The journey from Kamapala to the northern region of Uganda takes about 12 hours on a bus.
I slide the window with a thick red dust on it down to let some air in, I rest my head on my dirty seat and wait patiently to finally arrive.
I gaze at the sunset through the cracked glass.
The dry landscape suddenly lights up in red, thatched cottages catch fire from rays of setting sun, soft lights flow down from their roofs in vibrant colors.
We leave a huge cloud of dust behind us as we drive, I clearly see the particles in the simmering light that pierce my nose when I breathe.
After 14 hours of a bumpy journey, I finally arrive to the land Karamojong call home. My companion, Lokwamer Nariono, the former chief of the local community, eagerly waits to take me to the traditional cattle market and show me around his place.
The Karamojong are a tribe of proud warrior pastoralists who inhabit the plateau region of Uganda bordering southern Sudan and Kenya. Walking on the busy road of Kotido I admire the colorfully dressed group of tribal men driving their cattle to the nearby market.
As Nariono mentions, four years ago it would have been almost impossible to come and visit the place alone. Fighting and death were an everyday event on the roads of Kotido, in the capital of the region.
The Karamojong tribe have lived in the North Eastern region of the country for hundreds of years mostly in peace, but they have been trapped in a cycle of conflict for generations as clans of warriors have battled the government, each other, and the nearby Turkana tribe for cattle and survival.
The root of years and years of wars and cattle rustling go back to an ancient belief: that the animals were given to the Karamojong people by their very own god- Akuj; they have the divine right to use the raids as a rite of passage and way of increasing their herds.
The Karamojong consider cattle royalty. Their main livelihood activity is herding livestock, which has social and cultural importance. A man is valued according to how many cattle he has, so he will do everything possible to find good grassland and water for his animals, a serious challenge considering the arid climate of the district.
On arrival at the market, I can see people standing as far as the eye can reach, talking to each other, bidding on goods or simply strolling around the way I do. Dry, sticky red dust flies through the air, in the sweltering heat a mirage can be seen on the horizon. Young barefooted kids drive stubborn donkeys across the field when a loud quarrel breaks out by the only fountain beneath a huge tree.
“This is the only way to get water for many people,” Says Lokwamer, pointing towards the group of women and girls. “Carrying water and often walking for kilometers to fill the 2O liters of plastic oil containers are the tasks of the women.”
I spend the whole morning wandering around the market, watching the people trading goods and gazing at the four man teams, lifting each sold cow onto the lorries. One of the runaway goats is finally captured, the new owner slaughters it and cuts it into pieces then and there.
After leaving the morning market, I sit in one of the tiny restaurants of Kotido, sipping my midday coffee when a young Karamoja girl wearing a colorful shawl around her head walks in. She asks for chapati and rice and takes the only empty seat in front of me. Before she has a bite from her lunch, she softly removes her shawl and places it between us on the table. Her hair is cut completely short, making her traditional coffee bean like scarred tattoos visible,which are carefully planned patterns running on both cheekbones and forehead.
The Karamojong are not only famous for their fights but also for their scarred tattoos, which signify beauty, adulthood, and most importantly togetherness.
During the traditional scarification ceremony they often use sharp razors to cut the pattern and intentionally carve out the flesh and rub ash into the wound to make them stand out as raised scars.
Although the ancient technique slowly started to fade away due to influences from the modern world such as Christian faith and children’s schooling, there are still communities who proudly wear the scars not only on their faces, but also other body surfaces.
After spending a few days in Kotido it is apparent that the country’s Karamoja region has become more secure, but its beautiful and unique people are still struggling with every day life as their territory is the most marginalized in the country and one of the least developed in the world.
Boglarka Balogh, Kotido, Uganda
Boglarka Balogh is a Hungarian freelance journalist and author who writes on animal conservation, such as endangered manatees in Belize, orangutans in Borneo, and captured elephants in India. Boglarka also writes about social and woman issues such as leprosy in Asia, Karen refugees and the long necked woman in Thailand, and orphanage business in Cambodia.
She is the author of the documentary book called Love Commando (2O13) about honor killings in India, as she was deeply involved in one of the runaway couple’s story.
She is currently in Africa writing a blog for National Geographic Hungary online for 4 months.
During her first two month in Africa she captured the fascinating lifestyles of the Maasai, Hadzabe and Karamoja tribes.