Living with Bad Surroundings

War, History, and Everyday Moments in Northern Uganda

Living with Bad Surroundings

The Cultures and Practices of Violence

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Book Pages: 304 Illustrations: 8 photographs, 2 maps Published: February 2008

African Studies, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology

Since 1986, the Acholi people of northern Uganda have lived in the crossfire of a violent civil war, with the Lord’s Resistance Army and other groups fighting the Ugandan government. Acholi have been murdered, maimed, and driven into displacement. Thousands of children have been abducted and forced to fight. Many observers have perceived Acholiland and northern Uganda to be an exception in contemporary Uganda, which has been celebrated by the international community for its increased political stability and particularly for its fight against AIDS. These observers tend to portray the Acholi as war-prone, whether because of religious fanaticism or intractable ethnic hatreds. In Living with Bad Surroundings, Sverker Finnström rejects these characterizations and challenges other simplistic explanations for the violence in northern Uganda. Foregrounding the narratives of individual Acholi, Finnström enables those most affected by the ongoing “dirty war” to explain how they participate in, comprehend, survive, and even resist it.

Finnström draws on fieldwork conducted in northern Uganda between 1997 and 2006 to describe how the Acholi—especially the younger generation, those born into the era of civil strife—understand and attempt to control their moral universe and material circumstances. Structuring his argument around indigenous metaphors and images, notably the Acholi concepts of good and bad surroundings, he vividly renders struggles in war and the related ills of impoverishment, sickness, and marginalization. In this rich ethnography, Finnström provides a clear-eyed assessment of the historical, cultural, and political underpinnings of the civil war while maintaining his focus on Acholi efforts to achieve “good surroundings,” viable futures for themselves and their families.


Living with Bad Surroundings is written with sensitivity for the historical background of the Acholi people and their day-to-day realities. It highlights the impact of colonialism, independent Ugandan government regimes established after independence from Britain in 1962, and the local peoples’ expectations and realities. . . . The author writes with an ethnographer’s perspective, providing a fresh viewpoint on the war.” — Habiba Chirchir, Anthropological Quarterly

“[Living with Bad Surroundings] combines rich ethnographic detail with sharp theoretical acumen. . . . [A]n important text.: — Alicia C. Decker, International Journal of African Historical Studies

“[A]n important contribution to the corpus of literature on structural violence and the lived experiences of war. This book will be a useful read for courses focusing on armed conflict, displacement, ethnographic methods and/or African studies. . . .” — Julia R. Hanebrink, African Conflict and Peacebuilding Review

“[T]he book is still impressive in its historical and analytical scope, and is not only very readable, but also moving. The narrative voice vividly evokes the inter-subjectivity of the ethnographic experience. Living with Bad Surroundings is an essential reference for studies on northern Uganda, and is also accessible to a wider, non-specialist readership. The work also provides a valuable contribution to the ethnography of conflict as well to literature challenging the ‘breakdown’ paradigm of displacement.” — Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon, African Affairs

“As well as being a valuable text for anyone interested in contemporary Africa and issues such as ethnicity, property rights, post-colonialism, and the relevance and continuation of tribalism, Living with Bad Surroundings is a powerful analysis of relations between stakeholders within the modern nation-state.” — Justin L. C. Hancock, The Australian Journal of Anthropology

“At times poetic, often philosophical, Finnström brings the reader to a new level of insight into war and its effects on the lived realities of affected persons—and how and why it is possible for people to survive the impossible day by day. Equally important, he vividly connects these personal stories to the political domain, unveiling, as each chapter evolves, the politics that divide people. . .” — Erin K. Baines, African Studies Review

“Finnström’s book makes a clear case for rethinking the social and political dimensions of conflict in Northern Uganda. This book will appeal most to scholars interested in Acholi history and contemporary conflict in Uganda, and those interested more generally in culture and power, state violence, and rebel movements.” — Kristen Cheney, Journal of Anthropological Research

“This book is rich in detail and nuance, and challenges dominant discourses on the war in northern Uganda. It links the historical, international dimension to the lived experiences of the Acholi people. . . . [A] major book on everyday lived experiences in wartime. It adds to scholarship that interrogates colonial orthodoxies as well as academic writings that have produced stereotypes inimical to nation building. Finnstrom’s book is necessary reading for students of the Acholi, African wars, and Uganda.” — Steven Arojjo Obbo Ofumbi, Journal of Contemporary African Studies

