The Karimojong and Turkana ethnic groups of Uganda and Kenya respectively have long been hostile to each other. Yet they have a lot in common.
They are neighbours on the common border, lead nomadic lives and suffer the same vagaries of nature: Cyclic hunger, poverty and an endless search for gold. Literally.
The hostile communities thus mingle at the dried up Nakabaat River to dig for gold. Women in their colourful clothes, beads, hairstyles and body art are a sight to behold as they take the obligatory break every half hour — typically to take a long swig from a jug of local brew — before returning to the sandy riverbed to strain muddy pools for specks of gold.
But amidst the palpable poverty and desperation of their lifestyles, the Karimojong hold one of the keys to Uganda’s quest to earn as much as $2.8 billion in tourism in the next two years.
The government of Uganda through its tourism agencies is encouraging private investors to package, promote and market cultural tourism in Karamoja.
The region is the last frontier for tourism and is considered one of the country’s gems. Tour operators in the region are already reaping the benefits of this initiative, with tours operators bringing in tourist parties daily.
Today, a visit to Uganda is considered incomplete if it does not include the northeastern Karamoja circuit, offers a cultural experience considered as authentic as it is unique.
Leading the marketing of Karamoja is Kara-Tunga Tours, set up in 2016. The company is selling cultural tourism in Karamoja and is fully booked by groups of four to 12 tourists a time in the low and peak seasons respectively.
I was in Karamoja recently, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that it the fifth annual Karamoja Cultural Tourism Festival was being hosted in Kaabong district, under the theme “With unity and peace, we cherish our culture for the development of Karamoja.”
To my amazement, the festival was attended by hundreds of visitors from different parts of the world, keen on the unique Karamoja culture, seemingly frozen in time in this age of modernity.
The Karimojong, as the people of Karamoja are known, are a nomadic agro-pastoralist community, and by far the largest ethnic group in Uganda that remains untouched by outside influence and its technological encumbrances.
A typical Karamoja homestead or manyatta is a cluster of several grass-thatched mud and wattle huts enclosed inside a perimeter fence of thorny twigs.
The dress code in the major towns of Karamoja like Moroto, Kotido and Nakapiripirit is fairly cosmopolitan, but as one travels deeper into rural Karamoja, traditional dress becomes a common sight. Colourful beaded necklaces and a skirts of bright coloured patterned cloth for the women and a sarong made from similar fabric for the men.
The Karimojong way of life revolves around cattle: Cows are defended, treated and cared for like family members and their blood is drawn and eaten as an organic source of protein. They are also used as a medium of exchange and are used to pay bride price in marriage ceremonies. Cattle are a symbol of wealth.
On September 4, Kara-Tunga Tours gave a group of eight tourists from Holland, the United Kingdom and Russia the full experience of cultural tourism — particularly the community’s affinity to cattle, community cohesion and cuisine.
First, we visited the gold mines in the depths of Nakabaat ravine, where the Karimojong and Turkana work side by side panning for gold. For this special treat, each tourist pays $35. Other special interest activities include visiting a local traditional healer, archaeological sites, rock painting, birding and the Turkana experience on the Kenyan side.
At the end of the day, we toured the Kawutakou parish in Napak district for a “village experience” where we interacted with the villagers as they went about their daily chores.
Here we met the gracefully ageing Theresa Aguma, who doesn’t know her age, but explained to us the significance of cattle to the Karimojong people and culture. As she repeatedly extended her hand for a handshake, the index finger of her other hand was busy tapping at the metallic necklaces she was wearing.
Ejoka? she shakes someone’s hand. Ejoka means “Is it good?” or simply “Hello.” The greeting is followed with a chorus of words in the local dialect, while tapping her necklace.
“She says that back in the day when she was young, she was very beautiful. Even more beautiful than you,” the tour guide Peter Echumar interprets, pointing at Sonia Subbotina, a Russian tourist living in London.
“If you don’t believe me, look at my necklace,” Aguma says. “It is a symbol of how many cows were paid for me. I fetched 200 cows for my hand in marriage,” Echumar the community guide, translates.
One tourist wonders why Aguma was worth so much. We are told she was the village belle and a virgin.
But the guide also explains that besides beauty and virginity, a woman in Karimojong culture does 80 per cent of the work in the home and on the farm, hence is a valued asset worth hundreds of cows. A woman bought with many cows – like Aguma – commands a lot of respect from her co-wives.
In one homestead, the tourists are introduced to the traditional grinding stone. The homeowner skilfully grinds sorghum to make flour, from which to prepare dinner later. We were ushered into several manyattas, but some tourists being over six foot tall, had difficulty bending and going through the three-foot high entrance — the typical height of a manyatta door.
Song and dance
We were later entertained by the villagers. They sang and danced as they performed the customary rituals for celebrating a bumper harvest, initiation of elders more blessings, marriage and courtship as well as cultural games such as a tug of war by the warriors.
The group of tourists — awkward dance moves notwithstanding — were as much part of the performances as the host community.
London resident Ashley Jones was challenged to woo a Karimojong bride. The task was simple: Chase her around a cheering group, catch her and take her back to England as his wife.
He tripped and fell over, bruising his knee and palms. He lost a chance to win a Karimojong bride. But he said he liked the simplicity of the courtship.
The full manyatta tour is part of the village experience and costs $45 per person or $35 each for two.
But for one to enjoy the cattle culture tour, the guides recommend spending a night in the kraal at a cost of $70 for one person and $55 each for two.
Typically, the tourists would camp within the kraal, enjoy the sunset and are invited to take part in the evening milking of cows after they have been brought home from the fields.
To show how the community treats its animals when they have to slaughter them for food, the visitors are welcomed to the animal slaughter and later the cooking.
It is a new experience for many. Most cannot watch the spearing of the animal for blood or even the actual slaughter. But the barbecue part always wins them over. The meal of roast meat is washed down with local brew — made of fermented maize and with the consistency of porridge.
Despite what she considered the “inhumane’’ slaughter, Junko Huijs, a university student of health and society from Holland appreciated the culture and ways of the community, saying; “I am interested in learning how different cultures live and do things.” She also observed that having deep values and a strong culture is the reason the Karimojong live long despite their basic lifestyle.
“I noticed that people here live up to 100 years old because they eat natural food,” she commented.
For those interested, there are workshops on wood carving, clay sculpting, bead making, bee keeping, weaving, traditional dance, cooking and local beer making.
Last year Uganda earned $1.4 billion from the tourism sector — which is just 10 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. But the Uganda Tourism Board says that with innovation, earnings from the sector could more than double.