The Karamojong or Karimojong are a Nilotic ethnic group.They are agro-pastoral herders living mainly in the north-east of Uganda.
Their language is also known as Karamojong or Karimojong and is part of the Nilotic language family.
The Karamojong are a pastoral group who inhabit the plateau region of Uganda. Linguistically, the Karamojong belong to the Central Group of the Nilote Language Family, which also includes several neighboring groups that speak a mutually intelligible dialect.
Today, the Karamojong numbered about 719,000 (Peoplegroups.org, 2023)
The related groups include the Teso, Iteso, Jie, Dodoz, Topoza, Jiye, Nyangatom, and Turkana.
The habitat of the Karamojong is a plateau 1,120 to 1,360 meters high; there are steep hills throughout, and higher mountains border the plateau. It is a region characterized by thorny plants and grasses. The savanna becomes green with the first rainfall, in April, but dries up again in November, when the rain stops. The dry season is very windy, and there is no surface water, except for puddles left over from the rainy season, which quickly dry up. River beds fill up in a few hours during storms, and dry up again after the storms pass.
The Karamojong pattern of land use is closely related to their habitat. There are two primary patterns of land use, which are reflected in two distinct types of settlement. Permanent settlements have internal compounds, sleeping houses, and granaries with large storehouses. Temporary camps are primarily a complex of corrals to contain cattle, sheep, and goats, and they usually have only temporary shelters for humans.
The permanent settlements are in the central part of Karamojong territory and are the locii of cultivation and continuous habitation. Their position is fixed by the availability of reliable permanent water, and their mobility is limited by the need to store gardening implements and grain. Women carry out most of the activities related to these permanent settlements. With the exception of some milk products, the only food consumed in the permanent settlements is generally the product of women's agricultural efforts. The camps are in the eastern and western portions of Karamojong territory. They are very mobile because of the need to respond to changes in grazing conditions and the availability of water. Men carry out most of the activities of the camp, which are primarily pastoral, and the food consumed—primarily milk and blood—is almost exclusively produced from the herd.
The staple crop is sorghum, which is planted with cucumbers and marrows. Beans and gourds, and sometimes maize and millet, are also grown. Because of their environment, the Karamojong cannot subsist by cultivation alone; they therefore attach greater economic importance to raising livestock. Their form of pastoralism is to exploit the products of the stock rather than slaughter the stock. They consume milk, milk products, and blood rather than meat, which is eaten only at public ceremonies or when an animal dies.
After marriage wives live in their husbands' homestead. Each wife has a separate small house that serves as a kitchen. The house is built of mud and brushwood walls with a thatched roof. The center of this construction is a cattle kraal, usually with only one opening to the outside. Some women also cultivate plots of ground. Millet is an important staple food, but many people also grow corn, peanuts and tobacco. Cattle are of great symbolic and economic importance. Owning cows marks the step towards adulthood for men. If you do not own any cows, you are considered ill and sick (this is, without any status or rank). Every Karimojong keeps a special ox among his herd. The oxen of invocation were named according to a list of clan names or on account of colour or the shape of the horns. These oxen were highly esteemed and were valued more than parents, wives or children. If the representatives of the villages gathered on the occasion of ceremonies for local and inter-tribal feasts and dances, there was slaughtered such an ox. Leadership was vested in the elders, and the clan was the basic unit of administration. The heads of the different clans constituted the council of elders which was responsible for administration, justice, settlement of disputes, maintenance of law and order, and punishment of law breakers. They also performed other important functions, such as those connected with rainmaking, and they would guide other celebrations.
Before a boy could announce his intention to marry, he had to prove to the elders of the village that he was ready to become a man. In early times, the young man had to set out alone only with a spear and to hunt. He had to present the animal‘s tail. Nowadays he has to search for cattle to pay the bridewealth. Upon his initiation of manhood, his father had to present him with a bull which was then slaughtered and the meat shared with his boyfriends. During the ritual the young man would smear himself all over with dung from the entrails of the bull. His hair will be cut by one of his friend. In this moment he had attained the marriageable age, und with the permission granted by the elders he could wear ostrich feathers on his head. His father will instruct him, and he would have to look for a girl to get married. The young man would make his choice and inform the father who would have to pay the bridewealth.
As soon as the bride arrives in the groom’s home, the ceremony would start with a dance and people began to gather in the cattle kraal. The Karimojong were polygamous, with the number of wives only being restricted by the man’s possibility to pay the bridewealth. Marriage between close relatives was prohibited. If there had been agreed on a divorce, the bride could return to her father’s home and the bridewealth would have to be returned, also including the bull. Afterwards she was a free woman again. Sexual intercourse among unmarried men and women was frowned upon, and a pregnancy resulting from such an act was decried. A bridewealth has to be paid to the woman’s father, and the young man has to marry the girl. The issue of adultery was in fact a family affair, not a personal one; and the property which was confiscated from the dulterer would be divided, as a kind of penalty, among the members of the affected family. When a woman was to give birth, her sisters would come to assist. The women acted as midwives, they would wash the baby with cold water. On the day when the woman ended the days of confinement, a ritual ceremony would be performed. Children were given the name of the ancestor, meaning that the first born gets the name of the grandfather, the second one that of the grandmother, the third of a great aunt or uncle and so on. This implied in effect that they did not have particular names for the different sexes (no particular names for girls or boys).
