African Tribes – The Karamojong

Kraal in Karamoja

The Karamojong or Karimojong, are an ethnic group of pastoral herders located in the north-eastern part of Uganda known as the Karamoja sub-region; and their language is Karamojong or Karimojong. They are found in the districts of Abim, Kaabong, Kotido, Moroto and Nakapiripirit.

It is a region characterized by thorny plants and grasses. They enjoy spells of rain between April and November and the area can have some green vegetation, but the land quickly dries up thereafter. The climate becomes windy with no surface water, even the dams that collect water during the rainy seasons quickly dry up.

It is because of these dry conditions that the Karamojong practice pastoral nomadism. When they run out of food and water, they have raided another region for cattle; an intriguing tradition that has made then foes with all their neighbors.

The Karamojong adorn markings on their forehead and around the face. Atypical Karamojong woman’s attire entails a skirt, colored beads around the neck and elastic or metallic bands tied around their ankles. As for the men, they don a piece of cloth over their bodies accompanied with plastic bangles.

Although the Karamojong mainly depend on cattle for food, they rarely slaughter then especially for food purposes. Milk and blood are their daily food. When their animals are slaughtered, the hides are used for making blankets and clothes, while the scrota make bags. The urine is used to clean vessels made of wood or of gourds, and to wash human hands, particularly in the cattle camps where there is seldom enough water.

Save for the town where a few brick houses will be spotted, Karamoja is mainly littered with grass-thatched mud huts. They are beautiful people with a unique culture, but the Karamojong are always at the bottom end of every development statistic in Uganda.

History of the Karamojong

The Karamojong inhabit the Karamoja sub-region that is made up of five districts in the north-eastern part of Uganda.

Anthropologists record that around 1600 A.D., the Karamojong migrated from present-day Ethiopia splitting into two groups, with one branch moving to present day Kenya to form the Kalenjin and Maasai; and the other branch (Ateker), migrated westwards. Ateker (Teso Cluster or Karamojong Cluster) further split into the Iteso, Dodoth, Jie, Karamojong, and Kumam (in Uganda); Jiye and Toposa (in South Sudan)

The name Karamojong derived from phrase ekar ngimojong, meaning “the old men can walk no farther”. According to tradition, the peoples now known as the Karamojong Cluster or Teso Cluster are said to have migrated from Abyssinia between the 1600 and 1700 AD as a single group. They merged to three existing clans of the Bokora in the west; the Matheniko in the east near Mountain Moroto; and the Pian in the south.

Culture of the Karamojong

The history and culture of the Karamojong has not changed to the present day. Cattle keeping remains their main livelihood activity that gives then social and cultural significance. Much as crop cultivation is done, it is not given much attention.

If you do not own a cow in Karamoja, you can’t be allowed to address a congregation because you are not valued as a person.

The Karamojong accumulate their cattle either through inheritance by patrilineal descent or marriage. When a woman first arrives at her husband’s, he is expected to allocate cattle to exclusively feed her and her children and these are to be increased as she bares more children.

It is this act of transferring cattle from the man to the woman’s side that makes her children legitimate members of her husband’s lineage.

The soils are sandy that even after a heavy rainstorm, water will only flow for a few days before it all sinks in the ground, affecting the growing of crops and leaving then with the option of animal husbandry. They rare goats, sheep and lately camels raided from the Turkan but cattle rearing is what they entirely survive on. Because of their arid environment, the Karamojong do not construct permanent homes but rather live their lives as nomadic herdsmen.

Political Setting

Leadership was vested in the elders and the clan was the basic unit of political administration. The heads of the different clans constituted the council of elders which was responsible for administering justice, settling disputed, maintaining law and order, and punishing law breakers.

A typical Karamojong dispute begins when someone seizes a stock he thinks are owed to him. If the elders decide on who is to pay and he does not admit the ruling, then they will order the other to take the stock from him thus a raid.

Cattle are of great value to this tribe that they cannot easily slaughter a cow or a bull even when they need food. When the elders request for a cow or a bull, refusal to grant their request may result into a curse, and the consequences of this are feared. Therefore, even if a young man refused to offer the requested cow, fellow age mates would go and spear the cow themselves.

Social Organization

The Age System is dominant feature of Karamojong society based on generation levels. The system however, breaks down as successive generations increasingly overlap in age. However, the system is flexible enough to contain the tension that builds up between generations over a cycle of 50 years or more.

Traditional Marriage of the Karamojong

African traditional marriage among the Karimojong people is a serious affair. Before a boy announces his intention to marry, he has to prove to the elders of the village that he is already a man.

