Eastern Nilotic Language Groups

Uganda Table of Contents

Historians believe that Uganda's northeastern districts were inhabited by herders migrating from the east over a period of several centuries. Their twentieth-century descendants live in Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda, where the largest groups are the Karamojong (people of Karamoja) ethnic groups. These include the Karamojong proper, as well as Jie, Dodoth, and several small related groups, constituting about 12 percent of the population. All Karamojong peoples speak almost the same language (Akaramojong), with different pronunciations. The Iteso (people of Teso) south of Karamoja also speak an Eastern Nilotic language (Ateso) and are historically related to the Karamojong, but the Iteso are sometimes classified separately, based on cultural differences (many of which are recently acquired). The small Teuso (Ik), Tepeth, and Labwor populations in the northeast also speak Eastern Nilotic languages but maintain separate cultural identities. In northwestern Uganda, the Kakwa are also classified as Eastern Nilotic, based on linguistic similarities to the Karamojong, despite the fact that Kakwa society is surrounded by Western Nilotic and Central Sudanic language speakers.

Karamojong Cluster

The relatively sparse rainfall in northeastern Uganda supports a pastoralist economy, and most people also raise crops to supplement their diet that centers around meat, milk, and blood from cattle. Even after independence in 1962, most Ugandan governments dealt with the Karamojong as rather difficult rural citizens who sometimes impeded administration of the region. Most Karamojong resisted government pressures to abandon their herding life-styles, but officials estimated that as many as 20 percent of the population may have died in the drought and famine that swept through much of the African Sahel in the early 1980s.

Karamojong, Jie, and Dodoth oral historians have recounted their forebears' arrival in the region from the north. According to these accounts, they found an indigenous society, the Oropom, who were forced to move southward, leaving an Oropom clan among the Karamojong as an apparent remnant of this society. The Dodoth people were believed to have separated from the Karamojong proper in the mid-eighteenth century. They migrated northward into more mountainous territory. As a result, their culture resembled that of the Karamojong in many respects. Dodoth homesteads were generally in valleys, with dry season pastures on nearby hillsides. As a result, the Dodoth did not practice the transhumant migration patterns that required other Karamojong peoples to establish dry-season cattle camps.

Cattle are of great symbolic and economic importance, and people recalled the devastating rinderpest epidemic that swept the area in the late nineteenth century. Using that tragedy to educate the young, they also told of cattle herds that were saved by being moved to highland grazing areas.

British control of the region was fairly ineffective well into the twentieth century, although successful trading centers had been established as early as 1890. Traders brought ivory and, occasionally, cattle to augment local herds, and received grain, spears, and other metal products in return.

Most Karamojong peoples supplement their pastoral economy with crop cultivation, which is almost entirely in the hands of women. Millet is an important staple, but many people also grow corn and peanuts. Tobacco is often grown within the stockade that surrounds most homesteads. The homestead is usually a circular configuration, and within this enclosure, each married woman has a house built of mud and brushwood walls with a thatched roof. The center of this is a cattle kraal, usually with only one opening to the outside.

Wives live in their husband's homestead after marriage. Each wife has a separate, small house that serves as a kitchen, and some women also cultivate plots of ground several hours' walk away from their homes. Men were traditionally scornful of widowers and old men who cared for their own gardens, but after plows were introduced in the 1950s and farming became more financially rewarding, many young men claimed plots of ground for their own use and hired women to work in them.

Dodoth homesteads are larger than those of the Karamojong proper and more isolated from one another. Surrounding the homestead, upright poles are thrust into the earth, intertwined with branches and packed with mud and cow dung, forming a sturdy wall with only one or two small openings to the outside. As many as forty people often live in one homestead. Each wife has her own hut and hearth, and adolescent girls often build huts of their own next to their mothers' huts. Adolescent boys also build a larger "men's house," where they live before marriage. People keep cattle and other animals inside the fortified wall at night. A woman often keeps a small garden near her hut, but fields and pastures are outside the homestead.

Among most Karamojong peoples, men living within a homestead are related by descent through male forebears. This group, the patrilineage, is augmented by wives and children, and occasionally by unmarried brothers of the lineage head. A group of brothers usually shares the ownership of a herd of cattle, although animals are divided among individuals for milking and other domestic purposes. Cattle are usually branded with clan markings, although a man normally knows each animal in his family herd. Only when the last surviving brother dies is the herd divided among the next generation, with each set of full brothers inheriting a small herd.

Grazing areas are common ground outside the stockade, although milk cows sometimes stay near the homestead. During the driest months, usually February and March, cattle are moved to seasonal camps some distance from the homestead. In these camps, men live almost entirely on milk and blood drawn from live cattle, and, occasionally, meat. In the homestead, women, children, and old people forage for food, including flying ants, if stores of grain are depleted. In very lean times, milk is reserved for children and calves before adults.

Most societies of northeastern Uganda are organized into kinship groups larger than the lineage. Among the Jie, patrilineages maintaining the belief that they are distantly related often keep homesteads near one another, but this practice is less common among other Karamojong. The clan comprises related lineages, often numbering over 100 people. Jie clans are exogamous, meaning that two people of the same clan can not marry one another. In addition, men generally avoid marriage with a woman of their mother's clan or that of her close relatives. Jie clan members share some symbolic recognition of their common identity, such as jewelry, but they do not observe the ritual taboos of animals or foods that are characteristic of many other African clan groupings.

