I have heard stories about the poorest region of Uganda since my arrival. Everyone warned me of the backward ways of the Karamojans, they do not wash their hands, they drink dirty water, they refuse to farm and they walk around half naked!! As I drove with my driver from Oxfam, Matthew, through the north of Uganda from Gulu into Karamoja, he made more and more comments, pointing out the funny hats people wear, how they are bathing next to the road in ponds and how they speak bad English. We starved as he refused to get food in the villages we passed through, explaining, ‘you know they are not good. You get it?’. He was subtly referring to the fact that they dont wash their hands after going to the bathroom.
The Karamojans are cattle herders. Therefore I have been constantly comparing them to the Pulaars, who are also the primary cattle herders throughout West Africa.
Similarly, they are known for being stingy (all of their money is in their cattle which means they are rich but they do not like to use it so they eat nothing, buy no medicine and no land).
They are stubborn (it is hard to make them ‘develop’, or change). They only speak their language (refusing to learn English in school and not learning other major languages in Uganda like Luganda or in Senegal, Wolof). They travel around and don’t stay in one place- making it difficult for them to develop, and they are dirty. They bath in the ponds of water next to the road, not hiding their nakedness. I was warned by multiple people that women would walk around topless. I laughed, explaining this was fairly common in West Africa.
When I have been told these things, they are meant to be negative, demonstrating to me how they are ‘bad’. But take these as you will. What I have been told in Uganda is “the Karamojans, their culture is STRONG”. This is something that I have truly missed here in Uganda. A blatant visual of the traditions, the history, a pride of their ethnicity and culture that is more apparent in Mali and Senegal. The Karamojans showed me that this exists in Uganda, but sadly is seen by the rest of the country as a negative, backwards way of living that prevents their development.
While the clothing was very different of the Karamojans vs Pulars. The Karamojan women wear these kilt looking skirts, men a singular cloth that they tie on one shoulder). Additionally, the men in Karamoja wear these adorable small hats. The feather indicates that he is ready to find a mate. As you can see, this young man below was happy to pose for me.
But similarly, women in both places wear a lot of colorful beads and practice facial scaring.
The method of cutting is different. Here they use the spokes of a bike tire, in West Africa primarily a razor and charcoal is used. The top two are from Senegal and Burkina, as you can see the cutting is very small and precise. The bottom is a Karamojan woman, with raised scaring.
Their housing was shockingly similar in terms of the permanent huts. The one below on the bottom left is from Mali, but I saw essentially the exact same structure in Karamoja. For longer term shelters, the Karamojan woman build huts made from sticks and thatch as well as thorn fencing all around the small village to keep out cattle and animals from destroying their shelters. The men are merely responsible for taking care of the cattle, finding water sources and making decisions about when to move next.
It is clear that Karamoja has a long way to go to ‘develop’. Partially, there is almost no business in the region aside from NGOs, government and cattle herding. In the town I stayed in, there were almost no cars without an NGO placard . There were no offices for private businesses. There is no outside investment. And the fields of farm land were few and far between. The soil is farmable, but in comparison to the rest of Uganda where you practically only need to scatter some seeds and watch your crops go, farming here is hard work. Also it is not part of the culture. And like I said, the culture is strong. The Karamojans are known for being stubborn and territorial, not allowing others to farm their land and not wanting to do so themselves. So, like I was told by Matthew “You cant wait for Karamoja to develop”.