The Karamojong Culture
The word Karamojong means “the old tired men who stayed behind”. These people are a tribe of fierce eastern Nilotic pastoral warriors found in North Eastern Uganda bordering Southern Sudan and Kenya and in that sense are culturally as well as historically related to the Turkana in Kenya. These folks, unlike most of the other tribes in Uganda that have taken up urbanization, ferociously guard their tradition and have great pride in their culture. Their foreign lifestyle has attracted people from all over the world and even fellow Ugandans who are curious about these people’s ways.
The language of the Karamojong people is an interesting and apparently ancient curiosity. Scotsman John Wilson, who lived in in and around Karamoja for 30 years, has identified numerous words and phrases of similar meaning in Karamojong and Gaelic. Subsequent investigation has been identified further similarities with other widely spaced languages including Hebrew, Spanish among others. For example, “bot” which means a house in Gaelic and “eboot” which means a temporary dwelling in Karamoja.
What’s so important about your average cow? You may ask. Well among the Karamojong cattle are the most valuable asset! Possession of these “average cows” is regarded necessary for both social esteem and personal satisfaction. They are such a prized possession that warriors were assembled to perform cattle raids on their neighbors to earn more cows and protect their own from other rustlers. This may also have to do with the fact that they (the Karamojong) believe all the cattle in the world belongs to them. The cattle provide milk, beef, ghee, yoghurt, blood which is an addition to their diet and they are also the bride price for a wife.
Fun fact: a cow in Uganda on average costs between 900,000UGX and 1,500,000UGX. With one family in Karamoja owning up to 200 heads of cattle if this was to be sold, they would have enough money to build a house and buy food worth 2 years or more without getting a job.
Karamojong women are some of the most hardworking women you will ever find. While the men are out looking after the herds of cattle the women are at home keeping everything in check. It is important to note that once the woman bears children, they will be the ones to look after the cattle. In an addition to of course bearing children, women in Karamoja build the homestead, literally, they work hard to build the manyattas in which they live with their husbands and children. A woman’s role from birth is to get married and take care of her husband. They cook, clean, take care of the children, the husband and are expected to earn for their families. Women are so important that to marry one a man would require at least 150 to 300 cows which is why cows are so important.
Girls are married off even below the age of 18 years. The Government of Uganda seeks to put an end to forced girl child marriages in Karamoja.
The Karamojong live in manyattas also known as ‘Ere’ meaning an enclosed residential area. It has a small entry for people and a large entry for cattle. These homesteads have many families and a large communal rea for cattle. You will not find manyattas anywhere else in Uganda except in Karamoja. In a manyatta lives the head of the manyatta (always a man), his wives, their children, their children’s spouses and their children. The manyattas as previously stated are built by the women. They are defensive rings of thorny brushwood built in such a way that snakes and other small predators are unable to pass through, they surround a central compound containing huts, granaries and cattle pens.
Fun fact: The entrances for people are narrow waist high passages such that in case of an intrusion, the intruder is easily spotted as they struggle to get through the door way.
Most of the Ugandans are either Christians or Muslims but the Karamojong still follow their traditional religion and believe in a god- Akuj. He is believed to reside in the sky, overseeing and responsible for what is on earth. He is mainly approached by the respected elders of the community and diviners who ask for the prosperity of their people and culture.
The Karamojong are a free community and do not dress much, this is mainly due to the fact that they reside in a dry scorching region. They are also adorned with markings on their skin and body piercings on their noses, ears as well as lower lips which convey a hidden message amongst themselves.
They wrap a sheet (khanga) around their waists pairing it with a vest called eplan in any bright color. The older men however tie the sheet across their bodies, over the shoulder. The Karamojong dress code though, is not complete without a stick (ebela) and a stool (ekicholong). When asked about these assets, the men replied that the stick is carried because they are pastoralists while the stool is to sit on when they get tired while grazing.
Their attire is more elaborate. It is a skirt made of sheet sewn with pleats or hides and decorated with beads to make it attractive. The skirt with hides is however the most commonly worn traditional attire. Alternatively, if a woman does not have a hide skirt, she can opt to sew a skirt out of the sheet. The skirt is also paired with a vest similar to that worn by men except for the variation in color.
Fact: The common conception was that they were a backward bunch that ran around naked and up-to until half a century ago the latter point was almost certainly true. The male attire consisted of their unique hairdo, an ostrich feathered headdress, the common stool and spear while the women wore heavy neck beads and a bit of skirt. In the 1970s, Idi Amin obviously appareled by this kind of dress and had his soldiers forced to wear western style clothes on gunpoint. Hence their style of clothing now.
The Karamojong life rotates around livestock, cattle in particular. Raw milk, smoked meat, yoghurt, cow ghee, smoked hides, greens from trees and fresh beef. Though the area is relatively dry and does not support most plant life, still foods like millet and sorghum are grown for food consumption.
Fact: Cows also provide blood that is actually a staple food for the Karamojong, no the cows are not killed. Rather the Karamojong cut a section on the cow’s neck from which they get blood.
Why visit Karamoja?
Apart from being cheap the Karamoja region harbors a beauty of culture fused with wildlife. Its jealously protected culture is what brings people from all over to marvel at their livelihood and experience their tradition first hand. So, visit and explore this land and its secrets.
What to carry
Basically, anything to protect you from the sun. Sunscreen, a wide brimmed hat, long trousers to protect you from thorny bushes, sunglasses to protect your eyes, repellants to mention a few.
How to get there
There are two routes one can choose from. One is from Kampala along a surfaced road to Mbale, then following a rougher road north to Nataba gate via Pian Upe Reserve, Nakapiripirit, Moroto, Kotido and Kaabong. The route is 473.4 km long and takes about 13 hours.
The other route involves taking the Gulu road as far as Kamdini corner and branching right to Lira, driving for 300km until you reach Nataba gate via Abim, Kotido and Kaabong taking about 12 hours.