Years as Catechumens

By Joseph Okumu

Daudi Okelo of Ogom Payira and Jildo Irwa of Labongo Bar-Kitoba

Generally speaking, one can never know with certitude of two things about African people: one is their naming and the other is their age. This is especially true of bygone times, because names were, and still are, given to remember a particular event or situation. As for the age, this was not date-recorded in the way western taught us to do today. Besides, African people always considered it bad luck to list names and to enumerate persons.

Okelo, in fact, is the Acholi name given to a child who follows a sibling born in a certain way or who has a special mark. Are considered such those children born by the legs first instead of the head or born with defects of any kind, like six fingers, and so on. Such a child is called Ojok if a male and Ajok if a female. Okelo, therefore, is a true Acholi name given according to an Acholi custom and with a traditional religious significance.

The martyr Daudi Okelo was born of Lode (father) and of Amona (mother) in the village of Ogom-Payira. The larger Acholi sub-clan, Payira, was headed by the sub-chief Awich, son of Rwotcamo who had been killed in battle while fighting the Padibe clan in 1887. Around 1830 the Payira clan numbered between ten to fifteen thousand people, spread in about thirty village-lineages, whose location was the central zone of Acaa river, east of the Nile.

One of these thirty village-lineages was Okelo’s Pa-Ocota village-lineage, situated in Ogom-Payira, a few km to the east of the mouth of the river Acaa. Here Daudi Okelo was born around 1902. This date is only a conjecture based on the mission baptismal register. Okelo’s parents lived and died in their traditional religious practice. Okelo’s world was more open than his parents’, since he came in touch with the white missionaries and other foreigners. Lode and Amona brought up Okelo very well and they would have loved to see him grow and settle down to form a family according to tradition.

Equally significant is Irwa [Ermene]Jildo, also an Acholi from Labongo Bar-Kitoba. Ir-wa’s literal translation means “of-us” or “ours”. It is an endearing name among the Labongo. Now, perhaps, the meaning of his name will take up a missionary dimension: that of belonging to a new people, as the whole Church would say of [Ermene]Jildo: “Irwa – One of ours”.

Born of Okeny, better known as Tongfur and of his mother Ato, Irwa lived in his Labongo village south west of Kitgum, in the same direction as that of Okelo. Labongo, like Payira, was a subdivision of the greater Acholi ethnic group. In about 1917 the Labongo people migrated to Olworngu, a short distance east of the present Bar-Kitoba, where previously the other Labongo village-lineages of Gem, Koch, and Parakono had migrated.

For the purpose of pastoral care, the missionaries had divided Kitgum Mission into two sections, at exactly the 32° latitude, so the whole eastern section would be looked after by Fr. P. Audisio and the western section by Fr. C. Gambaretto. Irwa’s village was situated in Fr. Gambaretto’s area. Naturally, it was Fr. Gambaretto who first met Jildo in the catechumenate.

Irwa’s mother, Ato, died when he was very young and his father Tongfur married again. Tongfur’s second wife, Akelo, brought up Irwa with great affection, as he was the only male. Akelo gave birth to four girls. Though orphaned at an early age, Irwa knew how to repay love with love. As he experience so much family love, he was able to share this love and even his life with others to the extent of martyrdom for the sake of Christ’s gospel. His great heart would meet yet another great heart, that of Daudi Okelo, and both together strived to share God’s love with all by bringing their people to WI-Polo, beginning with the marginalized and so-called inferior, living in the third district of the Nile Province.

Okelo and Irwa as catechumens at Kitgum

From Kitgum mission station, Fr. Gambaretto often went to meet the children in villages where he prepared them for the catechumenate. The formal meeting in villages was commonly known as lok-odiku: literally translated as “the morning words” or morning lessons. Once the period of lok-odiku was completed, the children received medals that they wore on their necks. This period lasted one full year, after which one was admitted to the catechumenate, known as lok-otyeno: literally meaning “the evening words” or evening lessons. Lok-otyeno lasted two full years. During this period the children lived at the mission. At the end of it, they received baptism and first holy communion and were given a crucifix to wear around their necks.

Okelo’s village of Ogom-Payira can still be seen lying by the side of the present Gulu-Kitgum route, which, in all probability, is the same old caravan route followed by the first government administrators and missionaries. Due to his location, the village has certainly being exposed to contacts and influence of what was going on more than the other interior villages of the area.

