Collection)

This research note introduces readers to a remarkable woman and to the archive she left behind. Her notes, which fill 15 boxes at Boston University’s African Studies Library, may be accessed by scholars who visit in person; in the meantime a detailed finding guide is available on OpenBU or by email to asl[at] (The collection is currently being digitized.) Below, I include extracts of her notes to give a sense of the challenges she faced and to offer glimpses of Acholi culture and tensions in an era that was far less documented by anthropologists than the current post-civil war period. These extracts provide evidence that Acholi concern about the alienation of their land is by no means a new phenomenon. 

Perhaps Foster’s refusal to complete her PhD thesis was due to factors that especially affected female students in the 1950s. First, as a woman she may have been expected to study women; but upon arrival she found other topics more compelling. It appears she aimed for a head-on comparison with the Nuer studies of E. E. Evans-Pritchard. Observations about women are there in her notes but are relatively few compared to other aspects of Acholi life: kinship, law, religion, suicide, jok rituals, witchcraft; discourses and struggles over land; and Uganda’s coming independence.

Second, according to different accounts, her thesis supervisor, the great Melville Herskovits, was a demanding personality and much older besides. Given that Foster was self-confident and strong-willed, it is possible they clashed in the final analysis. According to friends, despite her sureness in her own findings and her husband’s unwavering support, her professor’s critique was terribly painful. She chose to abandon her thesis at the writing stage, having drafted all but the first and last chapters, and she moved on with her life.

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