Karamoja: Rusticity and Authenticity at its finest!

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Welcome to Karamoja!

Well, I had been to perhaps every corner of Uganda as I executed my consulting assignments, from Kisoro to the sheltered villages of Panjuru in West Nile, from Bundibugyo and Semuliki valley to the plains of Teso, Lango and Acholi and from the Western border post of Mpondwe to the Northern and Eastern border posts at Nimule and Malaba respectively. But Karamoja remained a dream. I could not figure out an image from my wildest peculiar imaginations; it remained a mirage, an illusion!

Many tales had been told about Karamoja. Tales of hunger, of warrior nomads, of guns, of tribesmen, of hostility and of hot weather and all these would occupy my imaginations whenever I would try to fathom an idea about this ‘perceived strange’ land. This notion would later be demystified.

I began my 7 day maiden journey to Karamoja from Kampala in March, 2011 (still on a consulting assignment that required me to inspect solar energy water pumping systems and collect relevant data in Teso and Karamoja sub regions, an assignment commissioned by Ministry of Water and environment), I took a bus from Kampala in the late afternoon to the Eastern town of Soroti and reached at close to mid night. That was no big deal because I had been to Soroti several times. The following morning would see me on the road to Katakwi (I got a lift from a government official in Katakwi who had also spent a night at my hotel in Soroti en route from Kampala so we met over breakfast). I would in the next one and half days visit sites in Katakwi in the sub counties of Usuk, Toroma and Magoro and secure interviews with officials at the district which I accomplished successfully.

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Inspecting the solar energy water pumping systems at sites in Katakwi district, Teso sub region

So on a beautiful sunny afternoon of my second day in Katakwi, I was back from Magoro-my last site, I waited patiently for Gateway, the only bus that would go to Karamoja via Katakwi (at least by then), if it left me that would mean I had to spend another night in Katakwi. The bus arrived at a few minutes past 2pm but it was already full with an overflow standing in the corridors. So the other travelers and I (about 20 of us) had no choice but to play by the rules of the game. So we boarded the bus to fill up the last spaces in the corridors and the great journey to Karamoja would begin, with a cross bag (weighing approximately 5kg) across my shoulders, my hands hang up on the metallic rail.

My first point of awe came as we approached Napak. We started seeing the typical Karamajong homesteads-beautifully guarded ‘Manyatas’ with hedges of dry wood, natives in awesome robes (Nakatukos) and sparkling beads and jewelry welcomed my anxious spirit. Though I must admit I was getting a little nervous at this point, I was totally exhilarated because nature was getting me closer to one of the finest of cradles of mankind. We briefly stopped at Napak town where a few passengers disembarked but we would soon make a major stop at Matany, the first major destination in Karamoja. At Matany, the bus would be relieved of heavy loads of passengers and goods and I was now able to find a seat. It was already evening and we headed for Moroto. I quickly begun a conversation with my immediate neighbor-a middle aged gentleman named Joseph who worked as a civil servant in Kotido. Joseph, a very humble and hospitable native, would serve as my guide for the rest of the journey up to Kotido. We reached Moroto as dark closed in, another major stopover, and many passengers disembarked but would be replaced by yet other waiting travelers to Kotido. We moved in the dark from Moroto on a somewhat muddy-slippery road and reached Kotido after 10pm. My new friend and guide, Joseph, took me to a budget but good travelers’ lodge in the center of town and wished me the best of good luck for the rest of my trip before he left. (I would again meet Joseph in September 2012 in Soroti and we were both very happy to see each other again).

The whole treatment and gesture from Joseph would demystify my conventional understanding of the region and the Karamajong people, and the rest of my experience would yet get stamped indelibly on my mind as the greatest icon of hospitality I have had in life.

The next morning would see me wander around Kotido town to get the slightest crew about the land I had already fallen in love with, as I waited for my appointment with district officials at 10am. Sights of young nomad boys with their donkeys and beautiful Karamajong girls gathering firewood were kind enough to assimilate me into this land of beauty.

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Such a glimpse would serve as bait for my last drops of adoration for the Karamajong

My meetings with the district officials went on well. I met with the district engineer, district water officer, the CAO and officials at the town council. They were all very nice to me and they gave me the best of the information. It was already 1pm and I had lunch at Discovery Hotel (a known place in Kotido) as I prepared to head further north to Kabong about 85km north of Kotido.

