Karamoja, southeastern Uganda

The Karimojong are historically a peaceful mix of semi-nomadic pastoralists and subsistence farmers, originating from the same ethnic group as, among many others, the Turkana of Kenya and the Toposa of South Sudan. In recent decades their population has come to include bands of cattle-raiding warriors and bandits, considered so intractable that a series of governments have made little effort to develop the area. These men are known for carrying AK 47s while sometimes wearing nothing but sports jackets, naked from the waist down . . . a strange sight indeed. Much of their weaponry was acquired during a raid on an armory abandoned by soldiers fleeing from Tanzanian troops supported by Ugandan exiles during the Liberation War of 1978-79, which ended the reign of Idi Amin. In the years since, attempts to disarm the Karimojong have met with little success, as they are expert at withdrawing with their weapons into the mountains of Kadam, Moroto and Napak which comprise Karamoja’s dramatic backdrop.

An awful one-two punch of drought and famine hit Namalu and other settlements in 1979, drawing great attention to the region. In terms of mortality rates it was one of the worst in history, claiming 21% of the population, including 60% of the infants. During the visits I made there between 1987 and 1989 the Karimojong were still struggling with continuing political instability and the same security issues which had brought on the famine. The environment is just too hostile and unpredictable for most relief and development agencies to deal with, and the 30-odd agencies that had rolled in to fix life in Karamoja had been reduced to just two, ICA and a Catholic Mission. Any road trip into the area requires caution against ambushes, the chances of which become greater during the rains, when long swaths of road are transformed into rutted, barely navigable quagmires. Tales of missionaries left on the roadside in their underwear are told matter-of-factly.

Field reports filed by ICA staffers are filled with examples of harrassment by various factions. The schools in Namalu are barely operating, partly because if lunches are cooked for the children, the smoke attracts bandits. I entered one classroom where there was a teacher with six children, another where there were four children with no teacher, and yet another where there was one teacher and one student.

In November 1986, National Resistance Army soldiers raided the ICA campsite, confiscating the radio which provided the only direct contact with the outside world, holding several of the Ugandan staff hostage for six weeks. In light of all of this, sustainable development is uphill battle, though the ox-plough, animal husbandry, agroforrestry, medical and education projects have improved the lives of a significant number of individuals and families. Drought-resistant crops like sorghum and millett are used to make bread, porridge and the homebrew beer favored by the raiders, but this only goes so far. To this day much of Karamoja remains dependent on the United Nations World Food Programme to combat food shortages.