Peter Lokonoi’s compound in Nabokoton village, Amudat district, Uganda, is an unfenced affair, composed of three grass-thatched huts and a granary for his nuclear family, an uncommon sight in a region renowned for several households huddled together around kraals as a measure to keep away cattle raiders.
Such life, so close to northwestern Kenya, where neighbouring communities still own guns, is no surprise to Michael Lokiru, a programme officer at the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s disarmament programme, which works alongside the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) to recover livestock stolen by Kenyan pastoralist communities.
Mr Lokonoi’s Pokot people like to live as nuclear families, but many have given up this tradition due to constant threat from cattle rustlers.
Even in purely Karamojong households, where large compounds are a traditional feature, more families are opting for linear settlements close to roads, trading centres, health services, schools and water sources.
People are also choosing to own homes in less crowded places, where they can access bigger parcels of land for farming.
The traditional homestead is changing, as the kraal, for example, no longer has to be at the centre, since the original intention was to provide a human shield for the animals.
With livestock theft on the wane, Nupudakwii Gino Rufino, whose kraal boasts at least 60 head of cattle in northern Kotido district, says he no longer has to stay away from his wives for long.
“As an old man I am now able to relax and leave the animals in the hands of my sons. I only go to the kraal when there are important decisions to make,” says Rufino who lives in a trading centre about 10km away from his kraal.
When cattle theft was still rampant, pastoralists would spend as long as a year or more without returning home, as the kraals had to be guarded by all the men.
Kraals were combined so that, in case of an attack, there would be a standing fighting force of at least 50 men to drive away rustlers.
Today, each family grazes its livestock separately.
This reduces overgrazing, which is a major challenge to pastoralist communities.
To bring an end to rustling, the UPDF forcefully disarmed the Karamojong over a 10-year period. Simon Peter Longoli, the executive director of the Karamoja Development Forum, says the region lost about 85 per cent of its animals following the disarmament.
Animals were lost, as families without guns started living in communal kraals protected by the UPDF.
In these communes, Mr Longoli says, animals died from disease and it was also easier for raiders to make away with a larger number of livestock at once.
Even when these animals were recovered by the UPDF, the owners did not always get them back.
But the disarmament has contributed to turning around life in Karamoja.
Some say, it has accelerated prosperity as more settled and secure communities focus on economic activity beyond cattle rearing.
Mr Lokonoi said taking away guns from Karamojong hands and ending rustling presented him with an opportunity to reorganise his life.
He started life afresh in 2005 following his release from prison. The 45-year-old says he started livestock theft when he was aged 12. And for 21 years, he murdered, plundered and robbed people to earn a living and feed his family, until the long arm of the law caught up with him.
So when he was released, he was motivated enough to seek an alternative economic activity. Without money or animals, his wife and children gone from home, Mr Lokonoi attempted to grow crops, which did not require much capital.
As a rustler, he could not retain any animals, because the practice was to sell everything you stole, to get rid of such live evidence of wrongdoing once the animals were confiscated by the authorities. Yet, he did not have any money stashed away from his rustling days.
In Karamoja, growing crops without government and non-governmental incentives is difficult because of the cyclical drought in the semi-arid region. But Lokonoi was desperate and kept going until he could get assistance from the two.
He and 12 others were later taken to Soroti, a district south of Karamoja, where they learnt to grow colewort (sukuma wiki) in 2012.
The venture to grow colewort and other vegetables laid the foundation for a business from which he and his 14 partners now earn an average of Ush7.2 million ($1,967) per year.
In addition to the vegetables, they also grow sugarcane, bananas, maize and beans when the seasons are right.
And from these, Lokonoi has been able to spare enough money to buy 70 goats, a solar panel for charging cellphones and lighting, which eliminates the possibility of his house catching fire during drought. Villagers say houses catch fire during the drought when it’s very windy.
In a country, where 10 million people are struggling to put food on the table, Mr Lokonoi, now boasts half a granary of maize. And, for one who comes from one of the most hunger-prone parts of Uganda, he says, he affords the standard four meals a day.
All this has been possible in part because the FAO invested in a community water project for irrigation and watering animals.
The solar-powered multipurpose system provides clean tap water at Nabokoton primary school, water in a trough for animals and for a micro-irrigation scheme to allow the partners grow vegetables throughout the year.
During spells of drought, when several other water sources dry up, the scheme serves three villages and about 120 households.
Kul Chandra Timalsina from the Institute for International Co-operation and Development, that built the system says, it cost Ush150 million ($4,098).
Today, seven such systems dot the seven districts of Karamoja. In addition, the institute has also built 21 valley tanks and 15 sub-surface dams, all funded by the FAO.