Proud of their traditional way of life as semi-nomadic herders, the Karimojong reside in Karamoja, Uganda's remote northeast region that borders Kenya and the Sudan, with Ethiopia not far off. Even within Uganda, little is known and much is misunderstood about Karamoja’s herdsmen. Cattle raiding and the small arms trade have kept the region unstable, which has long been the least developed in the country just as most Karimojong have also resisted formal education and modernization.
The Karimojong live and die for cattle — the determinant of seemingly everything in a pastoral life. This is what drives many to live on the edge, as nomadic warriors are constantly on the move to find enough water, to increase their herds, to defend their own and to get cattle for dowries. Women often stay at one central settlement called a manyata or ere, where they look over small farms and raise the young children.
Even though the region they inhabit seems lawless, the Karimojong traditionally have a relatively democratic society based on a patriarchal age-set system led by the warriors, also known as the Gazelles or ngigetei, and, above all, the elders, also known as the Mountains or ngimoru. Life is communal on the whole with men taking many wives, if they can afford their dowries, and extended families often living together or near each other and participating in everyday tasks together.
The Karimojong are divided by both clan and territorial groupings, with the three main sub-groups being the Bokora, Pian and Matheniko. Cattle raiding and conflict remains strife between these groups even though they are all Karimojong. Today Uganda's nomadic herdsmen find themselves at a crossroads as the country moves steadily towards its 50th year of independence. It is a time when pastoral cultures worldwide face insurmountable struggles to continue their way of life given population and environmental pressures and armed conflicts. Slowly, however, Karamoja is changing, and no matter the headlines, there are signs of hope.
Facts About the Karimojong
It is estimated that approximately 370,000 Karimojong reside in Uganda.
As a Nilotic group, meaning “of the Nile,” the Karimojong speak a language of the Nilo-Saharan
Kalenjin sub-family of languages, which are spoken by groups of nomadic herders spread across four nearby nations.
The Karimojong first settled near Mount Moroto around 1600 after several migrations from Ethiopia in which many Nilotic branches broke off and settled in other regions.
The word Karimojong, or Ngkarimojong from the indigenous language, translates roughly to “the old tired men who stayed behind.”
While many Karimojong are Christian, the group predominantly practices its traditional religion, which does have a primary deity known as Akuj.