At the edge of the country and on the fringes of society lies Karamoja, the home of the Karamajong tribe and my home for last week. We arrive after a journey that has taken 21 hours – a fair bit of that being thrown up and down in a bus over dirt roads.
The Karamajong are related to other tribes in Kenya but not Uganda and they are hated and feared by most other Ugandan tribes, especially the Baganda who are the biggest and most dominant tribe in Uganda. Basically the Brits put the border in the wrong place where they left so most people in the country don’t really want them there and – until recently – neither has the government.
This is traditional dress for a lady and is still work by most of the women.
Unmarried men often only wear the blanket. If he sees a girl he’s interested in, he removes it as a sign of his feelings towards her!!! However, boys don’t get their first set of clothes until they are around 14 years so they have little or no shame of being naked!!
Traditionally they’ve been cattle keepers, wandering from place to place seeking good pasture and living off their animals. They cut them and drink their blood and drink their milk for food. They also have a belief that the gods have given them all cattle so if they see a cow they will take it, making them known as cattle thieves. Karamoja has been a very dangerous place in the past since the people have had guns and have not been afraid to use them!! Especially as there’s another tribe just over the border in Kenya who also believe that the gods have given them all cattle.
Fortunately things are changing. The government has had a successful dearmament programme so the shootings have largely stopped. For the first time ever they are beginning to settle in one place and grow crops or go to school. Land is being dug for the very first time. Houses are being constructed for the very first time. Since this is a town people here are modernising faster. On Tuesday I went to a market where they sold things that would not be traditionally eaten or used by the Karamajong. Interestingly, when they are buying things they will stand back, away from the stall of shop because they don’t feel a part of it yet they want to buy the things!!
Some customs – like the shoes they wear – make a lot of sense. They make shoes out of old car tires: a cheap, durable solution to the problem of thorns on the groins. Also girls from fathers with many cows will put their hair into a certain design to warn off boys not to mess with them unless they can pay a high dowry. Which also makes a lot of sense. To avoid the embarrassment of not having enough chairs at a house everyone has a little stool they carry everywhere with them.
Some customs make less sense. Women are expected to wear a blanket at all times. It’s very nice to have one on cold days but they will stubbornly wear them on days where the sun is beating down and it’s baking hot.
On Wednesday I went to the cattle market which is more than just about business- it’s a big social gathering. People only sell sick animals which will slaughtered soon after they’ve been bought, mainly to people who take them in trucks to other regions and other tribes. Most of the money they earn is drunk. The Karamajong have a drink called abutya which is made from sorghum flour and very slightly alcoholic. The people love it so much that they take it instead of eating proper meals. If you want some healthy cows instead of the sick ones at the market, one way is to give your daughter to marry a rich man. One man tried to offer 600 cows, 100 sheep and 100 goats to marry me!! The way transactions work here is that the price starts low and you negotiate up so much more could have been negotiated. Marriages are usually arranged by parents based on who will pay the biggest dowry. Then once the man marries the girl he expects her to produce enough girls to compensate for what he paid for her, but if she wants her children to be healthy and go to school, she has to provide all that for them while the men sit, drink and brag about their wives and children all day. The number of wives a man has only depends on how many cows he has. When a man dies his firstborn son not only inherits his cows and property but also his wives. Wives are a man’s business in Karamoja.
One way, other than having many cows, wives and children, that a man can get respect is to be a fierce fighter. A warrior will dress in a certain way and earn a special kind of bangle for every man he’s killed.
The NGO I’m staying with, called Shalom Reconciliation Ministry (SRM), work with kids who would otherwise be on the street. Through God’s provision they have grown out of nothing into the only children’s home around for miles and miles. They provide the kids with food, sponsorship, a place to stay and emotional support. Really I’ve never seen people so happy to have porsho and beans to eat!! Porsho and beans is classed as the worst kind of food you can eat in central Uganda. I’ve never heard anyone say they enjoy it. They serve it in schools because it’s cheap. Yet here the kids are just so happy that they’ve got a meal and they know there’ll be another one tomorrow.
This is an example of the work they do:
Paul was born not being able to use his legs. Normally in Karamoja he would have been thrown away to die, however, because he was the first-born of his mother she decided to keep him. His job was to grind the sorghum into flour, seeing as he wasn’t useful for looking after the animals. Then his father died and his mother remarried. It’s common in Karamoja for step-parents to throw out the boys of the house they marry into since, as far as the man’s concerned, they’re not useful since they won’t get a dowry for them. Since Paul was also crippled the mind of his step-father was made up: he wasn’t wanted. Then the situation was made worse because he asked to go to school, whereas the family just wanted him to grind sorghum all his life. His mother and step-father agreed they would throw him in the river when it was deep and fast-flowing as a sacrifice to the gods. No one knows how, but when they did Paul got himself out and lived on the streets, bitter and angry. SRM came and provided him with food, shelter and sponsorship. Through their ministry he became a Christian and after being taught about forgiveness he decided to reconcile with his family, who were obviously every surprised to see him alive!! After months of emotional healing he moved back in with them and is still sponsored to school through Shalom.