KARAMOJA, UGANDA—I was first inspired to come to Karamoja when I heard that the region experienced semi annual cholera outbreaks because people refused to use toilets. Later people described the region to me as operating in the 1800s. In a nutshell, I found that Karamoja is completely unlike the rest of Uganda.
The Karamojong dress very differently from people in the rest of Uganda and often wear very little clothes at all. I visited one water point used for the cows and found 5 men bathing in front of women and children as if it was the most natural thing in the world, which it probably was to them. Men often wear a kilt (that’s what I call it) and a piece of cloth over their shoulder, though now they sometimes wear trousers. Women wrap a cloth around themselves. Young boys tending the animals in the field often only wear a piece of cloth over their shoulder, which seems to be more for practical purposes than modesty. Young women were the most finely dressed with bright colors and striking hairstyles. The most common hairstyle was cornrows that faced forward so that the end of the braid hung over the forehead. Unmarried women rock a mohawk where the side of the head are shaved, but the top grows long. School girls in Uganda are required to cut their hair short but I hope that as education moves into Karamoja the women can keep their traditional hairstyles. The people loved to be photographed and would start talking excitedly when I showed them the photo of themselves on the camera LCD. In fact, it was impossible to get a photo of just one Karamojong by him or herself. Everybody wanted to be in every photo.
The Karamojong people were never colonized and, until 2001, there was next to no government intervention in the region. The Karamojong are self-described warriors and successfully fought back all attempts by the government to control the region. Recently, though, they have been subdued by a committed government disarmament program. Until around 2007, I am told that guns could be heard going off all night long as the men prepared for a raid or showed-off.
I learned most of my history and culture from JB (above photo). He is a Karamojong with a penchant for storytelling. The currency here is cows, JB told me. Cows mean everything. A man who has many cows will be respected. He can pay a high bride-price. A man with many cows will mark his favorite bull to show that he wants to be known as the owner of this bull and will thereafter be known as “Black-White” to signify that he is the owner of that bull. If this seems strange to you think of it this way. Cows bring prestige the way a Mercedes SLK might in the US. And more is always better. For as long as anyone can remember the Karamojong are cattle rustlers. In the night they will go to Mokoto or Kaabong or cross the border to Kenya or Sudan to raid the cattle from the tribes in those areas. Traditionally they used spears but after Amin’s government crumbled and his troops abandoned their weapons, the Karamojong captured the weapons. Until recently every man who was a “real man” owned an AK-47 and lived in a mud and stick house. Now much of that is changing.
I traveled around with Oxfam an NGO from the UK that kindly allowed me to go on field visits. We took a white Land Cruiser from village to village. Though at first I thought the car clashed horibly with the surroundings, I learned that they color was very intentional. JB explained that white cars mean “NGO” to the Karamojong. Other colors mean the military or the police. In the past the Karamojong have shot at military vehicles in hopes of capturing the guns on board. For this reason, Oxfam wisely chooses to reveal that they possess no guns. UN armed escort vehicles have been shot at for the same reason as mentioned above. Less guns mean more safety for the NGOs.
On the final day in Karamoja I visited the villages by motorcycle with Milton. He is a Karamojong who founded Warrior Squad Foundation, an NGO that helps disarmed youth get back on their feet. We did a lot of filming and plan to release a short documentary in February 2011 on the challenges facing disarmed youth in Karamoja.
Due to theft and violene in the region and the government stepped in around 2001. The military tried to peacefully remove the guns by asking men to turn in their guns for building materials or without compensation. One man I interviewed said he was one of the first to hand in his gun. The military said it would give him metal to build a roof for his house but they reneged on their promise. Soon the military met with resistance to the disarmament movement. Many police and military where killed. Most of the people working at Oxfam said that had been caught in a Karamojong-military or Karamojong-Karamojong firefight at one point or another, though none had received a wound.
