To promote the use of art for raising awareness
about the developing world
Removing the Karamojong for CHOGM - 18th Nov 2007
Report by Simon Bird and Alex Brigers for 'Karamoja Day out' in Kampala & Hon Achia Terence MP for Bokora, Karamojaland.
"I really want to see the Queen of England arrive, but
fear I will be arrested
if I go to the streets during CHOGM !" says Frances, a Karamojong from
Kakajjo-zone in Kampala.
Her Majesty The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh are scheduled to visit Uganda
this month to open the Common Wealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on
the 23rd to 25th of November 2007.
The President of Uganda, Mr Museveni has been desperately trying to clean up
the city before Her Majesty and some 5,000 delegates from 53 countries arrive.
Some say it is a superficial clean-up: miles of grass has been planted on road
sides; thousands of pot holes filled; litter bins distributed; and, now, the
Government is trying to remove beggars, and others that they regard as 'undesirable',
from the street, 90 percent of which are Karamojong.
KARAMOJA WOMEN on the street : "We are not ready for CHOGM," say
Karamoja women, who fled their homeland because of famine and conflict. "The
city council are rounding us up and returning us to Karamojaland where we have
When I first arrived in Uganda, 6 months ago, the Karamojong could be seen
in Kampala, sweeping fallen beans, maize, or anything edible up from the ground.
In the centre of town they would leave babies alone on the pavement to get money.
These people were the exotic invaders of the city, sporting tribal facial scars
and an attitude of indifference towards their squalid life in the street and
During my stay, I ran craft projects with some of the Karamojong to help start
small businesses. This allowed me to follow their story both in the city and
in remote Karamojaland. The interactive paintings I include were made on location
to help address some of the issues involved in their way of life.
INTER-TRIBAL CONFLICT IN
Overshadowed by the war in Northern Uganda with the LRA (Lord's Resistance
Army), Karamojaland has been virtually unknown to the West. It is a place where
education is only just being accepted, and the old tribal culture of cattle
raiding has turned sour with the arrival of firearms.
MAP: Karamojaland is a wild, semi-arid desert region covering an area of more
than 24,000 sq. miles, bordered by Kenya in the East and Sudan in the North.
For the past 30 years it has been the scene of an inter-tribal conflict over
the ownership of cattle and for revenging previous attacks. No full record of
casualties exists - successive Ugandan governments have turned a blind eye to
the troubles. In 2001, a voluntary disarmament programme was started by the
Ugandan Peoples Defence Force (UPDF). This was then upgraded, in 2003, to a
forced disarmament programme.
"Over 10,000 guns have been collected since the disarmament exercise
in 2001. It is estimated that some 40,000 illegal weapons are still scattered
in the region," says a UN report on May 22nd 2007.
One of the problems of this disarmament today is neighbouring Karamoja tribes
coming to attack villages that have already been disarmed.
"They are coming to take cattle and food stocks, and are killing people,
leaving those who most want peace with nothing," says Daniel, a Local Councillor
of Matany sub-County, Karamojaland.
The new radical disarmament method, whereby villages are surrounded and
searched, has also been creating extra civilian casualties.
A 2007 report from St. Kizito Hospital in Matany states: "Over the last
three months, there has been an average of 1 victim every 12 -18 hours. Given
the fact that those who reach hospital are only the survivors; the actual field
mortality must be incredible and of great concern."
Coupled with this armed insecurity, Karamojaland also suffers from yearly drought.
"At least 40 percent of the population lacks adequate, if any, food stocks.
The World Food Programme (WFP) will be providing assistance to 500,000
during the coming year," says a report from the WFP, January 2007.
KARAMOJONG IN KAMPALA
I am in Kakajjo-zone ghetto just a stone's throw from the city centre of Kampala.
The ground is muddy and black. I jump a raw sewerage channel to arrive at an
open space where women are drying beans and cassava they had swept from the
street that morning. At times, there are up to 900 Karamojong staying here.
Now, on the lead-up to CHOGM, that number has fallen to about 200.
PHOTO: KAKAJJO-ZONE GHETTO.
"Yesterday, the city council surrounded 20 children on the street,"
says Frances, who has been in the ghetto 4 years, and is now the acting chief.
"They have been taken away."
He takes me to one of the mothers washing a baby in a dirty bowl next to the
sewerage channel. "They would not tell us where they were being taken,"
says Maria, 42. "I can only go back to Kampala road to ask again."