Two important sources of social solidarity link members of unrelated lineages to one another. Intermarriage forms bonds based on brideprice cattle, which are given by a man's family to that of his bride, and children, who are important to their own lineage and to that of their mother. Age-sets form bonds among groups of men close in age. (Clan leaders establish a new age-set about every twenty-five years.) Members of an age-set are generally obligated to maintain ties of friendship and assist each other when in need.

Cattle are so vital in Karamoja that it is often difficult for Westerners to understand the attitudes surrounding them. Owning cattle is a mark of adulthood for men. Being without cattle is almost as onerous as being seriously ill; it threatens life. Moreover, a man can lose his entire herd of cattle in a brief raid. A mistake in judgment, such as a poor choice of pastures or travel routes, can cost a life's work. At the same time, outsiders are sometimes surprised to realize that these herders perceive themselves as poverty-ridden or uncivilized. In fact, the value of their cattle is often much greater than the value of the salaries received by government civil servants who come from the south to administer the region of the Karamojong.

Living among the Karamojong peoples in the far northeast are several small ethnic groups who rely on hunting and cattle- raiding for much of their subsistence, but some have also gained a reputation as spies and informers in the local system of raiding and warfare. One such group, the Teuso, were moved from their homeland in the 1960s to clear land for Kidepo National Park. Most of their Karamojong neighbors despised the Teuso, so much so that people were willing to see them starve rather than allow them to join nearby villages. Some Teuso died, and others left the area to become low-wage earners in nearby towns. The social system that developed in response to depopulation and deprivation emphasized individual survival at the expense of other people. The Uganda government reacted strongly against the unfavorable publicity generated by one anthropological account of this society in the early 1970s, and security problems limited travel in the area. As a result, by the late 1980s, information about their society was scarce.

The Tepeth also lived among the Karamojong, although they were usually classified as a separate Eastern Nilotic-speaking group. Oral histories relate that they were forced by government edict to vacate their homes in caves high in the mountains in northeastern Uganda. The move increased their vulnerability to attack by people and disease, and an influx of refugees from Sudan further disrupted life. Warfare and conflict increased, and the Tepeth developed a variety of religious cults and rituals to maintain their cultural integrity in the face of Karamojong and Sudanese influence. In the late 1980s, little was known of the life-style of the remaining Tepeth people.

The Labwor people, who live on the border between Acholi and Karamoja, are historically and linguistically related to the Karamojong but have adopted much of the life-style of the Acholi. The Labwor region is also a center of trade between cultivators to the west and pastoralists to the east. The local economy centers around crops--chiefly sorghum, eleusine, maize, gourds, sweet potatoes, beans, and peanuts--but people also raise cattle and goats. A small number of men from Labwor have achieved substantial wealth as itinerant traders in northeastern Uganda. Labwor society is organized into homesteads centered around the core of patrilineally related men and their wives and children. In addition, age-sets are important stabilizing factors, forming cross-cutting ties among lineages.


The Iteso (people of Teso) are an acculturated branch of the Eastern Nilotic language speakers. With roughly 8.1 percent of the population of Uganda, they are believed to be the nation's second largest ethnic group. Teso territory stretches south from Karamoja into the well-watered region of Lake Kyoga. The traditional economy emphasizes crop growing. Many Iteso joined Uganda's cash economy when coffee and cotton were introduced in 1912, and the region has thrived through agriculture and commerce.

Traditional Teso settlements consist of scattered homesteads, each organized around a stockade and several granaries. Groups of homesteads are united around a hearth, where men who form the core of the settlement gather for ritual and social purposes. These groups usually consist of patrilineally related males, whose wives, children, and other relatives form the remainder of the settlement. Several groups of lineages form a clan. Clans are only loosely organized, but clan elders maintain ritual observances in honor of their ancestors. Men of the clan consult the elders about social customs, especially marriage. Much of the agricultural work is performed by women. Women may also own land and granaries, but after the introduction of cash-crop agriculture, most land was claimed by men and passed on to their sons.

All Iteso men within a settlement, both related and unrelated, are organized according to age. Each age-set spans fifteen to twenty years, providing a generational framework for sharing the work of the settlement. Age-sets exercise social control by recognizing status distinctions based on seniority, both between and within age groups. They also share responsibility for resolving disputes within the settlement or among neighboring settlements.

The small population of Kumam people living on the western border of Teso are historically related to the Iteso, but the Kumam have adopted many cultural features of their neighbors to the west, the Langi. The Kumam economy is based on mixed farming and cotton, but little other information was available regarding their culture in the 1980s.


Although Kakwa people speak an Eastern Nilotic language, they are geographically separated from other Eastern Nilotic speakers. Kakwa society occupies the region bordering northwestern Uganda, southern Sudan, and northeastern Zaire. Those living in Uganda constitute less than 1 percent of the population, but Kakwa society has achieved widespread notoriety because the father of Idi Amin Dada, president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, was Kakwa. (Amin's mother was from a neighboring society, the Lugbara.) The Kakwa are believed to have migrated to the region from the northeast. Their indigenous political system features small villages centered around a group of men who are related by descent. A council of male elders wields political and judicial authority. Most land is devoted to cultivating corn, millet, potatoes, and cassava. Cattle are part of the economy but not central to it. After Amin was deposed in 1979, many Kakwa people fled. Government and rebel troops inflicted a wave of revenge on the area, even though Amin had lived in Buganda as a child and had spent little time among Kakwa villagers.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress