The Karamojong

The Karamojong

The Karamojong are an ethnic community and indigenous residents of Kaabong, Kotido, Amudat, Napak, Moroto, Abim and Nakapiripirit districts of northeastern Uganda. The Karamojong are descendants of Nyangatom of Ethiopia; a nomadic pastoralist community who migrated south around 1600 AD in search of permanent grazing lands and water for their livestock. Along the migration, the group bisected one group migrated to Kenya along the shores of Lake Turkana and acquired the name Turkana. The Turkana intermarried with the earlier settlers in the area and their offsprings are Maasai and Kalenjin.

The second group continued and settled into the current South Sudan, the Jie and the Toposa of Sudan. The Karamojong are the cousins of the Jie who continued moving further south into Uganda. The groups of people as mentioned have many things in common; some words in their language, keep large herds of livestock, live a nomadic lifestyle, similarity in traditional wear, they have body marks that signify a hidden message and their customs and ceremonies have things in common amongst others. The youths amongst the Jie of Uganda continued their nomadic lifestyle venturing further south in search of fresh pastures for livestock and water for their animals. Their elderly parents tired of constant movements, opted to settle in their current regions. The Jie youths in their language ridiculed their elders “ekar imojong” meaning the old men are tired and cannot walk any further. The Jie youths intermarried with indigenous communities and the offsprings are the Itesot of Eastern Uganda. The Karamojong speak a language called Nga Karamojong and their traditional culture called Nagi Karamojong.

The Karamojong are traditionalists who take a lot of pride in their culture and customs. They habor foreign interference with their traditional lifestyle and view new trends in life, education, travel, technology, dress and fashion, housing, medicine, religion, and many others as an unnecessary inconvenience. They jealously guard their traditions; Ngi Karamojong and any schemes by government intended to alter their lifestyle are viewed with suspicion, highly discouraged, resisted and takes a lot of sensitization to accept.

The Karamojong are traditional nomadic pastoralists who roamed large areas in search of fresh pastures and water for their livestock; cattle, goats, sheep and chicken. The Karamojong pray to pay allegiance to Akuj, their traditional god who they believe gave them birthright of all the cattle in Karamoja region and the world beyond. The life of a traditional Karamojong rotates around livestock, cattle in particular. Raw milk and blood obtained after puncturing the skin of a cow is staple diet for the Karamojong besides smoked meat, yoghurt, cow ghee, smoked hides and fresh beef. The number of cows the family head possesses is a sign of wealth, prestige and social status symbol. Cows are given are gifts for good character, friendship, achievement, after acts of valor and bravery for protecting the community. For this, boys start receiving cows in youths and gradually increase their stock. The irony is raiding another community to confiscate cows and swell individual or family size of herd is assign of bravery and valor. Traditionally, the Karamojong formed warrior squads, cattle rustlers, to raid neighboring communities for cows and to protect their own herds from raids by other communities. The Karamojong cattle rustlers were dead squads, armed with lethal weapons; spear, arrows, machetes and AK47s.  Not anything, standing in Karamojong cattle rustler way to raid cattle of their neighbors often Toposa in South Sudan and Masai, Kalenjin or Turkana in Kenya ever saw the sun the next day.

The Karamojong live a communal lifestyle of extended families in very large homesteads, manyatta, sharing compound. Thorny fences and wood encircle the manyatta for protection against raids from other cattle rustlers and wild animals. Livestock kraals are located in the center of the manyatta, men set campfire and keep guard overnight. This highlight the importance livestock has to the Karamojong. The manyatta is an institution of learning where skills pass on to generations through imitation and participation by keeping close to specialists in different fields. Each person in the manyatta plays a social role basing on age, gender, age, expertise, skills, experience and other fields. Women and girls are homemakers and do most of the chores in the homestead including active participation of erecting and renovating housing structures. The women cultivate land to grow food crops in rainy season, process dairy products, fetch water from watering holes and prepare meals for the family. Boys and men tend to livestock; roaming the Karamoja semi arid plains looking for fresh pasture to graze in and watering holes.

Youths in teens start identifying potential marriage partners. A day is set when the man must show the community how he is strong enough to protect his family and property against intruders. A wrestling contest to which he must be victorious by wrestling the bride on the ground is set. Sometimes men are not always victorious and get outright rejection. The process for bride price in terms of number of cows, goats, sheep and other gifts starts instantly when the man is victorious. Accepting bride price is time of joy, celebration and feasting that goes on for some days.

In a society where people move from place to place, there are outstanding features used to identify a group. The traditional Karamojong are generally tall and have a darker skin complexion possibly because of exposure to hot sun in their semi arid homesteads. Traditional Karamojong have facial markings and body piercings on nose, ears, lower lips and other parts that convey a hidden message amongst them. They wear light cloth in bright colors and centered on covering the lion and breast areas. All genders generally wear car tire sandals and jewelry on arms, ears, lower lips, legs, neck and waist that may include copper bangles, beads, cow-horn rings, cowhide material, wild animal hides, bird feathers, plant material amongst others. A true Karamojong herdsman carried a walking stick, traditional stool, a spear and gourd for drinks.

Travelers on tour to Uganda in Kidepo valley national park have an opportunity of visiting the Karamojong manyatta and interacting with this unique people. In the past, the Karamojong were a misunderstood community taken to be primitive, perennial lawbreakers and arrogant. The rest of Uganda communities bothered less to bring them at par with the rest of Ugandans. The Karamoja region suffered counter cattle raids from Karamojong themselves, their cousins in South Sudan and Kenya. The Karamoja region was a marginalized and forgotten region on Ugandan map. Kidepo valley national park and the Uganda tourism are erasing away the tears of Karamoja region and everyone recognizes Karamoja as a force to reckon with. The Karamojong are now highly sensitized to accept positive change in their lifestyle. Infrastructure in terms of security services, health services, education, roads, electricity, clean water, building and construction, telecommunication and many others improved to international standards. The Karamoja region is on the road to greatness and like the Karamojong cattle rustle “nothing can stand in the way”.