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Story Publication logo April 15, 2011

From Cattle Raids to Peace Meetings



Uganda’s Karamoja region, home to tribes of cattle-herding, Kalashnikov-wielding nomads, has been...

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Soothsayer Naithan Namuga. Image by Marc Hofer. Uganda, 2011.

Pointing at a rocky hill jutting out of the plain several miles away, Naithan Namuga says he was just 11 when the spirits first took him. "They carried me to the rock and kept me there for some two years. The people thought I had died," he claims. "That was when I first knew that I had this gift."

Since that teenage spiritual awakening, Namuga, now 46, has been an emuron—a traditional soothsayer or healer in the Karamoja region of Uganda. It is a role that he describes as a cross between an indigenous "church" and a Karamojong "computer." Relied on as oracles by the local community, they typically predict the future and issue warnings through trances and dreams. For Namuga, at least, the truth also includes being a shrewd businessman.

In the car on the way to meet him, my translator had told me in a hushed voice that Namuga had once been "too, too dangerous." Not quite sure what to expect when I arrive, I find a short, talkative man wearing a traditional woven beret, beaded necklaces and bracelets. With an unkempt beard, he looks like a Karamojong Rasta.

But appearances can be deceptive and as it turns out, Namuga—and the other traditional ngimurok (the plural form of emuron)—can be very dangerous people.

"The ngimurok can be like a policeman or a soldier ordering someone to be arrested or attacked for money. They tell the young men to go out on the cattle raids, and then if they are successful, get a share of the profits," Namuga explains.

Ahead of a planned raid, the karachuna—or male youth—would come to consult him. After giving him some money, they would ask for his blessing and prediction of the future. If he said the raid should go ahead, it would. If the warriors came back safely, Namuga would be given a cut of the stolen cows.

That all changed when the Ugandan army caught a raiding party Namuga had sent out. The soldiers interrogated the youths, who then led them to Namuga. He was taken to the barracks, tied up by the neck and tortured, he says. He claims his brother was killed.

Since then, Namuga says he's stopped sending the youths off on cattle raids and started trying to convince his fellow ngimurok to help promote peace among the clans. In December, working with a local NGO, he helped set up a peace ceremony between his native Jie clan and the previously hostile Matheniko and Turkana from Kenya, advising on the animals to be slaughtered and rituals to be performed.

No longer making money or gaining cows from the raids, he says he makes ends meet these days by helping everyone from pregnant women to failing schoolchildren, using traditional herbs, cures and blessings.

But without any structured support from the government, he says it's no surprise that some ngimurok have chosen to continue blessing the raids and reaping the benefits.

"Since the government has failed to turn up here and help us make a living, the time could also come when I think it would be easier for me to go back to my old way of life," Namuga warns.


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Peace Initiatives

Peace Initiatives

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