Modern warriors in Karamoja fight faceless, limitless and seemingly insurmountable modern enemies — and they do so without spear or gun. Instead of bringing in more rustled cattle and loot, they help give education to children and water sources to villages. With pen and keypad, they inform Uganda and the wider world about Karamoja and attempt to give balance to centuries of misunderstandings and prejudices.
They are unsung heroes who combat poverty, environmental degradation, instability, hunger, hatred, ignorance and persecution. They are the educated few and elite Karimojong who have returned to their communities to educate and to lead, knowing that they must maintain the edgy balance between cultural sensitivity and iron-willed resolve, between tradition and radical reformation.
As the Karimojong are at a crossroads in their history, the growing need for such leaders is too great to fathom. Nevertheless, there are many who have made a considerable difference given their scant resources. In Karamoja.com’s first exclusive articles, a cross-section of three Karimojong modern warriors speak about the pressing issues in Karamoja and their visions for peace, stability, sustainable development and conservation in the region.
Even though they are all Karimojong, the three come from vastly different backgrounds and disciplines, representing UNICEF, Uganda Wildlife Authority and the independent press among them. Phillips Limlim Lomma, Daniel Aleper and Sylvester Onyang could each fill up his own book with his personal stories and reflections on Karimojong culture and heritage. For now, they have been kind enough to answer a few questions and send in their dispatches from northern Uganda.
Co-author of Karamoja; Uganda’s Land of Warrior Nomads, Jeremy O’Kasick, conducted the interviews.
Sylvester Onyang has long been on the frontlines of conflict and social struggle in Karamoja and northern Uganda. A veteran journalist with the independent daily Monitor newspaper, Onyang has written extensively about Karimojong culture, politics and conflicts with neighbouring tribes because of cattle raiding and with the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) because of recent disarmament efforts. He also happens to be the co-author of this book and the bulk of the stories you have had read stem from his experiences and correspondences. Here, however, his own words do the talking.
O’Kasick: What has your experience as a journalist in Karamoja brought to your understanding of the region and how it is portrayed?
Onyang: When you call a newsroom, for example, the editor’s question is, “How many people have been killed this time?” This dents my mind with a feeling that the poor Karimojong should die everyday. And in situations where there are only injuries the story is not carried. This situation has continually sent cold nerves into me and created some trauma since it is something that occurs almost every other day. I have been confronted with weird scenes of dead people killed in an ambush, cold blood, in cattle raids, etc. I have been the first at horrific scenes to take photographs of people in pain and these gory episodes have come back to me when I am asleep.
I will not dwell on nightmares. The nature of administration in newspapers is one of the worst encounters to remember. Journalists in Uganda operate on their own efforts. They get paid even three times less than what they have spent on story research. And nobody gives a damn if Karamoja stories are covered in national papers or not. The question is: How many newspapers are circulated in Karamoja? That indicates that there is a 90 percent illiteracy rate currently in Karamoja, but the commercialization of Uganda’s media makes the trend even more bizarre.
This has encouraged coverage of NGO stories and local government interventions, where journalists are invited with stipends attached. Socio-cultural and conflict stories that are the epitome of insurgency and turmoil are left untouched. It is due to poor pay that other younger people have shunned the profession. True to the story, all the four other trained Karimojong journalists besides me have changed careers to be able to manage their family demands. Currently, there is only one Karimojong student at university studying journalism, and I am not sure if she would join me upon completion.
O’Kasick: Regional disarmament efforts have been underway since 2001. Has the number of illegal firearms in Karamoja decreased, and what have been the main obstacles towards disarmament?
Onyang: Every Karimojong individual will agree that the gun has been dangerous to the socio-cultural and economic life of the Karimojong. The gun that was adopted to defend selves and property has turned to an instrument of hatred. Relations between ethnicities have broken. Villages are fighting against each other and gun battles till today are still heard in households and families.
A pro-people exercise is necessary. And it must take into consideration the sensitisation of the people is lacking yet determines the success of disarmament. The largest mistake done by the government is turning the exercise over to the military, forgetting the fact that the Karimojong hold guns against all enemies, especially government forces. In such a situation, they just fight back and work on all fronts to frustrate the exercise.
O’Kasick: So what else needs to be done to implement pro-people disarmament?
Onyang: Such an approach requires attaching disarmament to development. Unlike the previous exercises, where heads of state have come up with heavy political voices over Karamoja’s concerns, this time actual infrastructure and development programs should be embedded into the exercise. This would also require an East African regional approach that recognizes the fact that the pastoralist problems are not unique to Karamoja, but cut across the Kenyan Pokot and Turkana, Sudan’s Toposa and the Merille of Ethiopia and the Somali.