Moving beyond Kotido presented one of the toughest hurdles but also became the highlight of my trip. To begin with, there were no passenger vehicles going beyond Kotido (in fact, there were no other passenger vehicles operating in Karamoja apart from a few buses that stop in Kotido). The only cars on the roads were government and NGO land cruisers and rarely, pickup trucks carrying merchants and their goods. So I tried to ask for a lift from an ADRA team whom I met at Discovery Hotel but I was not lucky enough because they were traveling the next day. So with the help of a resident, I got to where the pickup trucks stage to load or offload goods before they proceed to Kabong. After nearly two hours of waiting, a pickup truck arrived from Moroto carrying goods and a few traders and they accepted to travel with me to Kabong (of course at a fee of about Ten thousand which was fair enough). We waited for another about 30 minutes as they did their usual routine of offloading and loading more goods but meanwhile I had already struck a conversation with a young man named Muhamood who was en route on the same truck from Moroto to Kabong. In his mid-20s and a product of a Somali father and Karamajong mother, Muhamood was highly intelligent, highly versed with the region and with unmatched sense of hospitality. He would become my guide and gave me a safe landing in Kabong. A journey I had thought would see my highest adrenalin levels, turned out to be a tranquil one as if I was moving in my own land, but only because of the reassurance I got from yet another new friend-Muhamood. We were soon on the road headed for Kabong.

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Blessing in disguise: The mode of transport was timely because I could grab the best views and shots like this huge black rock, practically impossible in a spacious sedan or SUV

Hill-size black rocks and clusters of hundreds of ‘Manyatas’ (read huts) stood still along the Kotido-Kabong road while free walking army men in green attir would be seen along the road or sneaking in or out of their bases which would be spotted meters off the road with a keen eye. We reached Kabong at about 6:30 in the evening, and with my guide-Muhamood, we searched for accomodation in all the available lodges and guest houses  in Kabong in vain. The last room had already been booked. And that was trouble for me but I was still very confident I would survive. So after moments of thinking and laying strategy for our next step, Muhamood cracked an idea, one that would present more opennings for me that would work perfectly for my next movement. He suggested we go and try our luck at a catholic mission located at a near by hill overlooking Kabong town. We immediately rushed there and I was able to secure the last bed on a decker in a guest dormitory (I surely would have missed on the bed had we waited for an extra second because shorthly after I had checked in, a couple more people came looking for accomodation and bounced; luck was never on their side, and where they slept, God knows). Muhamood left but I would meet him again the next day. But the level of hospitality that was accorded to me by this young man and by the care takers at the catholic mission still ranks very high on average standards.

At the catholic mission, two things happened. I) everything was spotless clean that I felt more comfortable than even the few times I have stayed at a five star hotel and II) my decker mate would be very helpful to me. I immediately connected with this man, Alex, a geologist in his early 30s. He had worked in the region for some time and was working on underground water projects in a place called Karenga, exactly where I was headed the next day (Karenga is only a few kilometers from Kidepo National Park). So Alex told me he would be leaving for Karenga at 11am of the next day and he agreed to travel with me. We left the dormitory together in the morning and had breakfast in town. I rushed to start the district headquarters to grab my interviews with the officials and at a few minutes past 11, we hit the road for Karenga in his old but powerful Mitsubishi station wagon. Driving on a rough road, we reached Karenga in the mid afternoon. I inspected my sites but another challenge was yet to emerge; Alex would be driving back late in the evening but I needed to sleep in Soroti so I could grab my next appointment in Serere which was due the next day.

As I was still stranded in Karenga, a pickup truck headed for Kabong appeared (I think it had brought merchandise in the Karenga area). Soon we were on the road but the vehicle stopped in Kabong so I had to wait on luck to bring another pickup (for the few days I was in Karamoja, a pickup truck would appear in my eyes as a beautiful Mercedes Limousine). So as I waited for the next ‘limousine’ I used the time to look for my friend, Muhamood so I could thank him again and show my finest gratitude. He was happy and he took me to a market where I bought a Masai robe, popular among the Karamajong as a ‘Nakatuko’ (it would later give me the finest moments and memories that evening, and I would later give it away as a precious gift to my good friend on her wedding). So the ‘limousine’ came and I was offered a front seat but as we waited for more passengers, a middle aged man appeared. He was traveling up to Moroto so he could not hesitate climbing on top of the merchandise but my spirit prompted me to offer him my front seat, something he was very grateful about (I would later find out he was a primary school head teacher working in Kabong). After all, I would grab the best view of sceneries behind on the truck! We moved and reached Kotido before dark.

