Killing of Abyssinian Ground Hornbill Bird Blamed for Drought in Uganda

The Disappearance of the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill Bird: A Rainmaker in Iteso Community

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The bird, which is believed to be the rainmaker in Teso. (Photo by Steven Ariong)
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Soroti, Uganda – In every tribe, there is something that commands special respect. For the Iteso community, located in the eastern part of Uganda, that something is the Abyssinian ground hornbill, believed to be a rainmaker.

Justine Okiror, 45 years old and a resident of Nananga village, Kanyangang parish in Koteta sub-county in Serere district, was expelled from his community for two years for killing this bird, which his clan associated strongly with rainmaker beliefs. In the fateful year, a prolonged drought hit Kateta Sub County while other areas in the district were receiving heavy rainfall.

The elders in Mr. Okiror’s village were consulted to establish the possible cause of the drought. The elders found out that Mr. Okiror was the cause by killing the bird believed to be a rainmaker.

One of Okiror’s close friends, in a group of other boys looking after goats, had seen Okiror burying the bird at the swamp in the neighboring villages.

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The clan elders decided that Mr. Okiror’s punishment, among others, would include forfeiting all his inherited land, and neither would he attend any burial or marriage ceremony in his village, not even for his close friends.

“Someone told Okiror that a party of this bird’s beak works as a love charm, that is why he could kill it,” Simon Odongo, one of the elders, said.

What’s this bird called Abyssinian Ground Hornbill?

This bird is commonly known as (Esukusuku) in Ateso language. It’s a black bird that walks gracefully with a colored throat, red in males and blue in females. It’s about one meter tall and survives on eating frogs, snails, young snakes, and other small reptiles in the bush. It belongs to the hornbill family found in tropical and sub-tropical Africa, north of the equator in particular. Unlike most birds, the Abyssinian ground hornbill is carnivorous.

Abyssinian ground hornbills live in a small family of about six members, nesting in trumes of big trees that they bore with their hard beaks.

It’s native to sub-Saharan Africa and thrives in open grasslands, sparse woodlands, savannah, and forest-edges.

This bird has a size of 31-42 inches and 79-107 centimeters high and weighs between 3-5 kilograms.

It can reach a maximum age of 40 to 50 years; they are the only birds with their first two neck vertebrae fused together. This helps support the weight of their large heads and heavy beaks.

In Teso region, they are most found in the districts of Kumi, Soroti, Serere, and Katakwi in areas surrounding Lake Bisina and Kyaga.

Besides in Teso region, these birds can be found in Semiliki Wildlife Reserve and Murchison Falls National Park.

The Abyssinian ground hornbill has long eyelashes to protect it from injury. It’s very slow in breeding. A pair produces just one brood of two chicks every nine years, and only one survives.

Mr. Peter Olaboro, another elder, revealed that due to its rare characteristics, the hornbill is much sought after by scientists interested in researching it, especially the taboos and traditional beliefs associated with it, especially those related to rainmaking.

For a long time, communities in Teso believed that when this bird hooted, it was time to prepare gardens for planting. Whenever rain delayed its return at its normal season, it was suspected to be the bird, and the search to recover its remains for decent burial after conducting a ritual to appease the gods would commence immediately.

“The belief is still strong that whoever harms the bird would face the wrath of the community,” said Samson Eukot, one of the elders in Teso Cultural Union.

Mr. Eukot said once one bird is killed in any parish, there would be a serious drought, and community members would gang up to search for its remains.

Mr. Eukot added that although the belief has not been proved scientifically, holding onto the cultural values attached to the bird, which is currently facing extinction.

“When we were growing up, we knew that the bird is the rainmaker for us, but they are no longer common. Maybe that’s why the dry seasons are longer these days in Teso region,” said Solomon Ojangole, an elder of 70 years.

In a three-week study carried out by this publication, it found out that in most parts across the Teso region, beliefs in the rain pattern have been affected because some people began killing the birds for witchcraft-related demands, and also people have cut down big trees where these birds could stay for charcoal burning.

According to Mr. James Okware, the Uganda Wildlife Authority officer, Abyssinian ground hornbill is under threat in the region as it has been forced to abandon its natural habitats because of the rampant cutting down of big trees on which the birds build their nests on the curves.

“Teso region is rich with such rare birds, and most of them have cultural values which they should learn to protect because it can be a tourist attraction,” he said.

Talking about the Iteso, who are they?

Teso traditions relate that they originated somewhere in what is now Egypt in the area of Alexandria. They are believed to have descended from the Hebrew Joseph, who had married a black Egyptian. Later when the Israeli slaves left Egypt for the Promised Land, the group followed the Blue Nile River into Ethiopia. It is from here that they obtained the name Iteso, meaning “we have seen.” They saw a land, part of the promise to Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, it is a land divided by small rivers originating from the White Nile, and theirs was the Upper Nile area. From the Ethiopian mountains is where they saw the land. They later migrated southwest over a period of centuries.

They were part of a larger group of Nilo-Hamitic peoples who include; the Masai and Turkana of Kenya, the Nyangatom of present-day Ethiopia, Karamojong, the Topotha of South Sudan, all are they Ateker. The Ateker further split into several groups, including Jie, Turkana, Karamojong, and Teso.

The Teso established themselves in present-day northeastern Uganda, and in the mid-18th century, some began to move farther south. During the course of this latter migration, conflicts ensued with other ethnic groups in the region, leading to the split of Teso territory into a northern and southern part. In 1902, part of eastern Uganda was transferred to western Kenya – leading to further separation of Teso.

Northern Teso occupy the area previously known as Teso District in Uganda (now the districts of Amuria, Soroti, Kumi, Katakwi, Pallisa, Bukedea, and Kaberamaido). Southern Teso live mainly in the districts of Tororo and Busia in Uganda, and Busia District in Kenya’s Western Province.

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