But the issue of using the Karimojong themselves is another prominent missing link in the exercise. Unlike other governments, the army this time has a fairer number of elite Karimojong heading command positions. This potential would be tapped for they would give more confidence to the locals. This has not been possible because of the level of corruption in the army and the state structures. It brings in a new thinking that disarmament is a business venture. When the government allocates certain funds, Karimojong majors and colonels get transferred to fight Kony’s LRA in Gulu and get replaced with the ruling Banyankole officials, who know little about the dynamics in the pastoralist conflict.
O’Kasick: Is education for Karimojong youth becoming more accepted and how critical is education to the cause of development in Karamoja?
Onyang:The critical underdevelopment in Karamoja has been blamed on a lack of formal education, and development partners have argued that it is the only alternative to deliver the Karimojong from the vicious circle of poverty, disease and ignorance. The only fear for many is that education brings about an elite class that is less responsive to the Karimojong traditions and does not respect societal cultural demands. The introduction of Alternative Basic Education for Karamoja (ABEK), which was originated by Save the Children (Norway) nearly 10 years ago, has brought in a new phenomenon. Children now have learned how to read and write and have become more sensitised to hygiene and responsive to issues around them. This approach has proved acceptable to the elders because the children study at home and are available to help their vulnerable parents — a situation the children look at as their responsibility. It is, however, imperative to note that education is spreading gradually and may in the near future create a positive aspect of Karimojong having their own children as doctors, engineers and teachers.
O’Kasick: Have other Ugandans become more accepting of the Karimojong? Are there still issues of discrimination?
Onyang: I would like to start by giving my personal experience. During my tender age at kindergarten in Jinja, with other children playing on our way home from school, we would shout out names ridiculing Karimojong scavenging in rubbish bins for food: “Golo golo pipa, kaunga bure” (Stop searching for the food and posho we threw in that bin). Because their clothing was then different, we did this all the time we saw them even when they were not at the bins. It only came to my realisation upon returning to Karamoja when our family had to flee Idi Amin’s brutality that I hailed from these poor people and their land. I then realised how I treated my own people and how other people feel about the Karimojong appears to be sour.
It is even worse today. Before, there was no severe cattle rustling the way it has been happening for the last 20 years. The hate has even increased with the biggest influx now of over 2,000 Karimojong people to the streets of Kampala to beg for alms. The highest number has fled famine due to repeated crop failure, and others are running away from the pressures of the disarmament exercise. It is very difficult to define the nature of discrimination the Karimojong people are suffering. They are being marginalised by their neighbours, who feel they have been dilapidated by the cattle raids.
Theorists have, however, continued to call for the recognition of the pastoralists if the Millennium Development Goals and the Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP), have to be achieved. They argue that however much Uganda attempts to industrialize, while still neglecting the Karimojong, the national development indices will continue to be reflected poorly. There is a need for the Karimojong elite to climb both the political decision making with an objective undertaking and the need for them to be government consultants on technical matters for Karamoja to achieve development.
Philips Limlim Lomma has an everyday vision of the future of Karamoja as a regional project officer for United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF). He has also served as a district planner, monitoring and evaluating all local government programmes in Moroto District. He grew up in Lorukumo Village in Moroto District and went on to attend Moroto High School, Makerere University in Kampala, and the Canadian Christian Medical Institute, where he received multiple academic awards. As an operations consultant, Lomma has worked exhaustively for the welfare and education of children in Karamoja.
O’Kasick: What kind of work does UNICEF do in Karamoja, and what are the challenges in advocating for Karimojong children in Uganda?
Lomma: I have been working with UNICEF for four years as a project officer in the conflict-affected northern region of Uganda. I am working on the education campaign that was launched in Kotido District in February of 2007. It is intended to mobilise children to go to school, explore retention strategies and have them complete primary education. Last year, UNICEF Uganda established a regional zone office in Moroto to closely monitor and maintain a constant dialogue with the children service providers in the attainment of children’s and women’s rights. In particular, UNICEF has stepped up its protective programming in Karamoja, and has been involved now in resettlement of the Karimojong children from the streets of Kampala.
One thing that needs to be understood by decision makers in this process is the long
protracted marginalisation of the Karimojong people. This marginalisation has been built and socialised from generation to generation to the extent that even when young generations have reached the decision-making echelon in one way or another they have no commitment to seriously pull out Karamoja from what it is today.
O’Kasick: What are the most pressing issues for children in Karamoja, and what are the barriers for children receiving education in Karamoja?
Lomma: First, in the short term, survival, food, health and protection against harm and, secondly, is having a vast majority of the children come to school (currently just about 25 percent of them are in school), retain them and have them complete primary cycle of education. Education in Karamoja needs to be understood in the context of household survival mechanism—I like to call it household survival equilibrium—as in every member of the household including children from the age of 6 are involved on daily basis in some activity to have the family survive or simply have them have something to eat: boys look after animals, girls fetch water, grind cereals, the father does the planning for what is next and ensures security, the mother does the supervision and household chores. Hence, removing one part of the system will destabilise the equilibrium.