Maria fled Karamojaland because her husband and 1 child were killed during
a cattle raid. She took 3 of her 5 children to Kampala leaving the other 2 behind
with an aunt.
She does not want to return.
In a drinking room I sit with some Karamoja men, and suck millet beer through
a long, wooden straw.
"Are we not Ugandan citizens? Why cannot we stay to see the Queen,"
says John, a determined 24-year-old Karamojong, who is surviving by making rat
traps out of scrap metal. "We hear on the street and the radio that they
want all the Karamojong to leave before CHOGM. Maybe I will leave for outside
Kampala, then return after 2 weeks."
The phenomenon of the Karamojong coming to the city started 5 or 6 years ago
with the beginning of the disarmament process. Periodically, the Government
removes them back to Karamojaland, but within a few months they have all returned
After being re-directed half a dozen times, I finally track down the city council
public relations officer responsible for picking up street people.
He welcomes me in with a big smile, as everybody does to a Muzungo ('white
man'). "It is our policy to remove those Karamojong from the street, and
to put them into school, and relocate them in Karamojaland. We do not want to
encourage more to come to the city. It is there we want to develop them, and
deal with the problems from the source."
I explain that mothers were being separated from their children. He replies,
"It is the nature of their begging to send children by themselves to the
street. It is not good, or safe, for the children. We are trying to tell them
The children are often taken to Caprinza, an education facility 20 miles from
Kampala. Mothers sometimes go there to collect their children, but they have
to save up enough money through begging in order to buy them back.
Maria Lokwea was one such case. She says there were a lot of people sleeping
together, but she did go to school. Her mother paid 40,000 Ush to take her out.
Now, she is back on the street with her older brother's children.
Next to the old British railway line is another ghetto called Katwe where 80
Karamoja live in a large mud house. Conditions seem slightly better than at
Kakajjo-zone. Rent is also cheaper. Fires are going on the mud, and people are
cooking chicken intestines and rotten tomatoes they had scavenged from the
PICTURE AT KATWE GHETTO: I let the Karamojong tell me what they think should
be included on the painting; the Red Cross man coming to check on hygiene, and
Agnes the pregnant woman.
"I will be having my baby with Helen," says Agnes, the lady I was
painting in the picture. She leads me to a clinic 50 yards away. It is a small
concrete hut with a corrugated iron roof.
"I treat some of the Karamojong for free," says Helen, a registered
nurse with a warm smile and large, frizzy hair. "It is not because I feel
sorry for them, but because my clinic is just here, nearby. One woman came to
Kampala by clinging onto the underneath of a bus. She arrived coughing and with
skin diseases, and 4 months pregnant. I delivered the baby, and it is now
PHOTO: Painting in Kakajjo-zone.
During another afternoon, I organise a interactive painting with 3 people from
the ghetto: John (centre), Mr. Lokai (right) and Rooney (left).
John tells me he left Karamojaland because of hunger, but Rooney says it was
because he had stolen 10 chickens, and that the family will never forget.
"There are some bad people here as well," explains Mr. Lokai.
have fled Karamojaland not because they are victims, but because they have killed,
and fear being revenged."
They all laugh.
Almost 90 percent of the Karamojong we spoke to in Kampala originate from the
central region of Karamojaland. Over 50 percent of which were from one particular
sub-county: that of Lokopo.
I feel compelled to visit Karamojaland now to see the conditions myself, and
to find out why people are leaving from just one area. Mr. Lokia volunteered
to act as translator
Karamojong literally means 'the tired old man'. They migrated over 1,000 years
ago from Ethiopia, and when they reached what is now Uganda the tired old men
of the group said they could go no further. The relatives of the Karamojong
can be found all across East Africa: Toposa people (Sudan), Turkana people (Kenya)
and the Maasai people (Tanzania).
Karamoja people are the only semi-nomadic group in Uganda. Men live for
periods with the cattle, moving according to the availability of pasture, and
to avoid raiding from the neighbours.
Women and families tend to remain in permanent settlements. These villages
may comprise of 10 or more families, who have chosen to live together for reasons
of security and support.
PHOTO: Traditional waist decorations for women
The multicoloured waist beads that are worn by the women symbolize beauty;
the more beads, the more desirable for marrying they become. Old men often sell
off their best cattle in order to buy jewellery for their daughters, so they
can fetch a higher bride price. Buying a bride can cost anything from 10 to
80 cattle and goats.
