Posted on February 1, 2020

A Portrait of the African Mind

Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, May 2003

Heike Behrend, Alice Lakwena & the Holy Spirits, Translated by Mitch Cohen, Ohio University Press, 1999, 210 pp.

Africa is a great repository of what could be called archeology of the human mind. Beliefs and superstitions that have largely disappeared elsewhere are still common, and occasionally make their way into brief newspaper accounts of witches being burned in South Africa, “penis snatchers” in Nigeria, and magical cures for AIDS in Ivory Coast. Only rarely does this sort of thing get serious book-length treatment, which makes Heike Behrend’s account of the Holy Spirit movement in Uganda so welcome. Prof. Behrend, who teaches anthropology at the University of Cologne in Germany, writes in a disjointed, jargon-bound way, but she has given us as full a picture as we are likely to get of a fascinating contemporary example of mass delusion.

Alice Lakwena and the Holy Spirits

In brief, this is the story of Alice Auma, a perfectly ordinary Ugandan peasant woman, who became possessed by spirits, raised a rebel army of some 10,000 soldiers, and came close to overthrowing the government of Yowri Museveni. Miss Auma’s story moves from one fantastic episode to another, like an opera plot, but as Prof. Behrend makes clear, Miss Auma is just one especially piquant character in Africa’s continuing saga of the weird and outlandish.

Civil Wars

Miss Auma was at the height of her powers from 1987 to 1988, at a time when northern Uganda was rife with war and banditry. Prof. Behrend explains that tribal warfare had been endemic in this part of Africa until the British established order. After independence, tribal warfare resumed under a different guise, with whichever tribe holding government power using it to enrich itself and persecute enemy tribes. The Acholi people of northern Uganda, of whom Miss Auma was one, were constant targets of persecution under Idi Amin, Milton Obote, and most recently Yowri Museveni. In 1985, one of their own, Tito Okello, took over in a coup, and the Acholi had a six-month go at doing the persecuting before Mr. Museveni drove out Mr. Okello. The 1980s were a thoroughly awful time for northern Uganda, with war, rebellion, banditry, and routine mass killings.

Miss Auma’s story begins with that of her father, Severino Lukoya, a colorful figure in his own right. In 1958, according to one version of the story, Mr. Lukoya fell from his roof and blacked out. According to another, his wife beat him into a stupor. In any case, his soul thereupon went to heaven, where it met Moses and Abraham, had various adventures, and learned that one of Mr. Lukoya’s several children had been chosen to receive messages from spirits. When he came to, Mr. Lukoya looked his children over but could not tell which was the chosen one. Alice Auma was then two years old. Mr. Lukoya’s curiosity remained unsatisfied until Jan. 2, 1985, when Alice, now almost 30, began to preach the word of God. In April, Mr. Lukoya invited all the people in the village to witness this revelation of the chosen child, but they laughed at him.

On May 27, 1985, Miss Auma was possessed by a spirit called Lakwena (meaning “messenger” in the Acholi language), which spoke through her. Lakwena claimed to be the soul of a Christian Italian who had died near Murchison Falls about the time of the Second World War, and spoke 74 languages “including Latin.” He ordered Miss Auma to take up healing , to which he gave the name Holy Spirit. Although she managed a few cures, she was not a great success. About a year later, Lakwena changed his mind and told her to go to war, explaining that it did no good to heal people if government soldiers were just going to shoot them anyway. A few days later, Miss Auma, now known as Alice Lakwena, performed her first military miracle.

Some time before this, an Acholi named Odong Latek had put together a group known as the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA). It was supposed to fight government depredation, but its several hundred men soon took to brigandage. On August 17, 1986, a few UPDA men were chasing a man who took refuge in Miss Auma’s house. They took a few shots at her, but the bullets bounced off her body and turned into clouds of smoke. The men were much impressed. On the strength of this incident, she asked Odong Latek to turn over his command. Mr. Latek declined, but did not object when 150 of his men voluntarily joined Miss Auma. Thus began her command over what became known as the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces.