In the early times, when lions and elephants still roamed the southern Karamoja plains, the boy would move out armed with just a spear with an aim of killing without assistance, one of the lions or elephants that roamed the plains.

He would prove his achievement by appearing to elders at a formal meeting called a Baraza; where he would present his blood-stained spear and the animal’s tail. The next step would be to find the required cattle to pay as bride wealth.

He also receives a bull from his father after he has proven that he is a indeed man. The bull is then killed and shared with fellow young men, friends and relatives.

The young man is required to smear himself all over with dung from the bull and his hair cut by one of his adult male friends. Then on, he was considered to be of age and with permission from the elders to wear ostrich feathers and a leopard skin.

The young man now make his choice and instructs his father to pay bride wealth marking the beginning of negotiations between the boy’s and the girl’s families.

A delegation from the boy’s family accompanies the dowry to the girl’s home. At the girl’s home at mother’s hut, skin hides are spread out where the visitors sit and a pipe is lit, which was handed around for smoking with priority given to elders.

Thereafter, the delegation would return home and the boy would remove the leopard’s skin; and the ostrich feathers he had been wearing. He would not sleep with his bride that night. On the following morning the boy’s mother would take a calabash of cooking butter to the door of the bride’s apartment and call her. She is made to wear a necklace and a piece of emuria grass. Butter is then smeared all over her except the legs. She would then remove all the girl’s ornaments and dress her like a married woman. The exact attire consisted of a goat’s skin hung down from the waist, the hairy side outward and a calf skin slung from the shoulders and reaching the knees.

After being dressed, the bride and three other girls would go and cut a load of firewood each to give to the boy’s mother. That same night, the boy would sleep with his wife and they would continue to do so in that hut until a child was born.

The Karimojong people were polygamous. The number of wives a man could marry was only limited by bride wealth obligations and no marriage between relatives was allowed.

Conflicts of the Karamojong

The traditional Karimojong also hold a belief that all cattle belong to the Karimojong and that is why there are numerous cattle raids to neighbors and among themselves. This has led to constant conflicts with their neighbors in Uganda, Sudan and Kenya.

They hold a traditional belief that the Karamojong own all the cattle by a divine right, but also because cattle are also an important element in the negotiations for a bride and young men use the raids as a rite of passage and way of increasing their herds to gain status.

Due to the access and availability of guns like the AK47, which the Karamojong have had access to, the nature and the outcome of the raids have become increasingly violent in nature. As a result, cattle rustling has now become an offense as per the government of Uganda.

The Ugandan government has tried to negotiate with the Karamojong in a bid to disarm then, however, the number of cattle they want per gun is so high for any meaningful agreement to be reached by both parties.

6 thoughts on “African Tribes – The Karamojong”

  1. Hello Ahimbe, or should I say Jambo!
    Very informative content you have, my ex wife is a Kalenjin right out of Kenya. It looks like you have a passion for your culture as well as your way of life, which is a fabulous way to start out a web site. Good for you, I hope you get a lot of traffic if not just to educate people on how a different culture operates. I have been to Nairobi and when they say, “If you can drive in Nairobi you can drive anywhere on the planet,” I believe them!! LOL

    1. Lee, thank you for the kind feedback.
      I hope you experience you got when you visited the Kelenji still runs fresh in your mind.
      Much as I am a Ugandan, my wife is from Meru, Kenya; and I know a thing or two about cultural diversity.
      Your review has encouraged me to come up with more cultural content and I deeply appreciate that.
      Stay blessed.

  2. This same problem of cattle rearing is causing problems in some parts of Africa Nigeria inclusive. No body would love to have their property or crops destroyed this way. In America here, there are farmers also but they do not let their cattle into other peoples properties because they know they consequences. Were there is no law or law is disregarded people do whatever they like. Here in America farmers plant food for their cattle, harvest and store for later use. May be this group should learn to produce forage, hay or grains and store some during plenty supply. This will help and prevent them destroying other peoples property and sin against the 8th commandment.

    1. Regina, thank you for the feedback.
      The Karamojong have a strong belief in their culture that convincing them to adopt modern practices has not only taken government intervention, but also independent players like NGOs and other agencies.
      It is still work in progress but eventually we shall get there.
      Stay blessed.

  3. Very interesting and what an amazing picture. I am from Canada and was quite taken back about not being a valued person because you do not own a cow. Is there a way to share the success/progress stories with the people when they happen?

    1. Braden, do not worry. That is a culture of people far away from you.
      However, cultures evolve. I will post updates as they happen.
      Thank you for your comment. Stay blessed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *