If you have not been to the northeastern sub-region of Karamoja before, you can be forgiven for thinking it is all about cattle rustling, natives running around naked, manyattas and of course, Kidepo Valley national park.
When you get there, Karamoja will most likely surprise you pleasantly; it has lush-green hillsides, imposing rock surfaces, breathtaking wildlife and, most importantly, a vibrant people with an amazing culture.
Take the multi-coloured and checkered attire of the Karimojong people, which is not any different from that worn by the Maasai and Pokot in neighbouring Kenya. In fact, to the regular Kampala dweller, the Karimojong’s traditional attire is referred to as a Maasai blanket, because outside Karamoja, nobody wears the beautiful fabric as a dress form but, rather, use it to cover up like a blanket or heavy scarf.
But in Karamoja, this traditional ‘blanket’ is won not just to cover the body but to also depict gender roles and social status. Here, majority of the people - children, adults and elders alike - wear the cloths of many colours, locally called nakatukok.
Until recently, these came with little, if anything else, underneath. It is still not a shocking sight in parts of Karamoja to find an elderly man sitting on a traditional Karimojong stool (they are exceptionally low and one looks like one is squatting) at a shop veranda, wearing nothing but this nakatukok, yet sitting quite ‘liberally’.
The males knot the nakatukok over one shoulder as the rest of the cloth hangs over the body. Some men also make special skirts out of the cloths.
The females, on the other hand, turn the cloths into short, pleated skirts, matched with bright-coloured sleeveless blouses. Again, it is not a big shock for the women to wear just these skirts with elaborate jewellery over their chests working as the ‘blouse’.
Both men and women also use the nakatukok as wrappers. The nakatukok is so rampant that for first-time visitors to Karamoja it presents a rather unique type of traditional attire not found in any other part of Uganda, where Buganda’s busuuti has widely spread as a preferred traditional dress.
One may also think the nakatukok is just clothing with no strings attached to its wearing, but that is not the case. Albins Lokwii, a resident of Kaabong town council in Kaabong district, says the colours of the nakatukok have meaning, in addition to reflecting social and power classes among the Karimojong.
Lokwii says that nakatukok in colours such as green and purple is for females. According to Lokwii, nakatukok with darker shades including black, blue and crimson are for the youth, as well as herders and warriors, because they are good for camouflage.
Nakatukok with brighter colours like yellow and red, adds Lokwii, is the preserve of elders, kraal leaders, the rich and the powerful. He emphasizes that a poor man cannot be given leadership position.
This reporter also learnt that among the Karimojong, older age is not a prerequisite for becoming an elder but, rather, factors such as bravery, oratory skills and wealth.
On to the runway
So, for the Shs 25,000 you may have paid for that authentic yellow nakatukok, you could be masquerading around Ntinda identifying as a rich Karimojong leader. But like the traditional bark cloth and Karimojong jewellery, the nakatukok has left the preserves of kraals and dusty Karamoja roads for the big stages.
Designers, both African and beyond, are incorporating the ‘Maasai blanket’ into their fashion creations, making bags, dresses and jackets with the beautiful fabric. For the next edition of Kampala’s Blankets and Wine festival, just look around and see how many revellers will be using the nakatukok as a picnic blanket.