Uganda Africa Map

On Nov. 12, 1986, just a few days later, government soldiers attacked her camp but her men routed them. On Dec. 25, the Mobile Forces overran a fairly strong government position. Miss Auma’s reputation soared and men flocked to join her.

As Prof. Behrend explains, the Holy Spirit movement, with its Christian coloration, was a considerable departure from traditional witchcraft. According to Acholi tradition, all misfortunes are caused by evildoers using witchcraft. If someone died fighting the government, it was because someone had bewitched the enemy’s bullets and steered them towards the victim. If someone died of AIDS, it was because someone cast a spell. When the dead were buried, a witchdoctor would ask the corpse who caused his death, and the corpse would give a full report. This was good business for witchdoctors because the deceased would invariably finger some malefactor against whom a witchdoctor had to be hired to seek revenge. This vicious cycle terrified everyone.

Lakwena, speaking through Miss Auma, ordered a full-scale fight against witchcraft. His was a Christian movement, and all Holy Spirit fighters were to renounce witchcraft and seek purification through initiation. The men sat on the ground, praying and singing Catholic hymns. They then spat in the mouth of a pig, which was supposed to absorb evil just as the Gadarene swine did in the Book of Mark. The pig was then killed and burned. There were similar purification rituals before battle, which were supposed to protect the men from enemy bullets. In like manner, the war against the government was elevated into a fight against the forces of witchcraft, which were said to be the source of the government’s strength.

Witch Doctor

Witch doctor of the Shona people close to Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe. (Credit Image: Hans Hillewaert)

All Holy Spirit members had to memorize and abide by a set of 20 Holy Spirit Precautions, which were modeled on The Ten Commandments. These included prohibitions against cigarettes, alcohol, murder, theft, and quarreling. HS members were not to kill snakes, eat pork or mutton, or argue with a military commander. They were also to abstain from adultery and fornication, a prohibition which, as Prof. Behrend explains, “presented many soldiers with great difficulties.” The 20th Precaution was “Thou shalt have two testicles, neither more nor less,” since among the Acholi a man with only one testicle was thought to bring misfortune. Lakwena stressed that men who kept the rules could not be killed in battle, and that the genuinely pure would be rewarded with a car and a pretty house.

Prof. Behrend says both the Holy Spirit soldiers and government men liked to watch cheap American action movies and Taiwanese karate films, and got some of their ideas from them. However, the Holy Spirit’s military tactics have a heavy African overlay, and were perhaps the weirdest in the history of warfare. First of all, soldiers were never to take cover, but to advance towards the enemy erect, with torso bare. Before engagements, soldiers sang hymns for a set period of time, sometimes for as long as 45 minutes. After a time-keeper blew a whistle, they marched toward the enemy shouting “James Bond, James Bond!” (one of Miss Auma’s top assistants called himself James Bond).

Each commander carried a rock wrapped in a cloth, and on signal, threw it toward the enemy. An invisible protective screen would spring up where the rocks landed, and keep out enemy bullets. HS soldiers were not to advance past that point until commanders retrieved their rocks and threw them again.

At first, the Mobile Forces tried to fight without violating the Precaution against killing. Before a battle, Lakwena would order rifles issued to perhaps only half the men, and would specify the number of rounds to fire. He also had the soldiers make wire models of the enemy’s weapons and cook them in a stove to disable them. In an engagement, on signal from commanders, men with rifles would fire the specified number of rounds but were ordered not to aim at the enemy, since 140,000 friendly spirits would guide the bullets to their targets. The mobile forces were also helped by bees that would sting the enemy, and snakes that would bite him. Some men also threw special stones, which were supposed to explode like grenades, killing 25 enemies apiece. So long as the men were pure and did not violate the Holy Spirit Precautions, these tactics would ensure victory. Any man who was killed or wounded had, by definition, failed to abide by the Precautions. Prof. Behrend points out that this was a great improvement over previous explanations for casualties, since it required no witchcraft-in-revenge.

