The Iteso live in eastern Uganda in the districts of Soroti and Kumi. Some are in Palisa and Tororo districts. The political insecurity of the early 1990’s caused many Iteso to move as far as Iganga district. They are part of the Lango group which is said to have come from Abyssinia. By the first half of the 18th century they had settled on the shores of L. Salisbury.
Tradition asserts that the ancestors of the Iteso came form the direction of Abyssinia through Karamoja. Historians have modified this tradition to assert that the Iteso are a Nilo- Hamitic group with similar origins as the Langi, the Karimojong, the Jie and the Kumam.
The clan was a basic social and political unit. It was administrative and judicial in character. Initially, Iteso society was comprised of nine clans. The subsequent clans are said to have broken off from the nine. Each clan had a leader called Akolon ka Ateker . He was normally elected form other elders at a merry ceremony known as Airukorin. The person selected as Akolon ka Ateker was usally a person of courage, impartiality and wisdom. The actual inauguration ceremony involved opening up a road that had been deliberately blocked for about two weeks. Previously, the Apolon ka Ateker was greatly respected. He acted as an arbitrator in the event of disputes. During the British colonial administration his position was reduced to that of a third grade chief and referred to as Omusalatuo.
Settlement of disputes
The clan leader was assisted by a council of elders known as Airabis Aurianet. This council dealt with cases like murder and debts. In cases involving murder, compensation could be paid in the form of a girl or a cow. During inter-clan settlements, the elders would come fully armed. In case the other side showed uncompromising behavior, fighting could easily ensue. After settling a dispute, a ceremony known as Epucit or Aijuk was performed whereby a bull was exacted form the offending side and killed, roasted and eaten there and then. This was intended to act as a gesture of renewed co-operation between the two clans. The appropriate compensation in form of a cow or a girl would then be handed over. The girl so given would have and iron ring put in her ear lobe. If the girl was lucking in beauty, some cows would also be paid to boost her value. After the ceremony and payment of the compensation, it would be assumed that the murder case was sufficiently settled.
In cases of a bad debtor, the offender was asked to pay the debt within an agreed period. If he refused or defaulted, he would be caught and tied to a log and left there until his clan rescued him by paying back the debts he owed.
Military organization .
The age-grades known as Aturio provided the basis of the military organization. The war leaders were called Aruwok and the army was called the Ajore. Before declaring war, the Amurwok (fortune teller) would be consulted. If he predicted success, war would be declared after the collective approval of the elders .
The social system of the Iteso was centered around the clan system and they shared similar cultural elements with the Langi and the Karimojong. Also, due to the influence of the Karimojong. Also, due to the influence of the neighboring Bantu societies, particularly the Basoga, the Iteso women used to wear barkcloth while the young girls wore itibire which were decorated with beads and arobai .
Previously, parents could arrange marriage for their children even without their knowledge. However, the boy could directly consult the girl. If the girl consented, she would inform her mother and secretly move away to start staying with the boy. Whenever the girl’s clan noticed this development they would complain about the illegal manner in which their daughter was being used. Arrangements would then be made and a date would be fixed on which the delegation form the boy’s clan would come to the girl’s family for introduction. Arrangements for the payment of bridewealth would be made. In other cases, the boys would approach the girl and tender his wish to marry her. He would then come with a delegation to the girl’s family for introduction. The relationship would then be formalized by paying bridewealth. A traditional wedding would follow.
When all was set and many people had gathered, a table was put in the middle of the gathering. The suitor would put the present on it up. If the girl accepted him, she would pick up the present, amidst cheers and claps. If she did not accept it, she was not willing to get married to him. She would refuse to pick it. This would be the end of any further efforts by the boy to lure her to marriage.
On returning home, the boy and his delegation would inform his parents of whatever had transpired. If the girl had consented, due arrangements would be made to pay the bridewealth. This was settled using sticks to represent the number of cows which were required. All the clan members would gather for the function. Among the Iteso, a child belonged to the whole clan and not to a particular family. On reaching an agreement, another day was set for the girl’s family to pick the cows. It was fashionable for the girl to go to the boy’s home and receive her people as they came to collect the cows.
After the cows had been seen and approved, another day was fixed on which the cows would be taken to the girl’s home. This was the same day on which the girl would be escorted to the boy’s home to begin her married life. Before entering the compound, the delegation that had brought the cows would ask for a hen to roast and then there would follow a lot of eating, dancing, drinking and merry making. Later, an entourage ( mugolen) would escort the bride to her husband’s home. The marching was punctuated by singing and rejoicing. The bride was left at her husband’s home with two other girls, to help her get along, as it were. After one month or so. The two girls would also go home and leave the newly weds to manage their own affairs.
