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Visiting the Karamojong & IK People Of Kidepo

The Karamojong People

The name Karamojong was derived from the phrase “ekar ngimojong”, meaning “the old men can walk no further”. The Karamojong people is Uganda’s most distinctive tribe known for their love for cattle and cattle rustling and their resistance to the trappings of modern world.

They take a lot of pride in their culture and customs, habor foreign interference and with their traditional lifestyle and view new trends in life, travel, education, technology, dress, fasion, housing, medicines, religion and several others as unnecessary incovienience.

This cattle-herding group of people live on the edge of Kidepo Valley National park in their manyattas (villages) surrounded by sharp thorns, with small entry points for people and a larger entry point for cattle.

History Of The Karamojongs

The Karamonjo people originated from a southery migration by the Jie, an Abyssinian pastrolists tribe 300-400 years ago. On reaching Kenyan-Ugandan-Sudanese border region, the Jie split to create the Toposa of Southern Sudan, the Turkana of Kenya, and the Dodoth of northern Karamoja.

Then some of the Turkan Jie crossed the mountains that line the present-day border Kenyans  to the plains of northeastern Uganda.

Some groups remained around Kotido as the Uganda Jie. Others continued further, until the aged parents among them became fed up with walking, the gist of the word ‘Karamojonjo’ meaning ‘the old men can walk no further’ or  “the old men sat down”.

The youth among them continued normadic lifestyle further southwards, reportedly consisting of seven groups or clans who settled in today’s southern Karamoja, eventually merging to become the three clans now existing: the Matheniko in the east around Moroto mountain, the Pian in the south and the Bokora in the west.

However, a significant sized group went west and formed the Iteso, the Kumam, and the Langi. It was actually this group who were said to have used the phrase “the old men can walk no farther”.

Karamonjong Culture

More recently, to more Westernized Ugandans, Karamojong was something of an embarrassment. The common view  was that they were backward lot, who ran around naked, and  half century ago, the later was absolutely true.

The attaire of male Karamojongs comprised solely of an elaborated style hairdo, a feathered headdress, a small T-shaped stool and a spear, while female dress was represented by heavy roll of neck beads and a bit of a skirt.

These minimalist styles were pushed underground in the 1970s when dictator Idi Amin Dada sent soldiers to impose Western dress on Karamonjongs on gun point.

Men took to wearing, at the very best, a light blanket/cloak, usually of a striped or-interestingly given the suggestion of a Gaelic connection-tartan pattern.

During 1990s, this was frequently worn as a sole item of clothing but these days, some additionals layers now seem mandantory, most obviously in the undercarriage department.

Despite exapanding wardrobes and pressure from Kampala to join the modern world, most rular Karamojongs remain true to their traditional way of life.

Communities still commonly inhabit manyattas; tradional homesteads in which concentric defensive rings of thony brushwood surround a central compound containing huts, granaries, and cattle pens.

Unlike the rest of Uganda, some semblance of cultural dress remains part of everyday attaire. For men this is epitomized by the cloak and some form of Western hat with ostrich feathers  added to indicate status.

Though the great headed ruffs of yesteryear are less common, neck beads remain very much in vogue with the ladies.

Karamojongo Language

The language of the Karamojongo people (Ngakarimojong) is an interesting and seemingly ancient curiosty. Scotsman John Wilson, who lived in and around Karamoja for 30 years, has identified numerous words and phrases of similar meaning in Ngakarimojong and Gaelic.

Subsquent investigation has idetinfied futher similarities with other widely spaced languages including Hebrew, Spanish, Sumerian, Akkadian, and Tibetan  among others.

For example, we have bot (a house in Gaelic) and eboot (a temporary dwelling in Ngakarimojong); cainnean (live embers in Gaelic) and ekeno (a fireplace  in Ngakarimojong).

The Spanish word corral, for a circular stock enclosure, is uncannily close to the Ngakarimojong synonym ekorr, and the Spanish ajorar for ‘theft of cattle’ is not dissimilar to the Ngakarimojong ajore meaning ‘cattle raid’.

The thinking is that  these various, far-flung modern languages are legacies of a common tongue spoken by ancient human population, presumably before the Tower of Babel incident and perhaps as far as back as the late Pleistocene.

Visit To Karamajongs

If you’re on a Uganda safari tour to Kidepo, a visit to Karamajong Manyattas can be included in your Uganda safari itinerary. There is such a rich culture in these homesteads that have been preserved over the centuries and has not been eroded by civilization.

The Karamojong is proud of their traditional lifestyle. They highly value their traditional beliefs and have rejected outside religion such as Christianity and Islam. To them, Akuj is still the god of their faith who they believe gave them the birthright of all the cattle in the Karamoja region and the world beyond.

They consider cattle royalty and it is the measure of a man. The number of cows the family head possesses is a sign of wealth, prestige and social status symbol.

These people believed and many still believe that all the cattle in their known world or their area of existence were given to them by their god Akuj and that the cattle of the neighboring tribes were also theirs.

This belief is probably the root of years and years of tribal wars and cattle rustling because the neighboring tribes have the same belief.

The IK people (The mountain people), Kidepo

You will need an early morning start to climb up into the Monrungole Mountains for a visit with the mysterious Ik people. The climb is steep, part of the adventure of the day.

The IK is the smallest ethnic groups in Africa, of between 10,000 to 11,000 people. In the local language, “IK” loosely translates to “the first to migrate here”.

True to the meaning of their name, they were the first settlers in the region possibly running away from their warrior neighbors.

The Mountain people, the IK are traditional hunter-gatherer  who probably migrated from the present day Ethiopia and Speke a unique language  quiet different from Karamojong tongue.

Today the IK rank among the most marginalized and isolated Ugandans, having been forced to turn to subsistence farming and beekeeping in response to outside factors such as their eviction from Kidepo Valley National Park and victimization from Karamoja cattle raiders.

But they also retain a strong sense of tradition, with ritual hunts for small game being several times of the year, usually over the period between January and February.

The IK people became famous in 1972 when a British-American anthropologist Colin Turnbull published his book “The mountain people” in which he described the  IK people he comes across as people who did not love.

However, a visit to one of the IK villages on mount Morungole will disapprove that, they are loving, welcoming and Turnbull simply got it wrong. Like the Batwa people of southwestern Uganda, IK people still practice their ancient ways.

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