During the bumpy, 12-hour bus journey, the land slowly becomes drier and more
parched. By the time we cross into Karamojaland, the bus is jammed full of men,
women, babies, sacks, baskets and chickens.
PHOTO: View from bus entering Karamojaland.
At the first stop, hordes of skinny kids come running up chanting, "Da
ka do do, da ka do do
"They are saying 'give squashy bottles'. Even to me it sounds funny,"
says Mr. Lokai with a smile on his face.
We arrive in the small town of Matany at nightfall. I see drunken warriors
staggering about with little more than a blanket wrapped around themselves.
Finally out of the bus, we walk briskly to the house of the sub-county chief,
Mr. Daniel Corbie.
"While it is safe during the day, the second it gets dark you should be
inside," says Daniel. "There is still a general insecurity because
some people have not given up their guns."
The next day we meet a student called Basil who offers to guide us to Lokopo.
"Matany is a rich town compared with Lokopo; we have an Italian Catholic
church and a hospital. The people from Lokopo have to walk for 2 hours so they
can trade here," says Basil.
I speak to a woman from Lokopo, who is selling bundles of wood in the market
area. "I get up early when it is dark to collect wood from the bush. One
day we saw men with guns, so we just ran. None of us were shot, but some people
PHOTO: Women selling firewood
Basil tells us that sometimes it is not just raiders from outside that come
to take cattle, but those people from within. The cattle, however, are now guarded
by the army in the barracks. So, the raiders feel frustrated, and, sometimes,
vent their anger by killing innocent women and children in the bush.
PAINTING: Showing women collecting firewood and warrior wearing traditional
blanket. You cannot tell if a warrior is concealing a gun or not.
WALK TO LOKOPO
It is a 2-hour walk to Lokopo. The countryside is flat and the sun very hot.
Acacia trees and thorny bushes are scattered on the plain as far as the eye
can see. People walking the other way stop and greet me with hands together.
"They think you are another Italian priest from the church," says
It is an indescribable feeling to be seeing the Karamojong in their homeland
and not in the city ghetto. They are tall people with elaborate jewellery and
colourful blankets that fit so well into the environment here.
Basil directs us on a short cut to another path. On the way he discovers some
bones half buried in the sandy soil. "Someone was killed here," he
says, holding up one of the bones to his leg where it would have belonged.
"The dead are not buried but left or dragged to the bush to prevent disease.
Mothers cry for 20 minutes, then call it a day and get on with their lives.
Sometimes they even smear the bodies with sheep fat so animals eat it faster.
Death is a part of our culture," says Mr. Lokai.
Lokopo is made up of about 20 villages, and situated in the middle is a small
Every village in Karamojaland is surrounded by a barricade of woven sticks
and spiny branches. There is a small entrance which you have to climb through
on all fours. At night, these entrances are blocked with extra spiky sticks.
It really makes me realise that these people have lived with inter-tribal warfare
for a long time. Giving up the gun must be a difficult thing to do.
In the small trading centre little is going on; some women selling stacks of
wood, some selling water, and some men selling black, charcoal-cooked rats from
the bush. I buy one of the rats. It tastes like burnt roast pheasant, but with
rounder bones - actually, not bad!
Mr. Lokai spots a woman who he recognises from the Kakajjo-zone ghetto in
She is pregnant. "I have returned to have my first baby, and when I am
better, and have some money for the bus, I will return to Kampala, because there
is too much hunger here," she says.
We ask if she will use her baby for begging on the street.
"No," she replies. PHOTO: Countryside around Lokopo
Mr. Lokai whispers, "I think I will see that baby on the street very soon."
PAINTING: Showing women and children, who are often the innocent victims of
A Karamoja elder tells us that a few days before there was a raid on his village
on the northern edge of Lokopo sub-county.
Before entering the village, I am alarmed to see several warriors carrying
badly concealed AK47 rifles under their blankets.
Mr. Lokai instructs me, not to say anything about it and not to worry. I feel
uneasy because this area was supposed to have been disarmed.
We are invited into the chief's hut, and sit on cow hides; I am offered a bucket
of sorghum beer.
"We have been attacked several times in the last few months. It is the
Jia in the North; they have taken goats and cows," says the village chief.
"There is no community here anymore; most people have fled to Kampala,
Jinga or Umbale." He points to a set of abandoned round huts opposite.
I ask what should be done.
"The Government should put more army around the villages to protect us
while disarmament is going on. There are just 2 soldiers for the whole of Lokopo;
the rest are in the barracks with the cattle."
