The Karamoja region is still infamous in Uganda as a tribal stronghold of government resistance, and violent cattle rustling. However, for the most part, those days are over and a new Karamoja is defining itself. However, it is a struggle to figure out how to give children the education they need for their future, while producing enough food to ensure they have one. Herding cattle involves traveling to find pasture, which cannot be done while children have to attend class. Many have chosen to settle, but farming these parched lands has been difficult, and jobs are still scarce.
Legends of the Karamojong
The legends of the Karamojong (people of Karamoja) say that they descended from Middle East through Ethiopia, along the shores of Lake Turkana, before heading west into Uganda. They were, and to a certain degree still are, nomadic pastoralists living off the blood and milk of their herds. Men measured their wealth by the number of cattle they owned, while the women took charge of the house and children.
Important men in the community might have had seven wives, and fifty children, paying dowries of 200 cattle per wife. This was one of the major drivers of cattle rustling, where young men in the community needed many cattle to pay bride prices. They would band together in crews as large as a thousand, sometimes traveling as far as South Sudan or Kenya to raid cattle from the Pokot, Turkana, and Toposa tribes. The raids were incredibly brutal, at times resulting in over a hundred deaths, and thousands of stolen animals.
The Age of Disarmament
From the sixties, consecutive and overlapping wars in DR Congo, Sudan, and Uganda meant that high powered weapons were readily available, and the cattle rustling was common and deadly. The region was lawless, and even the Ugandan military could not pass through it without taking fire. In 2001, President Museveni began a disarmament program, which struggled along for over a decade, but generally seems to have stymied violence and cattle rustling. It was turned over to be administered by the police in 2014.
However, the disarmament program has been controversial, as Karamojong have reported being abused by the Ugandan military, and encouraged to start farming in drought prone lands they have always considered better for pastoralism. Further, while many guns have been collected from the Karamojong, their rival tribes in Kenya and South Sudan remain armed and continue raiding. A mere month before we arrived in Karamoja, raiders from Turkana had sneaked across the border, murdering a Karamojong herder, and stealing around 200 cattle. For now, there is peace, but it is still new and often tense.
A Foreign Life in Traditional Lands
In a society that has been governed by a council of elders, guided by rainfall, and defined by warriors, the Karamojong must now find their own way to integrate more deeply with the people beyond their borders so that future generations can thrive. This transition has already begun, and completing it successfully will be one of the biggest challenges the Karamojong have faced.
Boys still drive herds naked through the scrub living off their cattle’s blood and milk, but some now have cell phones dangling around their necks. Some men still marry multiple wives, but the dowries are now a much more manageable twenty cattle. Most people still live in traditional mud and thatched houses, but to protect themselves from raids, they have moved closer together. One mega village called Nakipelemoru is thought to be the biggest traditional settlement (manyatta) in East Africa.
However, new livelihoods have been much harder to create. Many families do not keep the great herds they have in the past, as it requires the nomadic pursuit of new pastor, which would leave them without the village’s security, and unable to tend to crops or keep children in school. While many are now farming with the encouragement of the government, consistent drought has yielded inadequate crops, and over 50% of the million Karamojong are in need of food aid.
Others are moving to the urban centers of Moroto and Kotido where there is access to markets, health facilities, and sometimes electricity, but there are not many jobs. For those that grew-up clutching guns in the bush, making a new life as a farmer or a professional is not something that is going to happen quickly or easily. There is nowhere in the world where you can just trade in your gun for a lifetime of education or professional experience.
In Youth We Trust
The last Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) was done in Uganda in 2011, and reported that in Karamoja, of females aged 15-49, 58% had no formal education at all, and only 2.4% had completed secondary school. For males of the same demographic, the statistics were 45% and 3.6% respectively. This makes it hard for just about everyone to qualify for jobs, and leaves few other options than farming.
The most immediate task for the Karamojong is to figure out how to support themselves without their big herds, and in a way that allows the next generation to garner the education and experience they need. The good news is that Karamojong women have six to seven children, so there is a large cadre of youth in which the community can place its future. The bad news is that the adults have a lot of mouths to feed before these children join the workforce, and there are no shortcuts to educating a generation of children.
The 2011 DHS also reported that in Karamoja there is only about a 50% attendance rate in primary school, and the statistic drops to 7.4% for secondary school, which means that this opportunity for advancement is slipping away for the moment. It is understandable that school is a secondary concern for families that are struggling to find food. So much of this issue derives from needing a better strategy for food production in the region. However, the government also needs to fulfill its goal to provide quality educational facilities to the community, and currently the state of schools in Uganda is still a major issue.
Hopeful Horizons in Karamoja
Relative safety, improved roads, electricity, dams to hold water in the dry season, and cell phone reception are all recent improvements for the region, and are important components of a foundation to build a better life. These improvements should be lauded. Further, there seems to be gold, marble, and other minerals in the land, which brings the potential for jobs if they are developed in a way that respects communal land holding and prioritizes jobs for the region. Lastly, the area is uniquely beautiful, and small tourism operations are starting to bud.
However, the most hope for the region lies with the resiliency of the people. The Karamojong created a culture which allows them to survive for months in the bush with nothing but their herd. Their exceptional bravery stood-up to British colonialism, and thwarted Idi Amin’s attempts to submit them.
Most importantly, a nomad’s greatest asset is their ability to adapt to constantly changing environments. The people of Karamoja are now just traveling less through space, and more quickly through time as they integrate with the surrounding world. This journey has been, and will continue to be tough, but they certainly have the spirit to complete it successfully.
Author’s Note: We had a wonderful visit to the Nakipelemoru manyatta with Karamoja Arts. While in the region, Theo and Paulo at Kara-Tunga Arts and Tours gave us the local information we need, and generously shared information on the area and its history. I highly recommend you get in touch with them if you travel to the area. They also now offer accommodation in Moroto, and knowing them, they are probably cooking-up the best food in town at their new restaurant.