An encounter with an Ugandan tribe: the Karamoja

I truly believe that traveling is one of the best forms of education. You meet new people, very often from a completely different background, you get different perspectives on life, learn about previously unknown cultures and different ways of living. There is so much knowledge you can soak up from traveling. And I love to be that sponge.

Last week I had a unique opportunity to visit an authentic tribe in Uganda. I would like to invite you on the same journey and travel back to read what I have experienced. 

A tribe way of keeping goods refrigerated; a seal of cow dung.

A little bit of history

Karamoja is a region in north-east of Uganda which has only recently opened up to tourism. Although many are still reluctant to visit this region, as various travel guides are still saying that it’s unsafe. Previously a tribal war was ongoing there, which created a stigma that the region is unsafe to enter.

These days Karamoja is safe to travel as Ugandan People Defence Force completed a successful program to disarm the people and end the war. The Ugandan government and international organizations are investing into improving the infrastructure in the region by building better roads, electricity and schools. 

So! Let’s go and see how people live in this remote and still very unexplored Uganda region. 

Inside Karamoja village

Meeting an authentic tribe

Somewhere deep in our heads we all have that image of Africa filled with different tribes. Yet, getting access to an authentic tribe is not that simple. With a little bit of research and effort it is however feasible.

I decided to head to Karamoja. The region is so different from the other parts of Uganda. It is way less populated and the landscape is more dry compared to the rest of the country. This drought makes it the poorest region of Uganda, mostly due to less fertile land. It is simply much more difficult to grow any type of vegetation. 

I booked a tour organized by a responsible agency Kara-tunga which invests a part of their profits into the community development. Together with a local guide we visited the village of the Karamoja tribe.

One thing I found intriguing was that only women and children sleep in the actual village. Men stay at kraal (i.e. place where animals are kept) to spend the night. Obviously people don’t have electricity, nor tap water or toilets. What really struck me was how truly happy people were. In our Western eyes their life looks extremely primitive and poor, yet how they experience it seems to be totally different. For thousand of years they lived like this, so poverty has a totally different meaning compared to us Westerners. It’s quite the opposite state of mind compared to where I stay for my volunteering project.

Shepherds on mountain Moroto

No attention to foreigners

Another authenticity sign which I loved was how they didn’t pay attention to me. I mean it’s quite obvious that as a Western girl I get lots of attention and very often people take pictures with me. In the Karamoja village people seem to be simply living their life and when they see a foreigner, they greet you and that’s it.

We also witnessed their dances. They are purely dancing and playing games for their own enjoyment and not just to entertain tourists like often the case in other (more touristic) locations (e.g. Bwindi forest where you do gorilla trekking). Everything is so pure there. Simply amazing. 

NGOs have been active in the region for a while, but only when security returned, they could start creating an infrastructure (e.g. schools, police stations, roads, access to water and electricity). For me it was very interesting to hear that many children are not going to school. What is even more interesting is that many don’t understand the importance of education. There are lots of families with over ten children and only a few of them are going to a school, usually the ones who are not good shepherds. In the communities where I work, everyone desperately wants to educate their children and strive for it a lot. Again I guess it shows how untouched and undeveloped the Karamoja region still is.

Night at kraal

I guess it’s not really a new piece of information but I like adventures! Usually the tribe tour finishes with a visit at kraal after which you come back to a nice  Kara-tunga guesthouse. I decided to experience the authenticity of the tribe to the max and spend a night with them. The evening started with the shepherds coming back with the animals, I had the honour to milk a few goats. I had a young helper who kept the goat’s leg still, ensuring I would not fail at this task.

Me milking the goat

Once it got dark and everyone came back to kraal, we sat down near a bonfire. The men were discussing their day and started to cook dinner. Boiled cassava with maize and even local beer! It’s slightly different from the beer we are accustomed to, it’s mixed with boiled water. The jar was placed in the middle and the most senior man was calling each member to drink it.

Again I was amazed by how casual they were with my appearance in their community. They appreciated my courage to stay with the community overnight, because they still didn’t have that many foreign visitors. Most come over only to the village during day time. I felt so natural there. Accompanied by them, the bright stars in the sky combined with a melodic sound of fire created a magical atmosphere. I truly loved being there in the moment, enjoying the surrounding – it gave me a lot of positive energy. After that it was time to call it a day and retreat to my tent. One giant experience richer.

Karamoja tribes man on mountain Moroto

The next morning I was surprised to  see two tribesman with a mobile phone. My guide told me an interesting story on how they use them; because they don’t know how to write full sentences they mapped predefined combinations to actual members of the tribe. Everyone in the tribe knows their own mapping. My guide also shared that those phones belong to the total community, not to an individual person.

On one side you see them slowly developing, whilst on the other it shows a mostly untouched community. People are still wearing traditional tribal clothes, sleep in the open air and cook on open fire.

This makes me think whether and how they should be developed, if at all. I have seen them truly enjoying their current way of living, not bothered by the lack of any electricity and the likes. During the village day tour I was accompanied by two tourists from Israel and one woman’s thought resonated with me. Adina said she is truly jealous of them; how happy they are, not bothered about notifications from their pockets and truly enjoying the moment. Great food for thought. So many little and small things can make you happy. As long as your reference material allows for it…or your mindset.

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