Karimojong remain true to their culture

Traditional foods on display during the Karamoja cultural week at the Naarakorio grounds in Napak District. PHOTOS/SIMON PETER EMWAMU

What you need to know:

  • Karamoja has a rich cultural heritage with 11 ethnic groupings, the Ik, Jie, Bokora, Matheniko, Pokot, Pian, Tepeth, Ethur, Dodoth, Nyakwe and the Ngipore.

The Karamoja cultural event held in Napak District could have ended last week but the memories of the Karimojong in their ceremonial regalia (leopard skins, Ostrich feathers) and spears will forever remain fresh among the visitors.

Noticeable at the event was unrelenting curiosity among visitors seeing the natives display an array of Karimojong cuisines from animal products as six-feet Karimojong danced to Edonga.

Edonga is a dance that involves jumping high, at some intervals making sneaking runs while pointing long sticks towards the ground. This dance is performed during initiation ceremonies, after bumper harvest. Anciently also performed after a raid.

At Naarakorio grounds in Matany town council,  Napak, every time the master of ceremonies bellowed out a call for the Ateker troupe dancers to perform, the euphoria rung high.

The Karimojong  remain a pastoral community estimated at one million people.   They live in north –east Uganda, bordering Teso , Bugisu, Sebei, Lango and Acholi  with their way of life still being traditiona. They  belong to the Nilotic ethnic group and  live in communal settlements.

Karamoja has a rich cultural heritage with 11 ethnic groupings, the Ik, Jie, Bokora, Matheniko, Pokot, Pian, Tepeth, Ethur, Dodoth, Nyakwe and the Ngipore.

Their language is referred to as Ngakarimojong while the 11 ethnic groupings are referred to as Ngikarimojong. They are settled in Moroto,Napak, Amudat, Nabilatuk, Nakapiripirit, Napak, Abim, Kotido, Kaabong and Karenga districts.

The Karimojong form part of the wider Ateker cluster settled in Kenya such as Pokot Turkana, Iteso; Nyangatom in Ethiopia and Topotha in South Sudan.

Despite modernity eroding other cultures in other parts of the country, the Ngikarimojong (11 ethnic groupings) that form Karamoja have remained true to their culture, this makes Karamoja a unique destination.

In Karamoja, a sizable number of people among the Ik in Kaabong district and the Tepeth in Moroto, the Pokot in Amudat still live on top of the mountains, with some still widely believed to be living in caves.

Sarah Nakiru carries a tortoise, the Bokora ethnic group’s totem. 

Totems  treated as sacred
To-date, the strong belief in the power of totems cannot easily be washed away among the Karimojong. Totems are celebrated and adored. For instance among the Bokora which by far is the largest ethnic group, a tortoise is believed to have the powers to bring luck but also bad omen.

They use tortoises to intercede against disasters, and also act as an intermediary when returning thanks to God for good fortune.

Good fortune among the Karimojong means a sizable number of cattle, many wives, children and good harvest.

During communal celebrations a person carrying the tortoise has to always be at the forefront of the dance.

According to Mark Ilukol, some dances are performed during the initiation ceremonies by elders.

“One can be an elder by the passage of time and age, but this to our belief, is inconsequential. An elder by age is not revered, he can’t curse or bless the community,” Mr Ilukol explains.

As a sign of respect, Mr Ilukol says women, children, and men are not allowed to come close to where the elders are seated. And this order of respect is strongly adhered to. Children, women, and men only have a chance to get close if invited to do some errands.

The stool is pivotal in the circle of elders.

“A child, woman or non-initiated men are not meant to sit on a stool because it signifies authority,”  he says. 

Cattle celebrated
Culturally, the Karimojong widely celebrate the gift of cattle. This art is witnessed in the month of August, a time when the dry season sets in.  It is during this month that young nomads are sent out to survey for availability of grass and water in the range lands.

According to Gabriel Logwee, from the Dodoth ethnic group in Kaabong District, the young nomads sent out to search for green pastures communicate back to the kraal elders, and it is then the cattle are sent out in celebration.

“The young boys only return back to the settlements when rains return. While away in the range lands, some are mandated to communicate about the state of cattle, but also deliver milk for the children, elders and wives left behind,” Logwee adds.

Cattle here are not only a source of wealth but also a source to acquire many wives.

Sitting stools in Karamoja  signify authority and are a preserve for the elders.

Understanding Karamoja’s Beauty
The Karimojong still venerate beauty using their own traditional regalia, tattoos, haircuts and through the use of beads.  

Apart from the beads, this beauty comes natural, and some signs of beauty have meanings attached though some are merely for decorations.

Namulen, 68, from Lopeei sub county, Napak District says tattoos among girls are used as a symbol of identity among the clans. This over years has been instrumental in helping boys not to fall in love with a member of their clan.

She explains that this has helped thwart the practice of incest.

Among the men and boys, Namulen states some tattoos are a symbol of bravery. Normally this tattoo is engraved on the right-side of the chest. To attain this tattoo one must have killed a dreaded animal or a person perceived to be an enemy to a particular community.

For the married, Namulen says, there is a specific decoration of beads that is adorned around the outer waist. These beads have double threads on the left and the right, whereas a single bead necklace around the neck of a girl symbolizes that is not married.

To communicate one’s status of wealth in the community (number of livestock) a set of different rings made of ivory are adorned on. By the virtue of their wealth, such people are given first priority to make pronouncements during social gatherings.

Karamoja’s rich landscape
The sub region offers some of the fine scenic landscapes heaving with a variety of wildlife in Pian Upe game reserve in the straddle of Nakapiripirit and Nabilatuk, the Bokora-Matheniko game reserve in Napak and Kidepo National Valley Park in Kerenga. These game reserves are dotted with inselbergs, typical of the Karamoja region.

The game reserves are blessed with a variety of antelopes, which include Eland, Uganda Kob, Reedbuck, mountain reedbuck, Topi, hartebeest.

Others are spotted and striped hyena, leopards and cheetah.  The reserves also habour a high diversity of avifauna, highest concentration of ostriches.

Mr Joseph Yeno, tourist officer at Napak district local government,  says a stay in Karamoja  is not complete without one participating in  bird viewing, sunbathing , a treat to Karimojong traditional dances,  a taste of the local cuisines, hiking , rock climbing among others.