Iteso Stories


A few evenings ago I was in the village of Apapai sitting next to a small, dying fire with no other source of light besides the moon. To my left was an elderly gentleman whose face was carved with character. His eyes twinkled, and he smiled often. Behind him was the dim outline of a thatched hut, and beyond that was the African bush. Suzy and I were staying in the village for a few days so I could get to know the people and way of life better. The gentleman was Suzy’s grandfather, and he was telling Suzy and I story after story about the history of the Iteso tribe. (The Itesots are the tribe from Soroti and Apapai.)

According to tradition the Itesots migrated from Ethiopia many years ago. When they reached northern Uganda some of the older ones were too tired to continue, so they stayed behind-eventually becoming the fierce Karamojong tribe. The younger members continued migrating until they came to what is now Soroti district. When they arrived, to their great surprise, they discovered the area was already inhabited. “How is this possible?” they asked in astonishment. “Aren’t we the only people to ever come to this far? ….Maybe these creatures aren’t actually human?” They decided to attack them to find out, and upon examination the tribal consensus was reached: They really were true human beings. (This consensus was reached based on the shape of their teeth.) They eventually drove all of them off, and the name Iteso comes from that battle. It carries the idea of death.

I asked Suzy’s grandfather what life was like when he was little. In Ateso, with Suzy translating, he told me that both men and women used to wear a loincloth as their only clothes. I heard about how the Iteso would form huge hunting parties by going through the area beating a drum. As they heard the drum call, the men would come out and join the hunt forming a line that went on for miles. When they came upon a herd of wild animals they would drive it to the water, then surround it. Suddenly, spears would fly and animals would panic and try to jump over the men.

Although there are very few wild animals in this area now, he told stories about how elephants would eat all the sweet potatoes as they were drying on the thatched roofs of their huts. To drive them off, the villagers heated up spears and threw them at the elephants. During those days, everyone had to be in their hut with the door bolted before dusk because of the lions and tigers.

Then, he told me the story of white missionaries who came in the 1940’s. The villagers were scared of them initially. One day, some villagers were watching the missionaries and saw that they were eating a strange white powder. The missionaries made signs to the villagers to come and try it, but the villagers were afraid and ran off. Later, the missionaries poured the same white stuff (sugar) into the well while some of them watched. Wow, did that stir them up! They ran back to their families and told them what the missionaries did. The villagers discussed it among themselves and eventually decided to try the water. It was sweet! As a result the village became more open to the missionaries.

After that the stories became tragic. During the 1980’s the Karamojong tribe swept down upon the entire area stealing everyone’s cattle and killing those who did not have cattle to give. Later, the Lord’s Resistance Army came. This was a brutal army that kidnapped children and forced them to become child soldiers and commit horrible crimes against humanity. At that time, the villagers had to sleep in the bush to avoid capture, torture or death.

As I listened to story after story and thought about all the changes and tragedies this man had seen in his lifetime, I was in awe that God has allowed me to come and get to know these people. I was fascinated by their history and intrigued by their lives. I’m so thankful they are welcoming me in and allowing me to see their way of life, but beyond just giving history or cooking lessons or showing me how they catch ants to eat =), they have so much more to offer. They encourage and inspire me almost every day with their welcoming kindness, humility, generosity and concern for others.

To briefly illustrate some of the beautiful qualities of these people, let me share with you a few quick stories from my stay in the village last week.

I stayed with Suzy’s grandparents. Her grandmother is a wonderful, smiling, kind lady who allowed us to sleep in her hut, and did not seem inconvenienced in the least. There is no running water or electricity out there, so her aunt and cousin had to walk a long way to the borehole for water, fill a jerrycan, then carry it back on their heads. The water is super heavy (about 5 gallons), but they didn’t seem to think twice about the extra work and instead just enjoyed inviting us into their world and showing us how they live. I asked them to only feed me their typical food in the amount and frequency they normally ate because I wanted to experience their life to the full extent. Somehow, though, these loving, generous people couldn’t quite bring themselves to treat a visitor like that. Instead, they killed a chicken and fed us wonderful meals.

The first evening we were there we took a walk down a trail and briefly stopped to say “Hi” to an older gentleman. As we were greeting him and chatting, he turned to Suzy and asked in Ateso, “What are you going to feed the visitor? She can’t eat our food. Let me go catch a chicken and send it home with you.” And he did.

The next day we visited one of the sponsored children. The dad has been in and out of prison, and there are 9 or 10 children living at home. Their hardworking mom also ran and caught me a chicken. Chicken is a luxury here, and these people have been experiencing famine. Many children have extended bellies and pale, reddish hair from malnutrition, but they gave so enthusiastically and generously even in their own need. It reminded me of the verse in Proverbs 22:9 which talks about the person with a generous eye giving of his bread to the poor. They gave of their own food for a stranger, and as I experienced their incredible hospitality I felt so humbled, but also very thankful for their example. They are very poor by most standards, but to me, they seem so wealthy in ways that are non-material.

Another beautiful thing I see about these people-centered Ugandans is that the care for others reaches beyond strangers and extends to the needy around them. Suzy’s family alone has cared for over 50 needy children through the years, and it is common for families to take in children of relatives whose parents aren’t able to care for them any longer. I never sense they are inconvenienced by hosting a stranger or meeting the needs of others. I look at the sometimes overwhelming need all around, and it is beautiful to me that they do not ignore the needy because there are far too many of them. Instead, so many Ugandans reach out to one, and then another and another. One by one as the need arises, and I think about it from God’s perspective and I believe He is blessed by their heart and the care they show towards others. I am blessed too. Blessed to be here and blessed to learn through their example.

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