Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Our last word on Karamoja

In Uganda, it is unusual for us to go on holiday to places where we haven’t also worked.  The advantage of this dual perspective is that while we thoroughly enjoy the comfortable lodges, game drives and walks provided for visitors, we remain well aware that the daily lives of the local population in the hinterland of parks such as Queen Elizabeth and Murchison can be hard. Poverty, disease and malnutrition lurk within kilometres – sometimes metres - of the tourist routes. Groups of grass-thatched mud houses may look very picturesque but life in such communities can be hard.

However, we weren't able to do this in Karamoja. The Kidepo Valley National Park is in the extreme north of the region. (It is the only green area of Karamoja on the map below.) Our sponsoring organisation does not allow us to travel by road in the area; nor does the Foreign and Commonwealth office (see the map below). When friends from other NGOs and donor organisations working in Karamoja travel there, they drive in convoys, with armed guards, spare tyres and diesel and – sometimes, so we hear, in the recent past – flak jackets. So we have had no chance to deepen our understanding of the lives of the people living in Karamoja, beyond the glimpse we saw when in Kidepo.

So, as an inadequate substitute for first-hand observation, we are sharing some of the news stories from Karamoja over the last six months, some positive, some negative. They may suggest something of the challenges of living in the north-east corner of Uganda

Cattle rustling and disarmament

  • For ten years, the Ugandan government has been trying to put an end to years of cattle raiding between local clans, between tribes within Uganda and across the border with tribes in Kenya. This border divides tribes, clans and families. The Restoration of Law and Order for Karamoja (RELOK) programme is now coming to an end and most troops have been withdrawn, having recovered 30,000-40,000 guns and set up a cattle recovery system. This includes tagging of cattle, which many Karimojong claim is killing them, but is done to reduce the incidence of cattle rustling.
  • However, despite the disarmament and recovery plan, deaths are continuing. A month or so ago, authorities in Kotido and Kaabong reported that an increasing number of people were being killed, 23 since the beginning of the year. The Amudat Resident District Commissioner (RDC) said that illegal guns were being brought in from Turkana in Kenya and from South Sudan. The Moroto RDC said rustlers had raided a kraal in Nadunget killing four people and injuring one. He has asked for his people to be re-armed so that they can repel the raiders. Clashes are between different clans (for example the Jie against the Dodoth) and different tribes, usually the Iteso to the west. 
  • A recently published report by the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) stated that in the ten years since the disarmament exercise was launched, 900 people have been killed, of which 623 were civilians and 269 soldiers.  Many Karimojong - and some human rights groups - dispute these figures, claiming the figure is more than double this (about 2,000-3,000 deaths). The army states that although the situation is now stable, rustlers have resorted to using homemade guns and bows and arrows.
  • A couple of weeks ago, papers reported that Karimojong warriors, suspected to be from Napak, had raided 6 goats and 15 calves and killed two people during raids in Moroto. In other incidents during the previous fortnight a further six people had been killed. The Moroto RDC said there were now too few soldiers on the ground. The Amudat RDC said that Pokot warriors had increased their raids in Nakapiripirit and Moroto.
  • Five days or so ago, high-level security meetings were held to calm tensions after the UPDF impounded 72 cattle belonging to Kenyan Pokot herders which had strayed into Uganda. Overall, 5,000 Kenyan herders with 100,000 cattle migrated to Uganda because of drought. The chairman of the Sikom Network for Peace and Development ‘expressed fear that the soldiers could slaughter and eat the animals’ or that they could starve. Meanwhile, Ugandan soldiers are demanding that the Pokot return cattle which they allegedly raided from the Sabiny herders of Uganda and also surrender illegal firearms.
  • The Amudat RDC and his bodyguards survived a gun battle with suspected Pokot warriors who attacked him on the Amudat-Kariat road.
  • A spokesman for Oxfam, writing in New Vision during Uganda Pastoralists Week, acknowledges that Uganda is ahead of most regional governments in the quality of policies such as the Karamoja Integrated Disarmament and Development Programme (KIDP). However, he is concerned that the decision to replace the pastoral system because of climate change and increasing food insecurity does not recognise its appropriateness to ‘rangeland’ environments. He worries that the Karamoja Action Plan for Food Security only allocated $3million out of $30 million for the agriculture-related sector. He believes people are biased against the culture and livelihood of pastoralists.


  • On August 28th, it was reported that at least 2,000 families from Katakwi (Teso), displaced by Lords’ Resistance Army (LRA) rebels and Karimojong cattle rustlers, are still living in camps for Internally Displaced People because they are frightened to return home. This is despite the President offering them Shs19 billion for resettlement, together with ox ploughs, oxen, household utensils and 30 corrugated iron sheets per household. Mind you, he did make his offer while canvassing during the last election.
  • Meanwhile at least 250 Karimojong who fled to Mbale (south east) on account of cattle rustling have said they want to go home due to the ‘unbearable hygiene and sanitation conditions’.
  • MPs from Karamoja are investigating the owners of companies who allegedly bought chunks of land in the area.
  • At the most recent regional elders’ council, leaders from Moroto, Nakapiripirit and Napak launched an investigation into alleged land grabbing by the church. 