In the early days of the movement, these methods reportedly brought repeated victory. Prof. Behrend does not try very hard to explain just how this worked, but notes that government soldiers believed in witchcraft, and sometimes ran away when they heard the Mobile Forces singing. Holy Spirit soldiers were under strict orders not to loot or kill civilians, and were careful to offer receipts and promises of repayment for anything they requisitioned. This won the movement a certain amount of local support.

The locals also adopted some Holy Spirit practices. Lakwena had a recipe for medicine made of honey from his allies, the bees. It had to be shaken for half an hour, and cured gunshot wounds and other troubles. Prof. Behrend writes that as late as 1990, Holy Spirit medicine was widely made and used throughout northern Uganda.

Lakwena was not the only spirit that spoke through Miss Auma. There was also Wrong Element, a bossy American, who spoke loudly in an American accent, and was greatly feared by the troops. Ching Po was either Korean or Chinese — no one is quite sure — and was in charge of replenishing supplies and making the stone grenades explode. There were other spirits as well, and sometimes several would speak through Miss Auma in the same session. Ordinarily, she was possessed by spirits at 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m., and before battles.

The Holy Spirit movement kept detailed records in English, many of which survived and provided Prof. Behrend with much useful information. HS bureaucrats carved wooden stamps with which they authenticated some of the documents. Wrong Element’s stamp is shown on this page.

Miss Auma insisted that she and the spirits were entirely separate entities. She was much admired, and surrounded by retainers and bodyguards, but if anyone asked her advice on military matters she would say she was a simple woman who knew nothing of such things, and that Lakwena had the answers. To underline this separateness, the spirits would occasionally berate her for lapses in discipline, and order that she be beaten.

Victory attracts recruits, and at one point Miss Auma had nearly 10,000 men under her command. Many Acholis left local Christian churches to join the Holy Spirit movement, and even men from other tribes signed up. Lakwena decided to send the Mobile Forces against the capital Kampala itself, and root out witchcraft at the source. The prohibition against killing appears to have faded into the background, and Lakwena started issuing rifles to all the men. Still, national insurrection appears to have been more than the movement could handle, and the Mobile Forces were decisively beaten in several major battles. Many men were killed, and in December 1987 Miss Auma fled with a handful of loyalists to Kenya, where she received refugee status under the UN High Commissioner. The spirits left her and, according to Prof. Behrend, she was last sighted in a Kenyan bar, wearing a white blouse and a blue skirt, drinking gin and Pepsi. Her career as a military leader lasted a little over a year.

Prof. Behrend writes that many former Holy Spirit soldiers are convinced that the only reason they could not take Kampala was that the soldiers and even Miss Auma herself did not follow all the rules. They say that as time went on, Miss Auma became dictatorial, and assumed authority that was rightly that of the spirits.

The Lakwena story did not end with Miss Auma. Her father, Severino Lukoya, had tried to step in and take over the movement when his daughter began to get a following, but she sent him packing. After she fled to Kenya, Lakwena started speaking through Mr. Lukoya, and he collected many of Miss Auma’s scattered soldiers. Wrong Element and several other of her spirits rallied to Mr. Lukoya, but Ching Po did not. Mr. Lukoya claimed the new Holy Spirit movement was going to be a non-military, healing mission, but he dabbled in soldiering, too. In an unsuccessful attempt to capture Kitgum City on March 18, 1988, his forces are said to have lost more than 400 soldiers.

That August, Mr. Lukoya announced he was going to expand the healing business into the Gulu District. This was a mistake. Gulu was the preserve of yet another Acholi chieftain, Joseph Kony, who claims to be a nephew of Miss Auma (and therefore grand-nephew of Mr. Lukoya). He was running something known as The Lord’s Resistance Army, and did not want competition. In August 1988, his men kidnapped Mr. Lukoya, and beat him whenever spirits took hold of him. A year later, Mr. Lukoya escaped and reportedly went on a praying mission, but this time government soldiers caught up with him. Prof. Behrend writes that last he was heard of, Mr. Lukoya was still in their hands.

