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Karamoja’s long walk From cattle rustling to modern life

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Moses Lotyong, 19, is in P.3 at Panyangara Primary School in the remote district of Kotido in the drought- prone Karamoja. At Lotyong’s age many Ugandans from other parts of the country are in university. His 11-year-old sister is in P.5 at the same school. Lotyong went to school quite late because he was engaged in cattle rustling as part of the local tradition. He was a young warrior (karacuna). He participated in many cattle raids to bring more cows home. However in 2006, something tragic happened and he abandoned this traditional practice. His father and fellow rustlers were killed during cattle raids. “When you go for a raid there are three things that happen. You either bring cows or you come empty handed or you die from there. When you come without cows, the elders will say next time you must bring cows,” says Lotyong.

His father’s death changed his perception and attitude on cattle rustling. He started school in 2009 upon persuasion by his cousins. His teacher says he is a clever boy and performs well in class. Lotyong wants to become a primary school teacher so that he can assist in teaching other children “because it is a teacher who persuaded” him to abandon rustling and start school.

Lotyong’s enrollment is facilitated by Karamoja Peace Building and Education Project of ActionAid, an international antipoverty NGO. The project advocates education as an alternative means of livelihood among the Karimojong. ActionAid is targeting children aged between 8 and 18 to attend school and persuading them to shun or abandon disruptive activities.

Cattle rustling has been a major source of insecurity in Karamoja. It has caused immeasurable destruction of property, human life and created an environment for sexual assault and cyclical revenge attacks. Children and youth are the prime targets for this indoctrination making them to adopt this lifestyle as the only means of survival. This inevitably draws children into a vicious cycle of violence, criminality and vulnerability. This lifestyle has stifled the children’s opportunity to explore their full potential to lead a meaningful life and contribute to the development of their area.  Cattle rustling and its effects have forced many Karamoja children to miss out on education.

Lina Moding was in Senior Two when her father, the sole provider for the family, was killed when the army raided their village after an armed Karimojong cattle rustler shot a UPDF soldier. She tried to continue with her studies by brewing local alcohol from sorghum to raise her tuition fees but unfortunately it was not enough to enable her complete Senior Four. She dropped out of school upon completing  Senior Three. Moding’s elderly mother could not help her either as she was poor and overwhelmed by responsibility of looking after a large family. The army gave the family 20 iron sheets as compensation to roof a small house.

Education is not highly regarded among the Karimojong. Kotido District Education Officer Amborse Lotuke says of the 44000 school age children, only 16000 have enrolled for education this year. He says this is the biggest enrollment ever attained in the district despite the government’s free primary education. Lotuke says it is common for children to drop out of school because parents cannot afford to buy a Shs300 exercise book, pen or a pair of school uniform for the children because of the endemic poverty in the sub-region.

He says the completion rates are lamentably low and keeping children at home to do domestic work and also as sources of bride wealth in the case of girls aggravates the situation. Children walk as far as 40 km in search of building materials in the wilderness and thus cannot stay at school.

Charles Businge, ActionAid Country Director, says Karamoja has the worst indicators of poverty and education the country. He says children being the change agents in families, his organisation is working with them to create a culture of peace and ensure sustainable development. As a pilot programme, ActionAid is working with six out of 21 government primary schools in Kotido district. The NGO also runs 8 community school centres to cater for children of the roaming cattle keepers.

“We are looking at education as an alternative livelihood other than using the gun to loot animals from the neighbours,” said Businge. As a response to the low school enrolment and completion rates, Actionaid suggests having primary boarding schools would mitigate the problem and keep more children in school.

“You can’t ignore the fact that those children will have to continue looking for the building materials unless you address the real challenges facing them. They have to have shelter, protection in form of manyattas [huts], so they have to move long distances. It’s better to come with an alternative. We need to provide incentives to them to enable children stay in school,” says Businge.

As part of the incentives, Actionaid provides supper in pilot boarding schools in the various districts of Karamoja while World Food Programme provides breakfast and lunch in all schools. The WFP also provides food rations to families with girl children who have spent 80% of the academic term at school. This is a way of motivating children to keep in school.

Karamoja is drought prone and is perennially hit by water scarcity, hunger, poverty, insecurity due to cattle rustling and consequently suffers pathetic  health services and early marriages.

Residents complained that a lot of money has been invested into the region but has had little impact. However, Kotido Resident District Commissioner Godfrey Batwaza is adamant: “Those who have lived here say when you compare the Karamoja of today [to the one before], there is progress. Contribution of partners like Actionaid is the beginning of the change in livelihoods of the people of this area. The children are the big trouble causers, they are the ones who are used in cattle raids but when they are given skills and education, there will be change in Karamoja.”

With the majority of the Karimojong such as Lotyong and Moding starting school in their adulthood or dropping out in childhood, Karamoja still has a very long walk to a life and social services other parts of the country enjoy today.

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