Posted: August 26, 2007 in Blog

I’m learning now that a trip north means an early start to the day.

Once again, I was up before dawn, watching the sun climb over the city as I took a boda over to our arranged meeting place.


We were to gather at 7 a.m. to take a plane to Karamoja, a region in the northeast that remains arguably the least stable area in Uganda. What’s interesting is its problems are not directly tied to the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), the rebel group that has been fighting a 20-year civil war in the North against the government. Instead, the violence in the area is internal. The Karamojong are pastoralists— they mainly work with cattle. They’re also violent, and so cattle raids are common practice.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The plane was small, but stable-looking. About 12 of us piled in before take-off. I listened to music while watching out the window as the number of houses grew smaller and smaller the further north we went. Slowly the red-tiled roofs gave way to grass-thatched roofs, interrupted every now and then by the glimmer of an iron sheet roof.

We crossed the Nile— impressive even from this far up— and here I was able to get some perspective on why the North is so difficult to govern. It was a clear day, so you could see for miles. Small clusters of huts pockmarked the landscape. But in many areas you could not see a road crossing any of the land in view—which could have been a hundred miles or more for all I know. So many of these areas are so hard to get in and out of. Even the roads that did pop into view were completely devoid of traffic, save for the odd ant-like feature of a person walking.

Flying to Karamoja, I thought of conversations I had had with Ugandans in Kampala about this region. “When you go to Karamoja, you leave civilization behind,” one told me. “Going to Karamoja is like going back to the Stone Age,” another said. I was surprised to hear a Ugandan talking about his own country like that, but I soon found out that, indeed, Karamoja does feel like a whole other world.

Before long, we began our descent. I watched out the window as the ground drew nearer and nearer. When we were only a few feet away from the scrub and grass I began to wonder. C’mon, runway, I know you’re there somewhere… No sooner did the red gravel appear than our wheels hit the ground—hard— and we bumped our way to a stop, disembarking to find ourselves in a valley ringed by mountains and not a single person in sight.

Here is our plane. In front of it is the edge of the gravel airstrip we landed on:


We waited for our ride to show up—the drivers thought we were landing at a different airstrip so they had to drive to where we were— and talked amongst ourselves. There were a few people from the World Food Program, a few people from the German embassy, including the ambassador, and five of us journalists.

After about 30 minutes dust appeared in the distance and we could soon see three Land Rovers and two trucks coming our way. The Land Rovers were for us. The trucks, one in front and one at the back, were filled with armed soldiers and they escorted us everywhere the rest of the day. They take the threat of road ambushes very seriously in this part of the country. Everyone travels in convoys with armed escorts and there is a we-don’t-stop-for-anything policy once we start driving. It was too bad, since we passed so many interesting landscapes, people and villages that would have made for great photos. But stopping wasn’t an option, so myself and the other print reporter snapped photos through the windows, hoping some would turn out.

We arrived at the St. Kizito Hospital after about 40 kms of driving from the airstrip. The ambassador had come to announce $1.7 million in funding from the German government towards the WFP’s work in Karamoja. The WFP people were happy because earlier this year they had to stop their food program in much of the area due to a lack of funds, and school attendance immediately dropped some 40 per cent. Nineteen schools closed entirely because students stopped coming altogether. (Most parents in Karamoja do not want their kids going to school because they’d rather have them working, so the WFP gives food to those who attend school. As soon as the food disappeared, the kids did too).

Because the area is so dangerous, the WFP has for decades been the only international aid organization working in Karamoja. In recent months several other organizations have opened offices in Karamoja, due in large part to the increased security in other parts of the north that allowed organizations to redistribute their resources. “We’ve been here for 40 years wondering where the hell everyone else was,” one of the workers told me.

Here is our convoy, with two other Land Rovers in front of us and the truck full of soldiers escorting us. Behind us was another truck:


I have almost no sense of smell, but even I took a moment to get used to the musk that filled the hospital we visited. It was a very clean facility, but it was jammed with people with TB, AIDS, measles, meningitis and other serious conditions. Remember all the fuss a few months back about the American who knowingly traveled with TB and all the worries that TB would make a comeback? Well, TB is alive and well and living in northern Uganda. There were dozens of people in just this one hospital with it. About a quarter of them also have AIDS.

