HomeTourismExploring Karamoja: In the footsteps of W.D.M Bell on a Bicycle

Exploring Karamoja: In the footsteps of W.D.M Bell on a Bicycle

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Over one hundred years ago, a Scotsman W.D.M ‘Karamoja’ Bell arrived in Mombasa at the age of 20 with the goal of travelling to Northern Uganda as a professional elephant hunter.

Several years later in the process of fulfilling his dream he found himself on extensive hunting expeditions in what is now the Karamoja district of Uganda. While there he met with ‘such a gathering of elephants as I had never dared dream about’, and by 1909 he had made three safaris spending a total of five years in the district (and beyond) and was the first white man to live in and explore the Karamoja district.

Not only did he admire and respect the semi-nomadic pastoralists and settled agro-pastoralists who inhabited the area but he earned a blood brotherhood (he was known as Longelly-nyung or Red Man) and great influence over them. He was most importantly fascinated by the unique beauty of the landscape and significantly impressed with the abundance and diversity of local wildlife. His presence in the district as part of the advanced guard of an influx of foreigners heralded the arrival of the 20th century in Karamoja in a period that became know to the Karimojong as ‘the scattering time’.

For the people of Karamoja, largely distinct geographically and culturally from the rest of Uganda, this first contact with foreigners just as W.D.M Bell was arriving in Mombasa in Kenya, came at a time when famine, smallpox and rinderpest were also stalking the land. Both Arab and European expeditions setting out to explore the areas inland from the East African coast found some of the tribes weakened by these factors and therefore much easier to exploit. Strangers were also extending their influence south from Ethiopia and Sudan. Abyssinian slaving and ivory prospecting caravans were the foremost among these, and in turn they brought many problems to Karamoja as they arrived4.

By the time Bell left Karamoja and returned via Kenya to the coast, he took with him not only the famous nickname and tens of thousands of pounds worth of ivory5 but he left behind a people undergoing immeasurable change. The great elephant herds that Bell hunted have now vanished and for the people of Karamoja district, the start of the elephant’s decline marked the beginning of a century of irreversible upheaval.

Present day Karamoja district lies on the Western edge of the great Eastern rift valley in the North-East corner of Uganda (see map), sharing administrative borders with Kenya and Sudan. The tribal areas once occupied freely by transhumant pastoralists and the mountain people cover almost one third of Uganda’s land surface but contain less than 20% (1.2 to 1.4 million people) of the country’s population.

The landscape is flat semi-arid savannah, grasslands, and Acacia wooded hills punctuated by towering volcanic mountains clad in Juniper and Podocarpus forest. The dry, hot and extremely variable climate with heavy rainfall (seasonally and geographically) dictates a nomadic pastoral existence supplemented by small scale seasonal agriculture on the flat savannahs and a hunter-gatherer/agro pastoralist lifestyle in the mountain valleys and plateaux.

The population in the expansive plains consists of people loosely described as the Karimojong Cluster who are mainly of Nilo-Hamitic descent and practice transhumant cattle herding. Also part of the population are the mountain tribes9, descendants from Stone and Iron Age indigenous inhabitants (who are linguistically and culturally distinct e.g. Tepeth) and have from being hunter-gatherers latterly become agro-pastoralists who supplement their livelihood by hunting wild game and gathering forest products. The Ik or Nyangatom are among the last of the hunter-gatherers still practicing what is close to a ‘traditional’ lifestyle although their population is diminished and under threat and the little that is known about their way of life is based on scant information10 and has often been inaccurate.

It is widely believed that the pastoralists migrated south along the Nile and surrounding floodplains to the Karamoja region between 500-1,000 years ago and encountered little resistance from the mountain tribes who were living in the area prior to their arrival. After immigrating to and occupying the land around the Koten-Magos hills (map,12) the pastoralist colonisers fragmented and spread out across much of Karamoja and indeed to further flung locations in East Africa (Maasai, Samburu, Turkana etc). As the newly arrived pastoralists aggressively colonised the better lower grazing lands with their herds of camels, cattle, goats and sheep they displaced many of the original inhabitants onto higher less fertile ground and forest areas.

