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Good and uncomfortable stories from Karamoja

It was in my plans to visit Karamoja for years, but something always came up to change the not-so-committed schedule.

But this time everything had to wait until I got to Moroto for a study on transitional justice – a collaborative research between Uganda Martyrs University, Mbarara University of Science and Technology, Makerere University, and University of Leuven (Belgium).

Like many Ugandans visiting the place, however politely disguised, there is often that thinly informed tint of bias, built upon years of negative socialisation into alienating/othering stereotypes. 

The common narratives in southern Uganda hardly ever tell us any good about Karamoja and its people. It’s generally a picture of primitivity that is painted, some sort of a jungle community culturally frozen in time.

The south’s socialised image of Karamoja and its people hardly differs from that held by early white explorers about black Africa, and by many whites visiting Africa for the first time today - especially as shaped by their media that mainly feeds them on exactly what appeals to their miseducation about Africa and its people. 

Politeness may not let some to express their shock at finding decent houses, roads, and people using toothpaste in ‘the country called’ Africa. Some leave with disappointment for not having seen barbaric Africa. So do many of us from southern Uganda relate with Karamoja, riding on high civilisational horses in imagination of a place that needs our saviour services.

Most failures to live with civilisational and cultural differences are often grounded in a superior-than-thou ethnocentric mindset that sends us into using our own cultural norms and values as the standard against which the ‘development’ of others has to be assessed. 

It’s not an easy mindset to overcome, worse for those who grow up in one cultural setting, only to meet different ‘others’ in adulthood. With my education and modest exposure, too, I sometimes catch myself behind biased lenses. It’s an effort we must constantly make to improve on the health of our minds and inter-cultural relations.

Here in Karamoja, everyone you talk to acknowledges that the era of the gun had indeed turned the place into a hell where socio-economic progress could hardly roll. This was not helped by a national bias inherited from colonial administration, which alienated the place into some sort of human zoo. 

In their abandoned world, guns that they mostly acquired illegally from various sources became the negotiating tool for much of what they needed. Initially it was especially cows, but later it was for all that the gun holder/s desired.

In such a situation akin to what the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes called the State of Nature, innovation, entrepreneurship, and industry could hardly thrive - for all one laboured for could easily be taken over by the stronger, at high life risk to the owner. 

It’s not necessarily these people’s brutality that led to this state; it’s mainly due to the fact that they were abandoned with such lethal arms in a hostile natural environment. Over time, gun violence found its way into an evolving culture of raiding. 

Despite the violence that characterized the second phase of disarmament of the Karimojong by Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) and its attendant trauma in some communities, currently there is widespread appreciation for the subsequent peace in the region. Many say, unlike in the past, they can now even move freely at night, and cattle thefts have significantly reduced.

Infrastructural development both by government and the private sector are on the rise around towns. Though I couldn’t tell who the owners were, most buildings look relatively new. I won’t mention the terribly scandalous model low [though very high] cost houses that were built for the elderly and disabled people by UPDF’s engineering brigade in 2012 that are collapsing before my grandfather’s mud-and-wattle house built in the 1950s. Generally, the locals say the area is taking better shape.

It’s in view of this that Karamoja’s pro-NRM voting pattern could be understood and appreciated, the possibility of electoral mischief notwithstanding. The ‘twebaka kutulo’ (at least we can sleep) narrative, while losing political instrumentality in many parts of Uganda, is quite fresh and influential here. 

But at the same time, while Karamoja is still sighing in relief from the gun’s disaster, corruption and various other forms of exploitation are eating up its vast mineral and land resources. From all the discoveries and extraction of minerals ranging from gold, tantalite, marble, silica sand, to all else yet to be known, Karamoja is certainly taking crumbs falling off the table she serves.

It is ironic, for example, that in Rupa sub-county, while I observed huge trucks carrying away marble from quarries, at the headquarters, local people were in long queues for relief food (maize flour) from humanitarian agencies! I visited some homes in the villages too for deeper insight; very hospitable people engulfed in an intricate mess. 

The region’s irony of severe deprivation alongside stinking mineral wealth hits you hard in the face with a sickening effect. They have a right to live their lives the way they wish, even if others may label them ‘primitive.’ Talking to them, though, you hear that there is so much they would need as citizens that they just can’t access or don’t even know that they are entitled to. For instance, can’t some of their gold get them valley dams?

Meanwhile, opportunistic outsiders are taking advantage of the situation to plunder the region under all sorts of paternalistic guises in the name of ‘development.’

By the time Karamoja’s powerless people are done celebrating the treasure of ‘peace,’ they might be shocked by the price they will have paid for it - just like the rest of Uganda is waking up from its peace slumber with a grumbling stomach.


The author works with the Center for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.


0 #1 Akot 2018-12-05 19:26
The entire country is at the mercy of Museveni & will be plunderd dry of natural resources, while Ugandans go poor & thrown out of their rich land!

What better means for Museveni to ensure his stay but through the triablsitic system blinding Ugandans, making them so so powerless!

Even Karamoja that has no history of traditional rule, let Museveni's wife be their tribal leader & looted their land!

Are Acholi not waiting for Museveni to sell their land to China while their tribal leader continues to get hand outs, but not his subjects?

The question is: what will Ugandans do in 30 years when Museveni will be too old/dead, but will leave the divisive tribalistic system in place, as his legacy?

Or, is Museveni eternal?
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0 #2 Akot 2018-12-05 19:39
Let's pray to God the rest of Uganda that is waking up from its peace slumber with a grumbling stomach, really do so because soon, there will be NOTHING left in the ground for our children & this includes the children of tribal leaders not seeing they too, are in the same sinking ship!

Even as Ugandans don't want to Reform the Republic, they MUST UNITE to throw Museveni out, then go for Independent Tribal States immediately!

Then the new formed nations will manage their land riches, preserve their children's heritage!

Ugandans Must stop helping Museveni destroy their land & their lives!
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0 #3 Treva 2018-12-08 15:52
Good piece. You capture, very cleverly, the truth about Karamoja very well. Most of us look down on Karamoja. But we also envy them for being so tough and so 'well endowed' with mineral wealth.

It is disappointing to see that readers only want to read about 'scandals'. They do not want to know about the real Uganda which is outside of Kampala.

I hope we can see more stories from across Uganda. This Kampala narcissism is getting very depressing and over crowded, like that sunken boat.

Notice how they have all moved on from their concern about 'marine' safety. Now they are banking experts. Tomorrow, who knows?
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0 #4 rubangakene 2018-12-08 19:08
I am very passionate about every tribe in Uganda; be they perceived as 'backward' or not.

You see every tribe have their failings; some drink recklessly, some beat their wives while some are lazy and so on.

We must strive as a country to help each other change our behaviour for the good of humanity, let us not leave our brothers and sisters behind. We must have to use all available means at our disposal to achieve this.

The youth are in a better position to spearhead this endeavour. You see we don't volunteer any more like we used to do in the 60s/70s.

Let us think seriously about some form of National Service like the Tanzanians did in order to engender equality and respect and pay back something to the community. WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER!
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0 #5 Treva 2018-12-09 19:28
Rubanga- Good to see your national colors flying at last. My only concern about your comment is when you say that tribes have character, like drinking if wife beating.

I think that is a dangerous idea. We are all individuals before being members of a tribe or culture.

Every individual is unique. So it is wrong to say that this tribe drinks and that one beats. Those are individual characters. Every tribe has drinkers and wife beaters.

We need more stories in the media which can break those old stereotypes by giving us a more complete picture of Uganda and its people.
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