When a village member died, it was allowed to start weeping. The elder of the village was buried in the centre of the calf or sheep kraal, with his head pointing to the north, because they believe that they came from the north. The body was covered with cow dung, followed by soil and then stamped on. A large stone would be placed upright on the grave. Death and burial ceremonies tended to vary from clan to clan but generally all the mourning and weeping would proceed for a couple of days. All the relatives would come, and if the deceased had brothers, they would inherit his wives and part of the wealth. Some clan did not bury the body but rather left it for nature.
They do not worship for the sake of it. In times of troubles, sickness or misfortunes, the clans would gather together at the ancestor‘s grave with all their children and grandchildren. There they would milk the cow, bring up the tobacco and slaughter an ox. The contents of the ox‘s stomach were smeared over the people and over the burial stones.
If rain failed to come, elders would approach the emurron (medicine man) with a present of a calabash of milk and impress upon him the necessity of making rain. Then the akirriket (rainmaking ceremony) started. All the elders would gather at the appointed spot. A man was then to kill the bull by spearing it in the side. The bull was slaughtered, and the meat would be roasted on the fire.
Men living within a homestead are related by descent through male forebears. This group, the patrilineage, is augmented by wives and children, and occasionally by unmarried brothers of the lineage head. A group of brothers usually shares the ownership of a herd of cattle; cattle are usually branded with clan markings, although a man normally knows each animal in his family herd. Only when the last surviving brother dies is the herd divided among the next generation, with each set of full brothers inheriting a small herd.
Two important sources of social solidarity link members of unrelated lineages to each other. Intermarriage forms bonds based on bridewealth, cattle which is given by a man's family to that of his bride, and children, who are important to their own lineage and to that of their mother. Age-sets form bonds among groups of men close in age. (Clan leaders establish a new age-set (consisting of people of similar age) about every twentyfive years.) Members of an age-set are generally obligated to maintain ties of friendship and assist each other when in need.
Cattle are a key element of Karamojong culture. They are highly valued both in economic and social terms. Milk, blood, and meat provide sustenance; fat is both a food and a cosmetic; urine is used as a cleanser; hides make sleeping skins, shoulder capes, skirts, bell collars, sandals, armlets, and anklets; horns and hooves provide snuff holders, feather boxes, and food containers; bags are made from scrota; intestines are used for prophecy; chyme has a ceremonial function (anointing); and droppings are used for fertilizer.
Cattle are literally wealth; they are used to establish families, acquire political supporters, achieve status, and influence public affairs. The payment of cattle, as bride-wealth, to a girl's kin is an essential step in arranging a marriage. A man is only the genitor, not the father, of children he engenders, unless he transfers cattle in a bride-wealth for their mother. Furthermore, the acquisition of an extended range of kinsmen through affinity is almost as significant as the acquisition of a bride and, potentially, a family. In other words, the more cattle a man provides in bride-wealth the more kinsmen he creates who receive a share of cattle, and the larger his range of affinal ties—a very important social asset.
Although the family and the clan, which usually extends only three generations, are the primary social units, two other units are of central importance in Karamojong society, and provide the basis for political action. Territoral groups create units of common interest, allegiance, and action. Age groups, by allocating authority, determine the roles of individual members of territorial groups in any corporate action.
Territorial groups range in size from small settlements and neighborhoods, to larger localities (consisting of several neighborhoods), to subsections, and finally to sections or tribal groups. The Karamojong neighborhood is made up of a small number of settlements, the members of which recognize social ties with each other, offer mutual hospitality, utilize common natural resources, take common ritual action, and meet together frequently for social interaction. This is the setting where most face-to-face encounters take place. Subsections are enduring social groups; their continuity derives from coresidence, corporate activity, and the establishment of a distinctive name that ties each to some natural object. Subsections are also religious congregations, each with its own ritual specialist and ceremonial grounds.
Karamojong adult males are organized into a series of groups based on varying degrees of common age. These age sets are an integral part of Karamojong social organization and provide the basis for political authority. The highest sources of authority are the elders of a community. The channels of authority are provided by the relationships that are created by the organization of people into age categories. The use of authority is occasioned by public ritual gatherings, council meetings, and public disputes. Decisions and sanctions of the elders are carried out because subsenior age sets adhere to the norms of obedience established with age rankings. The elders are also considered to have divine authority—or at least to be closely linked to divine authority. The consequence of violating the elders' authority is punishment inflicted by younger obedient men, or by deity, leading to the misfortune or death of the disobedient and their dependents.
