Art, Culture, Books and Travel
The Karamojong of Uganda
The Karamojong are a pastoral group who inhabit the plateau region of Uganda. Linguistically, the Karamojong belong to the Central Group of the Nilote Language Family, which also includes several neighboring groups that speak a mutually intelligible dialect. The related groups include the Teso, Iteso, Jie, Dodoz, Topoza, Jiye, Nyangatom, and Turkana. In 1986 the Karamojong numbered about 300,000, which included 50,000 Jie.
The habitat of the Karamojong is a plateau 1,120 to 1,360 meters high; there are steep hills throughout, and higher mountains border the plateau. It is a region characterized by thorny plants and grasses. The savanna becomes green with the first rainfall, in April, but dries up again in November, when the rain stops. The dry season is very windy, and there is no surface water, except for puddles left over from the rainy season, which quickly dry up. River beds fill up in a few hours during storms, and dry up again after the storms pass.
The permanent settlements are in the central part of Karamojong territory and are the locii of cultivation and continuous habitation. Their position is fixed by the availability of reliable permanent water, and their mobility is limited by the need to store gardening implements and grain. Women carry out most of the activities related to these permanent settlements. With the exception of some milk products, the only food consumed in the permanent settlements is generally the product of women’s agricultural efforts. The camps are in the eastern and western portions of Karamojong territory.
The staple crop is sorghum, which is planted with cucumbers and marrows. Beans and gourds, and sometimes maize and millet, are also grown. Because of their environment, the Karamojong cannot subsist by cultivation alone; they therefore attach greater economic importance to raising livestock. Their form of pastoralism is to exploit the products of the stock rather than slaughter the stock. They consume milk, milk products, and blood rather than meat, which is eaten only at public ceremonies or when an animal dies.
Cattle are a key element of Karamojong culture. They are highly valued both in economic and social terms. Milk, blood, and meat provide sustenance; fat is both a food and a cosmetic; urine is used as a cleanser; hides make sleeping skins, shoulder capes, skirts, bell collars, sandals, armlets, and anklets; horns and hooves provide snuff holders, feather boxes, and food containers; bags are made from scrota; intestines are used for prophecy; chyme has a ceremonial function (anointing); and droppings are used for fertilizer.
Cattle are literally wealth; they are used to establish families, acquire political supporters, achieve status, and influence public affairs. The payment of cattle, as bride-wealth, to a girl’s kin is an essential step in arranging a marriage. A man is only the genitor, not the father, of children he engenders, unless he transfers cattle in a bride-wealth for their mother. Furthermore, the acquisition of an extended range of kinsmen through affinity is almost as significant as the acquisition of a bride and, potentially, a family. In other words, the more cattle a man provides in bride-wealth the more kinsmen he creates who receive a share of cattle, and the larger his range of affinal ties—a very important social asset.
Territorial groups range in size from small settlements and neighborhoods, to larger localities (consisting of several neighborhoods), to subsections, and finally to sections or tribal groups. The Karamojong neighborhood is made up of a small number of settlements, the members of which recognize social ties with each other, offer mutual hospitality, utilize common natural resources, take common ritual action, and meet together frequently for social interaction. This is the setting where most face-to-face encounters take place. Subsections are enduring social groups; their continuity derives from coresidence, corporate activity, and the establishment of a distinctive name that ties each to some natural object. Subsections are also religious congregations, each with its own ritual specialist and ceremonial grounds.
Karamojong adult males are organized into a series of groups based on varying degrees of common age. These age sets are an integral part of Karamojong social organization and provide the basis for political authority. The highest sources of authority are the elders of a community. The channels of authority are provided by the relationships that are created by the organization of people into age categories. The use of authority is occasioned by public ritual gatherings, council meetings, and public disputes. Decisions and sanctions of the elders are carried out because subsenior age sets adhere to the norms of obedience established with age rankings. The elders are also considered to have divine authority—or at least to be closely linked to divine authority. The consequence of violating the elders’ authority is punishment inflicted by younger obedient men, or by deity, leading to the misfortune or death of the disobedient and their dependents.
Photograph by David Pluth
by RONALD JOHNSON