Uganda: Minority Group's Language Facing Extinction - Research

16 February 2021

The language of the So (Tepeth), a minority tribe in Karamoja, is under threat of extinction because it does not exist in written form, a research by Makerere University reveals.

The Constitution names the So as the second last on the list of 56 tribes in the country.

The So are among the 10 groups in Karamoja who include Pokot, Dodoth, Ik, Pian, Lakora and Jie.

The survey disseminated by Makerere University College of Humanities and Social Sciences last week shows that So children cannot count or name body parts in their language.

The So have a population of 23,422 people, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics 2016.

Because there is no written literature in So, it has been impossible to teach it in the formal education system or recommend it for inclusion in the national curriculum to preserve the culture and also promote social cohesion.

"We are considered third class Ugandans. It is a shame we are Ugandans but are always marginalised. We do not even have a dictionary or Bible in our language. Our religious leaders use Ng'akarimojong Bibles. You cannot promote your culture without knowledge of your language," Mr Michael Lokowuo, an NRM (National Resistance Movement Party) leader in Moroto Municipality, who is also a So, said.

"It is very important to have your own language. It is your identity. Without our language we are lost. Academics are only writing about the So (in English) for their PhDs, not realities of what we the So know and want to be known for. In Karamoja, we are looked at as different people. As much as we say Karamoja is marginalised, we are more marginalised than other tribes in Karamoja. Our langauage is almost extinct," Mr Lokowuo said.

The So suffer from linguistic inequality. They can hardly use So in public for fear of being discriminated against, especially by the Karimojong. The So are near the Ik and Nyanngeya people who are pastoralists.

In 1975, about 100 So people could speak their language fluently and most were old. By June 2020 when the survey was done, about 50 people were able to speak the language and children had difficulty in expressing themselves. Instead, they spoke Pokot or Ng'akarimojong.

The purpose of the Makerere research was to develop a documentary corpus (a collection of oral transcriptions) of So which can be used in subsequent projects to write a So grammar, standard orthography, dictionary; literary and cultural texts, and texts on development issues.

The project was funded by the government of Uganda under Makerere Innovation Fund.

The So live on the footslopes of Moroto, Kadam and Tongi mountains, Nakapiripirit and Napak districts. The So are nicknamed Tepeth to mean minority poor people.

The So language is diminishing due to Karimojong dominance on the people and their culture.

They have about 24 elders leading as a group, who go through three phases of initiations to join the cultural leadership circle.

But what is worrying researchers is that the So only have 26 graduates in the country.

"We are admirers of the English language but it is not ours. We have our own languages that we should strive to preserve to conserve our indigenous cultures," Dr Celestino Oriikiriza, the principal investigator in the survey, said. Other co-investigators include Dr Fridah Tukashemererwe, Dr Deo Kawalya, Mr Michael Wangotta, and Mr Luke Francis Kiwanuka.

Researchers' recommendations...

Researchers make a number of recommendations to preserve the So language including enriching the corpus by collecting more data, embarking on linguistic description of So basing on the current corpus.

They also recommend creation of a literacy programme to benefit the young generation in their So language.

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