In addition to these analyses, there are other complementing bottlenecks to children accessing education in Karamoja: (a) Relevance of the curriculum and distance to school. (Can a 6-year-old walk 14 kilometres a day to and fro?) (b) To some extent, there is complacency and lack of "real" commitment on the part of duty bearers (government, donors, etc) in most cases for fear of costs. (c) To convince the local community, which must place immediate survival over the long term, benefits of education, to comprehend the benefits of education in the immediate. But instead even those who have gone and completed primary school still come back home bare-handed. (d) It is even worse for girls who are seen by society as a source of survival and wealth.
O’Kasick: So is this preventing the Karimojong from realising any of the benefits of development in Uganda whatsoever?
Lomma: Not a majority of the Karimojong have assimilated into the modern culture, given that very few go to school, which is a vehicle to modern culture. Even for, let’s say, 1 percent of them who assimilated there is no clear evidence of total change in culture. They still marry traditionally, initiate to become men, and girls are married for more or less the same "price" whether they have been to school or not.
O’Kasick: How has HIV/AIDS affected Karamoja?
Lomma: Overall, Karamoja still has a low prevalence of HIV. The sentinel site surveillance based on pregnant women as a proxy and the prevalence survey showed Karamoja had a low prevalence of HIV, with less than 1 percent and 4 percent, respectively. The prevalence survey included the Teso Region. However, the influx of young girls to towns, search for water and pasture in other communities, such as the Teso, Lango and Acholi, petty business trade in trading centres, are among the greatest potential risks for an increase in the incidence of HIV among the Karimojong, and they usually do not know their status.
O’Kasick: How have the Karimojong been persecuted and neglected in Uganda?
Lomma: Like many other pastoralist communities, the Karimojong have been neglected as a consequence from the colonial administration, which locked Karamoja out of the rest of the world for the protective excuse that it was a dangerous area to go. Yet the colonial government had a comfortable regional headquarters in Moroto. It was said to be a human zoo. So for the Kabaka (King) from Buganda, prime minister and subsequent leaders since colonialism, Karamoja was a “no go” area and a forgotten place. In effect,
many Ugandans today have not been exposed to the Karimojong culture to truly appreciate the good and even the bad.
Daniel Aleper has long stood at the forefront of conservation in Karamoja. For more than a decade, he has served the Uganda Wildlife Authority as a national coordinator of community conservation, an influential warden at Kidepo National Park and a coordinator of wildlife management for all of Karamoja. The modern warrior works at the grass-roots level, educating innumerable Karimojong about how to better graze their cattle and manage their resources. He promotes Karimojong children education and human rights in Karamoja. He also is a Ph.D. candidate at Norway’s Agricultural University of Life Sciences, studying the roles of elephants and fire in the regeneration of acacia trees in Kidepo National Park. A proud father and community leader, Aleper always feels at home and at peace in Karamoja, whether he is tracking elephants, giving children a ride to school or taking a little time to relax and bird watch.
O'Kasick: How would you describe some of the effects of environmental degradation in Karamoja and Kidepo National Park? How can the Karimojong adapt to the increasing environmental stress?
Aleper: There is devegetation and degradation of soils due to overstocking. Livestock are restricted to poor small areas leading to a reduced productivity of stock. People have had to dig wells in rivers for water and migrate from place to place, including to neighbouring districts, in search of water and pasture. The young people go for survival to other areas in Uganda. Some come back and others not, however, some of them have managed to prosper in businesses. Others use guns to ambush vehicles and to get money and other items to survive on. Crop failure causes an increase in conflict as people scramble to survive by any means. Some survive on collecting wild fruits, roots and leaves. Others resort to mining minerals. Others go poaching or exploiting natural resources products for commercial purposes because of drought: charcoal burning, sale of firewood and poles, brick baking.
Drought causes wild animals and livestock to die, causing famines and human impoverishment. Certain animal and human diseases tend to break out in certain drought areas. Drought causes migration of stock in search for pasture and water, which leads to the spread of disease. When it is dry, there are sometimes outbreaks of wildfires destroying habitats, people’s homes and pasture. The gun has depleted wild animal populations. With the success of disarmament, animal populations may rejuvenate. Natural resources, especially renewable sources, stand a chance to take centre stage in Karimojong livelihoods and development of the region in the form of tourism, sport hunting, wildlife enterprises, ranching, trade and tourism, craft sales. Mineral exploitation also has a big potential in contributing to the development of Karamoja.
O'Kasick: How has Karimojong traditional culture changed in the past 10 years overall according to your experience and perspective? How has it been affected by globalisation?
