The Karamojong
Karamoja beauty.
Photograph by David Pluth

The Karamojong

A tribe whose life would be meaningless without cattle.

The photographs from David Pluth appearing in this article are taken from a soon-to-be-published book:
KARAMOJA! Uganda’s Land of Warrior Nomads.
Click here for UGPulse's 1 on 1 with David Pluth.

By Eunice Rukundo
more from author >>
First published: September 21, 2006

External Forces
The Karamojong's lives had been difficult for centuries---ekeing out an existence by raising cattle in such an inhospitable region. And yet, in the midst of such a harsh environment they were able to build a fairly stable and equitable society. However, this century brought the entrance of external forces that could not or would not understand the world of the Karamojong. They would try to squeeze the Karamojong into the foreign and ill-fitting mold of their own cultures, and in the process, they would disrupt the very fabric of Karamojong society.

As a result of these foreign pressures, the Karamojong plunged headlong into cattle-raiding, and even outright banditry. The outside world now views them as a backward and even violent people, not understanding that what they now see is merely a caricature of Karamojong culture, with all of its foibles exaggerated.

Ugandans have a common saying; 'We shall not wait for Karamoja to develop.' That some Karimojong still walk almost naked without a bother after so many years of 'civilization' spreading to most parts of Africa is the most obvious evidence that this part of Uganda is among those in the continent still holding on to their traditional ways.

Location and historical migration of Karimojong
Location and historical migration of Karimojong.

The Karimojong or Karamojong belong to the semi-nomadic ethnic group of pastoralists. The Karimojong live in the north-east of Uganda in what is called the Karamoja region. It is made up Kotido, Moroto and Nakapiripirit districts.

Location of Karamajong
The Karamajong.

The Karimojong are the largest of a cluster of culturally and historically related peoples, including the Jie, Teso, Dodoth (or Dodos), and Labwor of Uganda and the Turkana of neighbouring Kenya.

Due to the aridity of the region, the Karamojong have always practiced a sort of pastoral nomadism. Many people hear of the Karimojong when the perennial food and water crises has worsened or when they have raided another region for cattle, another of their intriguing traditions that has made them foes with all their neighbours.

Easy to identify

To most Ugandans the sheet-like cloths they adorn and the oblivion with which they leave their supposedly private parts exposed will readily identify a Karimojong.

Member of Parliament Micah Lolem Micah Lolem, the Member of Parliament for Nakapiripirit district explains that a typical Karamajong woman's attire entails just a skirt, colored beads around the neck and elastic or metallic bands tied around their ankles. The men on the other hand just throw a piece of cloth over their bodies and accompany it with plastic bangles.

"The tradition of wrapping themselves in many pieces of red checked cloths is only a modernization stunt copied from the Masai," explains Micah Lolem adding that the non-Karamajong residents of Karamoja may also dress differently.

The Karamajong will also still adorn markings on their forehead and around the face.

Karimojong Warrior
Karimojong Warrior.
Photograph by David Pluth

Save for the town where a few brick houses will be spotted, Karamoja is also mainly littered with grass-thatched mud huts. A beautiful people with beautiful culture, but the Karamojong are always at the botton end of every development statistic in Uganda.

Sheperd boy
Sheperd boy.
Photograph by David Pluth

Surviving in a difficult environment

Mother and child

This underdevelopment and the Karamajong's way of life can however justifiably be attributed to the constraints of their environment per the location of their habitat. Karamoja district occupies a semi-arid part of North Eastern Uganda just inside the border with Kenya. Because of the sandy soils, even after a heavy rainstorm, water will only flows for a few days before it all sinks in the ground. This makes crop growing almost impossible, leaving them with little option but animal husbandry.

"We rare goats, sheep and lately camels raided from the Turkana. The main emphasis is however on cattle on which we entirely survive," says Lolem adding that today, some Karimojong are also taking to growing grains like sorghum.

Pumping water
Pumping water.
Photograph by David Pluth

Because of their arid environment, the Karamajong do not construct permanent homes but rather live their lives as nomadic herdsmen. With their animals, on which they entirely depend for survival, they move around looking for pasture and water.

Women grinding grain
Women grinding grain.
Photograph by David Pluth

A life revolving around cattle

A Karamajong might not own goats or sheep but owning cattle is something that literally qualifies one to belong to this tribe.

"If you do not own a cow in Karamoja, you can't be allowed to address a congregation because you are not valued as a person," exclaims Lolem seriously.

The Karamajong accumulate their cattle either through inheritance by patrilineal descent or marriage. When a woman first arrives at her husband's, he is expected to allocate cattle to exclusively feed her and her children and these are to be increased as she bares more children.

It is this act of transferring cattle from the man's to the woman's side that makes her children legitimate members of her husband's lineage. The bride price also comprises entirely of cattle, the other gifts that may be offered are not as significant as the cattle.

Cow kraal
Cow kraal.
Photograph by David Pluth

Before raids became an offence per the government of Uganda, the elders granted young men permission and a formal ritual of blessing was performed. In this way they also accumulated their cattle from raiding their neighbors, even those across the border in Kenya.

