Re-burials in Uganda

Excerpt from the article by Sophie Hooge Seebach and Lotte Meinert in the book ”The Lives of the Dead” published in connection with the opening of the exhibition.

“We bring the dead home and provide them with a proper burial, because we love and fear them […] Here, the dead are never really dead.” (Nelson Ocan, 2013)

For more than two decades, civil war dominated the northern Uganda. Thousands were killed and even more died from diseases in the camps for internally exiled. People had to bury their dead in the camps, because it was not safe to venture outside. When peace came in 2008, people moved back to their original homes, and the dead had to be re-buried. To bury the dead in their rightful place on the land of the clan has important meaning. On one hand, because the dead must be respected and not forgotten, so that their spirits can settle and will not disturb the wellbeing of the family. On the other hand, because people believe that the graves are important, and they do not wish to leave their dead in places that might be disturbed in order to make room for a road, crops or buildings.

Approximately 90 percent of the people in the northern Uganda were internally exiled during the war. The result of this were countless “exiled dead”. There are many reasons for the present-day re-burials. One is the need to keep the family together in one place. The tradition of burying the dead close to the home is a strong one, and the protection and blessings of the dead are important to many Ugandans. The dead may potentially cause trouble and failure to thrive for their living relatives, and a re-burial is a way to prevent these kinds of problems. An unhappy child-spirit may prevent the conception of further children, whereas a happy spirit may bless its mother with many children. Diseases, accidents and unexplained deaths can all be the cause of spirits wishing to return and to be treated properly by their families.

However, it is not always the spirits and the wellbeing of the family that are the reasons for re-burials. Not everyone believes in the spirits’ ability to affect the living, nor do they have the need to be in close proximity to their dead relatives. The northern Uganda is currently experiencing a time of growth and development after the war years that saw little or no improvements in infrastructure or city planning. Land is bought and sold, towns are steadily growing, and thus, many graves are unable to remain undisturbed. In August 2013, hundreds of people were re-buried because a new road were being lead through a former camp. Local leader, Orvem Augustino, oversaw the process and relates the many troubles he witnessed and the feeling of gratification that came from protecting the dead from the excavators.

“According to our Acholi tradition, the body of a deceased relative must be buried in its original home. If you leave it when you move back, the spirit of the deceased with disturb you and keep saying: You left me, you have abandoned me. – So you must always bring your dead with you and bury them where they belong.”

The story of Augustino and other Ugandans is told in the exhibition. The book ‘The Lives of the Dead” can be purchased in the museum shop (DKK 98).