I HAD READ ABOUT THE KARAMOJONG PEOPLE IN KOTIDO UGANDA, GOOGLE WAS MY GUIDE AND MY FIRST WEEKS OF INTERACTING WITH FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES ENLIGHTENED ME. I LEARNT OF THEIR CULTURE, THEIR WAY OF LIFE AND THEIR HISTORY, FROM WHEN THEY WERE RAIDERS UNTIL THEIR DISARMAMENT, THEY WERE IN THEIR OWN WORLD CARRIED GUNS FOR THE LONGEST TIME OF THEIR LIFE AND VIOLENTLY RAIDED OTHER COMMUNITIES. DUE TO THE CLIMATIC CONDITIONS IN KOTIDO THEY NEVER SETTLED IN ONE PLACE AND WOULD MOVE TO ENSURE THEIR LIVESTOCK’S HAD GRAZING LAND AND THEIR FAMILIES COULD FARM. WE ARE STARTING A LIVELIHOOD PROJECT FUNDED BY THE EUROPEAN UNION AND NEEDED TO UNDERSTAND THE COMMUNITY IN ORDER TO ALIGN THE PROJECT TO WHAT THEY NEED. I WANTED TO KNOW HOW THEY TREAT WOMEN, AND HOW THE COMMUNITY LIVED AS NOMADS IN THIS DAY AND ERA.
Now, 4 months after learning about these enigmatic people, I decided to venture for a week-long trip to Kotido so I could learn about their lives first-hand. This was a week on a baseline study before implementing the livelihoods program I departed on what would become a week of shock, adventure, and learning that led me to deep thought and analysis of the world we, as humans, live within.
I had been warned before about their way of life and how they walk naked but never had l taken the warnings seriously.
As we drove into the district things began to change, from swampy areas to dry bare spaces with plenty of cows and nowhere to graze from and the amazing beads worn by women caught my attention. The first thing I noticed was the nudity: men were bathing, naked, by the river banks on the side of the road. Those that were clad walked around with just a light wrapping over their loins, so short that their penises were visible whenever they sat down. Women wore short skirts with only beads covering their breasts. But they didn’t care, for this was how they lived; they did not consider anything to be abnormal about their way of life. They were proud Karamojong people who embraced their culture, which was so different from my own.
I knew at once that I had to engage with the community if I were to develop a deeper understanding of their culture and way of life. The first thing that crossed my mind, as is still so rampant everywhere in the world, was to learn about rape cases. I wondered if the nudity of the locals would correlate with high incidences of sexual abuse in this community. After all, even the city where people are fully covered year-round struggle with combating sexual violence. If men, I wondered, couldn’t keep their penises zipped up there, what would I learn from a community where men walked around semi-naked?
I visited one manyata (family compound) close to the village’s limits, with the intention of speaking to the elders who lived there. I wanted to understand the local culture and share stories about life over abutia (local beer), a custom that transcends almost all communities around the world. I was greeted by eight women, all of whom were wives to but one man, with countless children between them. That this many women were polygamously married to just one partner was entirely new to me, and I deliberately kept my face from showing confusion as I was introduced to each person at a time.
As I spoke with the women, I nervously asked how romantic customs were handled in their culture. I learnt that men court women by chasing them and if one manages to catch the girl and put her down he is strong and has won her heart, and that arranged marriages still exist. But still, in the back of my mind, I wondered if women were safe in a society that expected several women to form a harem of sorts around one patriarch. The shock of it all, I soon learned, was that rape cases – my personal barometer for gender inequity – were very few in the area… in face, quite close to non-existent. That naked men and women showed little tendency towards sexual violence baffled me. It was a lesson l wanted to understand, so as to take it back to not just the city, and but my home in Katakwi.
I listened, amazed, as the women and the village elders explained to me that the Karamojong were very cultured people who placed great value on respect towards women. Their wealth was counted in livestock and thus a symbol of power and authority. Boys are taught from a young age that, to use a local term, “penises are disciplined”. This is to say that no man is allowed to become erect just by seeing a woman, or they incur a hefty fine that is paid in the form of cattle – the community’s lifeblood. The elders in the community determine the fine and they vary from sexual assault to bad manners. If someone rapes another person in this community, they are charged severely and must part with a great deal of their cattle stocks, and are, at times, even banished from the village. The community believe that they do not need the police, for they police each other through their cultural values. But though there is an express rejection of sexual assault and violence, this is not a culture without its own flaws.
When l spoke to the girls, l realised that many of them had been married off at a young age. Men could pay whatever was deemed a fair “bride price” by her parents and married off even without the girl’s consent. It seemed sex and sexuality was expressed not through clothes (unsurprisingly), but through hairstyles. Hair would be styled to communicate a girl’s biological changes, so that men seeking to marry a child could read this subtext in their images and select his (usually unwilling) bride accordingly. That day, I learned that the youngest girl who was recorded as married in our database was just ten years old. It was hard to resist the urge to say something or do something drastic when I read this number… she was only a child, but with so many married girls in the community, it was hard to know what immediate reaction might actually protect her; what might save her without trampling all over the cultural traditions I wished to eradicate but could only combat with diplomacy.
What being in Kotido did made vividly clear was how shallow and intolerable rape apologia was, by ever measure: if the Karamojong men had so few incidences of rape within their community, it became clear that a woman’s way of dressing or time of night outside of the home was less relevant to explaining why she was assaulted than a man’s choice to do so. Even here, where people were all but naked, day-in, day-out, there was no question about male self-control. None.
Kotido made me strong in my belief that no woman should be made responsible for being violated at the hands of another. In a community where exile and punishment was enforced by men against their own peers, it made sense for men to police each other to protect the women and girls who were seen as more vulnerable in this community.
I was intrigued by the lifestyle l had seen, and the discipline in men. Next time l return to Kotido, l intend to work towards making the Karamojong people the benchmark for all gender equity and equality initiatives in Uganda and wherever my work takes me. I hope to change the cultural narrative around child marriage and work with religious and traditional leaders to end the practice. I intend to do all I can to keep girls in school, to help them dream big, and achieve their goals. Just like my aspirations for Katakwi, Kotido was of the same country: the kind where together, we could influence change and give girls and women a voice. A real one.