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Karamoja: from a neglected desert to a region on the move

On the Soroti-Katakwi-Moroto road, Alekilek, a rocky hill that looks like a 17th century fort with brown grass and acacia at the foot, welcomes you to Karamoja sub-region in the north-eastern corner of the country.

The region shares international borders with South Sudan in the north and Kenya in the east and northeast. Presently, Karamoja is made up of seven districts: Abim, Moroto, Kotido, Napak, Nakapiripirit, Amudat and Kaabong.

The population estimated at over one million people consists of people loosely described as the Karimojong who are mainly of Nilo-Hamitic descent and practise cattle herding, with different social groupings but largely similar dialects with exception of a few that are quite distinct.

The main social groups that constitute the Karimojong are the Matheniko mainly in Moroto district, Bokora mainly in Napak and Pian. The others are Pokot, Tepeth, Nyakwae, Jie, Dodoth, Ik, Napore, and Ethur.

Moroto municipality, clustered at the foot of the imposing Mount Moroto, is Karamoja’s main town. Founded in 1912, the town is an oasis of modernity in  the region, with only the main street, Lia, tarmacked. It hosts pretty decent guesthouses, restaurants, shops and, of course, the two nightclubs.

Moroto town may be a long way from the city, and the trappings of modernity, but it is not as bad as many people have portrayed it. Mount Moroto hotel just outside town is ‘the region’s Serena hotel’.

Extremes

Arguably, Karamoja is a land of many contrasts. The landscape is flat semi-arid savannah grasslands, and acacia-wooded hills punctuated by imposing rocky volcanic mountains like Moroto and Napak. Here, it is always dry, hot with heavy but short rainfall seasons. In fact, it rarely rains here. But when it finally does, it is always short and heavy often washing away roads and bridges, with rivers emerging from nowhere.

Mark Aol Musooka, the LC-V chairman Moroto and one of the elders says, “As you might have seen and experienced, when it stops raining, temperatures run very high and all the grass withers,”

With the fabulous fauna and flora especially in Kidepo Valley national park in Kaabong district, the region’s distinctiveness can’t be overemphasized. Indeed, it is a region with exceptional diversity of physical features.

Blessed with many minerals including gold, Karamoja represents a typical case of two extremes: abundant mineral wealth and poverty exacerbated by years of cattle rustling and insecurity, a situation that government is correcting through several interventions.

For decades, the area was characterized by lawlessness and insecurity. Cattle rustling defined Karamoja. The disarmament programme that disarmed warriors gave the region a new hope.

Prosperity

Following an improvement in peace and security, after the disbarment exercise, government through the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) is making strides in transforming the area to match the rest of the country in development.

See, just like the rest of the country, the health system is gradually improving. Several health centres have been built and equipped with drugs and other equipments. Moroto hospital was upgraded to a regional referral hospital and equipped to handle the new role as expected.

On top of constructing health centres, government has also constructed staff quarters, maternity wards and encouraged expectant mothers to utilize health centres when giving birth.

For the first time in history, the region now has hydroelectricity. Moroto and Abim districts were recently connected to the national grid, while Nakapiripirit’s connection awaits commissioning. The region will also soon have its first tarmac road. The Moroto-Nakapiripirit-Muyembe road is already under construction.

Through different initiatives such as Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF I), Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP), the government has been able to construct many valley dams particularly to provide water for animals.

Cattle branding

For a long time, violent cattle raids that often ended in brutal killings, abductions and raping of girls and women, among other vices, were synonymous with the Karimojong. As a way of stamping out cattle raids, government in 2010 introduced electronic branding of animals, especially cattle, to check on theft.

The project was initiated by the minister for Karamoja Affairs, Janet Museveni, in conjunction with the Office of the Prime Minister. It is aimed at tracing stolen animals with the aid of an electronic chip.

In the cattle electronic branding system, a computer chip containing all information about the animal’s owner is inserted into the cow’s stomach through the mouth. This information can be read using scanners which will be available in every market for inspection.

The animal is also ear-tagged and the owner issued with a certificate which he has to produce before selling the animal.  Once any branded animal is stolen, it can be traced using a mobile computer stick and the machine will tell the particulars of the animal owner, village, parish and sub-county of origin.

ssekika@observer.ug

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