Surrounded by family, Ambassador Otunnu leads a traditional farewell dance to their mother. Photo: Samuel Olara

[In Memorium]

Mama Josephine Amato Otunnu — 1928-2013


‘Otole’, In A First, Enters Christ Church Cathedral

Having rained the entire night and during the early hours of Saturday 11 January 2014, a sparkling ray of sunlight soon burst through the skyline of Oxfordshire. Birds were singing and the promise of warmth soon hung in the winter air.

Mama Josephine Amato Otunnu would have loved this day.

This was her day, this was the day that the Otunnu family had earmarked to thank God for the life of a remarkable woman, their beloved mother.

Mama Otunnu’s casket left the family home on the outskirts of the city centre at around 9.00 A.M and made a solemn journey through the streets of Oxford, arriving at Christ Church Cathedral at around 9.20, where friends, well-wishers and hundreds of other Ugandans had gathered.

There, she was received by members of the Otunnu family and traditional dancers from the Lwo Cultural Group (LCG) who wore the traditional regalia for performing the Otole dance (war dance) and in a rare show of Acholi tradition, accompanied the casket of Mama Otunnu into the church.

The sound of bila and kijira (ululation) soon rang out across the grounds of the prestigious Christ Church Cathedral, a constituent college of the University of Oxford, bringing it to a complete standstill.  This was a day that they will live to remember for years to come, because it was unlike one that Oxford or Christ Church has ever seen in it’s entire 489 years of existence.

The processional song into the Church “Wek Lalworo Odok Ingeya-CER” was led by Lapolo Otunnu and on entering the Cathedral, the escorting troop was joined by the congregation in singing the “Wilobo Kulu Wupak Lalar-Lubara me CER” Revival song.

The service was presided over by Reverend Canon Edmund Newey, the sub dean of Christ Church Cathedral who was assisted by the Reverend Dr. Jonathan K. “Lubermoi” Stubbs.

The first reading, Psalm 23 was read by Achola Faith Otunnu and the second reading that followed the Hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ came from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 and was read by Prof Omara Otunnu’s daughter Larib.

It was left to Ambassador Dr. Olara Otunnu to welcome the congregation.

He said that the family was extremely grateful for the love and support shown since Mama Otunnu passed away of December 22, 2013.  He added that they had been forced by circumstances prevailing in Uganda to temporarily intern their mother in Oxford where their father Baba Yusto Otunnu is also laid. He noted that at an appropriate time in the future, both will be taken back to their ancestral home in Uganda, where they will finally be laid to rest.

Ambassador Otunnu thanked his mother for always leading by example.

“Brought up in a chiefly family, Mama was taught and expected to carry herself in an exemplary and dignified manner,” he recalled. “This kind of upbringing, that taught Mama to be welcoming of all people, was to stand her in good stead later in her life when she had to deal with many different people from all works of life who frequently congregated in the Otunnu family as part of the East African Revival Movement.”

Agenorwot Otunnu moved the congregation by reading out the life history of Mama Otunnu and paying her grandmother an emotional tribute. And what an extra ordinary life indeed. 

Mama Josephine Amato Otunnu was born in 1928 into the Pubec patrilineal clan of Chua in Acholi in northern Uganda to Akello Lunguru Olya and Ogwok Lukuce. Her mother, Lunguru, was a traditional Acholi woman: trained in dance, music, and poetry, and groomed from an early age to be a mother and the chief nurturer of her immediate and extended family.

It was from her mother’s side that Mama Josephine’s lineage extended to the royal house of Alur. From her father’s lineage she was a Pachua like Professor Okot p’Bitek.

Her father, Lukuce, was a great hunter, oken, and fisher, a skill he passed on to Mama Josephine, who was highly skilled in fishing with ogwaa, fishnets made from flaxes and reeds. Lukuce was also a revered rainmaker, who, through ancient rituals and invocations, would summon the rain when the earth was perched or, when required, would disperse the gathering rain clouds.

One of Mama Josephine’s favorite songs was an old traditional song about her father—praising his skills and rectitude as a rainmaker. She was very close to her father, and would recall their time together with great fondness. Her father gave her great latitude and allowed her intellectual curiosity and individualism to flourish, a range of freedom rare to Acholi girls of her period.

Mama Josephine’s childhood was spent, as was the case of many African girls in colonial Africa, in a long and intense apprenticeship in preparation for motherhood. In Acholi tradition, a woman of culture had certain desired attributes.

She had to be socially adept, witty, and in possession of a ready sense of humor, la-oree; she had to be groomed and immersed in the key arts of poetry, music, and dance; she had to be steeped in Acholi literature, mainly through ododo (epic stories and mythologies), koc (riddles), and traditional songs; she had to possess a steller character; and, above all, must have generosity of spirit and equanimity or stability of character.

Mama Josephine was a product of that Acholi milieu, or cultural environment, which placed priority on the development of character, culture, and the arts, interweaving ethics, religion, and cosmology of the ancient Nile civilization in the development of a person into a citizen.