I had hoped to find a bus in Kotido so I could spend my night in Soroti but luck slipped off my side. I missed it by a few minutes. So I had to wait and travel with one that would be leaving at 2am in the night. But meanwhile, as I waited, I decided to interact with whoever cared to give me some time. And as I stood still at the heart of Kotido town, a phone call came from a friend in Kampala, so beginning to converse in our mother tongue, a lady (whom I had suspected would be my tribe mate), overheard me speaking. Without hesitating, she came rushing and embraced me, it would turn out a rare and exciting evening for her. Elizabeth, who hails from the present Mitooma district (formerly part of my home district-Bushenyi), is married to a Kumam man from Abim district and they then stayed in Kotido because her husband worked with ADRA-an NGO. She had also been stranded on the stage looking for vehicles that would take her to Abim to check on her home. Her effort was in vain but at least she met someone she would call a brother (at least for that evening) and she would take me to her home for a cup of coffee. It was awesome!

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It was one great evening for Elizabeth, the smile tells it all! Her son could not resist the light moment with someone who seemed like a ’maternal uncle’

Still at the stage, I met two very interesting people; a chumming old woman and a bold little boy whom I suspected was her grandson but I could not establish from them because of language barrier (I could only speak two words: toyai and arakara, literally translating: ‘how are you?’ and ‘thank you’). But these two people totally caught my attention and love and I spent my happiest moments of my trip with them.

Million Dollar Smile

Million dollar smile, I bet, with her clear gap, she could win an ‘Oscars-like’ smiling competition. Her perceived grandson slipped into awe. I must go back soon and track them down. I am one with them!

And as I still wandered around Kotido buying as much time in waiting for the 2am journey that looked a million hours away, I met the beauty queens of the land. These two young ladies in their late teens worked as freelance casual workers in the few ‘posh’ homesteads around Kotido. They were looking good, clean, humble and very beautiful and they were kind enough to allow me pose for pictures with them-some of my most valuable pictures in my collection.

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Beauty redefined! The images of my gazing and musing would be stumped indelibly in the corner of my mind

So it was dark and all my new friends had disappeared like a mirage, the old woman with her grandson, my two beautiful black queens, and I would soon leave Elizabeth’s home, where I had gone for my coffee. Marching slowly on the dark streets, I went to the bus station and found my scheduled bus had already arrived. I could risk missing it if I had opted for sleeping in a hotel so I waited in the bus. It was now past 10 pm and more passengers begun coming. I had hoped I would dose in my seat but I could not and soon it was 2am. The bus left Kotido at around 2:30am taking the Abim-Amuria route to Soroti and we arrived in Soroti at 7:30am. I moved out of the bus, went on the side, brushed my mouth and immediately embarked on the journey to Serere-my next destination, about 30km south of Soroti.

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This is Serere. Everything has changed overnight, from the vegetation to the temperatures and from the people to the language, but it is still awesome!

My scheduled interviews went on well and I would also inspect the sites and by 1pm, I was again on the road back to Soroti, reaching in the mid afternoon.

My initial plan was to come back from Serere and spend a night in Soroti. But since I reached early in the afternoon and I had completed my last assignment, I decided to travel back to Kampala. So I boarded Teso coach in the late afternoon and by 10pm, I was already in Kampala; what would emerge as one of my longest nonstop journeys:  a journey that had started the previous day from Kabong to Karenga and back to Kabong, continue to Kotido, wait in the bus for the 2am departure, reach Soroti at 7:30am, proceed to Serere, come back to Soroti and continue to Kampala.

What had begun as a work trip and reckoned to be a horrible experience emerged as one of my finest adventure trips and an industry standard for hospitality. I fell in love Karamoja!

Travel tips to Karamoja:

  • Travel with an open mind. You should never be expectant because you would be overwhelmed by the realties. A highly flexible traveler would find it exciting.
  • While embarking on a sole journey to Karamoja, its ideal to travel by public means, the inconvenience would be high but not as deep if your car gets the slightest mechanical problem along the way.
  • You should never forget to carry some packed food. My few packets of classic UHT
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