Karamoja - through the eyes of a Muzungu
Katerina Marshfield meets the Tepeth of Karamoja.

Karamoja - through the eyes of a Muzungu

I was shocked at the pride with which a Karamojong warrior assured me that he never wastes a bullet and that he can put down three soldiers at once when they are stupid enough to stand in a row (single file, as the military call it).

By Katerina Marshfield
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First published: December 11, 2007

I once knew a Karamojong zebra. His skin was pale but his heart was that of an African. He was born in northern England but chose to die in Uganda, because that is where he felt at home and where his life made sense to him. After living on the African continent for over twenty years, he lived in harmony with the local way of life, though his environment often had a hard time seeing past his complexion. Thus, he called himself a zebra; half white, half black. He was in love with Karamoja and its people.

When I met him, I was carrying out research into the meaning of the word mzungu. As a newcomer to Uganda, I was offended by being screamed and pointed at as the kazungu, mzungu, zungu and the like. So, I became curious about the etymology of the expression as well as about how other zungus felt about being called such. My friend Zebra was then living in the servants' quarters of a house in Kampala with his former house help, looking after her extended family (and more and more often being looked after by her). He was working out plans of how to save the Karimojong from being wiped out by what he called "our age of global de-culturisation".

"Mzungu," he said, "despite its literal meaning (it means 'a European'), is now applied to all foreigners, mainly of the Caucasian race, who do not share the same cultural values with the locals. However, there are other roots to the word and more importantly, it is related to the Kiswahili verb kuzunguka, meaning 'wandering around aimlessly like a mad person and wasting time'. That is the deep connotation behind the word. As such, if you are a mzungu, you are an outsider and not trustworthy, especially here in the southern parts of Uganda. For that reason, you will never really know where you stand with the locals. Not so in Karamoja. In Karamoja, you know immediately if the Karamojong like you or not.

"They either exchange gifts with you and become your friends for ever or they classify you as their enemy and shoot you," he laughed, half in jest. "Of course they will give you some time so that they can work out which category to put you in or to see if you could be useful to them in some way."

Karamoja: Uganda's Land of Warrior Nomads
Karamoja cover

Photography by David Pluth.
Stories by S. Onyang
and J. O'Kasick

About the book

"Well, that is not very nice of them, is it? Why should I even be interested in them?" I asked.

"Because they are the last authentic people living in Uganda today who refuse to give up their cultural identity and who have not yet figured out the survival value of pretence," Zebra replied. "On top of that, all they have been experiencing from the outside world is violence and contempt and so they turn to violence themselves. They know what they want - looking after and depending on their cattle. The only problem is that the rest of the world seems to be telling them that what they want is outdated and wrong and that they have to change now. Yet culture cannot be changed by force, it has to develop together with changing circumstances. But their circumstances have remained the same for centuries."

I decided not to waste time and leave for Karamoja at the next opportunity. A week later I was riding on one of Uganda's infamous upcountry coaches, also nicknamed 'killer buses', with a journalist friend of mine who was exploring the other side of Karamoja; its fine artists.

After 10 hours of flying through the countryside, watching a number of ragged matatus being swept aside to give way to our mighty Icarus, and to the accompaniment of Somali music keeping all the passengers filling up every single inch of available seat or floor happy, we arrived in Nakapiripirit.


"From now on, you had better keep your head down," my friend advised.

"What do you mean?" I asked as I scrubbed a layer of sticky dust off my scorched face and looked around in bewilderment to make sure I was not in the way of someone offloading their luggage - mainly chickens or goats.

He smiled and gently bobbed his head towards the window, as if to point at something. "Warriors usually hide in the bushes and when a coach passes, they just perforate it from one side or the other."

I was sitting by the window and did not like the idea of being a life shield to him or anybody on the bus at all.

"This road has not been named 'the road of death' for nothing," he added.

Great, I thought. I am sitting on a 'killer bus' about to take to the "road of death" to visit a people who might just be merciless enough to decide that I am 'not useful enough in some way'. I started searching desperately for someone to give me some reassurance that my decision to come and experience the Karamojong culture was not just an act of a headless, arrogant and suicidal adventure seeking but a professional communicator's venture inspired by the wish to help a misunderstood and marginalised ethnic group to be objectively represented outside their territory.

