Lochokon Apaanyengaari, 36, walks with a bounce in his step. His eyes focus on objects so sharply that you might think he can read your mind. This way of scrutinising things and people was shaped during the 12 years he spent as a Karimojong cattle rustler before he was disarmed in 2006.
He uses this ability to examine people and objects now that he is a tobacco trader during the day and a guard at Nakapelimen Primary School in Moroto in the night, where he earns Shs80,000 per month. For about 30 minutes, we walk a distance of over half a kilometre from Matany Market to Narwanamunyen Stream, where he buys tobacco leaves. What should be a short walk is punctuated with stops as he warmly greets people.
Armed with Shs250,000, he is sure to buy at most seven bags of tobacco but due to scarcity, he manages to get only two at Shs36,000 each. It takes 13 basins full of these highly regarded but scarce leaves to fill a sack. Each basin costs Shs3,000 but he manages to negotiate his way into having the 13th basin for each sack free of charge. After only a year in this business, he has quickly mastered its art.
Tobacco in Karamoja is usually moulded into joints that are given to elders and friends to nurture relationships and get blessings. Women also offer it to suitors once they are ready to accept them for marriage. During the days of cattle rustling, warriors used tobacco in battle fields with the belief that it could reboost their energy.
Apaanyengaari usually transports this tobacco to Moroto Town where he can sell a basin at Shs5,000 later in the afternoon or on Monday during market day. The rest, including what is acquired on Wednesday in Kangoole and Iriiri on Thursday, can be sold on Friday in Ochorimongin, Katakwi District during market day.
However on our return to Matany Market, three buyers are eager to buy the tobacco and offer Shs8,000 for a basin. The other option for these buyers would be braving a 10 kilometre walk, which involves jumping over another stream, to Lokali Village to buy the tobacco at a cheaper price. But given the scarcity in Matany, there are no guarantees on the availability of the product in Lokali. For Apaanyengaari, the offer is too good to ignore even though the negotiations cost him a place on a taxi to Moroto.
Not that he cares as this will allow him time to eat some roasted goat meat at a nearby butchery in celebration of the day’s achievements. “We love to celebrate every little we get,” he says, smiling.
Life as a warrior
Most warriors acquired names from the qualities of their most beloved bull while others were named after their leadership skills in battle. Lochokon was named Apaanyengaari, meaning tough bull, one he wrestled from Jie warriors in Kotido at the border of Uganda and South Sudan.
More than three weeks but it was always intense and there was no time for comfort. On the way back, you were bound to encounter other warriors while other times you had to get away from those seeking revenge,” he says revealing scars on his hands and legs earned from these battles and two of his front teeth which were removed by his father as a mark of how much he had matured as a warrior.
Usually, a group had three warriors with guns that shared the loot according to seniority in age, while five would be younger boys to herd the cattle. Apanyengaari lived long enough in the bushes to rise through the ranks amassing so many heads of cattle that he lost count. Although most warriors cannot tell when cattle rustling started, they believe it was a way of life rooted in their folklore.
“The more cows you gave away during ceremonies such as marriage, the more prestige you earned from your in-laws and the community.
In 2001, a disarmament programme to rein in on gun use was endorsed by Parliament and a peaceful process to recover more than 40,000 guns started in 2002. Some warriors like Peter Losike, 47, surrendered their guns in exchange for ox-ploughs and iron sheets even though that meant there was no way of protecting their families and livestock.
In 2006, the UPDF started the forceful disarmament process which levelled the ground as rebellious ones like Apaanyengaari lost their guns too. “I do not know who betrayed me but UPDF rounded us off one day and caned me till I gave in. The gun was found inside my house and I was never compensated,” Apaanyengaari shares the encounter that led to the loss of his brother as he tried to flee with a gun. “The bullet cut through his stomach and he died just after reaching (St Kizito) Matany hospital. It is then that we realised that the disarmament exercise wa very serious,” he says.
Life had to change but it has been a tough transition. After 2006, Apaanyengaari quickly turned to selling local potent gin made from cassava and sorghum, which were already grown by communities, but authorities clamped down on the selling and consumption of this type of alcohol in 2013.
“There was a time the authorities poured 20 jerrycans of my waragi in Kangoole Market. It is one of those times I felt like returning to the bush,” he says.
He instead left home to “go and clear my mind far away in Teso. I tried working as an askari in Mukongoro (Kumi District) but when I returned home last year, I found a friend succeeding as a tobacco seller,” Apaanyengaari shares pointing to his friend Simon Peter Kodet, also a former warrior.
“My family convinced me to stay and do the same thing and I have no regrets. Life is simpler and I can fend for three children and two wives comfortably. I hope the guns never return,” Apaanyengaari adds.
Disarmament ‘robbed’ many Karimojong men of a way life but most importantly, it came with peace. This peace has enabled people of the region, and most importantly warriors to find new avenues of eking a living through selling tobacco and sorghum – two agricultural products they attach value to.
Disarmament opened up Karamoja to new business opportunities. Many reformed warriors including six from Apaanyengaari’s former battle group have joined the tobacco trade.
Some have received support to retool their skills from Karamoja Development Forum (KDF), a four year old organisation aimed at changing the narrative about the area.
Former secretary for security John Ekemaripusi Longora, says more than 100 former warriors have been recruited into peace committees to resolve cattle theft issues with the Jie in Kotido and the Turkana from western Kenya, who still have guns.
Meanwhile, according to Mark Okidi, the secretary of Nadungent Livestock and Production Co-operative in Moroto, they have more than 780 members with former warriors making up the majority. This organisation offers sorghum and maize seeds to its members, who register with them at Shs10,000.
Losike also tries to supplement his income by doing security jobs. At Nadunget Health Centre IV, he earns Shs180,000 per month as a watchman. He also looks after two stores within the same facility; World Food Programme (WFP)’s Maternal Child Health Nutrition project pays him Shs180,000 per month while Community-based Supplementary Feeding Programme pay Shs60,000.