Western Nilotic Language Groups

Uganda Table of Contents

Western Nilotic language groups in Uganda include the Acholi, Langi, Alur, and several smaller ethnic groups. Together they comprise roughly 15 percent of the population. Most Western Nilotic languages in Uganda are classified as Lwo, closely related to the language of the Luo society in Kenya. The two largest ethnic groups, the Acholi and Langi, speak almost identical languages, which vary slightly in pronunciation, suggesting that the two groups divided as recently as the early or mid-nineteenth century. The Alur, who live west of the Acholi and Langi, are culturally similar to neighboring societies of the West Nile region, where most people speak Central Sudanic languages.

Langi and Acholi

The Langi and Acholi occupy north-central Uganda. The Langi represent roughly 6 percent of the population. Despite their linguistic affiliation with other Lwo speakers, the Langi reject the "Lwo" label. The Acholi represent 4 percent of the population but suffered severe depopulation and dislocation in the violence of the 1970s and 1980s.

By about the thirteenth century A.D., Lwo-speaking peoples migrated from territory now in Sudan into Uganda and Kenya. They were probably pastoralists, organized in segmentary patrilineages rather than highly centralized societies, but with some positions of ritual or political authority. They encountered horticultural Bantu-speakers, organized under the authority of territorial chiefs. The newcomers probably claimed to be able to control rain, fertility, and supernatural forces through ritual and sacrifice, and they may have established positions of privilege for themselves based on their spiritual expertise. Some historians believe the Langi represent the descendants of fifteenth-century dissenters from Karamojong society to the east.

Both societies are organized into localized patrilineages and further grouped into clans, which are dispersed throughout the territory. Clan members claim descent from a common ancestor, but they are seldom able to recount the nature of their relationship to the clan founder. Acholi lineages are ranked according to their proximity to a royal lineage, and the head of this lineage is recognized as a king, although his power is substantially less than that of monarchs in the south.

Acholi and Langi societies rely on millet cultivation and animal husbandry for subsistence. In some areas, people also cultivate corn, eleusine, peanuts, sesame seed, sweet potatoes, and cassava. Both Langi and Acholi generally assign agricultural tasks either to men or women; in many cases men are responsible for cattle while women work in the fields. (In some villages, only adult men may milk cows.) An Acholi or Langi man may marry more than one wife, but he may not marry within his lineage or that of his mother. A woman normally leaves her own family to live in her husband's homestead, which may include his brothers and their families. Each wife has a separate house and hearth for cooking.


The Alur political system is a series of overlapping, interlocking chiefdoms, which were never unified in a single polity during precolonial times. Related lineages from different chiefdoms performed some religious ceremonies together, and intermarriage among chiefdoms was also fairly common. People also recognized other Alur speakers as neighbors. The Acholi claimed land east of Alur territory, and the Alur lost land in 1952, with the creation of Murchison (Kabalega) National Game Park. The Alur subsequently incorporated some Sudanic-speaking groups into their society as they expanded to the west.

Alur territory was remote from British commerce during colonial times, but once colonial boundaries were set, people found ways to profit from cross-border smuggling. Only a few churches, schools, and medical dispensaries were established, and many Alur became migrant laborers in Buganda to earn money to pay their taxes. Despite its geographical isolation, Alur territory in the 1980s showed signs of substantial but uneven acculturation, influenced by Sudanese, Zairian, and other Ugandan cultures. Alur society also became the object of some of the anti-Amin revenge that swept through the region in the 1980s.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress