It is dry. It is dusty. But there’s gold there.
Considered the most underdeveloped region of the country, the Karamoja region lacks vital infrastructure, has limited economic activity and has a harsh and changing climate. The semi-nomadic cattle herding Karamajong are stigmatized by the rest of Uganda, and are deemed backward and ignorant. Food security has been a major concern for decades. The World Food program has been delivering ‘emergency’ food aid for over 40 years. As you might imagine, aid dependency is also a problem.
Historically, the British had a vested interest in not developing the region because it’s continued poverty served three main goals. Firstly, the old divide and conquer trick; secondly, it provided an expendable source of labour for the development of the central Buganda province; and finally, because it offered a geographic buffer zone preventing Islam from spreading into the British colonial zone.
Since independence, the region has been highly insecure. After 1962, traditional cattle rustling between the Karamajong pastoralists and their Kenyan and South Sudanese enemy tribes escalated due to the proliferation of small arms. Following the 2010 government policy of disarmament, the Karamajong were made vulnerable to the other tribes who still had guns. Consequently, Karamajong cattle numbers have depleted dramatically and disease has infested the remaining stock, which have been forced into centralized grazing areas. This has impacted the Karamajong economically and socially – the cow is central to their spiritual and cultural life.
In the past years, the region has been opened to international mining companies who are undertaking wide scale exploration. It has been reported that these companies are not consulting the indigenous people. There is increasing tension over land and water rights. Herders are turning to artisanal gold mining to get in on the action.
More vulnerable than ever, the people of Karamoja are at a crossroads. Can they benefit from the burgeoning mining industry while maintaining their way of life? Can they diversify their livelihoods while protecting their land? How can they shake poverty while remaining so dependent on aid? How can they actively participate in their own development?
Last month, I visited Karamoja and in the coming weeks I will publish some of the stories I captured there. Gruelling stuff.