However, via intermarriage, trade and a growing interdependency, a historic and mutually beneficial relationship came to exist between the two groups. Subsequently, the inhabitants of Karamoja co-existed using their own primary livelihoods but depended closely on each other, exchanging resources and culture in the absence of many influences from beyond their traditional lands. Surplus meat, milk and crops were traded by the pastoralist tribes with the mountain inhabitants in exchange for labour, metal implements and weapons, and forest products including edible foods, honey and medicinal plants. Raids between tribes and clans being a regular part of pastoralist life in the region13, often conducted across the mountain divides and usually between neighbouring rival groups, the mountain people hid cattle, scouted for enemy tribes’ movements and also provided services such as auguring, rainmaking ceremonies and fire rituals.

I had visited some parts of Karamoja prior to this foray by bicycle; once flying into Kidepo Valley National Park in 1993, a spectacular way to be introduced to the area. I can vividly remember passing over the stunning landscape, looking down from the small four-seater aircraft onto a patchwork of Acacia woodland interspersed with cattle camps and the strangely geometric shapes of the homesteads scattered among the rock formations and river-courses.

Then while a Ph.D student based at Budongo Forest Reserve in the west of Uganda I had hitchhiked in from Soroti to spend a week exploring Moroto and climbing with two local Tepeth companions high up the mountain through the lower valleys and being rewarded with fine views over the flat savannahs from high up on the steep mountain passes and summit.

On this occasion I was travelling with an Irish companion Francois Drion, starting out from Kenya after staying a few days at the luxurious Deloraine Estate, where we were hosted by the family who ran horse safaris in Loita Hills adjacent to Masai Mara. From there we rode and hitched rides with friendly truck drivers passing near to where safaris set out from in Bell’s day, Mumias, and across the border at Malaba.

Roughly speaking we aimed to follow some of the routes taken by Bell during his three safaris made approximately one hundred years ago. Having crossed the border and ridden went on through Tororo and Mbale, which latterly became an important trade centre originally for ivory but later for cattle and coffee we spent a final night in ‘civilisation’ in Soroti where we stocked up on supplies in the local market and enjoyed a last chance to check our bikes over before being far from anywhere spares or even puncture repair kits might be available.

On the road up to this point we were passed and greeted by latter day caravanserai consisting of trucks, buses cars and’ Matatus’ (minibus transport). Then after leaving Soroti the following day and cycling beyond Lake Bisina, we entered the real part of the journey on murram earth roads leading to our first stop for the night at Iriri. We had covered a distance of about 200 kilometres from our starting point in Kenya in the space of a few days, whereas Bell and his caravan took 2-3 weeks to cover the same distance on foot.

Arriving in the outskirts of Iriri in darkness, I had switched my home made lights on for the last few kilometres and Francois despite being on a modern bike had been experiencing problems with punctures and struggled to see following the narrow beam of my lights through the gloom. There we met with the local village elders who were surprised to see us, offered us a building to sleep in and made us most welcome.

We stayed there in Iriri for a few days there while my companion recovered from a bout of malaria (probably contracted during the time he had earlier spent cycling extensively in Kenya) and I spent time exploring the local surroundings with the local schoolteacher who was very hospitable and informative, explaining many aspects of Karimojong life and culture.

When Francois had recovered we then progressed on to Moroto (Mani Mani in Bell’s time) and setting off after a few days in town I made a short trip on my bike out to the trading centre of Nakiloro on the road out of Moroto past the intimidating looking army barracks. There the scene might have been little changed since Bell’s time save for the abundance of automatic weapons and the availability of western goods in the small roadside dukas (shops). People looked on in amazement to see a Westerner on a bicycle, far less one similar in many ways to the ones they were using (I was riding my Dutch sit up and beg bike with only one gear and back-pedal brakes for the entire journey).

The advantages of travelling by bike were many: as well as being able to go off the beaten track, the pace of life was more similar to that Bell would have taken, journeying on foot; although many of the roads were corrugated murram earth full of potholes, because of the widespread use of bicycles there were very often well worn, smooth tracks formed by locals cycling to and fro; and often the novelty value and opportunity to meet and talk with fellow cyclists or walkers was much greater than that afforded by travelling in a vehicle, many of which merely sped past us covering everyone in a cloud of dust while we were cycling. After meeting in Moroto with old friends and handing over gifts we left our bikes and travelled with the dispensary vehicle to the small centre of Tapac where we were most generously hosted by friends and family of Robert Lobur Ariko, a friend who I had know from previous visits to Karamoja (see above).

