Through their cultural and traditional justice system, Acholi people in northern Uganda address their intra-community problems. They call this process Mato Oput – the reconciliation process.
In the Acholi traditional and cultural justice system, there are no denials, lies, or deceptions. Thus, whoever accepts to go through the process of truth-telling must tell the whole truth without fear or favour. The person concerned must be open, honest, sincere, transparent and truthful, not only to himself or herself, but also to the people, the living-dead and even the unborn.
The offender-community voluntarily takes the lead in the process of confrontation, of telling the whole truth in the spirit of love, mutual respect, and mutual understanding. For this reason the offender-community boldly makes public acknowledgement or accepts public ownership of responsibility, on behalf of the offender and on behalf of the offender’s immediate family.
Such public acknowledgement, confessions, repentance, or public expressions of remorse are specifically meant to reveal the whole truth. The whole truth once revealed also helps the offended-community to find time to deal with the reality of its loss and pain. Knowing the whole truth also helps the offended-community to be considered completely different from a criminal or offender. The whole truth will also help both communities concerned to own a common memory of their recent past history. The public acknowledgement is meant specifically to deal comprehensively with malicious intent of murder.
The malicious intent to kill is called ‘aneka nyong’ in Acholi. The public confession, therefore, deals comprehensively with such intent of aneko nyong. Through public confession, the offender-community becomes venerable and guilty for the crimes committed by one of its members. This is the fundamental basis for community-based collective responsibility of the offender-community.
Second, is the payment of compensation, reparations or atonement for the victims and survivors. The offender-community finds itself in a state of vulnerability and guilt. It must become willing and ready to pay compensation without any question. The payment of compensation is not meant, in any way, to replace the life lost because human value is invaluable. It is simply to demonstrate or show the sincerity and the purity of the head/mind as graphically as it expressed in the public confession. The focus here is to address the conflict in order to bring the healing of the wounds in the hearts of those deeply affected by the offense. Third, is the ritual of sharing food between the offender-community and the offended-community.
For the Acholi community, the sharing of food with one another is a fundamental fellowship. Sharing of food expresses the love and intimacy the people enjoy through communion and fellowship with one another and with the ‘living-dead’, the ancestors. The sharing of food is an expression of communion and fellowship with one another, not only in the presence of the ‘living-dead’ and even the unborn, but also in the presence of the living God. In situations of conflict, the sharing of food with those who have murdered a member of your clan, is not allowed at all, under any circumstances.
The sharing of food is a major part of the Mato Oput process which is a reflection of restoration and healing of previously broken human relationships. Each community involved in the conflict is required to bring a lamb without blemish for the sacrifice. The lambs are made to stand together side by side, each facing the opposite direction. The lamb from the offender-community will be pleading for mercy and forgiveness. The other lamb from the offended-community will be giving an assurance of mercy and forgiveness. The two lambs are slaughtered by cutting them across in halves from the middle.
Each community receives the front legs and the head of the sacrificed lambs from the other. The shared meat is cooked by each community in different cooking pots. The cooked meat is shared between the offender-community and the offended-community as a sign of acceptance of each other into new relationship. This communion and fellowship with one another is witnessed by the living-dead and the unborn. The blood and the waste matter of the sacrificed lambs are mixed together and used for cleansing the two communities in the conflict.
The mixed blood is smeared on the forehead, on the chest, on the back, on both legs, on the back of both hands and both feet of each participant in the ritual. It is purposely used as a symbol of cleansing all the participants in the ritual of drinking the bitterness of violence and death during the ceremony of Mato Oput. Fourth is the ritual of drinking the bitter herbs – the Mato Oput – which symbolise drinking all the bitterness of the conflict. Oput is a tree that is commonly found in the savannah land of Africa, especially in the Acholi sub-region. It is a family tree that grows in small or large groups. The root of one Oput tree usually joins together to the root of another Oput tree standing nearby, so the two become identical and share life together through their joint roots. It is the root that joins the two Oput trees that is cut off for the ceremony of Mato Oput. The cutting of the joint root causes much pain and suffering to both Oput trees which had been sharing life together through the joint root. The cut piece is crushed and mixed with local brew to make the Oput juice which is sour and bitter. The bitter Oput juice is then poured into a new calabash to be drunk by a few selected participants. Each community can select either three or four representatives to represent the entire community in the ritual of drinking the bitterness of violence and death. If they select three each, the first one from each community must always be a woman. If they select four each, the first two from each community must always be women.
Representation in the ceremony of Mato Opt is gender sensitive. The selected participants will be invited to drink the mixed sour juice of the root of Oput in pairs. The efficacy of the ritual is to taste the bitterness of violence and death. The new calabash filled with the Oput juice is placed in the middle of the two communities. Each community sends one participant each, thus forming a pair at the calabash. Each pair drinks from the same calabash at the same time while the forehead of each participant touches that of the other. The ceremony of drinking the sour and bitter Oput juice is the climax of the Mato Oput process.