The Karamajong rear, graze and protect their cattle against wild beasts and raiders, or anything that would threaten the well being and size of their herds, jealously. While the men on the move sleep in the open for instance, they build thorn rough camps with thorn hedges to protect their cattle. Most of them do so with guns that had become a must-have for every family, until the recent disarmament exercise in Karamoja.

"A typical Karamajong dispute begins when someone seizes a stock he thinks are owed to him. If the elders decide on who is to pay and he does not admit the debt then they will order the other to take the stock from him (the adjudged), thus a raid," writes Lucy Mair, an honorary professor of Anthropology for the University of Kent in her book African Societies.

Power in Karamoja is exercised by an assembly of elders, and the executive power is the prerogative of the class of warriors.

While major conflicts in Karamoja will usually arise from disagreements regarding cattle, it is the cattle that are still used to settle these disputes through compensation of the wronged party. For instance, raiding will usually arise from a fight for pasture on disputed land. The side that has lost cattle in the fight will try to get it back through a raid.

Cattle have become a beast of a value too great to this tribe that they cannot even get themselves to kill the cattle even when they need to slaughter it for food.

Lucy Mair writes that the Karamajong traditionally do not kill their cattle except for ritual purposes like the initiation of a boy into manhood which requires that he kill an ox provided by his father for sacrifice on his own.

Lolem however explains that there are also occasions when the young men organize and slaughter a cow to be eaten roasted or cooked at the request of the elders, who also decide on whose kraal the cow will come from. According to Mair, refusal to grant a cow at the request of the elders may result into a curse the consequences of which are feared. Thus even if a young man refused to offer the requested cow, fellow age mates would go and spear the cow themselves.

The other exception where cattle could be killed is when the need to appease Ajuk, the deity eminent for blessing and cursing, arises. It is also the responsibility of the elders to maintain constant mediation with Ajuk for the protection of the whole people's welfare, good health of their cattle and success in the raids against the cattle of the enemy neighbors.

Although the Karamajong mainly depend on cattle for food, they rarely slaughter them especially for food purposes. "Milk and blood are the daily food for us," Lolem says.

Lolem says that even when the cattle have to be slaughtered, the Karamajong cannot get themselves to kill the cattle by themselves.

Collecting blood
Collecting blood.
Photograph by David Pluth

"We spear the cow to draw blood so that it faints before being skinned and eaten roasted or cooked instead of killing it like the other people do," he explains.

"The blood is drawn from the neck of the cattle without killing them and mixed with milk to form the most popularly eaten meal in Karamoja called Ekyalakanu," he adds. The blood and milk are mainly stored in curdled form.

Even when they are slaughtered, almost no part of this precious animal goes to waste. The hides are used for making cloths and blankets and the scrota to make bags. "Their urine is used to cleanse vessels made of wood or of gourds, and to wash human hands, particularly in the cattle camps where there is seldom enough water for this," writes Mair.

It is the urine that is also used to curdle the milk, and is mixed with the mud to be used in building the huts.

"In the settlement where grains like sorghum are grown the droppings are used as manure," says Lolem.

He also explains that the intestines are roasted with the animals at rituals like initiation of the young men to manhood, though the women are not allowed to eat some parts like the small intestines.

Lucy Mair describes the Karamajong as being entirely dependent on their cattle. Their social, political, and religious way of life of the Karamajong entirely revolves around their cattle.

Politically, one possible way of distributing political functions is by allocating responsibility for the defense of the herds and grazing, and raiding those of neighbors among the young men.

In Karamoja, it is the cattle they herd which define human groups. In rituals involving large numbers of people each participant brings their herds with them.

Lucy Mair writes that an independent family is essentially one with complete control over a herd of cattle. "...if two independently owned herds are normally run together, the two owning groups will call themselves one family," she adds.

Lolem also explains that a village will be referred to as the kraal of the man who owns the largest herd of cattle there. You may now understand why it has been difficult for many Karimojong to go to school because the noblest duty is always to look after cattle.

The traditional Karimojong also hold a belief that all cattle belong to the Karimojong. This belief is behind the numerous cattle raids to neighbors and among themselves.

Though there are other tribes that hold their cattle in high regard, like the Bahima in Uganda, their lives would still go on without the cattle since some families do not even own any herds. For the Karamajong however, a life without their cattle would be unimaginable.

Party time, Karamoja
Party time, Karamoja.
Photograph by David Pluth

Related links:
Pastoral Visions - Photographs and Voices from the Karamojong Cluster
Recruitment of Karamojong warriors to fight rebel group
Karamoja for Christ
Karamojong group attacks presidential guard
Army kills 16 Karamojong tribesmen
Troops deployed against Karamojong raiders
Karamoja: Resurrecting the Pen
Karamojong anger over cattle seizures
































Others (est.)


Source Kurian, George Thomas 1992. Encyclopedia of the Third World, fourth edition, volume III, Facts on File: New York, N.Y., pp. 2009-2010.

By Eunice Rukundo
more from author >>
First published: September 21, 2006
To learn more about Ultimate Media Consult go to

Eunice Rukundo is a graduate Journalist and public relations practitioner with Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd. She is a talented writer who enjoys working with people.