Births and naming.
There were three types of births among the Iteso: the single child, twins, and the spiritual birth. The first two types were considered normal but the spiritual births was said to be in form of air or water. It was believed that such a child would often manifest itself in a home in the form of a cat or some other animal.
There was no particular formula for naming children. A child could be named according to the circumstances in which it was born or the particular conditions which were experienced by the mother during labor or pregnancy. A child could also be named according to the season to reflect instances like famine, harvest or drought. It could also be named according to the particular day of the week or the time at which it was born; in the morning, during the day or at night. Finally, it was common for a child to be named after an ancestor as a sign of commemorating him.
The new born baby would be initiated into the clan by conducting a ritual ceremony called etale . It was after this that the child would be regarded a full member of the clan. Normally, this ceremony was restricted to members of the clan but some clans would allow outsiders to participate. The roads and the paths leading to the compound where the ceremony was being conducted were lined with thorns in order to prevent outsiders form attending. It was feared that the outsiders would use their evil eyes or perform other devilish acts to undermine the health of the child. Intruders were thus regarded as agents of evil. If caught they were heavily fined or beaten up.
The Etale involved a lot of eating and drinking. The food consisted of millet not mixed with cassava and unsalted peas with ground-nut paste and oil. Besides, people would also eat Akobokob (a species of cucumber) and simsim paste. The use of pots was prohibited, so also was the use of tubes for drinking. Only calabashes called adere were used for drinking ajon . No fighting or quarrels of any sort were allowed and any offenders in this respect were heavily fined in the form of goats and hens. The ceremony acquired a spiritual aspect because it was believed that failure to accomplish it would malign and weaken the child thereby rendering it vulnerable t the wiles of evildoers.
The Iteso did not regard death as a normal consequence. Death was attributed to ancestral spirits and witch craft. As soon as a person died, a witch doctor would be consulted to diagnose the cause f the death. The corpse was washed in the court yard and wrapped in abangut (barkcloth) and then it was buried. The corpse of a woman was made to lie on its right side while that of a man was made to lie on its left side. It was customary to bury corpses with objects needles or razorblades to prevent them form cannibals who might use their black magic to extract corpses from the graves. If the corpse had a needle for example, it would reply that it was still busy mending its cloths and thus refuse to come out of the grave when invoked by a cannibal.
The Iteso had a variety of foods. Millet was their staple food. Other varieties included pumpkins, wild berries, groundnuts, peas, beans, meat of both domestic and wild animals, milk, butter and fish. The men did not eat with women. They ate separately seated on stools, tree stumps or stones. Millet was served on one plate which would be shared communally. The women sat on mats in a circle around the food. It was considered good manners to join the circle whenever one was invited to partake of a meal.
The Iteso believed in a supreme being called Edeke . However, they were much more involved with ancestral spirits which were believed to cause ill luck if not well attended to. Every family possessed an ancestral shrine where libations were often poured or placed to placate the ancestors. The Iteso were a superstitious society and they believed in witch craft and wizardly.
It was a taboo for women to eat chicken. Particular clans had specific taboos, mainly animals they were not permitted to eat. The bush-buck ( ederet ) was taboo to a number of clans.
Utensils and crafts
The women’s utensils included baskets, gourds, calabashes, winnowing trays, grinding stones, pots, brooms, pestles and mortars, ekigo (ladle for stirring millet) and eitereria (the fishing basket). The men’s utensils included spears, hoes, clubs, arrows, bows and all the instruments which had to do with brewing and drinking.
Whenever a mother gave birth to twins she was styled toto idwe (mother of many). Upon that accomplishment, a special type of drum was beaten and the people would gather and dance their best. This involved a lot of eating, dancing and merrymaking.
Another type of dance was known as Akembe . It was normally organized by boys who would invite girls to join their company in some generally agreeable place away from homes. It was a get-together dance for boys to spot their future spouses.
Sometimes, when the need arose, a special dance would be held to invoke the ancestors for consultation. A special drum was sounded and people would dance to and Iteso tune. In the process, some people would become possessed and start communicating to the living, so they say, in the voices of the ancestors. This dance involved shaking rattles. The other dances were general. Some were performed at marriage ceremonies, beer parties, visits and other merrymaking occasions. The dancing instruments included; the emudiri and akong drums, lutes, adigidig and amagarit.