Security, livelihood gains are real but precarious in Uganda’s Karamoja region

The following reports were written for IRIN News, a UN funded ‘humanitarian news’ agency. The published versions (edited, and with pictures!) can be found here and here.

This was my second visit to Karamoja. I hope to go back, to learn and write more about a place that strikes me as one of the world’s under-reported development blackspots, in many senses. The World Food Programme has been feeding much of the 1.2 million population for decades. Development agencies and NGOs of every stripe are thick on the ground there. But despite these interventions, and despite the poverty and harshness of most people’s lives, and their all too evident ‘humanitarian needs’, the agro-pastoralist Karimajong seem, in the main, not too interested in becoming ‘modern’. (And for this reason they are widely vilified: ordinary Ugandans from other regions lament their ‘backwardness’ and these attitudes are easily discernible in aid agency and NGO staff too.)

Yet, from its colonial incorporation into the Ugandan Protectorate until the present day, little serious effort has been made to connect Karamoja with the rest of the country—my bus journey there, a mere 360 kilometres from Kampala, took 22 hours—and ‘modernity’ has offered the Karimajong very few tangible benefits and opportunities. So why would they want to buy into modernity?

Now that the north of Uganda has been more or less stabilised, President Yoweri Museveni’s government is turning its attention to developing Karamoja. I sense this matters to Museveni as a final piece of nation-state building to secure his legacy--even if that legacy is increasingly threatened by deepening 'governance' failures--and the intention is not ungenerous. But the historical record of trying to confer development and progress upon people, from without, is not good. And I can’t help comparing the small amount of global media attention given to Karamoja, as the government and international agencies crank up development efforts, with the large amount given to another ‘remote’ pastoral people—Tibetans.

Anyway, on with the story:

KOTIDO, KARAMOJA, 25 OCTOBER, 2011. Catherine Namoe unbends her tall body from the back-breaking task of harvesting cow pea leaves to answer some questions. Yes, it’s tough work. No, the men don’t help much. Yes, the leaves are edible. Even if the rain doesn’t come again to turn the plant’s yellow flowers into pea pods, the leaves at least can be dried and stored for a while, and may help feed her family through Karamoja’s long, hungry season.

There’s not much else Catherine could do with her time. She gestures towards distant hills rising out of the semi-arid savannah. She could spend a day walking over there, barefoot, cut a bundle of firewood from the remaining trees, carry it to the nearest trading centre the next day and sell it for maybe 500 Ugandan shillings—about 20 US cents, for two day’s work. Enough to buy a cupful of kerosene or cooking oil, or a few spoonfuls of sugar.

Yet Catherine’s is not a humanitarian sob story so much as a tale of relative and still uncertain success. She and her fellow 1.2 million Karimajong people, who come from more than 20 interrelated ethnic groups, are experiencing an unprecedented period of peace and potential.

The twentieth century left Karamoja multiply marginalised. Its 28,000 square kilometres are devoid of tarred roads. The region is off the national power grid. The few businesses in the handful of small towns and trading centres rely on diesel generators—and fuel costs 20 per cent more than in Kampala, the national capital. Access to schools and health services is more limited than anywhere else in Uganda. Most Karimajong struggle just to feed themselves. As recently as 2007, the World Food Programme was doling out emergency food aid to a million of them, almost the entire population.

Poverty has resulted from decades of under-investment but also from the implosion of traditional livelihoods. Most Karimajong are semi-nomadic pastoralists. Men once moved with their herds in search of pasture as the seasons and years dictated. Clans once coped with lean years by raiding cattle from near or less near neighbours. But the steady spread of modern weapons, aggravated by the spill-over of armed conflict from the Lord’s Resistance Army insurrection in northern Uganda, saw the cattle raiding habit escalate into a spiral of growing violence and insecurity.

Earlier government efforts to stabilise the region enjoyed limited success but a sustained disarmament campaign over the last few years has fared better. Human rights groups have criticised the force that government troops at times deployed in the campaign, but all observers agree that the violence has now abated, at least for the time being.

Peace is “like a new ideology,” says Milton Lopira, who heads a local NGO in Kotido District, the Warrior Squad Foundation. He stresses that people were sick of the violence and lawlessness, which made everyone a loser. Young men, raised as cattle-raiding warriors, “now have an opportunity to engage in non-violent activities and they are ready and willing to change.”

“Productive assets”

Central government is determined to turn the peace dividend into a development dividend. “We want to see how [local peoples’] minds can be engaged in production so that they are not at the periphery but participating in development alternatives” Pius Bigirimana, Permanent Secretary in Uganda’s Office of the Prime Minister, tells IRIN.

