Years ago, Karamoja was referred to as a primordial society tucked away in north-eastern Uganda, a region, as seen from the biased lens of non-natives, devoid of normal and acceptable ways of life.
However, with the intervention of the Government and development partners, Karamoja has evolved from that constructed picture of a grotesque world to an amiable melting pot of activities.
With funding from the Italian Cooperation, Italian non-government organisations (NGOs) have built a strong and permanent presence in the region, according to Stefano Dejak, the ambassador of Italy in Uganda.
With the NGOs focusing on the needs and aspirations of the people, the region has scaled up to unprecedented heights.
For that reason, according to Anna Baral, a researcher, the NGOs have over time ceased to be alien to the people they have invested time, energy and dreams in this land, resulting in an annual growth rate of 7.2% against a national average of 3.2%.
Although the region suffers long dry spells bordering between eight and nine months, affecting crop yields, there is a green belt to marvel at. "In areas near the mountains, rain is more abundant and makes the environment green, however causing occasional floods," observes Baral.
Areas blessed with heavier rains are commonly referred to as the green belt, cutting across Kaabong and Abim districts and other areas such as Irirri and Namalu in Nakapiripirit. On the other hand, Karamoja, as observes Baral, is no longer that unchangeable community.
For instance, there are now visible changes in the gender roles. "Sister Antonietta, who has been in Karamoja since 1964, runs projects for women in the dispensary in Kanawat and in the villages scattered in the countryside in Kotido, teaching issues related to family and housework," she says.
Additionally, through Antonietta's works, women are now giving birth in health centres and men have gradually got accustomed to the labour ward, where they often wait for their wives and new-born babies.
Notably, Baral says the promotion of agriculture in this heavily pastoralist area has attracted men to the fields, freeing women from the burden of small agricultural works.
The first encounter
The first Italians to encounter the cultural wealth of the Karimojong were Comboni missionaries.
This was in 1929 when the Vatican approved Lango and Karamoja districts to be assigned to the Italian Verona fathers, later named Comboni missionaries, with their first mission at Kangole in Nakapiripirit district.
Education, health, agriculture
Taking education to the region was not easy. Since children are key elements of the family, especially in herding, the Karimojong buried school books and pens to express their rejection of colonial education.
However, through Comboni schools, there has been a deeper and more frequent relation with the Karimojong, resulting in acceptance.
The missionaries built Matany Hospital, established in 1969 and the health centre at Kanawat, which have remained outstanding for their quality and variety of services offered to the population.
It is on the firm foundation laid by the missionaries that Italian NGOs and volunteers' projects have premised to continue supporting the people. For example, the Italian Cooperation has since 2002 closely worked with the Government for an efficient implementation of the Health Strategic Plan, complying with the National Development plan.
Subsequently, mobile clinics, aimed at taking health services to the most isolated areas, have been introduced, winning over the trust of the locals. The services are given to communities that live 5km away from the nearest health centre.
"Our intervention aims at ensuring access to basic health services in all the nine health sub-districts of the region, resorting to nine ambulances that, throughout the year, reach the most remote villages at least once a month," explains Paolo Giambelli, a paediatrician with the cooperation.
Each team, he adds, comprises an obstetrician, a vaccinator and a health facilitator. "They provide antenatal care, including ultra sound screening for mothers at risk, with a portable scanner.
They also carry out routine immunisation, HIV tests, treat diarrhoea, respiratory tract infections and common diseases such as malaria," Giambelli says. In the second half of 2011, about 504,000 people received assistance, including 25,000 pregnant women and 22,000 children below one year.
In six months, 1,5487 pregnant women received antenatal care and HIV prevention therapy on prevention of mother-to-child transimission (PMTCT). A total of 37,253 immunisations were made.
According to Thomas Tamanini, the cooperation's emergency programmes coordinator, a 2010 survey indicated that the region was prone to chronic food insecurity resulting from unpredictable weather patterns. Subsequently, the population gradually shifted from pastoral to permanent agricultural activities.
However, the changes affected children, for instance, it was found that only 40% of the Karimojong children are enrolled in schools and the region has a drop-out rate of about 85%. To keep the children in school, the cooperation, Tamanini says, has implemented an integrated approach in food security and education.
The approach, which involves farmers and schools, aims at creating a comfortable environment for schooling and provide, on the other hand, a more stable livelihood for schools and surrounding populations.
"The vegetable gardens grown in the 19 of the selected schools also act as demonstration plots on agricultural techniques for the communities," he says. School living conditions have improved through the provision of better infrastructure such as classrooms, latrines and construction and renovation of dormitories.
NGO activities in districts
Cooperation and Development (C&D) has been in Karamoja since 1982 and has run programmes such as the emergency initiative for food security and child protection project.
Starting with three primary schools and enclosed communities in Kotido, C&D improved food security for children and families in 12 particularly vulnerable communities through agro-pastoral field schools.
Agricultural plots with tomatoes, peppers, cabbages, eggplants, spinach, onions, sukuma wiki and groundnuts were established for 12 adult groups and for three young farmer groups.
Upon harvesting, the farmers and pupils sold their vegetables, earning money for home use and buying essentials such as pens and books for school. l GESVI Kaabong, another NGO, started work in 2009, establishing programmes focusing on health, for instance, prevention of hepatitis B and promotion of PMTCT.
With interventions focusing on fostering agricultural production and cash crop livelihoods through building the capacity of farmers' groups, COOPI, which is based in Amudat, has been in Karamoja since 2010.
In the region, Amudat is said to have the highest illiteracy levels, high infant mortality and high malnutrition rates among children under five years old. Low literacy, according to COOPI, is a result of inadequate number of teachers, limited school facilities and community interest in education.
In a pastoral community such as Karamoja, water is vital to the community's survival. ISPO, a community based organisation in Moroto, has since 2003 been drilling boreholes and constructing and managing silos.
Notably, the organisation introduced agro-forestry in schools, starting in 2009 with five primary schools and now 12 in addition to installation of solar systems in classrooms and dormitories.
As a result, pupils started learning at night and teachers have more time to carry out their duties, for instance, marking and preparing for lessons.
In Napak, the International Voluntary Service is working on agriculture, health and environment conservation. From April 16 to 20, a bicycle tour with the aim of promoting education was held in Karamoja.
It was a fun moment as the locals cheered and infused the participants with morale as they snaked through the villages. Karamoja's new dawn of progress can only be best represented in the words of Guiseppe Filippi, the Bishop of Kotido. "The old images of Karamoja are no longer consistent with the present reality," he observes.
The Karamojong, adds Filippi, not only want development that provides better means of survival, but which also strengthens their internal social relations and, above all, their relationship with Akuj (God) from whom all good things come.