New Museum of African Culture & Traditional Health Practices will tell the Story of Africa’s Cattle Herders

John Otim & Ekkehard Doehring


The idea

The activities of cattle herding and land cultivation practiced by early man were the stuff that prompted the emergence of culture and the rise of civilization. They ensured that beyond the primordial need for security, man’s basic need for food was met. The time and energy freed from having to forage for food, was now available for the pursuits of higher needs.

With a little free time at hand, early man set to recreate and entertain himself. He found satisfaction in conversation, storytelling, music making, dance and drama. Through these activities he was ready for the tasks that needed to be done, the production of goods and services and later the building of institutions. The march of culture and civilization was on its way.

Hunting and gathering were the first productive activities that early human pursued. These were followed by land cultivation and crop production. That was in turn followed by the domestication and rearing and herding of cattle, goats and sheep. Life got easier, for the first time in history man was producing more than he needed to keep alive. Under this favorable condition society diversified, cities emerged; trade and the exchange of goods began. Think of Timbuktu in West Africa.

For years the agrarian man and the herdsman lived side by side; sometimes peacefully, exchanging their products; and at times not as peacefully. Just as agriculture encouraged the production of work tools and work songs, conflicts encouraged the production of combat tools and the perfection of already existing tools. Think of the sphere and the shield and the bow and arrows.

In East Africa the cattle herder belt that begins in West Africa runs right through the length and breadth of the Sahel to the horn of Africa, and beyond to Asia and to Mongolia. As a matter of fact it runs right across the world.

Two years ago in the small Northern town of Lira in Uganda, right in the passage of the ancient cattle belt, a new university college sprang up in the aftermath of a devastating conflict. The new college rose as a symbol of peace and an instrument for healing. The people who live here are the Langi. Nearby are neighboring communities of Acholi, Karamoja, Kumum and Teso. And further to the east are the Turukana and the Pokot communities in Kenya.  Together these communities form a solid bloc of the cattle herder culture in this vast and rapidly changing region of Africa.

 Throughout Africa as population increases so does the speed of urbanization. With urbanization come many changes that deeply affect culture and the old way of life in many communities, whose rich and valuable knowledge, including artifacts face danger of imminent disappearance.

This is happening right now. Because of war or conflicts, old settled communities are dislodged, and migrate to the city. Tourists snatch up old priceless objects thus abandoned, quite cheaply. Many of these items are later sold at handsome profits to rich private collectors in Europe and North America. They become lost to the world and to the cultures that produced them. The result is a general impoverishment of world culture. This consideration prompted the idea of the Lira Museum of African Culture and Traditional Health Practices.

Rationale for the Museum

It does not help that Africa has the lowest per capita of museums in the world. Any large European city is almost certain to boast more museums than the whole of Africa put together. What museums there are in Africa are unevenly distributed. Most of them are in South Africa and in Egypt. Indeed Egypt with its Pharaonic past is home to some of the world’s most historic and priceless museums.

Under pressure of wars, conflicts, famine and urbanization, many aspects of the lives of scores of communities in Africa continue to disappear and quite rapidly too, leaving behind little or not a trace of their once rich way of life. This has been especially true of communities living within the zone of the old cattle herder belt. The recent wars, conflicts and displacements in Mali and in Darfur, are just two examples among many.

But not all is lost. Throughout Africa much valuable stuff remains that can be salvaged, documented, preserved and shared with the rest of the world. Museums with their focus on the material objects of culture, offer one of the best means of performing this vital and urgent task. Today we have in cyberspace a great means of sharing with the entire world these treasure troves from Africa.

Goals and objectives

After years of war and conflict, thankfully peace now obtains in Northern Uganda. The goal of the Lira Museum of African Culture is to assemble, document and display, artifacts from the cattle herder communities of East Africa, beginning first with those of the Lango and the Karamojong people. There is no better way to unearth the narratives of these communities.

In phase 2 of the project, the exercise will be extended to cover the neighboring communities of Acholi, Teso, Turkana and Pokot. The aim is to link the cattle herder cultures of East Africa with those of West Africa; and by means of the online platform share the riches of these cultures with the rest of the world.         

Work so far done

A nucleus of the proposed Museum already exists. Last November Dr Ekkehard Doehring, a visiting professor at the Lira College, offered his substantive collection of mostly Karamojong art and artifacts to the museum project. His offer was followed by those of others that are still on the way.  The beauty and elegance of many individual objects now in the Lira collection gives some idea of the sophistication of these cultures and the superior skills they commanded as designers and craftsmen.

Only days ago Professor Doehring and a group from the Lira Museum left on a tour of the Karamoja region for the purpose of searching for and collecting more objects and artifacts. In Karamoja the group will explore possibilities for future archeological work. The thinking is that there is much evidence of the past of these cultures yet to be explored and brought to light. The work would be done primarily by graduate students and faculty at the Lira College.

Painstaking work of documenting, classifying and cataloging the Lira Museum collection is underway. Soon the collection will go on display at its present home in a wing of the College Library. A sample of the collection is under preparation for online display as the virtual arm of the museum. On December 17 this year Lira Museum of African Culture and Traditional Health Practices will be formally launched at the Lira Campus.

Future of the museum

In the years ahead, the Museum will need to acquire its own premises. It will extend its collection to cover the rest of Africa. The Museum will serve as a document and multimedia resource center, for cattle herder cultures of Africa, attracting students and scholars from all over Africa and beyond.