The chief goes on to explain that three quarters of the cattle have been taken,
along with most of the food that was stored.
Outside, I ask the elder if he ever went on cattle raids when he was younger.
"Yes," he replies, and gives a laugh. "On one raid we took many
cows. There were 100 of us. It was a big battle, but we managed to win."
I ask if he killed anyone.
He says, "No-one from the village; just those that followed us."
PHOTO: Lokopo villagers.
On the way back to Matany, Basil tells me that even though this village has
guns, he found out that they do not have bullets. The army is checking all roads,
so it is difficult to get ammunition. But, in the north of Karamojaland it is
easy to get guns and ammunition from across the border in Sudan.
PAINTING: Telling the story, with the people who have already fled to the city.
Back in Matany, I greet the hospital administrator in Spanish, because I was
told by a nurse he was Argentinean.
He gives us permission to speak to some of the patients. "You can be a
doctor this afternoon," he says, handing me a white overall, "so you
don't worry the patients."
I tell him that earlier in the week I had also been an Italian priest.
There are 2 rooms dedicated to male gun shot victims. Each room has 12 beds,
and all are taken.
"I was shot in Lorikitai, a village in Lokopo district. I was sleeping
inside the village when I heard the neighbours were being attacked at night
by cattle raiders. I went to help," says Mr Loibar, 30.
He begins to lift the bandage to show me his leg, and I quickly say that it
is not necessary.
He goes on to say that he thinks the disarmament is good, and that he does
not want to take revenge on those people.
In the women's ward, we speak to a girl sat on the step of the ward. "I
do not know why the Government soldiers started shooting; they had already collected
guns a few days before. This was the second time the soldiers came," she
An older lady joins the conversation. "The soldiers first collect all
the people and tell them to sit down. It is those people which try to run away
that are shot. She must have panicked and followed them," she tells me.
The UN Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented numerous Human Rights
by Uganda's National Army. In January 2007 UPDF soldiers shot and killed 10
individuals, including three children, as they attempted to flee during cordon
and search operations in Kaabong district.
MP FOR MOROTO DISTRICT
Luckily, just before we left Karamojaland the MP for Moroto District was paying
Daniel a visit, so we ask him how the Disarmament was going.
Firstly, he explains that he is at the mercy of the Government in the capital,
Kampala. Then, he tells us that he is here to organise a series of meetings
with the elders from the South, Middle and North in order to join them together
and tell their people to cooperate with the disarmament process.
"Tomorrow, they will be travelling north to Kotido, and I will be accompanying
them," he says.
The next morning, we watched the truck leave with the politician and about
"They look scared. Maybe they are afraid the raiders will attack them
on the way," says Mr. Lokai.
Basil says the main problem is that most cattle raiders are young people, and
they do not respect the elders anymore.
BACK IN KAMPALA
Back in Kampala, I see the Karamojong I got to know in a different light. I
have seen what they are escaping from, and how living in squalid conditions
in the city is still, somehow, better than being back at home.
Kampala, with its rich walking the streets, must give the Karamojong some sense
of hope, and, of course, enough spare change for them to survive.
Out of the individuals we spoke to in Karamojaland about why people are fleeing
to the city, most said it was because of hunger. Some even said that they are
used to the conflict situation because it has existed for so long.
FUTURE OF THE KARAMOJONG
No tourism exists in Karamojaland, but great potential is there if the Disarmament
can be successful.
It has been proven that modernisation does not mean that traditional culture
has to disappear completely. The Maasai warriors of Tanzania, the cousins of
the Karamojong, are a good example. They live in relative peace, welcoming tourists
to their villages and, usually, having a range of crafts on sale. I have even
seen the Maasai in Kampala, sporting their blazing red blankets, sandals and
Finally, if our Queen does see any Karamojong on the streets of Kampala during
her stay, it will be a huge recognition for all street people around the world.
But, sadly, I fear Mr. Museveni will be sweeping the streets clean to give the
best impression he can for CHOGM.
So, unlike the rest of us who see the real situation on the street, those VIP
Commonwealth Heads of Government, including, of course, the Queen, herself -
the people which really have influence - will always be doctored and manipulated
for the benefit of the rich, and not the poor.
Thanks to Mr Lokai, Basil and Alex Brigers who helped collect and edit this
If you have any views about the situation of the Karamojong, feel free to leave your comments
- we appreciate all feed
back - Thank you...