The Karamojong live in the southern part of the region in the north-east of Uganda, occupying an area equivalent to one tenth of the country. According to anthropologists, the Karamojong are part of a group that migrated from present-day Ethiopia around 1600 A.D. and split into two branches, with one branch moving to present day Kenya to form the Kalenjin group and Maasai cluster. The other branch, called Ateker, migrated westwards. Ateker further split into several groups, including Turkana in present-day Kenya, Iteso, Dodoth, Jie, Karamojong, and Kumam in present-day Uganda, also Jiye and Toposa in southern Sudan all of them together now known as the "Teso Cluster" or "Karamojong Cluster".
It is said that the Karamojong were originally known as the Jie. The name Karamojong derived from phrase "ekar ngimojong", meaning "the old men can walk no farther". According to tradition, the peoples now known as the Karamojong Cluster or Teso Cluster are said to have migrated from Abyssinia between the 1600 and 1700 AD as a single group. When they reached the area around the modern Kenyan-Ethiopian border, they are said to have fragmented into several groups including those that became Turkana, Toposa, and the Dodoth. The group that became known as the Toposa continued to present day southern Sudan; the Dodoth, settled in Apule in the northern part of present-day Karamoja. The Turkana settled in Kenya where they are now and today's Jie of Uganda are thought to have split from them, moving up the escarpment into today's Kotido District. The main body continued 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 this group who were said to have used the phrase "the old men can walk no farther".
Related to Turkana: in the Karamojong language, the people and the language have the convenient prefixes ŋi- and ŋa- respectively. Lack of a prefix indicates the land where they live. All the above-mentioned branches from Ateker speak languages that are mutually intelligible. (The Lango in Uganda are also ethnically and genetically close to the ŋiKarimojong, evidenced by similar names among other things, though they adopted a dialect of the Luo language).
The main livelihood activity of the Karamojong is herding livestock, which has social and cultural importance. Crop cultivation is a secondary activity, undertaken only in areas where it is practicable.
Due to the arid climate of the region, the Karamojong have always practised a sort of pastoral transhumance, where for 3–4 months in a year, they move their livestock to the neighboring districts in search of water and pasture for their animals.
The availability of food and water is always a concern and affects the Karamojong's interaction with other ethnic groups.
A devastating cattle plague swept the area in the late nineteenth century, a tragedy that showed the young to move to grazing areas in the highlands. Grazing areas are common ground outside the stockade, although milk cows sometimes stay near the homestead. During the driest months, usually February and March, cattle are moved to seasonal camps some distance from the homestead. In these camps, 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 wild ducks, if stores of grain are depleted. Milk is reserved for children and calves, only then it would be consumed by adults.
The dominant feature of Karamojong society is their age system, which is strictly based on generation. As successive generations have an increasing overlap in age, this leads logically to a breakdown of the system, which appears to have occurred after rules were relaxed in the nineteenth century among their close neighbours, the Jie. However, the Karamojong system is flexible enough to contain a build-up of tension between generations over a cycle of 50 years or so. When this can no longer be resolved peacefully, the breakdown in order leads to a switch in power from the ruling generation to their successors and a new status quo. The next changeover is expected around 2013. [Dyson-Hudson, Neville (1966), Karimojong Politics, Clarendon Press, Oxford. Spencer, Paul (1998), The Pastoral Continuum: The Marginalization of Tradition in East Africa, Clarendon Press, Oxford (pp. 99–119).]
As both a rite of passage into manhood, as well as a requirement for engagement, a young Karamojong man is required to wrestle the woman he desires to marry. If he is successful in winning the wrestling match against the woman, he is now considered to be a man and is permitted to marry the woman. This ensures that the man will be strong enough to care for and protect his wife. After a successful match, the dowry negotiations are allowed to commence. In an instance where the young man is unable to defeat the woman in the wrestling match, he will not be considered by his people to be a man and will often leave to marry a woman from a different people-group where a test of strength is not required. If a non-Karamojong man desires to marry a Karamojong woman, he is also required to go through this ceremony.
The Karamojong have been involved in various conflicts centered on the practice of cattle raids.
The Karamojong are in constant conflict with their neighbors in Uganda, Sudan and Kenya due to frequent cattle raids. This could be partly due to a traditional belief that the Karamojong own all the cattle by a divine right, but also because cattle are also an important element in the negotiations for a bride and young men use the raids as a rite of passage and way of increasing their herds to gain status. In recent years the nature and the outcome of the raids have become increasingly violent with the acquisition of AK47s by the Karamojong.
The Ugandan government have attempted to broker deals for weapons amnesties, but the number of cattle the Karamojong have wanted per gun has proved too steep for any meaningful agreement to be made.
Extended information: Ben Knighton / Karamojong Ethnography