I had never been to Karamoja sub-region until early March 2021. The kind of picture I had in my mind about Karamoja was one with a number of hills, covered with green vegetation and busy urban centres such as Kampala.
Aboard a van with two work colleagues, I started the journey to Karamoja at approximately 8:00am via Jinja and Mbale. As I approached Bukedea District, the cool cloudy weather I enjoyed from Kampala to Mbale started disappearing. The van interior equally became hot. Looking through the car windows, a sight of green vegetation was hard to come by. The vegetation was all brown.. The picture I had of a green Karamoja started waning at this point. When we reached Soroti, one of my colleagues, Henry, wandered around town to buy sunglasses. The bright and hot sun was already taking its toll on us. I started wondering how hot it would be for the one week I was to be in Karamoja.
Journeying on, there were admirably straight stretches where you could view approximately 10 kilometres or more of the road ahead. Unfortunately, peeping at the dashboard over the driver’s shoulders, I realised he was driving below 120kph.
This made the journey longer and tiresome in that when I eventually reached Moroto, one of the districts that make up the Karamoja region, all I wanted was a hotel room to check in, shower and roam around the streets for local food.
At approximately 7pm, I was directed to Munamasaka Restaurant on Moroto Main Street for matooke, chicken and rice. I had been told by the hotel receptionist that most local restaurants prepare malakwang, boo, kalo, posho and sweet potatoes, local dishes, some of which I have never eaten. Since Karamoja is a region where matooke is not popularly grown, I was told by the waiter that the matooke prepared at Munamasaka Restaurant is sometimes sourced from nearby districts of Soroti and as far as Mbale.
Wednesday was the first day of field work. It was within Moroto, approximately 10 kilometers out of town. It was the first day of tasting the Karamoja heat. At some point, the pair of jeans and T-shirt I wore seemed too hot. By 11am, the sun was already too hot, to a point of forcing us to seek shelter. By 3pm, I sought shelter under trees in the community. The heat was too much even for the reserve water that became warmer.
Fieldwork for the second day was to take place in Kotido, before proceeding to Kaabong District which is approximately 110 and 190 kilometres respectively from Moroto on a murram road. While I complained about the hot temperatures in Moroto, I was told by the driver, a one Okidi that Kotido and Kaabong are hotter than Moroto. Shorts, T-shirts and vests became my attire on days that followed as the hot temperatures became unbearable.
At Kotido, the ground was just as hot as the sun. At one point as I interviewed one of my sources, I could feel the heat penetrate the rubber soles, forcing me to remove my shoes. I immediately took shelter on a hut veranda after the interview. The two days I spent in Kaabong and Kotido seemed like a week.
Karamoja is one of the hottest places in Uganda. PHOTO/ROLAND NASASIRA
On one evening when I returned to the hotel after returning to Moroto on the fifth day, I washed a T-shirt, a short vest and hang them on hangers. When I woke up in the morning, these were not only dry but also stiff. I confirmed that indeed Karamoja is hotter than Kampala.
There was no night I ever covered myself. I would just lay on top of and spread the mosquito net around the bed and sleep off. I would also sleep with the windows open and the fan on.
A manyatta is the Karamojong name of a perimeter wall around your home in Kampala. One manyata, I was told can have upto 15 or more homes. According to locals, a manyata starts with one household. When a girl is getting married, (bride price can be up to 100 or more cows), she and her husband are given space by the girl’s father to build their house, predominantly the signature circular hut as the new couple establish a home of their own . The manyata is then expanded to accommodate the new home. The more girls that get married from one home, the more huts that will be constructed and the larger the manyata becomes. I was told that it is women who mostly fend for their families. Majority of men only leave their homes to roam around trading centres to get drunk and return to their homes asking for food.
The Karamojong dress code
The Karamojong dress code, I observed, is somewhat unique. For instance, while the men wrap themselves with a shawl, locally known as Ekatuko, if it is one, and Nyekatuko when many, across the shoulders or the waist, women and girls wear chequered skirts, local known as Nyemarinda, and a blouse. As they walk, these skirts, sewn from different colours and materials, swing from left to right like a cow wagging its tail. Even when a man is riding a bicycle, they leave their Ekatuko, on.
“It is a Karamojong culture. When you wear these clothes, it is a sign of respecting the culture. But if you wear clothes sold in shops, you are not a true Karamojong,” says, Joseph Okidi, one of the locals I interacted with.
Besides the hot weather, it was a trip with a number of lessons learned from Karamoja region and its people.
In 2011, the Karamoja sub-region was the site of an important fossil discovery. Paleontologists discovered the remains of Ugandapithecus major, a 20-million-year-old ancestor of present-day primates.