Around 1913 Okelo came in contact with the Catholic missionaries who, from Gulu, had been surveying the area east of Acaa river in search of a suitable mission station. Okelo was old enough to stand on his own two small feet when Mgr. Geyer’s and Bro. Cagol, coming from Gondokoro along the route of the Ni-lo, first tracked their way to Kitgum and, later missionaries, to Paimol and, mysteriously, all the way to WI-Polo

Having completed the one year-period of lok-odiku in their villages, Daudi and Jildo went to Kitgum mission for the lok-otyeno, which they also completed together on 1st June 1916. They both went on to receive the necessary instruction for confirmation that they again received together on 15th October 1916. As catechumens in the mission Daudi and Jildo excelled for their intelligence and kindness.

Oloya Cirillo of Kitgum, who was in the catechumenate together with Daudi and Jildo, says about them: “They were very good. Jildo was a scullery-boy at the sisters’ house”. Adamo Opoka, who was head catechist of Kitgum at the time, says “The two conducted themselves in an exemplary way, which was the reason why they were put in charge of the other catechumens”.

A generous offer to evangelise Paimol

“But they will not ask his help unless they believe in him, and they will not believe in him unless they have heard of him, and they will not hear of him unless they get a preacher and they will never have a preacher unless one is sent…” (Rm 10:14-16). Great apostles love and treasure these words of Paul.

Daudi and Jildo learnt them from the missionaries and they applied them to themselves till the end. Daudi’s older cousin, Antonio, was working as a catechist in Paimol. When he died, the place was left with no catechist, with “no preacher to spread the good news”. Young Daudi went to Fr. Gambaretto, the missionary responsible for Paimol, and asked: “Who is to go to replace my cousin in Paimol?” “I have no one to send”, replied the missionary.

The following day both Daudi and Jildo presented themselves to Fr. Gambaretto with an idea on how to remedy the situation. Daudi said: “Father, if you wish, Jildo and I could go to Paimol to replace Antonio”. The priest immediately told them about the difficulties and dangers lurking in the remote zone of Paimol. The youngsters still insisted. The priest, then, dismissed them, but reminded them, if they were serious about their proposition, to return the next day.

The next day the two youngsters were back. Fr. Gambaretto asked them: “So you are set in your mind to go to Paimol? Are you sure you know the risks you are taking? Do you know that the people of Paimol have not yet been properly subdued by the government? And you Jildo, you are still small, can you make it to Paimol?”

The difficulties and dangers in Paimol the parish priest was talking about were mainly the famine, which followed the 1916 long drought, the Spanish fever that broke out in the same year, the hostile rebel-groups or remnants of the munu jadiya who now felt even threatened by the Christian religion, the local witches and witch doctors who were constantly loosing adherents who were more inclined to follow the religion of munu karatum. Daudi, the senior of the two, answered: “We will stay together”

The parish priest retorted “But what if they kill you?” “We shall go to wi-polo, to heaven. Antonio is already there. Isn’t he?” Then continued: “I do not fear death. Did not Jesus also die for us?” Jildo, who was looking at the priest somehow taken aback by these words, took up from there: “Father, do not be afraid. Jesus and his Mother Mary are with us”. At last the priest gave in. He went into his room, collected the catechism of Pius X, the one translated by Fr. Crazzolara, some prayer booklets and the rosaries, which he handed to them. Still under the verandah, the priest asked Daudi and Jildo to recite an Hail Mary together and then blessed them for their mission in Paimol.

At Paimol they “taught religion very well and convincingly”

Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa left their beloved villages of Ogom-Payira and Labongo Bar-Kitoba and, accompanied by the head-catechist Bonifacio Okot, went to Paimol to carry on the work of Antonio. The faith, fortitude, love and generosity that filled them on their journey cannot be comprehended but in the light of the sacrament of confirmation they had just recently received and celebrated. They were truly burning with the zeal to evangelise Paimol.

The catechist Bonifacio introduced them first to Ogal, the mukungu or the appointed sub chief of the area. Ogal kindly welcomed the two young catechists and was so generous as to offer them food and drink, a great symbolic gesture that in the Acholi tradition signifies hospitality and respect for the lives of the people concerned. The youngster were allotted a fairly sizable hut next to Ocok Mukomoi, a brother of Ogal. They settled and lived there for the rest of their stay in Paimol.

As trained by the missionaries, they employed the same method of apostolate by going from village to village, visiting and making friends with everyone, especially the children who would become lok-odiku. The main task was to preach the word of God, “pwonyo dini” in Acholi. For the children staying with them, the daily timetable consisted of: work in the fields in the early and cooler morning, beat the drum to call the children from work and to assemble next to the hut of the catechists, teaching the lok-odiku beginning with with morning prayers. Now and again the priest or a head catechist would come around to see how everything was going.

Daudi and Jildo were often visited by the catechist Antonio Adyanga and testified that the children loved to come and crowd around Daudi and Jildo. Gabriele Aloo, who was one of the catechumen in Paimol, said “Not only we children, even adults loved Daudi and Jildo, because they taught religion very well and in a convincing way”.