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The Karimojong are found in Kotido and Moroto districts in the northeastern part of Uganda. They are part of the Atekerin speaking people of Uganda. The origins of the word Karimoja are quite uncertain but a legend from Teso and Karamoja itself asserts that the two names Karimoja and Iteso were derived during their migrations within Uganda. In their early migration, the Atekerin peoples are said to have come by way of Karamoja. Those who remained where the Karimoja live today came to be known as the Karimojong. The term is said to have been derived form the phrase akarima ajong; meaning “ the old men have got tired”; because the Karimojong did not manage to proceed as far as the other peoples of their stock.
Although the Karimojong have common origins with the Langi and Iteso, some elements of their culture differ greatly fro the Langi because the Langi became more prone to foreign influences during their migratory cycle. Even among the Karimojong of today, the customs which depicted the mode of life of the traditional stock have slightly, if not greatly, been affected by the forces of change such as intercultural adaptations. None the less, the Karimojong still stand as a distinct group with some elements of their cultural heritage intact.
Before a boy could announce his intention to marry, he had to prove to the elders of the village that he was already a man. In the early times, when lions and elephants still teemed across the southern Karamoja plains, the boy had to set out alone armed only with a spear and hunt and kill single handed one of the lions or elephants that roamed the plains. The boy would prove the achievement by reporting to elders at a formal meeting called a baraza. HE would show the blood on his spear and also present the animal’s tail. The remaining problem now would be to find sufficient cattle to pay the bride wealth.
Upon proving his manhood, the boy would be given a bull by his father. The Bull was then killed and shared among the boy’s male friends and relatives. Besides, the boy would smear himself all over with dung from the entrails of the bull. The boy’s hair would then be cut by one of his adult male friends, leaving a tuft at the back known as input to which a short string would be tied. From then on, he was considered to have attained marriageable age and with permission of the elders he could begin to wear ostrich feathers.
The boy’s father would then instruct him to look for a girl to marry. No compulsion was brought to bear on either party in a marriage but the father could reject the boy’s choice if he deemed the choice unsatisfactory. Sexual contact was a usual prerequisite for the actual marriage and cases were few in which bride wealth was paid before such a contact had taken place. The boy would make his choice and instruct the father to pay bride wealth and this marked the beginning of negotiations between the girl’s and the boy’s families. The first journey of the boy’s parents to the girl’s home could not be under taken at the period of the new moon.
When the bride wealth arrangements were finalized, the bride would be brought along with the delegation that came to collect the cows and she would be left at her new home. A delegation from the boy’s family would accompany the dowry and on reaching the girl’s home, they wee received outside the girl’s mother’s hut. She would spread out hides for all to sit down on whilst she lit a pipe which was handed around and puffed by all in turn, the elders first. Thereafter, the delegation would return home.
When they reached home, the boy would remove the leopard’s skin and the ostrich feathers he had been wearing. He would not sleep with his bride that night. On the following morning the boy’s mother would take a calabash of cooking butter to the door of the bride’s apartment and call her. She would then put a necklace and a piece of emuria grass on the bride and smear the butter all over her except the legs. She would then remove all the girl’s ornaments and dress her like a married woman. The exact attire consisted of a goat’s skin hung down from the waist, the hairy side outward and a calf skin slung from the shoulders and reaching the knees. The goat’s skin had to be well shaped otherwise it would cause shame to the bride among her fellow women when walking or dancing.
After being dressed, the bride and three other girls would go and cut a load of firewood each to give to the boy’s mother. That same night, the boy would sleep with his wife and they would continue to do so in that hut until a child was born. After that, the husband would build a separate hut for that particular wife.
The Karimojong were polygamous. The number of wives a man could marry was only limited by bride wealth obligations. No marriage between relatives was allowed, no matter how remote the degree of consanguinity. Customarily, on arrival at the home of her husband to be, the girl was taken through the large kraal entrance and led to her own house. Donning his leopard- skin cloak, his knee bells, he address and zebra tail, the groom would circle the entire village pretending to be a brave animal, tossing his head and swishing his tail. Finally, people would gather in the cattle kraal and the ceremony would be rounded off with a dance.
Normally, if divorce had been agreed upon, the woman would go down on her hands before the husband and he would pour cold water on her back. There after, she could return to her father and the father would repay bride wealth. When this had been done, the man would return a bull the woman’s father. This bull was killed and all the relatives would join in eating it; even the former husband would take part in the eating. The woman’s father and his people would smear the woman with the dung of the entrails to let those concerned understand that she was there and then a free woman.
If she had not given birth, she would revert to the dressing style of unmarried girls which consisted of a goat-skin covering her buttocks and reaching from the waist to the back of the knees and a pad of cowries covering the front. If however she had already given birth, she would maintain the dress of a married woman. She could also wear any ornament she liked. A divorced woman could by custom freely marry.
