The northeast is home to Uganda’s most distinctive ethnic group, the Karamojong; nomadic agro-pastoralists known primarily for their love of cattle and cattle rustling and their resistance to the trappings of modern civilisation. The idea of ‘the Karamojong people’ is in fact an administrative invention, a convenient lumping together of several tribes.
These do admittedly have plenty in common. The various Karamojong factions are all 16th- or 17th-century migrants from Ethiopia, all speak dialects of a common language, Akarimojong, and, most signifi cantly, most are obsessively keen cattle keepers. This latter point is a dividing rather than a uniting factor, thanks to the fact that ‘keeping thy neighbours’ cattle’, ideally after obtaining them by force, is equally central to Karamojong ideology. Without a patchwork of distinct tribes and clans to enable feuds, grudges, reprisals, alliances and understandings, cattle rustling would lose much of its appeal.
The so-called Karamojong people arose from a southerly migration by the Jie, an Abyssinian pastoralist tribe, 300–400 years ago. On reaching the Kenya–Uganda– Sudan border region, the Jie split to create the Toposa of Southern Sudan, the Turkana of Kenya and the Dodoth of northern Karamoja. Some of the Turkana Jie then crossed the mountains that line the present-day Kenyan border on to the plains of northeastern Uganda. Some groups remained around Kotido as the Uganda Jie. Others continued further until they were, quite literally, fed up with walking; the gist of the word ‘Karamojong’ means ‘the old men sat down’. Some Jie groups reached southern Karamoja where they gave rise to the Matheniko (around Mount Moroto), the Bokora (on the plain to the west) and the Pian (on the plains below Mount Kadam) while others continued southwest to become the Iteso people around Soroti. The ‘old men …’ line is in fact attributed to a hardcore group of walkers who continued even further west before finally ‘sitting down’ as the Langi of Lira District.
The language of the Karamojong people is an interesting and apparently ancient curiosity. Scotsman John Wilson, who lived in and around Karamoja for 30 years, has identified numerous words and phrases of similar meaning in Akarimojong and Gaelic. Subsequent investigation has identified further similarities with other widely spaced languages including Hebrew, Spanish, Sumerian, Akkadian and Tibetan among others. To give just a few examples, we have bot (a house in Gaelic) and eboot (a temporary dwelling in Akarimojong); cainnean (live embers in Gaelic) and ekeno (a fireplace in Akarimojong); oibirich (ferment in Gaelic) and aki-pirichiar (to overflow as beer foam in Akarimojong); cuidh (an enclosure in Gaelic) and akiud (to drive cattle into an enclosure in Akarimojong).
Elsewhere, the Spanish word corral, for a circular stock enclosure, is uncannily close to the Akarimojong synonym ekorr, and the Spanish ajorar for ‘theft of cattle’ is not dissimilar to the Akarimojong ajore meaning ‘cattle raid’. The thinking is that these various, far-fl ung modern languages are legacies of a common tongue spoken by an ancient human population, presumably before the Tower of Babel incident and perhaps as far back as the late Pleistocene. If corroborated, this would be of more than just a passing interest, for such linguistic evidence helps us to identify practices that fail to show up on the archaeological radar. From the commonalities identified we might infer that, before they went their separate ways, the speakers of this mother tongue were (for example) cultivating land, harvesting ears of grain, creating simple reservoirs, getting drunk, plastering houses and pinching each other’s cows (source: http://treasuresofafricamuseum.blogspot.com).
More recently, the Karamojong have been something of an embarrassment to more Westernised Ugandans. The common view was that they were a backward lot who ran around naked and, half a century ago, the latter point was certainly true. Male attire consisted solely of an elaborately styled hairdo, a feathered headdress, a small, T-shaped stool and a spear, while female dress was represented by a heavy roll of neck beads and a bit of a skirt. These minimalist styles were driven underground in the 1970s when Idi Amin sent soldiers to force Western dress on the Karamojong at gunpoint. Men took to wearing, at the very least, a light blanket/cloak, usually of a striped or – interestingly given the suggestion of a Gaelic connection – tartan pattern. During the 1990s, this was frequently worn as a sole item of clothing but these days, some additional layers now seem mandatory, most obviously in the undercarriage department. Flashers – at least along the routes you’re likely to explore – are now rare in Karamoja.
Despite expanding wardrobes and pressure from Kampala to join the modern world, most rural Karamojong remain true to their traditional way of life. Communities still commonly inhabit manyattas: traditional homesteads in which concentric, defensive rings of thorny brushwood surround a central compound containing huts, granaries and cattle pens. Unlike the rest of Uganda, some semblance of cultural dress remains part of everyday attire. For men this is epitomised by the cloak and some form of Western hat with ostrich feathers added to indicate status. Though the great beaded ruffs of yesteryear are less common, neck beads remain very much in vogue with the ladies.
The recent history of the region owes much to another, more sinister addition to the well-dressed warrior’s kit. In 1979, when Amin’s army fled north, leaving a well-stocked arsenal in Soroti barracks unattended, the Karamojong, who had suffered terribly at the hands of the dictator’s soldiers, took the opportunity to arm themselves against future depredations. Thereafter, a warrior’s personal effects consisted of an AK47 as well as a spear. This development transformed the nature of regional cattle raiding. Outgunned, the Pokot and Turkana sourced their own armaments from the perennial conflict in southern Sudan. Traditional cattle rustling escalated from a violent form of football hooliganism (with perhaps more spear wounds than usually recorded on the terraces) to intentionally murderous assaults. The possibility of being caught up in such events meant that few risked visiting the region and Karamoja’s isolation deepened. Between 2006 and 2011 however, the Ugandan army managed to effectively disarm the Karamojong warriors, a process sometimes nastier than the violence it sought to suppress, but which has restored security to the region. That being said, the immediate border region remains subject to armed cattle raids since the Kenyan government has not disarmed its own pastoralists; now reduced to their traditional spears, the Karamojong in this area are at a distinct disadvantage.