We spent the afternoon admiring the dispensary and talking with Roberts friends and relatives then walked up a river valley and up onto the ridge to be invited to spend the evening in a local family’s compound where we were hosted and entertained late into the night with excellent food, singing, dancing and much banter. Waking early the next morning we breakfasted and then walked up to the summit pass of Mount Moroto, a steep climb through woodland and burnt grass clearings out onto the summit ridge where we were met with excellent views of the nearby summit-Sukudek.

Pausing at the summit pass and looking South to Mount Kadam, around which Bell had hunted extensively and West and North to the extensive plains where he had also found so many elephants, I marvelled at the beauty of the landscape in its originality but also reflected on how much it had changed. Reluctantly leaving behind the tranquillity and impressive surroundings we set off down the other side of the mountain and into the valley above Moroto town and by nightfall the path led us back past the grandiose but now much in need of renovation Moroto Hotel and back to where our bikes awaited us once more in Moroto town. Bell found Moroto a cosmopolitan trading centre in the early 1900s and as administrative centre for the district it still is. In Bell’s day one of the key local figures was Shundi, a Kenyan Muslim whose colleagues were Arabs, Swahilis, Persians and ‘a few African born Baluchis1. Now these trading patrons are largely replaced by Western aid agency representatives, Uganda Government officials and Church figures as having influence in society.

Leaving Moroto on empty roads we headed West towards Bokora county where Bell spent much time during his first ‘safari’ and then instead of exploring further where roads would not allow, we turned North following the long, often straight and well maintained road towards Mount Tororo making eventually for Kotido. Passing through the no man’s land of the Matheniko Corridor Game Reserve we were fortunate to be accompanied by a few bicycles and young warriors with weapons strapped to the crossbar of their bicycles but otherwise the landscape appeared empty. We saw no wildlife such as the elephant, ostrich, lion, giraffe, eland, hartebeeste and other antelope and mammals Bell was lucky enough to encounter in numbers, and indeed shot for meat to supply the needs of  his many safari members2. About midday we freewheeled downhill past Mount Toror and in the mid afternoon sun made water stops at boreholes where women gathered to pump vigorously and fill jerrycans to carry some distance back to their homesteads.

As early evening came we encountered a broken down truck just beyond the junction for Loyoro and stayed with it until a mechanic returned in a pick up to carry our repairs. Having made friends chatting to the driver and keeping him company while he waited, we gratefully accepted a lift through the darkness to Kotido (Tshudi Tshudi in Bell’s time) where we looked up David ‘Good Feeding’ Okello who having met earlier in Soroti had invited us to stay with him in Kotido. He thought it unlikely we would make it that far on two wheels so was delighted and surprised to see us. We stayed there in David’s hospitable company and explored Kotido, over the next few days, again noting how different the place must be compared to when Bell arrived there.

There were still signs of Lebanese and Somali hotel owners and shopkeepers, snuff sellers in the market place and houses built from recycled maize oil containers but the centre had a modern feel to it, electricity, aid agency compounds and a bustle that suggested a contemporary way of life. After time in Kotido we were keen to explore further North but by then realised that we would not reach as far as Kidepo National Park which Bell must have crossed through (before it was designated) and beyond, where he camped for many months deep into Sudan in the land of the Toposa and the mountain of Morua Akipi (‘Mountain of Water’).

Time and insecurity limited us as well as knowing that the further we went the more remote the situation and potential risks we were exposing ourselves to. Instead the furthest North we reached was the trading centre of Kaabong which was little more than a cluster of huts in Bell’s time and has not changed much since. Staying with a friend of David Okello’s, William Henry Opolot a genial and extremely welcoming gentleman living and working in the remote area for many years we marvelled at the stunning landscape and gazed with longing towards the mountains of Morungole, the border with Sudan and beyond. That would have to wait for a future expedition. Meanwhile we chatted with Henry about religion, advantages and disadvantages of western development versus the traditional way of life, bee-keeping, farming, his own work and of course the ever present issue of insecurity. He was extremely interested in our presence in the area on bicycles as well as learning about our countries and lives and we were fascinated to hear about the admirable work he was doing with the Church of Uganda, his tales of remote life and the perspective he gave on the influence of people like Bell and those who have visited and lived in the area since.