It was the possession of those disciplines and attributes that made a living being a ‘dano’—giving a sentient being the features, rights, and responsibilities of personhood.

In the case of Mama Josephine, she trained in, and gained full mastery of, Acholi violin, rikiriki, and opuk, a three-string classical music instrument—the two traditional music instruments an Acholi woman would be expected to master. She became a great dancer, specializing in myel acut; dance of supplication or prayer; myel apiti women dance; myel bwola, Acholi royal dance; and myel otole, war dance. She became a great choreographer, playing a leading role later in life in training the Chosen Evangelical Revival (CER) dancers.

She was a gifted and beautiful singer and was part of the CER choir, which she led (latel wer) in certain genres of songs. Above all, Mama Josephine was a great composer, with some of her songs becoming classics, such as the dirge, Ogonyo Langoya ki iyiya, composed in exile during Idi Amin’s dictatorship; Tua Uganda, Lobo Kwaro, a song of supplication for the liberation of Uganda from Idi Amin; and Otongo Tido Wa, a lament against gross human rights abuse in Uganda under Idi Amina.

As part of her cultural repertoire, she was a basket and mat weaver; pottery and vase maker, lacwer agulu ki abino; expert in threading beads on ostrich eggs; and a seamstress. In athletics she was a swimmer and a sprinter, and was a joyous but competitive Acholi chess player, lacwe coro. Finally, Mama Josephine was a great chef, renown for her delicious Acholi dishes such as malakwang, dek ngoo ki moo yaa, and pig olel, and non-Acholi cuisines. Like her mother before her, Mama Josephine was an expert in African herbal medicine.

When she came off age, Mama Josephine married Yusto Otunnu. Their marriage lasted for over half a century, severed only by her husband’s death in 1998. Their marriage was blessed with children, some of the best brains in Uganda.

A few years after her wedding, her new husband joined the King’s Africa Rifles (KAR) and was deployed in Asia as an artillery officer during World War II, serving in India, Burman, and Sri Lanka.

After the War, Baba came back and on September 29, 1947 accepted Jesus Christ as his saviour after the preaching of Dr. Elia Lubulwa, and launched the Revival Movement in the Upper Nile Region, for which he traveled constantly all over the Great Lakes Region of Africa. On August 28, 1958, Baba Yusto launched the Chosen Evangelical Revival in Anaka in Acholi District.

During the formative period of the Revival Movement, when Baba crisscrossed the Region on his evangelizing mission, Mama became the anchor of the family. She was the one who bore the bulk of the day-to-day responsibility for nurturing the children, by resourcefully engaging in farming and entrepreneurial businesses.

During the heydays of the Revival Movement, when the Otunnu family became “the university” of the Chosen Evangelical Revival (CER), Mama was not only an indispensable partner with Baba, but also a generous matron of the Movement. She hosted and literally fed and clothed all those who came from the Great Lakes Region of Africa and beyond to be schooled in how to spread the fire of the Revival Movement. Her practical engagement in the lives of the brethren of the Revival Movement sustained and enabled them to spread the Christian gospel like tropical bushfire, which shook and transformed the established and often colonized Christian Church in East Africa.

Baba Yusto Otunnu, with the active support of Mama Josephine, was responsible for converting to Christianity and mentoring Janani Jakaliya Luwum, the Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Boga (Zaire), who became a martyr of the 20th century.

A pivotal figure in the Great East African Revival movement, Mama Josephine’s life’s work was, nonetheless, her family. She was a key moral figure in the development of her children, insisting that her children should grow up upright and people of integrity, fairness, and compassion. She did not care whether they had material wealth or not, but she insisted on character development.

During the Idi Amin’s years, she played a key role in smuggling her family into exile in Kenya, making over five dangerous trips across the Uganda-Kenya border at Busia. In exile she became part of the women prayer warriors—women who mobilized to overthrow the Idi Amin’s dictatorship. She supported many women whose husbands left to fight Idi Amin, and composed several songs to support the liberation struggle in Uganda.

Following the collapse of the Amin’s regime, she continued with her leadership role in CER but also became a very successful entrepreneur, a role she had played successfully before going into exile as part of the market trade.

In 1986 Mama Josephine and her family moved into exile in Oxford in England. She continued to play an active role in the CER work and in the cultural life of the Ugandan community in England.

It was in England that she passed away on Sunday, December 22, 2013.

Here at Oxford, after the church service, Mama Otunnu’s body was escorted in a procession from the Church, again by family and Acholi traditional dancers from the Lwo Cultural group, with the traditional songs: Wuleng, Wuleng Wangayo to the Wolvercote Cemetery where she was interred.

Mourners were then invited to join the family at a reception held at Summerville College in Oxford. Where Bwola, Otole and Myel lyel were performed in celebration of her life.

Mama Otunnu travelled a remarkable journey, and that journey was very productive and gracious.

We thank the Good Lord for the life of Mama Josephine Amato Otunnu. 




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