Finally, my eyes met with those of two young men who seemed to be returning home for school holidays. "Madam, you look worried," one noted politely. Somehow, we were in silent agreement about the cause of my fear. "You know, whenever we go through this road to Moroto, we just repeat to ourselves; 'Think positive and God is great'," one of them said.

From then on, I had that motto on my tongue and their confident smiles on my mind every time I returned to Karamoja.

Mount Moroto
Mount Moroto.

Many people asked me why I keep going back to that 'miserable and frightful' place. I think it is because during that first trip, the Karamojong people decided that I was worth keeping alive and offered me their friendship at least symbolically. It happened during a long walk I took around Mount Moroto to feel out the place. My companion, who was doing research into the fine arts in Moroto, and I had been walking for about 2 hours when we noticed that it was getting dark. We knew that even the locals return home after dark to clear the way for wild animals and gangsters and were thus thinking about returning to town, when suddenly we heard those infamous AK47 shots. We looked at each other. How close was that? Were they directed at us? Should we run or should we duck? Out of instinct, we jumped into a ditch and ducked into the nearby bushes. With a shaking voice, my companion suggested that if we had to run, the best thing would be for me to drop my heavy video camera bag and run in an opposite direction to him to confuse our pursuers.

However, I had a different vision. I was going to stick to the ditch with my video camera safely tucked to my chest and sleep right there if necessary. As we were discussing our survival techniques, a young man dressed in western clothes walking speedily to a destination only known to him stopped to watch the spectacle of two bazungu squatting in the bushes shaking with fear. He laughed cordially and started explaining something in his language. We figured that he was telling us not to worry; that there were some celebrations going on in the neighbourhood and people were drinking liquor and shooting into the air out of excitement.

We crawled out of our hiding place and walked with him for a while. On the way, we were joined by young women carrying heavy loads of fire wood on their heads and babies on their backs. The women stretched their hands to offer us berries they had just collected in the woods. Everything seemed perfect and harmonious - even the fact that we were speaking English and they Nakarimojong. After a few kilometres, they turned off the main road to join their villages. Just as we relaxed back into a casual stroll, a young warrior jumped out of the dry thicket clenching a shiny AK47, gently suggesting how easy it was to point its barrel in our direction and fixed his gaze at my hat and sunglasses. All three of us froze. The warrior clarified that he liked both my hat and sunglasses and that the time had come for me to hand them over to him.

My friend poked me with his elbow, "What are you waiting for... just give them to him!" I was about to succumb but just before the young man grabbed the hat from my hand, I decided not to get out of this with something in return. I scanned his attire and my eyes rested on his bracelets. "I want that," I said to him in English. "Something for something!" My companion did not think my spontaneous reaction was cool though, and urged me again to respect the power of the gun and please its owner. But the warrior understood. He smiled, hung his steel protector loosely from his shoulder and passed me the objects of my desire as he was grabbing his from my hand.

What followed was another exchange - of his headrest for my friend's scarf and a few small purchases of tobacco etui and a necklace. We all left laughing and satisfied and I could not stop thinking about what my friend Zebra told me about the significance of exchange in Karamoja. From then on, I started exchanging everything experiences, stories, views, drinks, food and sometimes just smiles and greetings. Every time I look at the bracelets on my wrist, I am reminded of how important it is to realise that we all have something to give and something to learn or take from any incident.

When I returned from Karamoja, Zebra urged me, "Help me to help them to save themselves."

"But how?" I asked.

"Through communication; they need to be put in touch with the outside world and the outside world needs to understand who they are. We all need a place within society, which is based on respect and mutual understanding for our cultural values. At the same time, we all have to understand that although times are changing fast, respect cannot be achieved through violent means."

Katerina Marshfield with the Tepeth
Katerina Marshfield with the Tepeth.

