Creating Peace in an Armed Society: Karamoja, Uganda, 1996

by Michael D. Quam, University of illinois at Springfield

Introduction to Karamoja

Located in the northeastern part of Uganda, Karamoja is a 27,200 square kilometer area of semi-arid savannah, bush and mountains. To the east, the escarpment drops down into Turkana District in Kenya; to the north is the Sudan; to the west and south are Ugandan districts populated by Acholi, Teso and Sebei people. Within Karamoja, the dominant groups are the Dodoth in the north, the Jie in the central region, and in the south a cluster of closely related ethnic groups known as Bokora, Matheniko, and Pian all of whom are referred to generally as the Karimojong. In the southeast, a Kalenjin-speaking group, the Pakot (or Upe), occupy a territory that overlaps the Uganda-Kenya border. Living in the mountainous areas around the edges of Karamoja are several smaller ethnic groups. From 1911 to 1971, Karamoja was a single district, but in 1971 it was divided into two administrative districts, Northern Karamoja and Southern Karamoja, later renamed Kotido District and Moroto District.

By far the most important ecological feature of this region is its rainfall pattern. As a semi-arid area it may get short rains during April and a longer rainy season from June to early September; however, this pattern is not reliable and in many years the rains are sparse, or fail altogether. Thus, drought and hunger are a recurrent feature of life in Karamoja. Although in years of adequate rainfall sorghum and millet provide most of their nutrition, the Dodoth, Jie, and Karimojong have adapted to this often harsh environment by focusing much of their energy on their herds of livestock–principally cattle, but also goats and sheep, and, in a few areas, some camels. In addition to being a major source of dietary protein, these animals, especially cattle, represent wealth, both economically and symbolically. During the long dry seasons the herdsmen leave their permanent settlements and move their cattle to temporary encampments near pasture and watering places located to the west and south of the central plains, often crossing over into the territory of neighboring groups and districts.

Competition for scarce resources, particularly water and pasture, and the high value placed on cattle have produced a culture of raiding and warfare within which men are noted for their bravery and their wealth. Men marry with cattle and historically bridewealth “prices” have been very high (Quam,1978). Young men have a powerful incentive to establish their reputations and build their own herds through mounting raids on other pastoral groups. Traditionally, these activities, as well as other group policy decisions, have been controlled through a social organization of male age grades within which the elders have wielded great political and ritual power (Dyson-Hudson, 1966; Thomas, 1965; Gulliver, 1953).

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