We toured the maternity ward, the children’s ward, the TB ward and then we walked into a building full of mostly men, lying in bed with various parts of their bodies bandaged or in casts.

“What ward is this?” I asked the doctor.

“This is our gunshot ward.”

Seriously. They have an entire ward for victims of gun violence. It had 54 people in it when we were there, though they said often there are more. The day before, eight people had been admitted to the hospital with gunshot wounds. Some days they admit 20 in one day.

Most are shot by cattle raiders. They ambush someone working on their farm, shoot them in the legs or arms (sometimes both) and steal all their cattle. We met one man lying on a gurney in a hallway, waiting to get an x-ray (the region has two ancient x-ray machines serving 235,200 people).

Through an interpreter, he told us that the previous day he had been working in his garden when cattle raiders ambushed him. They shot him in both legs and he lay on the ground, watching them steal his cattle. Beyond being a source of food, and therefore a source of wealth, cattle are the main currency for marriage dowries. Dowries in the region are so large that few, if any, men actually have the number of cows required to get a wife. So for many, cattle raids are the only way they can “afford” a wife.

At one point, I pulled one of the local politicians there aside to ask him some questions. This is an impressive facility, I said, but it obviously cannot handle complicated cases requiring surgery or sophisticated treatment. So where do those people go?

“They don’t go anywhere,” he said. “They die.” He explained how cases that go beyond what the hospital can handle are referred to the main hospital in Kampala, Mulago Hospital— hundreds of kilometers away— but no one here in Karamoja can afford that trip.

“It’s the beginning of the end once you’re referred to Mulago,” he said.

We were only supposed to be at this hospital for a short time. But the head doctor kept on going, showing us ward after ward, explaining in great detail the problems the facility was facing. Our last stop was an airy room where speeches were to be made by local officials, the WFP and the German ambassador. By this time we were so far behind schedule that the MC for the speeches asked everyone to keep their talks under five minutes.

Everyone did, more or less, except for the doctor. He must have gone on for 25 minutes. The desperation was palpable. Here he had a receptive audience of outsiders and he was not going to let them leave until we understood just how much help this hospital needed.

But eventually the speeches wrapped-up. We walked out of the building and through the groups of dancers that greeted us regularly as we toured the hospital. All of the dancing I have seen so far has been beautiful. It’s rarely complicated, and yet it’s mesmerizing. The singing, too, is incredible. I’ve never heard anything like it. For weeks I was unable to figure out what it was that made the singing here so incredible. At one point on this trip, as we watched the dancers and listened to their singing, I thought to myself, It’s so pure, so uninhibited, that even only a few people singing have a better sound than any choir I have heard back home.


Later, we walked towards the small building that houses the hospital offices (the hospital is a series of small buildings instead of one large institution). As we approached, the staff there, about eight women and one man, came out and broke into impromptu song with one of the women banging a drum.

Welcome, new visitor, welcome. We have been waiting for a long, long time. Please enjoy your stay, we are sure everything is going to be fine, they sang. We stood and listened to their singing, all of them smiling brilliantly, before entering the building.

Eventually we left the hospital, having lunch nearby, before driving to the foot of Mount Moroto where we were to visit a health centre.

On the way, we passed a truck full of armed gunmen. No markings on the truck, no uniforms on the men—nothing to explain why a dozen men were jammed into the back of a truck carrying machine guns. We journalists in the back of the Land Rover looked at each other and shrugged.

We also passed lots of herds of cattle and goats. Most of the herds were being led by young boys. Many wore few clothes and others were completely naked. After about 45 minutes of driving we turned down a narrow, bumpy dirt road (they’re all dirt roads) that led to the health centre.

It was quiet as we got out of the three Land Rovers. The soldiers escorting us sat in the shade of a tree, watching. The nun who runs this health centre came out and said, apologetically, that they had the nearby villagers here to greet us but we were so late that they had eventually given up and gone home.

