The relatively sparse rainfall in northeastern Uganda
supports a pastoralist economy, and most people also raise
to supplement their diet that centers around meat, milk,
blood from cattle. Even after independence in 1962, most
governments dealt with the Karamojong as rather difficult
citizens who sometimes impeded administration of the
Karamojong resisted government pressures to abandon their
life-styles, but officials estimated that as many as 20
of the population may have died in the drought and famine
swept through much of the African Sahel in the early
Karamojong, Jie, and Dodoth oral historians have
their forebears' arrival in the region from the north.
to these accounts, they found an indigenous society, the
who were forced to move southward, leaving an Oropom clan
the Karamojong as an apparent remnant of this society. The
people were believed to have separated from the Karamojong
in the mid-eighteenth century. They migrated northward
mountainous territory. As a result, their culture
of the Karamojong in many respects. Dodoth homesteads were
generally in valleys, with dry season pastures on nearby
hillsides. As a result, the Dodoth did not practice the
transhumant migration patterns that required other
peoples to establish dry-season cattle camps.
Cattle are of great symbolic and economic importance,
people recalled the devastating rinderpest epidemic that
the area in the late nineteenth century. Using that
educate the young, they also told of cattle herds that
by being moved to highland grazing areas.
British control of the region was fairly ineffective
into the twentieth century, although successful trading
had been established as early as 1890. Traders brought
occasionally, cattle to augment local herds, and received
spears, and other metal products in return.
Most Karamojong peoples supplement their pastoral
with crop cultivation, which is almost entirely in the
women. Millet is an important staple, but many people also
corn and peanuts. Tobacco is often grown within the
surrounds most homesteads. The homestead is usually a
configuration, and within this enclosure, each married
a house built of mud and brushwood walls with a thatched
The center of this is a cattle kraal, usually with only
opening to the outside.
Wives live in their husband's homestead after marriage.
wife has a separate, small house that serves as a kitchen,
some women also cultivate plots of ground several hours'
away from their homes. Men were traditionally scornful of
widowers and old men who cared for their own gardens, but
plows were introduced in the 1950s and farming became more
financially rewarding, many young men claimed plots of
their own use and hired women to work in them.
Dodoth homesteads are larger than those of the
proper and more isolated from one another. Surrounding the
homestead, upright poles are thrust into the earth,
with branches and packed with mud and cow dung, forming a
wall with only one or two small openings to the outside.
as forty people often live in one homestead. Each wife has
own hut and hearth, and adolescent girls often build huts
their own next to their mothers' huts. Adolescent boys
a larger "men's house," where they live before marriage.
keep cattle and other animals inside the fortified wall at
A woman often keeps a small garden near her hut, but
pastures are outside the homestead.
Among most Karamojong peoples, men living within a
are related by descent through male forebears. This group,
patrilineage, is augmented by wives and children, and
occasionally by unmarried brothers of the lineage head. A
of brothers usually shares the ownership of a herd of
although animals are divided among individuals for milking
other domestic purposes. Cattle are usually branded with
markings, although a man normally knows each animal in his
herd. Only when the last surviving brother dies is the
divided among the next generation, with each set of full
inheriting a small herd.
Grazing areas are common ground outside the stockade,
although milk cows sometimes stay near the homestead.
driest months, usually February and March, cattle are
seasonal camps some distance from the homestead. In these
men live almost entirely on milk and blood drawn from live
cattle, and, occasionally, meat. In the homestead, women,
children, and old people forage for food, including flying
if stores of grain are depleted. In very lean times, milk
reserved for children and calves before adults.
Most societies of northeastern Uganda are organized
kinship groups larger than the lineage. Among the Jie,
patrilineages maintaining the belief that they are
related often keep homesteads near one another, but this
is less common among other Karamojong. The clan comprises
lineages, often numbering over 100 people. Jie clans are
exogamous, meaning that two people of the same clan can
one another. In addition, men generally avoid marriage
woman of their mother's clan or that of her close
clan members share some symbolic recognition of their
identity, such as jewelry, but they do not observe the
taboos of animals or foods that are characteristic of many
African clan groupings.
Two important sources of social solidarity link members
unrelated lineages to one another. Intermarriage forms
based on brideprice cattle, which are given by a man's
that of his bride, and children, who are important to
lineage and to that of their mother.
Age-sets (see Glossary) form
bonds among groups of men close in age. (Clan leaders
new age-set about every twenty-five years.) Members of an
are generally obligated to maintain ties of friendship and
each other when in need.
Cattle are so vital in Karamoja that it is often
for Westerners to understand the attitudes surrounding
Owning cattle is a mark of adulthood for men. Being
cattle is almost as onerous as being seriously ill; it
life. Moreover, a man can lose his entire herd of cattle
brief raid. A mistake in judgment, such as a poor choice
pastures or travel routes, can cost a life's work. At the
time, outsiders are sometimes surprised to realize that
herders perceive themselves as poverty-ridden or
fact, the value of their cattle is often much greater than
value of the salaries received by government civil
come from the south to administer the region of the
Living among the Karamojong peoples in the far
several small ethnic groups who rely on hunting and
raiding for much of their subsistence, but some have also
a reputation as spies and informers in the local system of
raiding and warfare. One such group, the Teuso, were moved
their homeland in the 1960s to clear land for Kidepo
Park. Most of their Karamojong neighbors despised the
much so that people were willing to see them starve rather
allow them to join nearby villages. Some Teuso died, and
left the area to become low-wage earners in nearby towns.
social system that developed in response to depopulation
deprivation emphasized individual survival at the expense
other people. The Uganda government reacted strongly
unfavorable publicity generated by one anthropological
this society in the early 1970s, and security problems
travel in the area. As a result, by the late 1980s,
about their society was scarce.
The Tepeth also lived among the Karamojong, although
were usually classified as a separate Eastern
group. Oral histories relate that they were forced by
edict to vacate their homes in caves high in the mountains
northeastern Uganda. The move increased their
attack by people and disease, and an influx of refugees
Sudan further disrupted life. Warfare and conflict
the Tepeth developed a variety of religious cults and
maintain their cultural integrity in the face of
Sudanese influence. In the late 1980s, little was known of
life-style of the remaining Tepeth people.
The Labwor people, who live on the border between
Karamoja, are historically and linguistically related to
Karamojong but have adopted much of the life-style of the
The Labwor region is also a center of trade between
to the west and pastoralists to the east. The local
centers around crops--chiefly sorghum, eleusine, maize,
sweet potatoes, beans, and peanuts--but people also raise
and goats. A small number of men from Labwor have achieved
substantial wealth as itinerant traders in northeastern
Labwor society is organized into homesteads centered
core of patrilineally related men and their wives and
In addition, age-sets are important stabilizing factors,
cross-cutting ties among lineages.
Data as of December 1990