The office coordinates a Karamoja Integrated Disarmament and Development Programme that has gathered pace over the last two years, with growing support from international donors. Uganda’s commitment to the programme was exemplified in 2007 by the appointment of Janet Museveni, wife of the veteran president, Yoweri Museveni, to lead a Ministry for Karamoja Affairs that works closely with the Office of the Prime Minister.

According to Bigirimana, plans are in place for upgrading to a tarmac surface the 170 kilometre road from Mbale, which lies just to the south of Karamoja, to Moroto in the region’s centre. Power lines will also come to Moroto from Soroti, to the west.

Bigirmana is reluctant to specify a timetable for these major projects, but he says that tens of millions of dollars have been firmly committed to more than a dozen substantial dam-building and irrigation schemes and that work on many of them has already begun. He sees water harvesting and storage as vital because “These people have been roaming around looking for water and this caused clashes between them.”

In addition, over the last two years the government has supplied seeds, ox-ploughs and hoes to groups of households that are willing to work the land, and has opened up 10,000 acres though a tractor hire scheme.

International donors have also switched from emergency relief to investment in “productive assets.” Notably, the World Food Programme is testing what Deputy Country Director for Uganda, Hakan Tongul, calls “a new strategic approach to ending hunger.” WFP still provides food aid through schools (see sidebar on education), to infants at risk of malnutrition and to especially vulnerable families. But the main thrust of WFP operations in Karamoja is now to give food or cash to people working on projects to diversify and strengthen their own livelihoods.

These projects, implemented through NGOs contracted by WFP, offer communities a “menu” of options that include planting food crops, improving rural roads, and small-scale water conservation and harvesting. “There has been amazing interest in the communities,” says Tongul, and strong uptake of, especially, food cropping. A total of 450,000 people have benefitted from the programme over the last two years. Catherine Namoe is one such beneficiary.

The new approach has coincided with two consecutive years of good rains—after several previous years of drought— yielding decent harvests of sorghum, millet, cassava, cow peas, ground nuts, sunflowers and sesame. The evidence is visible everywhere in Kotido. Groups of women thresh sorghum, while men sit in the shade making wicker baskets to carry the harvest home and domestic granaries in which to store it.

Conflicting visions

But what happens if the rains are not so good next year? According to Martin Orem, Coordinator of the Coalition of Pastoral Civil Society Organisations in Uganda (COPASCO), Karamoja’s low and irregular rainfall makes agriculture very difficult and gave rise to the region’s traditional, pastoral economy. In times of drought herds can be moved whereas crops cannot.

Orem welcomes increased government attention to Karamoja but worries that “Very senior people are saying that pastoralism is outdated, keeping our people in poverty, remaining backward.” He calls for closer consultation with communities in framing development plans. “We recognise there must be change and we know for sure that pastoralists want to diversify their livelihoods, but it would be unfortunate for government to think that they can think for communities.”

Milton Lopira of the Warrior Squad Foundation, one of COPASCO’s member organisations, says that “Many projects fail because they are not properly consulting the people.”

Omar Ayman, Uganda Country Director for Oxfam, affirms that “The government position is that people should settle. We understand where they are coming from. It is very difficult and expensive to provide services to pastoralists. If you help people to settle it will be more cost-effective to provide basic services.” But, he adds, “This may not be the best option for arid and semi-arid environments.” And, he insists, “If we decide on your behalf that we’re going to make you a farmer, that’s not right.”

Yet, strikingly, the drive to promote alternative livelihoods in Karamoja has been accompanied by a drop in animal numbers. Every source that IRIN consulted in Kotido District agreed that herds of cattle have declined steeply, although different reasons for this were suggested.

Some herders said that Jie people, the majority population in the district, were the first group to disarm, and were then raided by other clans. Others said that the government’s security forces seized and sold many animals that were placed in “protected kraals”—collective cattle camps guarded by the army. Animal husbandry experts acknowledged both factors, but added that the kraals also became breeding grounds for disease after a long period of neglect in veterinary extension services.

Statistical evidence is hard to find but there is a marked, and perhaps telling, discrepancy in two recent sets of figures. A 2009 stock survey by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics found more than two million head of cattle in Karamoja. But a vaccination campaign spearheaded by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation the following year found less than one million. Margins of error in both figures could explain some of the discrepancy, but not all of it. There may be more cow peas in Karamoja than ever before, but there do seem to be fewer cows.