Mr. Kony has generally had little tolerance for rivals. Earlier in the 1980s, a man known only as O became a healer, and baptized people by immersion in the manner of John the Baptist. In 1984 and 1985 he was so popular people had to wait up to two weeks for a cure, and his followers built a hotel to house the crowds. Later the spirits left O, and Mr. Kony kidnapped him. He held him for two years, after which O fell into government hands. Soldiers tried to shoot him, but he wouldn’t die, so they had to cut him in pieces with machetes.

Joseph Kony now claims to wear Miss Auma’s mantle, such as it is, and a good many survivors of Miss Auma’s movement have joined him. At least until mid-1988, his men fought according to Holy Spirit Tactics and followed the Precautions. They sang before battle, threw stone grenades, and did not take cover. However, Mr. Kony has no truck with Lakwena, and communes with other spirits. He also lets some of his men deal with spirits; one claims to speak for John the Baptist, and another for the apostle Paul. His army reportedly has five brigades named Stocree, Sinia, Gilva, Shila and Control Altar. Each has a three-man command structure composed of men known as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Mr. Kony is ostensibly fighting the Museveni regime, and has received support from neighboring Sudan to destabilize Uganda, but Prof. Behrend says he is no better than a pirate. He now has a reputation for atrocity well beyond that of the government. His men rampage through villages, press-ganging boys and kidnapping women. Mr. Kony is said to have a harem of anywhere from 33 to 88 women, and he doles out sex slaves to lieutenants. Boys who have escaped from The Lord’s Resistance Army say they are forced to mutilate and kill fellow youngsters who are insubordinate or try to escape. Mr. Kony occasionally breaks into the Western press as he did in April 2002, when his men attacked a funeral party, and made the mourners eat the corpse before slaughtering them. Whenever President Museveni’s men close in on him he reportedly slips across the border into Sudan. However, last year, after Mr. Kony’s men started killing and raping Sudanese civilians, the Sudanese announced they would join the hunt for him.

Academic Prejudices

Prof. Behrend has provided us with a fascinating glimpse of all this, but her book is a frustrating, confusing piece of work. First of all, she is an out-and-out lefty who laces her book with observations like: “Today, wars take place because the enormous war economy necessitates the testing of new and the scrapping of old weapons technologies.” This book is translated from German, so it is hard to know exactly whom to blame, but she appears to love jargon. Every idea, explanation, thought process, or discussion is a “discourse,” and when she really hits her stride, it may even be a “semantic field.” Her book is also a jumble of repetition and events out of chronological order.

Prof. Behrend is terrified she might feed stereotypes. She writes that before she went to Uganda to do research, she thought the Holy Spirit Movement was a peasant revolt against a heartless government. She discovered that the fighters were mostly in it for thrills, loot, and revenge, that many of them had fought in one civil war or other, developed a taste for killing, and would not go back to being peasants. She nearly dropped the project, she writes, “since I saw no possibility of depicting the Holy Spirit Movement and its history except by idealizing it unjustifiably or repeating stereotypes that would have been too close to colonial images of warlike, ‘violent’ savages.” She admits that given a choice, she has succumbed to “a certain tendency to idealization,” but concedes that in Africa, war often has very little political content and is hard to distinguish from large-scale crime.

One wonders what a brutally frank account would be like. Prof. Behrend strains to avoid passing judgment, but it seems there is just about nothing the Acholi cannot be made to believe. This book is an account of credulity of a nature entirely different from the horoscopy, channeling, or pyramids in which white people sometimes dabble. Much as she would deny it, Prof. Behrend has written a portrait of the African mind — perhaps even the African soul — a portrait that is to us disturbingly alien.