Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A village in Karamoja, lots of children and some unexpected lions

When one is staying in a comfortable - indeed, luxurious - lodge, it is quite difficult to know whether to accept the offer of a visit to a local village. On the one hand, one does not want to observe the lives of fellow human beings as if they were wild animals in a cage. On the other hand, it would be very easy to enjoy all the pleasures of the lodge - and Apoka is a wonderful place to stay - and completely ignore the fact that it is located in a particular community. This is particularly the case when one flies in and flies out, as we did at Kidepo.

Although, as usual in national parks, most of the local population had been relocated outside the park boundaries, there are still a few villages relatively close to Apoka Lodge. Many of the staff come from these villages, including, indeed, the one we visited, Lorukut, 40 kilometres away. The clinching argument for us was that the lodge is helping to build a health clinic. The fees which all visitors pay are given in their entirety to the building fund.

It was an eventful enough journey to reach Lorokut, nevertheless. For a start we had to have an armed guard. Karamoja is still an insecure area and the lodge was taking no risks. Furthermore, we set off an hour late not, it must be stressed, because of a Ugandan approach to time-keeping but because of a wild wet-season rainstorm which almost led to our visit being cancelled. The rivers were raging, the murram roads were slippery and sticky with mud and, given our delayed departure, we risked being caught out by nightfall. However, we went and were very glad we did.

Apart from the rain, the journey looked as if it was going to be quite uneventful. Then, all of a sudden, our guide stopped the vehicle and gazed intently across the grassland. The rest of us could see nothing of any interest beyond the usual stunning view.

Suddenly we veered right across the grass. There, half buried by the grass, was a female lion with her two adolescent cubs, only a matter of yards from our open-sided vehicle. We gazed at each other, the humans holding their breath; the lions quite unperturbed.

Eventually, they got bored with us and stalked off through the grass.

You may wonder why I am including this little diversionary episode - apart from the fact, of course, that I am quite proud of the pictures! I think it helps to remember that fifty years ago, this land and these animals were part of the familiar natural environment of the tribes who lived here. They hunted the antelopes and warthogs and defended themselves against the elephants and lions with bows, arrows and spears, weapons which are still used across the north of Uganda. Even now, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) still struggles to protect the wild animals from their natural predator, man. Only eighteen months or so ago, poachers shot three UWA rangers dead during a gun battle. However, nothing and nobody threatened us on our expedition and even the lions regarded us with some disdain. We turned our vehicle round and picked up the route to Lorukut.

As we approached the village we noted some interesting sights. First, there were signs to a vocational institution specialising in agriculture, the only educational institution we had seen so far. We also saw fields of sunflowers, looking quite out of place in the grassland. Finally we saw the half-built health clinic of which we had already heard.

The nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists of Karamoja have never been farmers. Traditionally the Karamajong have kept cattle, until recently in huge herds of a 1,000 heads or more. These were not killed for meat (unless they died natural deaths) but were milked and bled, the milk and blood being mixed until the liquid coagulated. This nourishing food was eaten in various different forms. In addition, the cattle were a form of currency, wealth which enabled young men to pay the bride price. The number of cattle handed over to the girl's family corresponded to the number which could be included within area marked by the throwing of a spear.

Cattle were also - and continue to be - raided from other Karamajong tribes, the Iteso and Lango to the south and tribes over the Kenyan border. Stories about such raids continue to appear regularly in the national newspapers. The residents of Katakwi, for example, repeatedly express resentment at the actions of the Karamajong to the north of them, and demand that the national government does something to stop the repeated cattle-raiding and killing of herders.

In the past, Karamajong warriors were armed with spears, limiting the number of casualties and the social impact of the raids. However, the influx of guns, in particular those seized from a local arsenal overrun after the fall of Idi Amin, has resulted in terrible and continuing bloodshed and the devastation of communities. A firearms amnesty, some ruthless policing by the Uganda People's Defence Force and various peace-making projects run by NGOs are now beginning to reduce the deathrate. Periodically newspapers feature pictures of bonfires of confiscated weapons, many of them home made and almost all of them ancient. Probably best not to be too sentimental about centuries-old traditions.

Given the political sensitivities, it is probably not a coincidence that the Minister for Karamoja is Janet Museveni, the President's wife. Be that as it may, as part of the current attempt to disarm and settle the Karamojong, as well as to improve food security in the region, the government has set up various farming projects. In addition to seeds and seedlings for crops, goats and poultry have been distributed, in attempt to reduce the Karamojong's obsession with cattle and extend their diet. The fields at Lorukut had probably been planted as part of this development work.

When we reached the village itself we parked inside the main compound. The huts were very substantial, with solid mud walls and beautifully constructed grass roofs. About 1,200 people live in the village, of whom about 200 are children - not many given that across Uganda 50% of the population are children below the age of 15.

