[ELLA Community blog series] Pastoralism and Culture in Karamoja Region

This article has been written by Loupa Pius of the Dodoth Agro-pastoralist Development Organization (DADO). Pius is a member of the ELLA Community; he has taken part in the Learning Alliance and Study Tour on Pastoralism and Land Tenure, and was an  ELLA LEAP Award recipient. The following article discusses the plight of pastoralists in the Karamoja in the face of changing public policies regarding land tenure in Uganda.


pastoralist-in-Nablatuk-ugandaKaramoja  region  in  North  Eastern  Uganda,  is  divided in seven  districts:  Kaabong,  Abim, Kotido, Moroto, Amudat, Napak and Nakapirit. The region borders Kenya to the east, South Sudan to the North and the district of Kitgum, Pader, Lira, Agago, Amuria and Katawi to the west; Kumi, Sironko and Kapchorwa to the south. Population in Karamoja is estimated at about 1.2 million people with 70 percent residing in rural areas as pastoralists. The region is also 27000 square kilometers, composed by savannah from North Eastern edges of Uganda bordering South Sudan and Kenya.

Karamoja region is being dominated by pastoralists; pastoralism is the dominant economic livelihood  for  the  Karamojong  and  its  viability  as  both  a  way  of  life  and  a  livelihood  is dependent upon the availability of natural resources, access to land and environmental factors (Kratali, 2010). Karamoja Pastoralists are among the most politically and economically marginalized communities. Marginalized in the context of limited access to the natural resources on which their livelihoods depend, and very limited access to basic socio-economic services and infrastructure. Limited or uncertain resource tenure and access to, or ownership of land, water and other resources is a long-term fundamental constraint for pastoralism.

It should be recalled that Karamoja dry lands are territories where pastoral communities have been historically marginalized because of their strong culture connection and continuous attempt to  express  their  identity  as  cattle herders. Known for their nomadic pastoralism, which is seen by many as a backward mode of cattle husbandry, not economically viable but rather environmentally destructive.  Also  noting  that pastoral communities are located in semi-arid areas that observe a number of droughts and water stress due to changing climate, coping is becoming one of their ways of life.

Livestock management in the ecological risky situation of Karamoja needs great skills, indigenous knowledge, experience and the ability to combine all aspects of traditional policies and National policies, the Karamoja pastoralists are special group with knowledge to explore pastoral resources without depleting them, combine necessity of livestock feeding far from the villages, particularly during the dry season and at the same time feeding  the  people  living  in  the  villages  (old  people,  women  and  children)  with  livestock products such as milk, meat, blood, butter etc. Pastoral experiences in Karamoja have taught many pastoral families how to survive and at times how to prosper in difficult surroundings like those prevalent in the area. For example the Karamoja pastoralists could recognize which pasture is where and available when, also which pasture is good and bad for what type of animals.

In Karamoja social context; herd protection against epidemics, droughts especially those attributed by climate change effects, normally consisted of distributions of once herds among relatives and family members, so that incase of any problem the person will not lose the entire property but part of it. The large herd sizes kept by the Karamoja pastoralists, is due to local management practices which allows natives to continue keeping a number of animals double in comparison with one kept in a modern rational or system.

Natural resource management: as we all know the fact that pastoralism is the best way of utilizing the dryland resources, and also way to assure survival of the rural population, especially due to inability of crop production to continuously provide food based demands of the local population. The Karamojong intelligence is noted also in animal diversity, they always keep different types of animals (cattle, goats, sheep and donkey) an example cattle browse on grasses while goats feed on leaves and tender tree branches of thorny tree branches hence avoiding competition and exploiting a wide range of ecological green environment. Traditionally the greatest achievement of the pastoral traditional policies is their capability to exploit the wide range of natural resources without depleting them.


Elder spears bull for initiationWithout cattle, the cultural and religious life of the Karamoja would be almost impossible. Important events  in  social  setting  of Karamojong are noticeable by the presence of cattle as an essential par; like birth celebration, initiation, marriage and death, in most clans of the Karamojong any redress of wrongs done to the members of the society, any friendship gained this can be strengthened by gifts or a offer of cattle, goats, sheep etc. This ceremonies include ‘Atuware’, Akiwudakin”. Traditionally Karamojongs do not count their cattle, but familiarise with them one by one by their particular physical or behavioral features, and each cattle has a proper name derived from the color of the hide, shape of the horns and normally inducted by the elders in order to suit the taste of the owner. So the relationship between an ox (Emong ngolo Aminat) and a Karamojong is unbroken arrow.

