November 18, 2009

Peacemakers and Rainmakers

Feinstein Center program studies the role that traditional seers play in resolving disputes in conflict-ridden eastern Africa

Text and slideshow by Leslie Macmillan

For thousands of years, cattle have been the lifeblood of the region known as the Karamoja in eastern Africa. For the migratory herdsmen who eke out a living in the remote drylands between Uganda, Kenya and southern Sudan, cattle represent wealth and status, and provide food in the form of meat and milk. But in recent decades, their way of life has come under threat as conflict over scarce natural resources like grazing land and water has led to banditry, increased poverty and violent clashes.

In the audio slideshow above, Khristopher Carlson talks about his experiences with seers in northern Uganda. Photos by Khristopher Carlson

Rather than trying to impose Western models of dispute resolution on the nomadic pastoralists, national and international agencies are now turning to traditional ones. As part of a larger initiative to promote stability in the region, including economic and health projects, researchers at the Tufts Feinstein International Center have been working with an unusual group—traditional seers. Seers are believed to possess powers that allow them to see into the future, divined through rituals in which they read animal entrails or decode the messages in tossed stones.

Perhaps just as important, seers also have tremendous influence within their communities. Working with this special group, the Feinstein team has been able to get warring parties to sit down and talk. Conflict persists, but tribes such as the Toposa in southern Sudan and the Turkana in Kenya have already engaged in early peace talks, and there is hope that more will follow.

According to Khristopher Carlson, a senior researcher at the Feinstein Center and documentary photographer, “by better understanding the seers’ roles as war-makers, peacemakers, rainmakers and healers, we hope to learn more about how they could alleviate conflict in the region.”

For the past year, he has worked with fellow Feinstein senior researcher Darlington Akabwai, a veterinarian from Uganda who has 25 years of experience in the Karamoja working in conflict resolution and maintaining livestock health.

Darlington Akabwai, a Ugandan veterinarian and Feinstein senior researcher, right, has 25 years of experience in the Karamoja working in conflict resolution and maintaining livestock health. Photo: Khristopher Carlson

The notion of working with so-called witch doctors doesn’t always garner respect within political or academic circles, says Carlson. But whether the seers’ predictions are true or not is beside the point.

“There are practical applications to the work we’re doing. Seers have a lot of influence over migratory patterns of people and animals,” he says. “The rains may or may not come, but the seers are telling their people this is the time to go from place X to place Y.” The Feinstein project, funded by the International Development Research Centre in Canada, also uses the seers’ predictions to track the movements of their nomadic people, which has been useful in delivering human and animal health care.

So far, the project has gone extremely well, says Carlson. Working with seers has allowed veterinarians and health-care professionals to anticipate human and animal movement, which is important in terms of being able to deliver care. Equally important, people consult with seers as to whether they should accept medical services for themselves or their animals. Akabwai, for instance, has been instrumental in vaccinating herds against rinderpest, a deadly cattle plague, and other diseases, potentially saving tens of thousands of animals, as well as local livelihoods.

Proven Track Record

 “Seers have this early warning system where they’re predicting raids, predicting clashes with enemy groups,” says Carlson, who says that such information has been useful in forestalling conflict and engaging parties in dialogue.

“These people [seers] have the power they have because they have a proven track record of helping their people,” says Carlson, who notes the vital importance of finding good grazing land and predicting raids. “In many cases, their predictions have been accurate.”

How do they do it?

“I think you live a life that is very much in harmony with the environment around you. These people have been living on this land for centuries: they’re in tune with climatic change, with weather patterns. So when it comes to predicting rainfall, there really is a sense. Maybe it’s a clairvoyant sense, or maybe it’s a more practical sense,” says Carlson. “Sometimes our joints swell up when it’s humid, [so] maybe it’s going to rain today.”

Beyond that, he concedes, “There’s a lot to it that we simply don’t know.”

Eventually the researchers hope to broaden local discussions about conflict and security into regional ones, says Carlson, engaging the governments of Uganda, Sudan and Kenya in talks that will inform policy. For example, the government of Uganda is actively forcing its population in Karamoja to disarm, leaving them vulnerable to cross-border incursions from armed pastoralists in Sudan and Kenya. In terms of settlement efforts, the researchers hope to make the case for pastoralism, or nomadic herding, as a more viable way of life than subsistence farming in an increasingly fragile environment.

The team collected data over two field visits to northern Uganda this past February and May and one to southern Sudan in October 2008; they are completing a report, illustrated with Carlson’s photographs, on their findings, due to be published by the Feinstein International Center by the end of the year. Carlson hopes his photos will illuminate a people who perform a service for their community that will only grow in value as the world continues to modernize.

“We haven’t encountered any resistance for us to have access to some of these very intimate rituals that the seers are performing,” says Carlson, who adds that's surprising, given that seers, because of their status in the community, are often targets of violence themselves. “We do everything we can to make their safety a priority,” says Carlson, noting that his photos of the seers often show only hands and not faces.

The seers are “remarkable people,” Carlson says. “There’s a particular wisdom about them. It stays with them, it is them and it goes away with them.”

Leslie Macmillan can be reached at

Article Tools

emailE-mail printPrint