Also called the Karimojong, they speak Ngakarimojong and their culture is commonly referred to as Ngakarimojong. The Karimajong live very basic lives that rely on the community, with everyone having a specific task to do. While the men and boys are tasked with taking the cattle in search of pasture and water, the women and girls remain in the manyatta to look after the homestead and granaries, prepare meals and when possible, carry out some cultivation. The most popular meal, and sometimes the only available meal of the Karimajong is a curdled mixture of blood and milk called Ekyalakanu.
Men can have as many wives as they want for so long as they pay dowry and it is not uncommon for them to abandon old wives or younger more nubile ones. Although the Bible has been printed in Ngakarimojong, the Karimajong have been largely reluctant to adopt Christianity because it conflicts with many of their traditional practices including rustling and polygamy. Most practice animism with some semblance of Christianity.
The iconic appearance of the warrior-like Karimajong is one of the easiest to recognise, particularly in Uganda. Many Karimajong these days are identified by the red-checked cloths that they wrap themselves in, but this was only recently adopted from the neighbouring Masai of Kenya.
A typical Karimajong woman wears only a skirt with multi-coloured beads tied around her neck, and metallic bands tied around her ankles, while the typical Karimajong man simply throws a piece of cloth over his body, paring this with plastic bangles.
The Karimajong are also set apart from other Ugandan tribes by the numerous piercings and tribal markings that adorn their faces, as well as the distinct and rather fashionable hairstyles that they spot.
Value – The social, political, and religious way of life in Karamoja revolves entirely around herding and cattle, and indeed for a Karimajong, a life without cattle would be unimaginable. Cattle among the Karimajong is elevated to the level of royalty and for this reason it is the common standard for measuring a man’s worth. Nothing proves their love for their cows, than that they cannot bring themselves to slaughter one. Although most of their nutrition comes in the form of cow’s blood and milk, they rarely kill or eat a cow unless it is for some ritual.
They utilise every last bit if their cattle – the hides to make clothes and beddings, the urine as a water for washing and also to curdle their milk, the scrotum sacks to make bags, and the cow dung as manure when they are able to plant crops. Traditionally a Karimajong will come to own cattle that are passed on by patrilineal descent, by marriage, or by taking them in cattle raids.
Nomadism – Because of the stark climate and landscape of their home, the Karimajong have always lived a nomadic life, moving their livestock to neighbouring districts and sometimes countries every 3-4 months, in search of water and pasture. The men, armed with their spears and sometimes guns will usually leave the women behind in the manyattas as they lead the herds, and while out in the wild, they sleep in the open, but built a rough kraal enclosed by thorns for their cattle.
Cattle Rustling – The Karimajong believe that their god Akuj granted them full rights to all the cattle in the world, and so they believe that all cattle is theirs for the taking. They have a long history of conflict with neighbouring communities both inside and outside of Uganda, which is only amplified by the fact that these neighbouring communities have the same conviction about who the cattle belongs to.
Cattle Market – in a country where cattle is king, the cattle markets are the highlight of economic and social life in Karamoja. With the increase of visitors to the region, craft markets can be found alongside the cattle markets these days selling brightly coloured blankets, wristbands, anklets, bracelets and belts, and unique stools and walking sticks.
A visit to the incredible manyattas is one of the most remarkable cultural experiences that one can experience in Uganda because it is a heritage and lifestyle that has remained unchanged for centuries. The Manyatta is the standard communal homestead of the Karimajong and other nomadic communities or what would be called a village anywhere else in Uganda. During the wet season, the Karimajong stay in largely permanent manyattas but in the dry season the men stay mainly in kraals as they have to migrate in search of pasture and water.
From the outside, it looks like a huge cattle kraal enclosed by a protective thorny brushwood fence with small entry points for people and one larger one for the cattle. On the inside is an expansive compound of numerous small grass-thatched huts and a communal space for the cattle.
Most interesting is that the entrances to these huts is nothing more than a small square opening that is only big enough for a toddler to walk through. To enter a traditional Karimajong hut, one must get on their knees and squeeze through the tiny door. The inside and floor of the huts are cemented with a mixture of cow dung and mud and there is not much inside the hut save an odd collection of dried grass that serves as a mattress.
For a real taste of what life inside the manyattas is like, visitors can now spend a night in one of these huts. While the stay in a hut is anything but luxurious, the experience of spending a night in the wild, surrounded by nomad warriors can surely not be matched.
The night is made complete by a storytelling session in front of the fire led by the elders with tales of past raids, while sipping on some sorghum beer from a traditional pot. More often than note, the evening will also involve lots of dancing. The lucky visitor may even leave with a new Karimojong name!
The Edonga dance of the Karimajong is a fascinating courtship and wedding dance that can now be seen on a visit to these communities.
The girls lead the dance, clad in high-waited vests and Scottish-like kilts, with multiple beads adorning their heads, necks, wrists, waists and ankles, arms raised and gently pounding the ground with their feet. The men follow wildly energetic dance movements; pounding their chests and clapping their hands.
Edonga is often called the ‘men’s leaping dance’ because what follows is a show of ‘who can jump the highest’, with boys leaping several feet in the air, each trying to out do the other. The idea behind the exaggerated jumping and trying to be the highest jumper is that the man proves that he is strong and powerful in the sight of the women from whom he hopes to find a bride.