As many scholars, experts and policy makers anticipate; It should noted that cattle possession to a pastoralists in Karamoja is not necessarily for economic progress, but greatly serves the purpose of social, spiritual and cultural necessity as well as building resilience to cope up with current climate change trends. Only with cattle the Karamojong meet all the socio-economic requirements of life and others.

Women shoulder increasingly heavy burdens to provide for their families which also impacts on girls’ education and constrains their participation in public life. Pastoralist women work longer and harder than men fulfilling female roles in the household as well as making money from tasks traditionally  deemed  to be women’s work including collecting firewood, gathering  wild vegetables and fruits, selling charcoal etc. Pastoralist women pass between household and clans when they are married and are often not seen as permanent members of their families and it is the responsibility of the whole clan to control the married women since the whole clan contributes for bride wealth during marriage.


Karamoja pastoralists in the past enjoyed their traditional policies (Rules and regulations) it was just  until  when  the  government  of  Uganda  launched  mass  disarmament  campaign  of the Karamojong community now at peace for around ten (10) years since 2001 to 2015 date. Now newly  emerging  policies  which  are  affecting  the  pastoral  lifestyle  indirectly,  an example currently the many government agencies/ institutions and civil society are working closely to make pastoralists sedentary with a reference of the only way to meet the pastoralists livelihood development needs. An example government and agricultural based institution have asserted to distribute agricultural inputs such as planting materials to the pastoralist which since failed to support the food demands of the local people here in Karamoja.

The Karamojongs     have    managed     their livelihoods through pastoralism where they can move with their livestock to search for grass and  water  compared  to  crop  growing  which don’t allow any reallocation during the dry season, therefore it is one of the solutions to climate change. The new perception by many actors, coupled with low representative of pastoralists have put it that pastoralism is unsustainable hence rapid commercialization, climate change and conflicts are forcing pastoralists into sedentary lifestyles.

The gender roles and responsibilities of pastoralists in the Manyatta level of Karamoja have further been affected since the livestock management practices in the past put that different age groups had responsibilities in different activities of the  Manyatta an example in Karamoja women roles was to bring up young children and care for elderly people when the men have moved to the dry season grazing camps/ rangelands.

The current pastoral reforms taking place in Karamoja; are more attributing to the loss of the pastoral lifestyles since major policies supposed to aid sustainability of pastoral livelihoods have been overlooked and have since remained in central government shelves and existing policies have also mainly focused on sedentarization of pastoralists; Their several pastoral reforms taking places in Karamoja: due to decreasing livestock numbers as a result of previous cattle raids, theft and newly emerging livestock diseases, continuous droughts as result of current climate change situation  in  Karamoja  many  pastoralists  especially  the  ex  pastoralists  have  shifted  to  crop farming in most fertile areas especially those around the Conservation areas, other pastoralist who lost their livestock have become now market agents for cattle and goats. Ex-pastoralists joining the small scale mining sectors (gold mining and marble stones quarrying) as a way to cope up with current changes of life.

Other reforms include the settlements changes, now many pastoralists have decided to settle their families (women, children and elderly person) meanwhile young energetic men have to continue mobility practices.  So  the division  of labour is  taking  place in  pastoral  household  system. (Women and young boys of age of 4 to 6 years herd small ruminants and donkeys and also market them, while Men and energetic boys herd by being mobile cattle). As before the whole pastoral family herd to move every year in search of water and pasture.

Due to policy influence on pastoralism, e.g. Education policies, land policies, many pastoralists’ children are now attending school education, except of the already caught up aged pastoralists. The changing land tenure regimes in pastoral land is forcing many of the pastoralists to settle meanwhile others age groups will continue to herd, be mobile as a way of safe guarding land and rangelands from grabs. Many pastoralists have now started marketing their livestock in an attempt to cope up with the current climate change trends away to feed the family during the worst seasons. In summary of the reforms:

■ Education attempts
■ Land reforms (Some land individualization taking place, emerging urban centers)
■ Small scale farming adjacent to conservation areas)
■ Livestock marketing taking place both locally and cross border barter trade exchange of goods for livestock
■ Division of labour (according to gender and age)


The opinions expressed in blog entries by ELLA Community members are theirs alone unless otherwise stated, and do not reflect the opinions of The ELLA Network. This article is part of the Research Blog Series, which focuses on current research or analysis on ELLA themes conducted by our community members.
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