But she spoke for a few minutes about the health centre and the challenges it faces. I walked around behind the health centre to get a good look at Mount Moroto and the storm clouds that were gathering in the distance.


When I turned the corner to return to the group I saw dust beyond them, coming from the road we had driven down. Soon we could hear singing too, and then people from the nearby village came into view, dancing and singing in a unified group. They heard we had finally showed up so they had regrouped and walked back to the health centre. They formed a circle, singing and taking turns dancing and jumping up and down in the middle. Soon the elderly women amongst them, they looked to be 90 but it’s hard to measure age here, came forward and danced and sang in front of us.

As the dancing continued I spied a man standing off to the side whose picture I wanted to take. When I was in Lira district a couple weeks ago and wanted to take pictures of people in the villages and IDP camps I would use gestures to show that I wanted to take their picture. Most times they’d smile and nod that it was okay. It made me feel a little less intrusive to at least give them a chance to say no if they didn’t want their picture taken.

I did the same thing with this man, but his expression became one of complete bafflement. He had no idea what I was expressing, and I soon realized he also had no idea what I was holding in my hands. He stared at me as I took his picture and then afterwards leaned forward to look curiously at my camera. The words of those Ugandan friends in Kampala came back to me. This is, indeed, a whole other world.

Here is the man:


After this visit it was time to return to the airstrip for our flight. Mount Moroto was on our left as we drove, and a few minutes into the trip one of the journalists said “Look!” and pointed towards the mountain. We all looked out the window to see a rainbow unlike any I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t an arc, so much as a large formation emanating from the valley floor.

The convoy slowed down, but didn’t stop, as people in each of the cars leaned to one side of the Land Rovers to snap pictures. We eventually got moving again, but we all watched as the rainbow slowly grew the further we drove. By the time we got to the airstrip it was nearly a full arc crossing in front of the mountain. Quite something to witness.

The plane landed on the airstrip just as we were approaching, so the timing was perfect. We piled out of the Land Rover, said good-bye to our hosts and got on the plane for the trip home.

The atmosphere on the plane was much more lively on the return. We were all charged with energy by what we’d seen in such a short time.

But before long, the effects of a long day of travel set in and many of us dozed off, myself included. I didn’t nap for long though, as the Ugandan journalist to my right and the one across the aisle from me on the left kept tapping me on the leg to point out landmarks we were flying over. Their mood was infectious and before long, I too, was looking out the window at the land passing under us.

  1. Rick Gregory says:

    It was just about this time two summers ago that I spent 2 weeks in Karamoja. I fell in love with the people and the land! I was visiting a friend, Dr. Jean Grade, who had lived with the Karamojong for seven years. I was helping her conduct interviews with the Traditional Healers (Westerners have historically called them witch doctors!) regarding how animals, primarily goats, act when they’re sick. I was visiting villages in Nakapiriprit, while I was hosted by Father Michael Apurio, parish pastor for a remote Catholic mission. Dr. Jean had left me in the care of Fr. Michael and two Karamojong interpreters. I had a couple brushes with violence as a result of the effects of cattle rustling and the involvement of the UPDF (Ugandan Army). I negotiated one day with a witch doctor for about 20 minutes so he wouldn’t kill me (or have any one of the 7 warriors with AK 47’s watching our interaction do the deed); another day, after being sick and missing one of my interview appointments, found that the village I was to visit had been bombed by a helicopter gunship, burned to the ground and most of the villagers killed. Had I made my appointment . . . I would have been among them! Overall, I found the land and the people beautiful. . . maybe a bit on the rough side, but hospitable to me. I’m planning to go back within the next 2 years

  2. Fr Michael Apurio says:

    It was nice to read your article, i bumped in it as I was searching some information about Karamoja.

    I am currently in the Us in Wisconsin sharing about our state in karamoja. They get baffled when I tell them this things.

    Anyway of now things are better. Disarmament has taken place and the place is relatively peaceful.

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