Activists in groups like the Warrior Squad Foundation, which is staffed by young university graduates who have returned to work for Kotido’s development, are further concerned that the pastoralists do not have secure grazing rights. “The Karimajong think they own the land but they don’t,” says one, explaining that many of the more fertile areas were gazetted for conservation many years ago. The region is thought to have significant mineral deposits, few of which have yet been tapped, and expanded mining could spell future conflict over land.

But people seem no longer to be living in fear of attack and, promisingly, moves are now under way to transfer security duties from military to civil authorities. No one disputes that improved security was the first and most urgent step towards improving lives for the Karimajong. Yet the construction of a new Karamoja, more integrated into the rest of Uganda, is likely to be a long and contested process.


"We need a generation that looks at things differently and we will only get that if they go to school" says James Bisheko, who spent two years in Karamoja as a project manager with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency.

Many development workers in the historically marginalised north-eastern region of Uganda would agree, but getting local children to stay in school is notoriously difficult. Primary education is free in Uganda and for many years pupils in Karamoja have also been receiving free meals through the World Food Programme. But enrolment and, more importantly, completion rates remain far lower than in other parts of the country and, all observers agree, “When the food disappears, so do the kids.”

This is illustrated when IRIN visits Lopuyo Primary school in Kotido District. The school has 570 pupils, according to the head teacher, Moses Ghinno, but no more than 100 have come today. There are two main reasons, says Ghinno. A funding gap for WFP has seen daily rations cut from the usual fare of beans and posho to a bowl of maize porridge. This has coincided with harvest time, which increases demand for children’s labour at home while reducing the need to find food at school.

Ghinno says he has seen some progress since he started at the school in 2007, when there were only 68 students. Community ‘sensitisation’ campaigns have greatly increased the intake. But drop-out rates remain high, especially in lower grades, and Ghinno estimates that only 25% of enrolled students complete the seven years of primary education.

Ghinno, a native of Kotido, explains that many parents still “see education as something that has no fruits in the future, something that is only for disabled children who have no other capacity.” Agro-pastoralist families prefer children to help with domestic chores and production tasks such as herding goats or scaring birds away from crops. Girls, especially, are expected to look after siblings and elders while they are still young themselves and by the age of puberty they are often considered ready for marriage.

Some research studies argue that these are not irrational choices. Sending boys to school can undermine their intimate knowledge of the herd, upon which prosperity depends. Girls bring new animals through the ‘bride price’ their husbands pay, and marriages forge new family alliances. Formal education is of limited economic value unless a child progresses well beyond primary school, because areas like Karamoja offer minimal chances of formal employment. Schooling also does bring some costs, for uniform, books, etc. So a rational and common strategy is for a family to school only one or two children—perhaps those who show least aptitude for practical tasks, thus appearing “disabled.” This amounts to diversification, not resistance to education, since having a couple of children with basic literacy and numeracy will increase the family’s skill set.

Yet Uganda’s rural primary schools also lag in quality of education, according to an assessment published last year by Uwezo, an East African basic education project implemented by a consortium of NGOs. In Kotido District, one of dozens covered by the survey, only 13% of students in the final year of primary school were able to perform arithmetic sums appropriate to their grade.

Looking round Lopuyo Primary School it is easy to see what a tough job headmaster Ghinno has. The classrooms are solidly built but minimally furnished. Blackboards are so worn that it is hard to make out the chalk lettering on them. Ghinno has only six teaching staff, so average class sizes when all the children attend are close to 100.

The early years of primary school are supposed to be taught in local languages, in line with Uganda’s national policies. But, the headmaster says, Karamoja has a huge shortage of locally trained teachers: he is an exception that proves the rule. All his staff come from other regions and speak only “broken” versions of the local language, he says.

Yet if all of this makes formal education an unattractive option for parents, attitudes may yet change. Karamoja, enjoying a fragile respite from years of gun violence associated with cattle raiding, is no longer a pristine, ‘traditional’ pastoralist society. As livelihoods change so do lifestyles. According to Ghinno “People are seeing now that the cows have gone and there’s nothing to do at home. So the only way is to educate the child.”

But incentives, in the form of economic opportunities, will likely also prove necessary.

The small town of Kotido, ten kilometres from Lopuyo, boasts a sprinkling of new, small businesses: bars and restaurants catering largely to government and NGO staff, shops selling airtime and cellphones, carpentry and metal workshops. The town is not quite bustling, but does seem set to grow. Yet many of the new businesses have been established by entrepreneurs from neighbouring regions of Uganda. This is not necessarily a bad thing but, as the region opens up and becomes more closely integrated into the rest of the nation, education, including vocational education, will be important to ensure that local youngsters are not locked out of new opportunities.