There have been many attempts at development in Karamoja13, 14 including veterinary projects, agriculture, cattle ranching, building dams, wells and boreholes, disarmament, conservation/tourism. Recently trans-boundary project WCS and of course there is a long standing history of famine relief, translocation of famine victims and agricultural projects (OXFAM); Uganda Government agencies and Non Governmental Organisations are bringing  education, healthcare, new religions, peace keeping initiatives, community development, infrastructure and many others beneficial changes to the area.

Among these are the Catholic Mission, Lutheran World Federation, Karamoja Projects Implementation Unit (KPIU), USAID, and a whole host of others. What do they have in common with the people who have brought external change over the last one hundred years since Bell was here? All have encountered a unique tribal society with a distinctive way of life, religion and culture. All have encountered some problems and indeed have caused some degree of disruption to Karimojong society and their traditional way of life. It is hard to say what the recipe for successful progress within a fast developing Uganda might be, but I believe that there is a place for the Karimojong in today’s world and admire and respect their ability and willingness to maintain their traditions.

The difference now as compared to when Bell visited the area is that the pace of change and the pressures to change have become more rapid and more intense. Future development may involve developing a livelihood based on the Karimojong traditional economy, small and medium sized enterprises, harnessing their in depth knowledge of cattle keeping together and traditional use of the harsh environment. There are deposits of gold, other mineral and mineral possibly oil which may be exploited in the future. Tourism potential is great but unrealised due to insecurity and remoteness etc. Whether changes associated with these potential developing uses of Karamoja and its landscape also bring detrimental effects remains to be seen.

We finally left Karamoja, leaving Kotido early one morning and rode with our bikes in the back of a pick accompanied by Local Defence Unit guard to a junction near Morulem in the Labwor Hills. There we were deposited ‘in the middle of nowhere’ and set off on a little used route back to Soroti via Lotuke, Obalango and Amuria. People told us the murram track was being upgraded and as such had only recently been travelled by one vehicle in the previous 6 weeks roads, a Ministry team carrying out a survey.

However, once again there were good bicycle tracks and we cycled through the day passing deserted buildings affected by previous conflicts and eventually re-entering populated areas by late afternoon. Arriving at school in Obalango, we were met by a cheering crowd of children and eventually made our way back at Soroti late that night. Travelling by bicycle throughout the whole journey allowed us to take in surroundings and landscape and see changes since Bells time at a more leisurely pace than in a vehicle. We met many friendly people on bikes who marvelled at us and said we may be the first foreigners to travel through the area on two wheels. It was slightly awkward being a Scotsman if that was associated with someone who had been involved in killing some of the elephant herds but that was a different time and a different era, besides much of the damage to the greater elephant and other wildlife populations was inflicted since then as problems developed in Karamoja with the widespread advent of arms, poaching and other issues such as famine, overgrazing and insecurity.

Although we saw almost no wildlife save birds, some antelope and small mammals, while we were in the area, there was an ongoing project re-introducing giraffe from Kenya which were translocated by truck to Kidepo Valley National Park. When I had visited this National Park in 1993, there were only four remaining reticulated giraffe and they were often kept under armed guard for fear of lions attacking them. Then in 1997, Gladys Kalema and her team from the Uganda Wildlife Authority were hoping to help the population recover by this method of translocation.

Although we saw few of the large herds of cattle due to the dry season timing of our visit, the herds migrating away to West and Apule cradelands in search of grazing and water, we did meet many interesting local people and especially members of the Tepeth in and around the mountain areas. Just as Bell marvelled at the distinctive people of Karamoja, we too found them friendly proud, hospitable and independent.

Back at Deloraine in Kenya after retracing our route from Soroti across the border, we reflected on what had been an amazing experience and sorted through collection of gifts and small treasures seeds, millet baskets and photographs. These were very different from the great hauls of ivory Bell had brought out with him, but equally valuable and the journey had been enriching in terms of a life experience. Years later I still treasure those experiences, have continued to maintain an interest in Karamoja and echo the sentiments of David Pluth in his wonderful photographic collection from the area in the book Karamoja: Uganda’s land of warrior nomads. ‘Karimojong society and culture is so distant from my western experience; to me it is mysterious, secretive, romantic, mystical, intricate, dangerous. The longer I spent in Karamoja, the less I understood about it’.

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