Tepeth: besieged, Forgotten

Above, traditional dancers perform at an event. Photo by Didas Kisembo

What you need to know:

Often confused with their neighbours, the Karimajong, Tepeth are different despite some similarities

For generations, one of Uganda’s oldest minorities have remained huddled on the slopes of Mt Moroto, fearful of the tribes who have been hostile to them over the years.

In the shadow of the mountain, about 38km from Moroto town, is Tapac Sub-county home to the Tepeth tribe. They can only be accessed via one route, a winding murram road, to say but the least, dangerous as it features a series of deadly car-wrecking potholes.

According to local authorities, at least 40,000 Tepeth, many of them women and children, reside in the conical mud and wattle huts littered across the ridge, semi-arid savannahs and scrubby forests, without access to basic needs such as education, clean water, electricity, healthcare, and are ebbing away on the banned culture of Female Genital Mutilation.

Their predicament very much like the one that befall Yazidi sect that sought refuge on Sinjar Mountain in Iraq mid this year, under siege from ISIS militants; only that this time, the Tepeth are not refugees but prisoners in their own home without substantial government support to aid them lead an ideal life.

“Whenever our people have attempted to to come down from the mountain, the Karimajong and Turkana of Kenya across the border have killed some of our people and rustled our cattle,” laments Lomer Peter Loboot, the local council charmain, Tapac Sub-county.

Lokiru Sisto, Moroto District security officer, notes that over the past decade, the greatest threat has come from the Turkana region and its people to whom some of the Tepeth have lost their lives whereas the Matheniko have mainly rustled the Tepeth’s cattle.

“This year alone, six people were shot and killed by the Turkana, having attempted to come down from the mountain and settle,” he says. “Over the last three years, we have lost about 21 lives.”

“It would have been worse if the from the majority Karimajong, for example, the Matheniko had not been disarmed,” says Peter Apule, a Tepeth youth leader.
“That action has hatched the current peace and enabled us to come down from the mountain from time to time though to-date we are still intimidated and oppressed by the Matheniko.”

He adds, “In past week alone, we have lost two lives in an attack purportedly by the Turkana and two others are in the hospital.”

Apule says the bad blood between his ethnic group and the other groups stems mainly from the squabbles over grazing land and cattle of which he adds that the deployment of the UPDF in some parts of the vast sub-county has helped reduce the rate of its theft.

For generations, the Tepeth have survived on herding animals and growing crops. Apule notes that though security in Tapac is a big challenge – having displaced some communities from their parishes such as Natumkale Parish and Loyoraboth Parish, there are other challenges that dog his people and have weighed down on development in his community.

Children watch the performances. Holed up in Mt Moroto, Tepeth are surrounded by hostile neighbours and have little access to basic social services, which if available, fall short of expectations. Photo by Didas Kisembo

He cites a lack of schools for the fast growing youth population as another big problem; “our children have to walk or travel, all the way to Moroto – more than 20miles – just to get an education and we have lost some secondary school students and pupils on the way because of the prevailing conflicts.”

Apule says currently, most of the primary schools in the community stop at Primary Three and others have only the Primary Six and Seven sections. So to attain the full package, the Tepeth children have to seek schools in Moroto

To make matters worse, after Primary Seven, they have no secondary school to go to as the sub-county has none, so most drop out of the system after. “We requested government to construct a full secondary school and primary in Tapac sub-county to serve the communities but there has been no tangible action to that end.”

Female genital mutilation
Next in the long queue of tribulations is the issue of Female Genital Mutilation. In the Tepeth culture, it is the elders that wield the power over sanctioning the cutting of girls. However, Rebecca Kwagala, the chief officer Unicef Moroto, reveals that overtime, that dynamic has changed.

“That the dynamic has been altered. Because this is such a deeply entrenched culture, the mindset of the Tepeth has been built around that notion that if a girl is not mutilated then she is no woman. So, girls between 11 to 14 years of age have to undergo a rite of passage to womanhood by having all or a portion of their external genitalia removed with a blunt knife,” she explains.

“Today, you will find young girls that even going voluntarily for the cut even without the call from the elders.”

One such woman, Anna Nakala, 28, narrates how her mutilation experience not only ruined her chances of pleasing her man but also changed her life entirely.
“I wish I had never done it. Since I cut, I have gone through a lot to have children. The one child I have, I had to undergo an operation to have him and the doctors say it was because I am cut,” she recalls in her Soo local dialect, heavy with emotion, as she struggles to hold back the tears in her eyes.

“My sister who did not cut now has seven children and I have just one. I have since failed to get more.”

During this year’s Tepeth Cultural Day, an annual event set to advocate for the abandonment of FGM, a cultural practice that has a lasting impact on girls and women, it came to the fore that the issue of mutilation, despite being illegal, remains prevalent and resilient amongst the Tepeth.

“There was the case this year of six girls being mutilated by an old woman, a cutter, who was later apprehended and sentenced to a couple of years by the court,” remarks Lomer.

The other issue that is causing the local authorities sleepless nights and endless headache is the lack of infrastructure in the area. Aside from inadequate housing, Tapac sub-county has no electricity or proper tarmacked toads.

“As the rest of the country enjoys the fruits of Umeme electricity, we in Tapac remain in darkness,” says Lomer.

As for the housing and roads, he argues that the solution ought to be Tapac attaining county status.
“That way, we can make the decisions that impact on development in our area and cut the bureaucracy,” he adds.

“The president should pronounce himself on the Tepeth people’s request to have a constituency of their own.”

But for now, the hopes and dreams of the Tepeth, remain unrealised, echoing in the shadow of Mt Moroto, probably waiting for government to heed their call.