In the older Karimojong customs, sexual intercourse between un married persons was allowed but pregnancy resulting form such an act was decried. Such a misconduct was atoned for by payment of thirty goats to t he girl’s father unless bride wealth was paid and the boy married the girl. But adultery was regarded as the most serious offence rendering the man involved liable to death at the hands of the aggrieved husband. If the adulterer was lucky the offended man could just confiscate all his stock. This penalty was extended to include any stock which the adulterer might come to possess in future until it was felt that the honor of the affected man had been restored. The issue of adultery was in fact a family affair, not a personal one; and the property which was confiscated from the adulterer would be divided up amongst the members of the affected family.
When a woman was about to give birth, her female relatives would come to assist. The woman who acted as a midwife would crouch in front and receive the baby. She would wash the baby at once with cold water. The Umbilical cord was cut and buried in the cattle enclosure. If the baby was a boy, the cord was cut with emal (an arrow used for bleeding cattle); and if a girl, it would be cut with a normal knife. On the day of birth, the mother and her attendants were given food consisting of choroko (small peas or beans ground up).They were also given meat and blood from a bull and heifer. The men could share in the meal but under no circumstances could they enter the hut in which the baby had been born. All the prepared food had to be eaten there and then but no sick person or any infected with sores could join the eating.
The same day the husband would send his wife the skin of a gazelle to be tied by the fore legs behind her back and the hind legs behind her waist in such a fashion as to conceal her breasts. The husband would not enter the mother’s house for about twenty days.
On the day when the woman ended the days of confinement, a ritual ceremony was performed. A ram was slaughtered and its skin was prepared for tying the child on the mother’s back.
Children were given the names of their ancestors. In fact, to be more exact, the eldest child would get the name of the grandfather. The next would get the name of the grandmother, the third was named after a great aunt or uncle; and so on. This implied if effect that the Karimojong did not have particular names for particular sexes.
Children could also be given other names by the midwives who assisted in their births on account of the conditions prevailing during birth. For instance, a child could be named Lopero if it was born at night. However, such were more often than not, tentatively conferred and acceptance or refusal was said to be demonstrated by the child sucking contentedly or crying. If the mother did not have enough milk to feed the baby, it would be given goats milk administered from a small gourd shaped like feeding bottle.
When a village member died, there was un restrained weeping. If a woman lost a child through any cause, she would of ten attempt suicide. Women were known to keep a special cord in their grain baskets for this purpose. It was unusual for a man in Karamoja to attempt suicide; but it was common for women in the event of loss or failure of crops. Near Latome, there is a stream called “the stream of hanging”. By the banks of this stream, it is said that bodies were constantly found hanging from trees.
The elder of the village was buried in the center of the calf or sheep kraal. He was buried wit his head pointing in the north because the Karimojong believe that they came from the north. The body was covered with cow dung and soil and then stamped on. Then a large stone would be placed upright on the grave. If an elder died away from the village, his body would be carried home, usually on a donkey. Death and burial ceremonies tended to vary from clan to clan but generally, mourning and weeping would proceed for a couple of days. Among the Karimojong, the Ng’inga’aricum clan did not bury their dead. The dead body was usually left outside, preferably at a place where the harvester ants had carried off the seeds and left a bare patch on the ground. The corpse was laid on its side with its head upon a stone, and left there to rot and dry. There were no burials for the lepers and suicide victims.
After burial, the male members would shave the front of their heads while the women would shave off all their hair. All neck ornaments were taken off and the widow would, in addition, remove her earrings. Children and women would also replace their skins with old and tattered ones. In some clans, the widow would wear a long skin extending from the chest to the feet she would also put on her late husband’s sandals which she would not take off even if the gourd was muddy and even at night when she lay down to sleep. She would also carry her late husband’s stick and gourd form which the spout would have been knocked off as a matter of custom.
When their hair had grown again but was still short, mourners would rub themselves all over with dust to rid themselves of the contamination of the dead. The dead man’s contemporaries would then kill his favorite ox and eat it. There were no supplications offered at this ceremony. The dead man’s relatives would come and if he had brothers, they would inherit his wives and part of the wealth. But it was not usual among the Karimojong to discuss inheritance until after quite some time. If the man had no brothers, the eldest son would inherit the young wives but it would take several months before the formal distribution would be done.
Whenever a chief died, he would be buried in the center of the kraal. The wives and members of the family were usually buried round the sides near the entrance of the kraal. Though they tended to have some elements of similarity with the Turkana of Kenya, the Karimojong would not leave the village after someone had died like the Turkana did.
The Karimojong would not worship for the sake of it. In times of trouble, sickness or misfortune, the clans would gather at the ancestor’s grave with all their children and grand-children and there they would milk the cows, bring out the tobacco and kill an ox. The contents of the ox’s stomach were smeared over the people and over the burial stones chanted as follows: “our Father help us; what shall we do? Are our cattle to die? Are our children to die? We have never disobeyed you: oh father, hear us, give us life.