The government started using harsher tactics around 2007. They would surround (cordon) villages and search through every home to confiscate the guns. They had no tolerance for being shot at and there are stories of indiscriminate shooting at Karamojong young and old when provoked. The man I interviewed in the screenshot above told me his story, through translation, of being tortured by the military. “The military cordoned my home. I was grabbed. My hands were tied behind my back. My testicles were also tied. A polyethylene bag was tied over my head. I was tied upside down from the tree and they started beating me and beating me and beating me. I was forced to mention that it is true, I have a gun. And yet it is not true. And now I cannot produce children.” Another man told a similar story of how the military tied him and beat his shins until he admitted he had a gun (which he had already given over). The military would sometimes take all of the cattle away from a village until the men turned over their guns. If the men had no guns they would have to buy guns from Sudan to give to the military in exchange for their cattle.
Many of the men Milton and I talked to said that since their guns had been taken away all of their cows had been stolen by tribes whose guns had not yet been taken away. In the past if cows were stolen, the men of a village could often follow the raiders and, with a sufficient number of men and guns, they could overpower the raiders and take back the cows. Or they would go on a raid of their own.
Lack of cows proves to be a big problem for a man. The bride price for his wife must be paid in cows which is a minimum of 50 cows up to hundreds of cows. This causes much concern to the young men. They think they will have to pay back their in-laws over many years, buying one cow at a time until they have paid the bride price. Even married men are concerned. If I man has few cows, it is culturally acceptable for another man to steal the wife.
See this Guardian article for more on disarmed youth.
The culture was so different from anything I have experienced that I was tempted to live in one of their huts to learn more. And I would have except that the staple food is sorghum mush which is like eating sand and people love their cows so much that they will often eat a cow that dies of natural causes rather than slaughter a fresh cow. So I couldn’t live with them unless I brought my own food.
Houses are made of only mud, sticks and grass. These materials are surprisingly hard to come by. Mud requires water, which requires going at least a kilometer and probably several to the closest water point. There are very few sticks in the desert and even fewer straight sticks that are required for building a hut. Thatching is likewise rare and must be gathered as far as 50 kilometers away. Donkeys can often be seen walking down the road with thatching on their backs, driven by a young boy. Because these materials are so rare, people will often take the materials with them when they move. In the above photo, a family took the thatching from this house for their next house. Also note how small the entry to the house is: about 1.5 feet high. This is for security reasons.
Karamojong relocate their homes for several reasons. JB explained that if a child dies in a house it is felt to be cursed and the family will move. First they will place an egg in the site of their new home. If, after a day, the egg has collected no dust, then this site is considered to be appropriate for the new hut.
Women are marginalized in Karamoja. They cannot own animals and have little say over whom they marry. During raids, girls would sometimes be raped. If the father of the girl knew who had committed the act, he would fine the offender eight cows. All of the Oxfam employees I talked to said that 8 cows was the standard fine across Karamoja. As such much of the effort of NGOs and the government is to raise the status of women in Karamoja. While this is important, men should not be forgotten either.
With their guns taken away, the young men are now unemployed and have no knowledge of how to earn a living outside of cattle tending and raiding. They are now vulnerable to attacks from other warriors who have not yet been disarmed. They are uncertain of whether they can continue to own cattle as the young men have lost the means of protecting their cattle against invaders. Karamoja could easily fall back into a state of war because the youth do not have anything to occupy themselves with. As the disarmed youth are the future leaders of Karamoja, Milton and I were inspired to work on a documentary that I previously mentioned to bring awareness to the problem.
There are some income generating activities that have been introduced to the Karamojong other than cattle raising, with Oxfam facilitating the construction of corn milling operations, among other activities. Over the last few years, people have started to build bricks which are fired in stacks as seen above (this is a common practice throughout Uganda).
This man started to make gravel. His family digs holes in their front yard to find large rocks that they would then pound with another rock to break the rocks into smaller pieces. They can earn about $0.50 to $1.00 per day doing this.
As we traveled around and JB pointed out the different plants he told me about one specific plant that is used to cure cholera, malaria, cuts and burns. It is called Aloe Vera. Maybe you have heard of it before. It is in so many creams, soaps, and herbal medicines in the US. My first thought was, Income Generating Activity for the disarmed youth. Maybe someone can enlighten me on this, but I think there is a big market for Aloe in the US. If the Karamojong could farm this, instead of just picking it from the wild, they could sell Aloe to a middle man to bring this to the US. I have a friend in Ghana who serves as the middle man to bring Fair Trade Shea Butter to Europe. If any Aloe Vera specialists happen to be reading this blog, send me an email!
Over the past 10 years, NGOs and the government have drilled many boreholes (wells) to supply clean drinking water close to villages, but I wondered how the Karamojong gathered water before the introduction of the borehole. JB took me to visit a water hole. In a dry riverbed we found a six foot deep hole where water was scooped up and dumped in a trough for the animals. Gathering water in a desert can be difficult but it can be done. This water was also used to make bricks.
The sanitation problem was what first interested me in Karamoja. When I met Marten at Oxfam in Kampala he explained to me that there are yearly cholera outbreaks in the villages as no one uses latrines or other improved sanitation technologies. Each year Oxfam and other organizations provide disaster relief to stop the cholera. They provide latrines to the people, but for a variety of reasons the locals do not use the latrines. For one, it is not considered manly to go to a latrine. For another, a husband and his mother-in-laws are not allowed to let their feces mix as a sign of respect towards the mother-in-law and will not use a latrine for fear that the mother-in-law might have already used the latrine. This is related to the custom that a husband is not allowed to see his mother-in-law. If he wants to talk to her, there must be a wall separating them.
And so NGOs had a great deal of difficulty in persuading people to use latrines, much less to build latrines on their own. Oxfam employees told me they used to always look at the ground when walking around villages to avoid stepping in human feces. The violence in the region meant that people, especially young women, were afraid to go far from their homes at night. So feces were congregated around the main living areas. During the rainy season, open defecation plus unsecure water sources lead to outbreaks of disease.
But what I found in the villages I visited was quite encouraging. This past August there was a particularly bad cholera outbreak. The Karamojong did not know that cholera was spread through human waste. Knowledge from NGOs and a recent disaster seems to have sparked action in many people. The man above built his own pit latrine. He had been encouraged to do so by NGOs but had not received any money to build the structure. I went inside and found that the smell was negligible. How was the smell so mild I asked? The man, through translation, answered that he spread ash on the waste after each use. I was surprised. As you may know from a previous post, putting ash on feces is considered witchcraft in Uganda. The man replied that it was only witchcraft to him if witchcraft was intended. In this case it was not. However, the woman at another latrine we visited laughed when I suggested that she put ash in the latrine after each use. “Do you want to do witchcraft on me?”
There are several technical difficulties on top of the cultural challenges. Because logs are so short and there is no concrete, people dig pits for latrines that are very long and skinny so that they can use shorter logs to cover the pit and apply mud on top of. Even short logs are rare and this family had to wait for several weeks to travel the many kilometers to gather the logs. This family was building two latrines. One for the mother-in-law and one for the rest of the family.
Termites are also a problem. They will eat through the underground wood supports and a person using the latrine could fall through. The wood used for the floor is covered in mud and therefore its structural integrity is not known until the floor collapses. People have to preemptively construct new latrines about every 6 months. This is difficult considering the distance they must travel to find logs, but the people I talked to seemed willing to expend the effort to avoid future cholera outbreaks. People were also concerned that the pits would collapse due to the sandy soil.
The BIG Picture Until now, my assumption has been that the sanitation problem in the world can be solved by for-profit organizations because sanitation services solve a need. But the people of Karamoja needed education. They needed to learn how cholera was spread. In the end, the latrines do not cost them anything to build. All the materials are gathered by hand, though it may take many days to collect them.
The disarmed youth present their own challenge. Very few people asked me for money (compared to Kampala). Instead they asked for a job. This seems like a great place for a social enterprise to step in and build off of what the NGOs and government have already done to make Karamoja safe and sanitary and give the men a job for long term security of the region.