“This complex and empirically rich account clearly and very tactfully analyses the harsh realities of the war. . . . [Finnström] vividly challenges the reductionist view that focuses on consequences of war rather than causes.” — Sarah Khasalamwa, Journal of Refugee Studies

“This is a highly accessible anthropological study of Northern Uganda and the LRA. It is useful in part because it establishes the colonial legacies though which the Acholi came to be marginalized in Uganda and stereotyped by the international community. Rather than basing his account on simplistic explanations like ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ between the Acholi and other Ugandans, Finnström provides a rich array of interviews with Northern Ugandans that touch on cultural, historical, and political aspects of the war. In particular, he highlights the voices of young people, whom he says ‘did not passively wait for outside solutions; rather, in everyday life they built for a future despite displacement and social unrest.’” — Kristin Rawls, Christian Science Monitor

“This subtle, sensitive, and sophisticated ethnography adds enormously to our understanding of contemporary northern Ugandan society and, more broadly, of everyday life during ‘low-intensity’ warfare. . . . This book is very good indeed and should find a wide readership among social anthropologists, Africanists, and students of conflict and violence.” — Mark Leopold, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“Through a more explicit engagement with the ambiguities and unfinishedness of lived experience, ethnographies like Finnström’s Bad Surroundings may thus offer more than philosophy alone in making sense of governmentalization and subjectification as they unfold through individual, collective, and political life.” — João Biehl and Ramah McKay, Anthropological Quarterly

Living with Bad Surroundings . . . [is] a very good book, perhaps the best written on northern Uganda since the 1970s. It will be an ideal text for courses dealing with Africa and the local realities of modern armed conflicts.” — Tim Allen, TLS

“[An] insightful, compelling ethnography. . . . Finnström has important things to say about ethnographic intimacy, the phenomenology of fieldwork, and the universality of culture as human existence. The book offers a fine example of the merits of local, detailed ethnographic knowledge for understanding civilian life in a warzone, as well as glimpses of the emotional connections an anthropologist forms with
informants and collaborators.” — Catherine Besteman, American Ethnologist

“Finnström’s analysis of the factors involved in the devastating conflict in Northern Uganda between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is a valuable contribution to the literature on contemporary armed conflicts. . . . Finnström’s careful examination is essential for students, scholars, and practitioners who want to understand the political, economic, historical, cultural, and religious complexities involved in ay armed conflict.” — Joanne Corbin, African Studies Review

“I recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the problematic side of Africa. It reads more like the writing of a good and thoughtful war correspondent rather than a traditional social scientist. It what is useful and appropriate for understanding the world of contemporary northern Ugandans whom the author clearly liked and cared about.” — T.O. Beidelman, Anthropos

“This is a moving, politically engaged and penetrating study. It has . . . page-turning qualities. . . . If you are going to read just one book on northern Uganda, this is the one to go for.” — Tim Allen, Africa

Living with Bad Surroundings is a lucid, compelling, in-depth, and detailed exploration of the vexed position of youth in poverty-stricken Africa; a painstaking and authoritative account of one of the most refractory and long-running wars on that continent; and a demonstration of how imperative it is to complement historical and political-economic explanations of Africa’s conflicts with ethnographic perspectives that encompass local symbolic reality, local readings of history and tradition, local expectations and desires, and local understandings of power, morality, and reconciliation.” — Michael Jackson, author of In Sierra Leone

“Riveting. Powerful. Evocative. Anthropology at its best. Sverker Finnström is a gifted researcher and writer: in his hands the Acholi become a lens for understanding very twenty-first-century forms of violence and survival. This is a book about one of the more destructive and bitter wars on the African continent and its global connections. But it is also a book about hope, about facing and overcoming crises—of every culture being all cultures in the opus of experience, of mango trees surviving the tides of war and global ignorance. About sorrow and laughter and moments of coevalness in northern Uganda and beyond.” — Carolyn Nordstrom, author of Global Outlaws: Crime, Money, and Power in the Contemporary World


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Sverker Finnström is a researcher at the Hugo Valentin Centre of Uppsala University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Orientations: War and culture in Uganda 1

1. Acholi worlds and the colonial encounter 29

2. Neocolonial legacies and evolving war 63

3. Rebel manifestos in context 99

4. Displacements 131

5. Wartime rumors and moral truths 167

6. Uprooting the pumpkins 197

Reorientations: Unfinished realities 233

Notes 245

Acronyms 253

References 255

Index 277
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Winner, Margaret Mead Award (American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology)

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4191-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4174-1
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