A picture of philanthropist Giovanni Don Vittorio standing tall on the wall at the International Institute for Cooperation and Development (IICD), in Moroto town, tells of the Karamoja most people in Kampala and the outside world imagine the region to be.
The captivating photo shows a chubby Vittorio standing amongst starved malnourished naked adults and children, their ribs threatening to pop out from under the skin. Their limbs are the size of small sticks and the potbellies, thin hair and wrinkled faces are telling of a people who have not seen a decent life in a long time.
This photograph was taken in 1969 during Vittorio's first visit to Karamoja. He is to Karamoja what George Washington is to America. He opened the region to the world and told the international community of the suffering, famine, disease, illiteracy and the plight of the Karimojong. Vittorio attracted international attention and aid to the region.
My first trip to Karamoja came with my stereotype of the area; people are dropping dead on the streets due to hunger, men and women walking naked, and warriors standing along the road with finger on the trigger.
The long stretch of green as you drive from Katakwi deep into Napak and emerge on the small tarmac that welcomes one into Moroto town is beautiful, vast kilometres of green and wild life, beautiful hills, the beautiful sunflower gardens lined the road and stretched acres deep. The millet and maize fields also complemented the agricultural activities sprouting out of the dark rich fertile loam soils of Karamoja region.
Despite having only one rainy season, Karamoja has some of the most fertile soils in Uganda. Not once did we find impoverished children sitting on the streets begging for a few coins like we see in Kampala. Some say that the Karimojong children on the streets are deliberately starved so they can fit the image and solicit sympathy from the unsuspecting Samaritans.
Today, Karamoja is years away from what most people think it is, from what the picture hanging at the IICD is. Thanks to the Karamoja Integrated Disarmament and Development Program (KIDDP), gun welding warriors terrorising the region are no more. KIDDP has returned human security and promoted conditions for recovery and development in Karamoja. It has put into action government's program of disarmament, conflict management and peace building.
Paul Lokey, 75, is a former warrior. He says he fought cattle rustlers to guard his herd of cattle. But he realised that a lone fight would not protect him or his family when he lost all his cattle to the raiders. Lokey joined the army to protect his people of Karamoja and remove guns from the region.
Involving the community in peace building and disarmament makes people own their problem and find lasting solution. People with diverse perspectives make informed positions based on prior experience.
Now retired, Lokey has no formal employment and was only relying on the work of his three wives in the garden to get something to eat.
In the Karimojong culture, it is the wife who looks for food, builds the house, cares for the children and feeds the family. One program which has restored hope back into the lives of people like Lokey is the Expanding Social Protection, a government program which is giving older people a monthly allowance of Shs 25,000 to cushion them from the effects of poverty.
While the qualifying age for the grant is 65 years, in Karamoja the age was brought down to 60 because of the shorter lifespan of the Karimojong. With this money, Lokey says he helps his wives to pay school feels for their children and gives two of them money to buy seeds and plant in the garden.
His wife Regina Nachuge also gets the Shs 25,000. With her first payment, she reopened her garden and planted maize and millet. She also bought pigs and goats to restock her livestock which was lost during the raid. She also shares some of the money with her co-wives and also buys some vegetables, fish and meat to supplement the family's diet.
"Life has changed, I can hire labour to work in my garden, I have bought pigs and chicken to rear. Elders here were dying of disease and hunger, we had no other sources of money but now even during dry season, we use this money to buy food.
In April, Karamoja Minister Janet Museveni launched a water project at Natumbuskou extended to the region by Unicef. Water was extended to 200 households and public stands built for those who cannot afford private connection.
Unicef with funding from the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), embarked on the rehabilitation and extension of the water project at a cost of Shs 648m. This ended the dependence on unsafe water from streams and swamps.
Families would walk for long distances to find this water which sometimes was a cause of diseases like cholera, hepatitis, diarrhoea and malaria. For some 200 families, the risk of all these diseases has been reduced and girls and women saved from long distances in search for water. Many of these projects have been extended to Napak, Nakapiripirit, Kabong and Abim.
With the planned paving of the Moroto-Nakapiripirit road, the region will also be opened up to trade, agriculture and many economic activities which will attract more people into Karamoja. By cutting back on the hours and difficultly on transport, Karamoja will turn into a virgin region to trade because the population hungry for new things is available.
Dependence on food aid has also been reduced to 10 per cent down from 90 per cent over five years ago. More Karimojong are being encouraged to change from nomadic pastoralisim and settle to practise agriculture. The region has been provided with dams to irrigate their gardens and people encouraged to grow vegetables.
Now with security that allows exploitation of minerals like gold, the people hope to get jobs in the mines, and to see their region change from a paragon of backwardness to one of progress.