Uganda’s land of warrior nomads stretches across an isolated corner of Africa named after the people who have there lived for centuries: the Karimojong of Karamoja.
With more than 27,000 square kilometres, this arid expanse of savannah and bush forms the northeast edge of Uganda where it borders Kenya and the Sudan, with Ethiopia not far off. Countries and boundaries, however, have meant little in Karamoja until recent times.
Its natural borders alone tell something about the region’s remoteness. To its east stands the Rift Valley escarpment towering over the Kenyan plains and scrubland. To the north lie the pristine basin of Kidepo National Park and also a mountainous vastness that leads into the Sudan. Similarly, to the south, there are the rugged peaks of Mount Elgon National Park, which were formed by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. In the west, abundant swamps enter into the Acholilands.
Set on a large plateau, much of Karamoja is more than 1,000 metres above sea level, and four main mountains overlook the region’s savannah, highlands and river valleys: Mount Morungole in the north, Mount Moroto in the east, Mount Kadam in the south and Mount Napak in the west. According to the most recent Ugandan census figures, some 956,000 people live in Karamoja, with more than a third of them being Karimojong. The actual numbers, however, are estimated to be higher. With Moroto town as its regional capital, Karamoja has five districts — Moroto, Kotido, Nakapiripirit, Abim and Kaabong. District towns have a degree of population density, but pastoral life as well as the scarcity of rain, keeps people on the move and well dispersed.
Karamoja’s climate is harsh. In many areas, rains do not often exceed 800 millimetres per year, sometimes hovering around a mere 500 millimetres. (At least 1,000 millimetres is needed to sustain people in a land without infrastructure.) The precipitation that does fall usually comes sporadically between June and October with the desert winds and the hot dry season taking over the land from November to March. In recent years, drought has become more frequent and severe.
Beyond natural and national borders, inter-regional conflicts have kept Karamoja cut off from the rest of the world and its own country. The longest running civil wars in Africa have surrounded and spilled into the region between southern Sudan and northern Uganda. The Karimojong themselves, however, also have contributed to the region’s isolation. Like other pastoral people, the Karimojong have immeasurable pride in their traditional way of life, and many have remained resistant to change no matter the force trying to change them. After all, in a desert-like land, the Karimojong have survived for centuries, and sometimes survival is all that matters.