It was in my plans to visit Karamoja for years, but something always came up to change the not-so-committed schedule.
But this time everything had to wait until I got to Moroto for a study on transitional justice – a collaborative research between Uganda Martyrs University, Mbarara University of Science and Technology, Makerere University, and University of Leuven (Belgium).
Like many Ugandans visiting the place, however politely disguised, there is often that thinly informed tint of bias, built upon years of negative socialisation into alienating/othering stereotypes.
The common narratives in southern Uganda hardly ever tell us any good about Karamoja and its people. It’s generally a picture of primitivity that is painted, some sort of a jungle community culturally frozen in time.
The south’s socialised image of Karamoja and its people hardly differs from that held by early white explorers about black Africa, and by many whites visiting Africa for the first time today - especially as shaped by their media that mainly feeds them on exactly what appeals to their miseducation about Africa and its people.
Politeness may not let some to express their shock at finding decent houses, roads, and people using toothpaste in ‘the country called’ Africa. Some leave with disappointment for not having seen barbaric Africa. So do many of us from southern Uganda relate with Karamoja, riding on high civilisational horses in imagination of a place that needs our saviour services.
Most failures to live with civilisational and cultural differences are often grounded in a superior-than-thou ethnocentric mindset that sends us into using our own cultural norms and values as the standard against which the ‘development’ of others has to be assessed.
It’s not an easy mindset to overcome, worse for those who grow up in one cultural setting, only to meet different ‘others’ in adulthood. With my education and modest exposure, too, I sometimes catch myself behind biased lenses. It’s an effort we must constantly make to improve on the health of our minds and inter-cultural relations.
Here in Karamoja, everyone you talk to acknowledges that the era of the gun had indeed turned the place into a hell where socio-economic progress could hardly roll. This was not helped by a national bias inherited from colonial administration, which alienated the place into some sort of human zoo.
In their abandoned world, guns that they mostly acquired illegally from various sources became the negotiating tool for much of what they needed. Initially it was especially cows, but later it was for all that the gun holder/s desired.
In such a situation akin to what the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes called the State of Nature, innovation, entrepreneurship, and industry could hardly thrive - for all one laboured for could easily be taken over by the stronger, at high life risk to the owner.
It’s not necessarily these people’s brutality that led to this state; it’s mainly due to the fact that they were abandoned with such lethal arms in a hostile natural environment. Over time, gun violence found its way into an evolving culture of raiding.
Despite the violence that characterized the second phase of disarmament of the Karimojong by Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) and its attendant trauma in some communities, currently there is widespread appreciation for the subsequent peace in the region. Many say, unlike in the past, they can now even move freely at night, and cattle thefts have significantly reduced.
Infrastructural development both by government and the private sector are on the rise around towns. Though I couldn’t tell who the owners were, most buildings look relatively new. I won’t mention the terribly scandalous model low [though very high] cost houses that were built for the elderly and disabled people by UPDF’s engineering brigade in 2012 that are collapsing before my grandfather’s mud-and-wattle house built in the 1950s. Generally, the locals say the area is taking better shape.
It’s in view of this that Karamoja’s pro-NRM voting pattern could be understood and appreciated, the possibility of electoral mischief notwithstanding. The ‘twebaka kutulo’ (at least we can sleep) narrative, while losing political instrumentality in many parts of Uganda, is quite fresh and influential here.
But at the same time, while Karamoja is still sighing in relief from the gun’s disaster, corruption and various other forms of exploitation are eating up its vast mineral and land resources. From all the discoveries and extraction of minerals ranging from gold, tantalite, marble, silica sand, to all else yet to be known, Karamoja is certainly taking crumbs falling off the table she serves.
It is ironic, for example, that in Rupa sub-county, while I observed huge trucks carrying away marble from quarries, at the headquarters, local people were in long queues for relief food (maize flour) from humanitarian agencies! I visited some homes in the villages too for deeper insight; very hospitable people engulfed in an intricate mess.
The region’s irony of severe deprivation alongside stinking mineral wealth hits you hard in the face with a sickening effect. They have a right to live their lives the way they wish, even if others may label them ‘primitive.’ Talking to them, though, you hear that there is so much they would need as citizens that they just can’t access or don’t even know that they are entitled to. For instance, can’t some of their gold get them valley dams?
Meanwhile, opportunistic outsiders are taking advantage of the situation to plunder the region under all sorts of paternalistic guises in the name of ‘development.’
By the time Karamoja’s powerless people are done celebrating the treasure of ‘peace,’ they might be shocked by the price they will have paid for it - just like the rest of Uganda is waking up from its peace slumber with a grumbling stomach.
The author works with the Center for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.