  • At the end of August, the Amaler bridge connecting Nakapiripirit and Amudat in Karamoja and Kapchorwa, Bukwo, Sironko and Mbale in Teso collapsed in the torrential rain, as did the Lopei bridge between Moroto and Kotido. Trading in agricultural produce has stopped and food prices have rocketed.
  • Last week pupils in Karamoja were unable to start the new school term as the rains have made most roads – all of which are murram (earth) – impassable. Six hundred of them ended up stuck on the Nakapiripirit to Mbale road for a day and had to walk to the nearest trading centre with their luggage (mattresses, blankets, trunks, wash bowls, brooms etc, for most pupils of all ages board) to try to get transport. The Karamoja station engineer said ‘the roads were going to be worked on’. The area does not have enough schools, hence the need for pupils to travel to get an education. 

  • Kotido, which has the lowest literacy rates in the country, has increased the share of its budget allocated to education: Shs 2.7 billion out of 13.6 billion. (Shs 2.6 billion went to health and Shs 1.6 billion to planning).
  • The Kaabong Inspector of Schools said that many teachers have left their posts because of the high cost of living and poor living conditions. Most do not come from the area. All the science teachers at Kaabong Secondary School had left. The school only had one English teacher who was also threatening to leave. Teachers are suffering financially as prices have gone up following the destruction of roads and bridges by flooding.
  • The police in Amudat District have arrested 84 parents who failed to send their children to school as part of a ‘Go back to school’ operation led by the Amudat RDC. They were released after they had undertaken five hours of community work.
  • Primary Leaving Examination results are very low.

  • The NGO, Marie Stopes, announced that over the last year, 5,000 Karimojong women had enrolled in family planning clinics in Moroto, Nakapiripirit, Amudat, Napak, Abim, Kotido and Kaabong, a notable increase.
  • The White Ribbon Alliance, an NGO fighting for safe motherhood, has sponsored least 80 Karimojong girls who have completed S4 to follow midwifery courses, to deal with the shortage of midwives in the region.
Food security
  • A year ago, the World Food Programme stopped general food distribution in Karamoja which has suffered from food insecurity for many years. Instead, they are encouraging people to practice agriculture and support themselves.  Farming on a wide scale is not traditionally practised in Karamoja.
  • Last year, 15 districts in Karamoja and neighbouring Teso were tagged as ‘red-zone areas’, at risk of starvation following poor rains. The Minister for Disaster Preparedness urged people not to sell the food they were storing in their granaries.
  • 2,000 children in Nakapiripirit are being treated for malnutrition. The 18 health centres normally register five to 10 cases each week. This has now gone up to 60-80 cases.
  • Last week, about 3,000 Karimojong crossed to Kenya in search of food. Heavy rain has destroyed many of their crops. Kenyan authorities had set up a food distribution programme for the Turkana. The Karimojong are refusing to leave.
Child trafficking

  • The Monitor of August 28th this year reported on a survey on child trafficking in Teso and Karamoja carried out by Avocats Sans Frontières and the Federation of Uganda Women Lawyers. They established that 65% of all housemaids in these sub-regions were Karimojong children.
  • The Katakwi district deputy chief said, ‘The girls are lured from their homes with a promise that they will be taken to school but end up as domestic servants without the knowledge of their parents…The girls are traded for mostly food, which is sent back to their families, while some are rented and others sold.’
  • The Mid-eastern Police Spokesperson said, ‘Some children have been handed over by their parents for as low as Shs 40,000 [£10]. Poverty is pushing parents to this.’
  • As you would expect, the law in Uganda provides protection from exploitation for children below 16 years, and prohibits child servitude and forced labour.
  • Some of these children may end up in Kampala or other major towns. Kampala City Council has yet again swept the streets clean of Karamojan street children who beg at traffic junctions, engage in prostitution and sleep on the pavements or wherever they can. They were taken to the local children’s home where they are always taken. Each time, they escape. There are apparently no mattresses on the beds and too little food. The authorities claim that they are going to reunite them with their parents. It is alleged that many of the children are trafficked. Some are sent out to beg by their parents. Some are entirely without families. Last weekend, we noticed that all the children were back begging at their usual places in Kampala. A similar exercise was carried out last week in Jinja.

Although Karamoja may appear to be one of the most culturally conservative parts of Uganda - indeed other areas talk about 'not waiting for Karamoja to develop' - new industries, ways of life and opportunities for employment are developing even here. Or especially here, given the large tracts of apparently 'empty' land. The most recent development is in mineral exploration. Today it was announced that a gold-mining plant had now been set up in the Moroto area. The President will be at the opening.

It may seem that the challenges of climate change, cultural practices which set Karamoja apart from the rest of Uganda and weak public services are almost insuperable. However, Mrs Museveni, Minister for Karamoja, is achieving some success in bringing the main parties together. In February, New Vision reported that at a meeting with the Minister, Karamojan leaders had agreed to work together to solve the region’s problems, particularly in education and health.

Let's hope they succeed.

You may also be interested in  A village in Karamoja, lots of children and some unexpected lions

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