Karamoja: Resurrecting the Pen
IRC-trained health workers and IRC staff conduct home-to-home voluntary
counselling and testing to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS in Karamoja.
Image Source:IRC Blog: HIV/AIDS Counselling in Karamoja

Karamoja: Resurrecting the Pen


The Karamojong demanding things be done their way...

By Gideon Munaabi and Enoch Mutabaazi
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First published: June 20, 2006


For many centuries the people of northeastern Uganda semi arid region of Karamoja have continued to live in medieval conditions. This condition has kept the region and its people under a permanent state of primitive surroundings with limited or no access to basic needs like water, food, education and medicine. To this day, everything to do with underdevelopment in Uganda is symbolized by a reference to Karamoja. During March of this year, some Karimojong in Kampala were put on trucks and taken to a resettlement centre to be returned home. Nobody, at least amongst those Karamojong, asked to be returned home. Perhaps it was the perception, whether true of false, that the Karimojong are backward. All this is because of their culture.

The Karimojong (natives of Karamoja) are perhaps the only group of people in East Africa whose primordial cultural-social set up was never interrupted by the 19th century mission-colonialism; well if there was such an attempt it was successfully defeated. The Karimojong resisted any form of foreign education- a change agent by missionaries. The climax of their resistance against colonial education is well documented in the (in) famous burial of a pen (Kallumu) in the 1930s following a successful campaign against foreign education and faith by the Karimojong elders.

The pen was buried in the current day Kotido district, about 300 km northeast of Kampala. Kotido is one of the three districts that form Karamoja. The elders and opinion leaders, particularly pointed out the pen because it was used as a coding tool during the conscription of youth into the colonial army and head count of cows for household taxes. The burial of the pen therefore was a symbol of outright rejection of formal education. In fact, anyone in Karamoja who attempted to let their children join education was banished by Karimojong elders and declared an enemy of society.

The elders who are believed in Karamoja to be intermediaries between gods and people, had been predicting doom and death. They ordered all children to abandon education and return home for ritual cleansing while the foreign teachers were declared enemies and were fought. This marked the complete 'death' of formal education in Karamoja.

Even the later attempts by both the colonial and postcolonial governments to re-introduce formal education in Karamoja were squarely defeated, leading to the common assertion in the 1960s and 70s; "we shall not wait for the Karimojong to develop."

No surprise therefore, that the introduction of free universal primary education (UPE) by the government in 1997 still did not convince the Karimojong elders to allow children to go to school.

The Karimojong elders wanted the foreign teachers (both whites and Africans employed by missionary teachers) to listen and learn from them (the elders). They wanted the outsiders to understand their local challenges as cattle keepers and put in place a flexible system of education compatible with their pastoral and nomadic life styles of moving from place to place in search for water and pasture. The Karimojong were, and still are, unable to do intensive learning and reading, at the expense of their much cherished and traditional domestic chores of cattle keeping and rustling.

However, in 1998, Save the Children, Uganda, in collaboration with Uganda's Ministry of Education and Sports and Karamoja districts local governments, using locally available indigenous knowledge, developed a curriculum to come up with Alternative Basic Education for Karamoja (ABEK).

This preceded two years of intensive consultation to determine the community's attitude towards education and generate local knowledge to design the new curriculum that is now in place. ABEK is a complimentary basic education program that uses a non-formal education approach. ABEK is integrated in the daily routines of the Karimojong children who are allowed to learn within their home settings under tree shades or simple mud huts put up by communities. ABEK sought to understand local challenges, attitudes and more importantly the historic biases associated with "the pen" and education in general.

It was designed with two primary objectives; to change the Karimojong attitude to education in general and towards education of the girl child in particular, by providing relevant curriculum and teaching for the Karimojong child and; to encourage and create a path to formal school.

Using the local political leaders and elders, the project implementers successfully persuaded the Karamojong elders to unearth the pen in 2001 at a ceremony graced by the Uganda's Interior Minister for Karamoja Affairs, Peter Lokeris- who also originates from the region. The ceremony also marked the erection of a monument of a man standing tall in Karimojong's tradition attire receiving a pen from a dove. Like in many societies, a dove is symbol of peace and good luck in Karamoja.

After receiving the blessings from elders, the project implementers were cautious not to repeat the mistakes of the past. They made the curriculum as flexible and relevant as possible and allowed local knowledge inputs as much as was available.

The indigenous knowledge was particularly useful in putting together the relevant curriculum blessed by elders. The system among other things embraced what the Karamojong liked most- being listened to and learned from. The teachers are local and the language used is local (Ngakarimojong) contrary to English as is the case in other methods of formal education in Uganda.

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By Gideon Munaabi and Enoch Mutabaazi
more from author >>
First published: June 20, 2006
To learn more about Ultimate Media Consult go to www.ultimatemediaconsult.com.

Gideon Munaabi is a journalist and public relations practitioner with Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd. He has been and continues writing widely for different publication locally and internationally. He is a founding member of Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd and is currently the chairman of the organisation.

Enoch Mutabaazi is a media practitioner at Ultimate Media Consult with more than six years experience in the print and electronic media. Since he majored in Broadcast Journalism at his graduate studies Mutabaazi first worked as a reporter at Uganda Television (now Uganda Broadcasting Corporation TV) before he discovered his multidimensional skills in writing and public relations at Ultimate Media Consult. He is currently the Production Executive at Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd and writes occasionally.