Uganda's Best Kept Secret

Two weeks ago we finally had the pleasure to visit Uganda’s best kept secret: Karamoja. The people of Karamoja, the Karamojong, have for thousands of years been agro-pastoral herders who migrated from Ethiopia around 1600 A.D. and split into two branches, with one group moving to Kenya to form the Kalenjin and Maasai cluster. For years the region was infamous for it’s armed conflicts and hostile environment, however there is so much more to the story.

Kara-Tunga Guesthouse

After a long drive over some rough roads from Sipi Falls to Moroto, we arrived at the Kara-Tunga Guesthouse. Managed by the lovely Ivan, the guesthouse is the base of Kara-Tunga Arts & Tours, a small scale tour operator aimed at strengthening community resilience, protecting nature & preserving cultural heritage through tourism.

If I have ever seen magic, it has been in Africa.

— John Hemingway

Mount Moroto

One of the tours that most appealed to us was climbing one of the many mountain Karamoja has to offer. Our choice fell on Mount Moroto, which towers over its environment at a glorious 3,082 meters above sea level and offers impeccable views of Uganda as well as Kenya. It was an incredible hike that gave us all an intense feeling of satisfaction but above all clarity. Read more about it on my blog: Climbing Mount Moroto.

"I have never been so close to my African roots and yet felt so white."

— Amilcar van Mulier

Visiting the village

Visiting Karamoja appealed to us because of the power of it’s people and as such we couldn’t leave without spending some quality time with Kara-Tunga, the people of Karamoja. At around 3PM we left the guesthouse by car and headed towards a village called Kautakou. When we arrived, our guides Peter and Shongz guided us around a homestead, explaining where people lived and how houses were used to store grain, cattle and relax. Next we proceeded to something that resembled a square where we were greeted with a traditional youth dance. Soon after we were pulled into the celebration, struggling to keep up with the quickly changing dance moves and shifting rhythms. It was our first time to see how the dancing and jumping we had heard so much about strengthened the community and brought pride and joy to all ages of the village.

After the sun dipped under the horizon, we proceeded to a different part of the village to properly introduce ourselves to the community. Our guide Peter translated the words of an elder, who welcomed us to the community and wished to learn more about us. One by one we introduced ourselves, informing dozens of curious eyes who we were, where we were from and how thankful we were to be able to visit the village and learn about their culture.

As the locally brewed beer started to flow, everyone got a lot looser and we started talking as freely as possible through a translator. Soon the ladies were asking us how many children we had and the men were laughing at the fact that we werent married. Single girls asked us if it was true that in the west women have to pay the man’s family dowry to get married.

We talked for hours, laughing about the differences in our cultures, shocked by the Karamajong’s importance of reproduction (one guy in a nearby village had 34 children) and humbled by the fact that a world so very far from ours lay untouched by the temptation and materialism we were used to.

Visiting the village put so much into perspective for us, on Mount Moroto we were intrigued by the harsh conditions the Karamojongs lived in, surviving on ample water without access to medical services or education. That night however, our eyes were opened to the real Karamojong mindset, in which cattle is everything. The beauty in how these long misunderstood communities draw their energy, respect and social value from the cow truly rattles at the cage of your own values.

"Sometimes you dont need to wipe off the dust before you see the beauty of it."

- Dirk Hofman

Boda Boda tour

On our last day we decided to get down and dirty on some motorcycles. Kara-Tunga organizes a range of Boda-Boda (local name for motorcycle taxi) tours depending on your wishes and timeframe. We chose to drive ourselves (half the fun) and drive around Mount Moroto, stopping at various highlights and interacting with locals on the way.

We were introduced to the plant that has been used to brush teeth for generations and talked to young Karamajong warriors about the meaning of their attire. Tearing through Karamoja on motor bikes was an incredible way to see the beautiful environment and made us feel free as birds. With our guides hot on our tail telling us not to to stand on our bikes and drive too fast, we saw Moroto in a whole new light.

“You either get the point of Africa or you don't. What draws me back year after year is that it's like seeing the world with the lid off.”

— A.A. Gill

Untouched African Culture

I spent the first 12 years of my life in Uganda, going on many trips throughout the continent with my mother, the fact is however that I have never felt so touched by the rawness of Africa as I was in Karamoja. The trip really blew my expectations and in my mind was a glimpse of how Africa may have looked like thousands of years. If you have the chance to visit Uganda, don’t cut yourself short by only going to the west of the country for your standard safari. If you are looking for a real adventure filled with unforgettable encounters with such a powerful and untouched community, don’t miss Karamoja.