News / Africa

Disappearing Herds Threaten Culture, Livelihoods in Uganda

A boy tends goats in Karamoja, Uganda, where traditional animal herding is giving way to agriculture, August 27, 2012. (VOA - H. Heuler)
A boy tends goats in Karamoja, Uganda, where traditional animal herding is giving way to agriculture, August 27, 2012. (VOA - H. Heuler)
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.

You May Like

Isolation, Despair Weigh on Refugees in Remote German Camp

Refugees resettled near village of Holzdorf deep in German forestland say there is limited interaction with public, mutual feelings of distrust

Britons Divided Over Bombing IS

Surveys show Europeans generally support more military action against Islamic State militants, but sizable opposition exists in Britain

Russia Blacklists Soros Foundations as 'Undesirable'

Russian officials add Soros groups to a list of foreign and international organizations banned from giving grants to Russian partners

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Mike from: California
September 03, 2012 1:15 PM
Poverty continues in Africa because of bad governance which allows low productivity, low value labor to persist. Subsistence agriculture is essentially rural poverty anywhere it is practiced. Only by building higher value labor requirements can people move out of this poverty. I know of no counter-example except in rich countries which tax others to provide subsidies for "cultural" reasons, like in Switzerland.
In Response

by: xionghao from: China
September 11, 2012 5:55 AM
I think the only way changing the situation is education.

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs