The Karamojong tribe, also known as the Karimojong has for a long time been associated with backwardness, primitivism, and violence, and thence comes the saying, “We shall not wait for Karamoja to develop”. This is basically attributed to their lifestyle which has for a long time been resistant to the forces of change.
The Karamojong people are believed to have been part of the group which migrated from Ethiopia and split into two sub-groups; one disintegrating from Kenya and the other from Uganda. They currently occupy the North-eastern part of Uganda and specifically the districts of Kotido, Moroto, and Napak, among others. They speak the Karamojong language which is said to be similar to the Ateso language.
The main economic activity carried out in the Karamojong region is cattle herding. For this reason, they attach so, much importance to their animals especially cattle and the more one accumulate, the more prestigious they become. Their cattle are used in business, paying bride-price, acquiring political support, and many others.
They practice nomadic pastoralist herding which involves moving from place to place in search for water and pastures for their animals since there is no sufficient supply of these in their area.
Their desire to accumulate great numbers of cattle has led them to practicing cattle rustling from neighboring tribe like the Sabiny of Kapchorwa and Bukwo districts; together with their brothers the Itesots from the districts of Soroti, Kumi, and others.
Many of them even possess guns (AK47) purposely for this activity and this implies that there is a lot of bloodshed as they raid and loot their neighbors’ cattle. The Government of Uganda tried to disarm them by compensating their guns though this proved to be hard as they wanted so many cattle per gun.
Karamojongs are said to rarely slaughter their cattle. They simply get milk and also blood by just severing the animals a bit just to draw blood from them without causing any harm. These two make a big part of their diet and other foods act as supplements. Cow meat is said to be eaten only on ceremonies or when an animal in the herd dies.
Asides from herding, the Karamojong also carry out crop cultivation. However, this practiced on a small scale, owing to the extremely arid nature of the land. The main crop grown is sorghum. Other crops include maize, beans, cucumbers and sometimes millet.
Tourism is another popular economic activity there. The Kidepo Valley National Park is one of the most popular national parks in Uganda and it has attracted tourists to view the wild game there. That aside, the Karamojong lifestyle itself; the dance, rituals, herding, and others, are also a form of tourist attraction.
Culture, tradition, and society
The Karamojong are said to be extremely conservative when it comes to the Western culture. This has been characterized by their peculiar dress code of a traditional blanket-like shawl and in some extreme cases, semi-nudity as some dress in calicos, or even total nudity due to the very hot temperatures in the area. Many of them have also been very hesitant to embrace formal education, also a product of the Western culture.
Culturally, Karamojongs, just like the South Sudanese, can easily be identified by the tribal marks that they have on different parts of their bodies like the foreheads, arms, back, and others. Body piercings also make part of their identity together with their signature bead necklaces and partly plaited heads.
They also have for generations maintained an age system where all men belong to age-sets that separate different generations.
Initiation rites are a very integral part of their social system as they qualify one from boyhood to manhood. These go hand-in-hand with marriage rites. In this case, a candidate is supposed to wrestle with a girl that he expects to marry; and if he wins, then he qualifies to be called a man and also has full rights over the girl.
On the streets
For over years now, a big number of Karamojongs, mostly women and children, have moved to the streets of the Capital city Kampala and other urban centers in search for better livelihoods; only to end up being rendered helpless beggars.
It is estimated that 90% of the street children on Kampala streets are from Karamoja and these have turned out to be a nuisance on the streets and in some cases, are at a high risk of being knocked by cars, or even sexually abused for the case of the girls. This scenario has attracted the attention of the Government and through the first Lady and Karamojong Affairs Minister Janet Museveni; plans are being laid out on how to stop the Karamojongs from leaving their home districts by making them self-sufficient.