Over the next three years, after Zebra's ashes were scattered into the River Nile, I have been going back to Karamoja to understand why it was so difficult for human beings to get together and strive towards progress and constructive co-habitation rather than wallowing in violence and destruction. I drank from a pot of local brew in Camp Swahili, Moroto town while I was being given an intensive course in Nakarimojong. I listened to the concerns of the Matheniko people about their 'violent' neighbours the Tepeth and the Jie. I sat on top of Mount Moroto with a group of Tepeth elders, listening to the moaning of an old lady who lost her arm during a raid by the 'ruthless' Matheniko. I interviewed a grieving Jie whose village had been burnt down by the UPDF and whose daughter was mistaken for a young man while going to the market dressed in a khanga and shot dead. 

I listened to UPDF soldiers telling me about how primitive the Karamojong were and how the cows and women from Western Uganda were so much more beautiful than the local ones. I listened to young warriors from three different tribes telling me how they were humiliated by the UPDF into 'giving up' guns which they did not have any more and how they were scared of being attacked by planes and of losing their cows in the process. I listened to a UPDF pilot telling me how a Karamojong cannot even tell a plane from a big bird.

I was shocked at the pride with which a Karamojong warrior assured me that he never wastes a bullet and that he can put down three soldiers at once when they are stupid enough to stand in a row (single file, as the military call it). I was alarmed by an escort telling me how the Karamojong refuse to give up using their guns but instead hide them from the disarmament squads. I was puzzled by a teenage warrior telling me that one of his best sources of guns were the UPDF soldiers themselves.

I played the sounding board to a congregation of elders sitting in the shade of a large tree near Lopotuk, discussing why most of the aid granted to projects solicited by their representatives was not reaching the people of Karamoja themselves but was spent somewhere between Kampala and Moroto in big hotels, conference rooms and per diem payments.

Then one sunny morning, I was driving a loud, battered off-roader through the deep lush greenery of the escarpments of Timu forest, returning from a visit I paid to a group of peaceful Ik people who grow their crops and keeping their bees in the middle of all those military clashes that have been going on in Karamoja for decades. Having just raced through a clearing, where I surprised a gang of suspicious armed Karimojong warriors taking a rest, I passed a group of marching soldiers heading up the hills to where I had just come. My limbs stiffened from the tension of having just escaped a possible ambush and that cool streak of fear slowly let go of my spine. I saw an old man majestically march down the long dusty road towards me. He was dressed in a bright purple and black chequered cloth, which kept swaying to the rhythm of his rock-hard bare feet. As if to counter my still fresh frightening experience, I decided to greet him with a gentle wave.

With great serenity, he passed a wooden headrest from one hand to the other and swung his free hand high above his head to pay back my gesture. This lifted his khanga up to his waist and revealed his most private body parts to his surroundings. A warm feeling of amusement and joy at his friendly and uninhibited demeanour overcame me and in that second I got an uplifting idea. If only he knew what was going through my mind. If only I knew what he was thinking. If only, instead of blaming each other for the havoc in this fascinating place, people opened up to a new dialogue, respecting each other's space and differences. And what better way to do this than through the mass media?

Inside the kibanda (public video hall) in Kaabong, Karamoja
Inside the kibanda (public video hall) in Kaabong, Karamoja.

I witnessed the enthusiasm with which the Karamojong population received their first radio station - All Karamoja FM that started broadcasting in their own language in 2004. As a videographer, I envisioned the same success for the numerous and already popular video halls mushrooming from Nakapiripirit to Kaabong. What would the warriors, soldiers, shepherds, school dropouts and young mothers say if their bibandas (public video halls) started showing films in their own language and instead of action-packed western trash and football, they could see educational and entertaining programmes, as well as homemade productions relevant to their culture and current concerns? Surely, the video hall owners would welcome such a project! I could hardly wait to talk to them.

Old Trafford video hall in Kaabong
Old Trafford video hall in Kaabong.

I put my foot on the gas; I was starving and keen to join a new friend, a Dodoth development worker, for christmas lunch. We were having a fried wild rabbit that we had accidentally run over while speeding through the dangerous territory that marks the border between the Jie and the Dodoth. 

By Katerina Marshfield
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First published: December 11, 2007
Katerina Marshfield, who has been doing research into the alternative use of video halls in Uganda since 2004. She can be reached by email at katmarsh@web.de.