KARAMOJA, Uganda — Uganda's pastoral Karimojong people have long relied on cattle to survive. In an effort to wean them off food aid, however, they are being encouraged to embrace agriculture - a practice that clashes with their culture and livelihoods.
For centuries, the Karimojong people of northeastern Uganda have herded their cattle across the sun-baked plains. They grew food when they could, but it was milk, blood and meat that carried them through the long years of drought, as people followed their animals from one watering hole to the next.
But the cattle are disappearing fast, and with them the Karimojan way of life. With help from the Ugandan government and its partners, people increasingly are embracing agriculture, and a more sedentary lifestyle.
Pastoralism versus agriculture
Karamoja-based researcher Karol Czuba said there are a number of reasons that people here are dealing with a marked decrease in the size of cattle herds.
“The number of livestock in the region has reduced, as a result of both natural factors and raiding, which was really very commonly practiced in the last few decades," said Czuba. "This, combined with constant government pressure on people to give up their traditional way of life altogether. There has been very little support for people who wish to continue to be pastoralists.”
Permanent Secretary from the office of the Prime Minister Puis Bigirimana has denied that the Ugandan government favors agriculture over pastoralism. He said agricultural support programs are designed to wean the Karimojong off 30 years of food aid.
“We are saying that it should not continue like that, because that is keeping people in perpetual poverty. And we believe that as much as they love their cows, they can still do agriculture,” said Bigirimana.
Reasoning behind shifted emphasis
Czuba said the Ugandan government has good reasons for discouraging pastoralism. Among them, he said, is the local habit of cattle raiding, with heavily armed raiders often crossing the border with neighboring Kenya.
“It is not in [the government’s] interest to have people within these territories who go across borders to raid other people, and to have people within their borders who have guns," said Czuba. "The traditional agro-pastoralist or pastoralist existence, which this region has known for centuries, is certainly not in line with the needs of modern states.”
In Napak, in southern Karamoja, some men still herd cows and goats through the dusty streets. But for 56 year-old Michael Ooyan, those days are over.
He and his village used to be rich in cattle, he said, but now the cows are gone. Ooyan blames Kenyan raiders, and government disarmament programs that took away the villagers’ guns.
No one knows how many thousands of people have died over the years at the hands of raiders. Aid worker Adam Riddell, with the NGO Samaritan’s Purse, said many people have sold their animals to avoid the risk.
“It is like having a big target in your house, and when raiders come and take all your cows, you are left with nothing,” said Riddell.
Persistent drought problems
But he said the Karimojong lifestyle evolved for a reason. Rains in the region often fail, making agriculture an unreliable option. He said people who have given up their animals will still need food aid during the next dry year.
“What do you turn to when there is no agriculture? Your animals. But if, over the past three years, you have gotten rid of all your animals, what do you turn to? Aid. I do not know what else. We have a long way to go in getting to the place where the Karimojong are ready for that shock if the rains do not come. If that happens even next year, big problems,” said Riddell.
It has been decades since the Karimojong have been self-sufficient. Riddell said dependence on aid is eroding their self-respect.
“There is a real lack of dignity, which does not get talked about much. They are tough, tough people, but they have been neglected for a long time, they are the black sheep of Uganda, and nobody really knows what to do with them. And maybe losing all of their cows is kind of a cultural identity crisis.”
Michael Ooyan agrees.
Many Karimojong ceremonies used to revolve around giving or killing animals, he said, including weddings, harvest festivals and gatherings of elders. Now, he said, he is afraid young people are beginning to forget their culture.