Rain making (akirriket)
If rain failed to come at the expected time or when at any moment rain was badly needed, two or three elders would approach the emurron (medicine man with a present of a calabash of milk and impress upon him the necessity of making rain. The emurron would direct them to present a bull of a specified colour, usually black, and then appoint a day for akirriket (the rain making ceremony). The elders would then look for an appropriate bull, and its owner, as a matter of course, would have to agree to give it away.
On the day of the ceremony, all the elders would gather to an appointed spot. The elders’ would sit in a semi-circle with the bull in the center. The other men would group themselves at the opening the circle where fire was made. Grass was then spread I in front of each elder and near the bull. A man was then selected to kill the bull by spearing it in thee side. For such a privilege conferred upon him, he had to give the owner of the bull a heifer.
The bull was slaughtered on the grass and the meat would be roasted. The roasted meat was brought before the assembly but it was not distributed immediately. The Emurron would stand in the center facing outward and, sticking his naked spear upright in the ground, he would call upon rain to come. It is said that rain would fall instantly or at least after a few days.
The roasted meat was then distributed by two attendants to the elders. The elders’ would eat and give some bites of meat to the men surround. For his service, the Emurron would get a hind leg for himself. He would then cut and divide the other hind leg and distribute it to the elders. Thereafter, all the elders’ would disperse to their homes.
The Ox of Invocation.
Customarily, each Karimojong man would keep a special Ox among his herd. Each man should simulate acts of bravery by invoking the aid of his special ox. He would do this by calling out the name of the ox while brandishing his spear. If a man killed an enemy or a fierce animal having invoked the aid of his ox, he was entitled to slit the ox’s ears. It was believed and feared that an ox might despise a master who had failed to slit its ears.
The Oxen of invocation were named according to a list of clan names or on account of color or the shape of he horns. These oxen were highly esteemed and were valued more than parents, wives, children or other possessions. It was considered very unfortunate for an ox to die before its master. Should it do so, the owner to take off his ornaments and observe many days of mourning. If the master died before the ox, it would be killed to accompany him.
Often, a man would decide to kill his special ox if he realized that it was growing very old. However, only men belonging to he two elder groups, the Ng’itukoi and Ng’imoru could be allowed to do such a thing. Such a man would announce his intention to kill the ox. The representatives of the villages would gather on the ceremonial ground for local and inter-tribal feasts and dances. Customarily, the elders would sit behind the circle of leaves prepared for the occasion. The sticks on which the hind legs of the animal would be placed were laid in the center before the elders.
Therefore the ox was slaughtered while its owner stood by. He would be dressed in the ceremonial dress of ostrich feathers form head to toe. He would watch but could not himself participate in the slaughter of the ox. Then there would follow dancing and invocation of oxen but as the youths recounted their heroic deeds done in the names of their different oxen, the elders would remain seated. After this, there would follow a ceremonial dance which was accompanied by a series of mimed interludes performed by almost every one present.
As the dancing would be going on, the elders would be given the best pieces of meat. The delegates from the different villages would not go home that day. They would be lodged in the village of the clan to which the owner of the ox belonged. At the end of the celebrations, the reveling and feasts could continue for several days. The owner of he ox would take on new ox in the hope that it would stimulate him to fresh deeds of bravery.
The Karimojong were pastoralists by nature and their love for cattle was intense. Cows were regarded as a means of livelihood and for paying bridewealth. Among the Karimojong, the bridewealth ranged form fifty to one hundred heads of cattle. It was due to this and the custom of spear blooding that the Karimojong usually resorted to cattle keeping. To most of them, spear blooding was necessary when the young boy had passed through what was known as the initiate stage and desired to get married.
Karimojong food consisted of milk and defibrinated blood. It was usually supplemented with meat, millet, sorghum and beans. When the cows or goats died, they would eat the meat but they would not naturally kill them for food. When they ate meat, they did it thoroughly; the whole carcass save hides, horn and hooves was consumed. The children were usually given milk form the age of six months when breast milk became inadequate.
They would get the blood by bleeding the cows. This was done by piercing the jugular vein by shooting an arrow at it. The blood would then be collected in a calabash. It was stirred by a stick until the fibrin separated form it. It was removed and given to the dogs during times of plenty but during the dry season, people would cook it and eat it.
The bloody liquid which remained was mixed with an equal amount of milk and the mixture made a meal for a man. This mixture was not cooked in any way. It was simply drunk. In the rainy season when there was enough grass for grazing, this kind of meal was taken only once or twice a week. Millet and maize flour tended to predominate among the rest of the dry season foods.
The Karimojong were a segementary society. Leadership was vested in the elders and the clan was the basic unit of political administration. The heads of the different clans constituted the council of elders which was constituted the council of elders which was responsible for administering justice, settling disputes, marinating law and order and punishing law breakers.
All the elders occupied a position of political importance in the society. They also performed other important functions connected with rainmaking and tendering sacrifices.
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