One can only speculate about the impact of Karamoja's notoriously high rates of maternal death and infant mortality. Girls often give birth within a year or so of puberty, when still children themselves, their immature bodies easily succumbing to the hazards of childbirth. Women in labour may have to walk 50 kilometres or more to reach a basic health centre. It is hardly surprising that many of them opt instead for traditional birth attendants, and pay the price with their own lives and the lives of their babies. Poor nutrition, endemic malaria and water-borne diseases kill many children under the age of five every year.

As is usually the case, the children soon gathered around us.

Sadly, they were dressed in the usual shabby European cast-offs. I do wish foreign 'aid' organisations would stop offloading the clothing they have been unable to sell in their charity shops onto African countries. We saw it happening in Cameroon ten years ago and see it all over Uganda. Both countries grow their own cotton and have their own attractive traditional dresses made by local seamstresses. Not any more: it is often easier and cheaper to buy worn-out western T shirts and cheap and nasty Chinese polyester imports. Until recently the Karamojong wore as good as no clothes. The women were bare-breasted and both sexes wore short 'skirts' covering only their genitalia. On the few occasions when it was cold, they wrapped themselves in local 'tartan' blankets. Sadly, a view of 'civilisation' imported from the rest of Uganda has put paid to that. Karamojong now wear various combinations of local beads, skirts made from traditional blanket fabric and horrible ill-fitting western hand-me-downs.

The children had made their own toys, here half a plastic jerry can attached to a piece of string to make a pull-along 'cart'.

We were allowed inside one of the huts. It belonged to a woman who had given birth to twins, as the pot attached to the outside wall indicated.

Inside you could see the intricate thatching.

The hut contained an internal 'granary' for sorghum, a grain which is the main ingredient for beer, but which can also be eaten as food. Large pots containing millet and other food stores stood at the sides.

The walls were hung with bunches of drying sorghum and maize and earthenware pots and calabashes stood on the top of them to be kept out of the way.

The hut was quite dark, being entirely without windows, the only light coming from the low doorway.

At one end of the hut was the cooking stove - a baked-earth mound with a hole into which the cook inserts firewood.  At the other end was the grinding stone where a young woman demonstrated how millet was ground into flour. Her hands moved swiftly back and forth, rolling the stone across the millet, and then brushing the flour into a heap.

Rolled up animal skins used as sleeping mats were stacked until night-time.

When we emerged into the compound, goats were being herded into the shed for night. Thick fences surrounded the different sections of the village, but even so animals had to be kept safe from marauders, human or wild.

Small pigs ran around under foot and sheep, goats and children made for the shelter of the overhanging roofs as a brief shower of rain came over.

Except when it rains, family life takes place out of doors, as in most Ugandan towns and villages. A man and his four wives lived in this compound, each wife with her own hut.

Many of the houses used large wicker baskets raised above the ground as granaries.

Women usually cooked outside unless the weather was very bad. Below you can see a baked-earth stove on the left of the picture and a traditional three-stone fire to the right.

Small gardens had been planted in between the houses.

However, time was getting on and we had an appointment. The young people were to give us a demonstration of their dancing. This was not just put on for the 'tourists' (all six of us). It was clearly entertainment for everybody. People were already gathering, finding that the pit-latrine bases left by a recent NGO made quite useful seating.

The Karamojong are a branch of the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania and their dancing follows the same style of high jumping on the same spot, everybody taking turns. Apparently the young men judge the physical strength of the young unmarried women by the height they jump. All women in Uganda need to be at least as strong as their menfolk as their work is much harder. So, it is all very competitive.

The young women can be recognised by their kilt-like skirts. The men wear their 'blankets' more like togas or wrapped around their waists to form a sort of wrap-over straight skirt. Everybody was involved in the performance, whether by singing, dancing, clapping or just watching. More importantly, everyone was enjoying it.

The photographer was much in demand to take pictures of family groups, here a young mother with her four sons and a baby of indeterminate sex (tied on her back).

And this young father with his daughters, still carrying a switch for herding his animals. We had seen no cattle however, and were told variously that they had all been raided or that they were being watched by herders away from the village. Both explanations may have been true, with the village now owning just a fraction of the cattle they owned before.

The dancers accompanied us back to our vehicle, singing and clapping.

Even Sam our security guard had enjoyed himself - so much so that he was busy texting his photos back home to Lira as he walked.

But, as always it was the children who tugged at my heart strings.

It was dark by the time we left. Dan the guide drove with superlative skill, manoeuvring the vehicle around flooded roads, through rushing streams and across deep ruts. At one point he stopped. Were we stuck in the mud? No, there in the headlights a couple of yards away was a huge male lion, standing by the side of the track. There was not even a tarpaulin between him and us. Fortunately the lion had a tastier dinner in mind and padded off through the deep grass of the dark savannah.

Once back at the lodge we all agreed that the visit had been the right thing to do. We could not have understood anything at all of what it is to live in Karamoja if we had simply enjoyed our safaris, delicious meals, snacks and 'sundowners' as if we were living within a cultural vacuum. Karamoja is a challenging environment in which to live. That at least was now clear.

A memorable day indeed, for many reasons. However, above all it will be the children I remember.

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