Aleper: The establishment of the Karamoja database has globalised the plight of Karamoja and led to attention from various donors and UN agencies, such as UNICEF, UNFAO, Save the Children, Rescue Front, ACCORD, World Vision, KADP, Madefo, Kachep, Gum Arabic Co-operative Union, Oxfam, SNV, Bozidep. Karamoja also has been exposed to the outside world through magazines, media and arts. However, there is a need to establish a think tank group in each sector to guide decisions and development, other than the traditional World Food Programme that perpetuated Karamoja famine problems. Loss of cultural practices, beliefs and norms have happened. Some youth have become disobedient to elders and parents. There is a rural-to-urban drift, and the reliance on cattle, as in the past, is lost. Other economic activities have become valued, such as charcoal burning. More Karimojong children are in school today, as education is a key success to life and a basic right for all. More people also dress in modern fabrics as compared to 10 years ago.
O'Kasick: What about recent conflicts between some Karimojong warriors and the UPDF? What will it take for these conflicts to end and for disarmament to have a long-lasting peaceful effect in the region?
Aleper: Disarmament should be sustained and applied concurrently and equally in all counties, but human rights must be observed diligently. When some people are disarmed and others are not, the disarmed people will remain vulnerable. For example, the Bokora gave back most of their guns and they eventually lost most of their stock, ending up in other districts in destitution, even begging on the streets of Kampala. When disarmament is finally accomplished, the government must institute a mechanism to protect the Karimojong people and property. If this does not happen, the Karimojong are likely to re-arm in an effort to protect them or make guns locally as they did in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But the government should not permit successful raids. Each raid or road thuggery should be followed diligently and any gun involved recovered. Only this will make people see no more use in the gun and hand them back to the government.
O'Kasick: How could peace and stability in southern Sudan and in the Acholilands affect Karamoja?
Aleper: Southern Sudan and the Acholilands have been one of the source of guns and ammunition for Karamoja. The relative peace may reduce gun trafficking into the region. Trade links would be created between Karamoja, southern Sudan and Acholilands, hence friendships would establish free movements and involve idle youth and those who have handed in their guns in alternative livelihoods.
The government listens more to the hostilities of the Acholilands and Sudan than in Karamoja. The government is committing all of its attention to the LRA war, leaving Karamoja problems of insecurity aside. Peace in the North may give the government time to concentrate on the problems of insecurity and poverty in Karamoja. The North has also served as a refuge for criminals who commit crimes in Karamoja. Attainment of peace will deprive them of this refuge, reducing criminality, hence law and order observed to some extent.
The government should consider cattle rustling as a way of livelihood and therefore devise alternate livelihoods once the guns have been handed back: opportunities with gum Arabic, mineral mining, improvements on livestock production, wildlife enterprise/tourism/sculpture/crafts. The Karimojong should be motivated to go to school and to interact with other Ugandans and outsiders.
O'Kasick: Is there still a negative stigma towards the Karimojong throughout Uganda? If yes, how does this lead to a lack of development and other problems in Karamoja?
Aleper: Yes, there is. There is a belief that every Karimojong is hostile, wild and ruthless. There is a negligence to respond to Karimojong needs socially and economically, giving excuse of the gun. There is a biased attitude towards the Karimojong, as if they are all naked and have tails. Most Karimojong are not educated in formal educational settings. So few Ugandans recognise and understand Karimojong culture and its importance in Uganda society because of what the colonialists planted in the minds of other Ugandans about Karamoja has remained for a long time. It is alleged that the borders demarcated, and Karamoja was considered a human zoo. The workers and outsiders that came to work in Karamoja received a Karamoja allowance to compensate for hardships and working in a hostile environment. This legacy has remained. This followed the interest of the colonial government only to come to Karamoja to benefit from ivory trade and stop the danger of the Karimojong getting armed, but no interest in developing it for Karimojong benefit. The postcolonial government showed a negative attitude towards the Karimojong culture — the Nawaikorot incident of 1971, where people were killed because they demonstrated against the hasty dictated forced dressing of the Karimojong with modern fabrics.
Limited research has been carried out concerning the Karimojong culture and its importance so as to understand and preserve the culture. Some initiatives have been taken, such as the Miss Karamoja Pageant, Karamoja Day Out, Karamoja Cultural Trust. Even some Karimojong tend to look at aspects of their culture as a backwards way of life. Very few books have ever been written about Karimojong culture, and those written do not reflect it correctly or explain it well. People outside Karamoja lack knowledge about the region. The government should put more funding to develop Karamoja to reach the level of other parts of Uganda and to improve their knowledge of the traditional way of keeping cattle and alternative livelihoods. Such things can be changed by educating Ugandans about the good of the Karimojong and the potential of Karamoja.