Ethnic Compositions in Uganda





Ethnic Compositions in Uganda

Ethnic Compositions in Uganda : As a result of migration and intermarriage, most Ugandans have ancestors from a variety of Uganda’s 34 ethnic groups, although people customarily identify with just a single group. Many of the languages presently used are not mutually intelligible. About two-thirds speak Bantu languages and live in the south, including the largest and wealthiest ethnic group, the Ganda, constituting 18.0 percent of the population, and the Nyankole (9.9 percent), Kiga (8.3 percent), and Soga (8.2 percent). About one-sixth of Uganda’s people are Western Nilotic speakers living in the north, such as the Langi (5.9 percent) and Acholi (4.4 percent). Another one-sixth speak an Eastern Nilotic language and live in the northeast, including the Iteso (6.0 percent) and Karamojong (2.1 percent). Finally, in the extreme northwest are speakers of Sudanic languages, including the Lugbara (3.5 percent) and the Madi (1.1 percent)
English is the official language of Uganda, though Swahili is more widely spoken and used as a lingua franca (a language used in common by different peoples to facilitate commerce and trade). Luganda, the language of the Ganda, is the most frequently used indigenous tongue. There are several Indigenous groups in Uganda with different ways of life, beliefs and region. The indigenous peoples of Uganda include ancient communities of hunters and gatherers and below are some of the most common Ethnic groups in Uganda where you can enjoy the best cultural experience while on your tour.

The Karamojong Cultural Experience


The name Karamojong means “the old tired men who stayed behind.” The Karamojong is a tribe of fierce warrior pastoralists found in the north eastern corner of Uganda bordering southern Sudan and Kenya. A region that is relatively unvisited. There are a number of Karamojong groups some of which include the Manyattas located near Kidepo valley national park and here you will meet the Karamojong’s, a proud and fierce group of semi nomadic pastoralists with a rich cultural heritage.

Karamojong facts

The Karamojongs have lived in the North Eastern region of Uganda for hundreds and hundreds of years. During colonial times the British colonial governments failed to control this tribe of people and their area was simply set off limits. During Idi Amin’s regime, there was an increase in violence in the region mostly due to the increase in supply of weaponry especially guns. The government has been gradually disarming the Karamojong’s of their weapons in a bid to restore peace to the region and civil stability. The Karamojong believed and many still believe that all the cattle in their known world or their area of existence was given to them by their god AKUJ, and that the cattle of the neighboring tribes was also theirs.

Religion: Unlike the rest of Uganda where most of the people have adopted a foreign religion either Christianity or Islam, the Karamojong still follow their traditional religion and believe in a god –Akuj. The Karamojong consider cattle royalty and it is the measure of a man. A man is valued according to how many cattle he has and these people live for their cattle. They will do everything they possibly can to find good pasture and water for their cattle which is a difficult task considering the fact that the Karamoja region of Uganda is a very dry region. These people live in complete harmony with nature, they do not dress up much and they are usually half naked and decorated in tribal markings. The weather and nature in Karamoja are harsh but they still dwell harmoniously with it.

The Karamojong life style

Roles for the Karamojong’s are quite simply defined, men go out to find pasture and water for the cattle, and the women stay back in the Manyatta to take care of the homestead while children tend the gardens to supplement their diet. Life in Karamoja is communal where things are done together and for the good of the entire community. Here Men can take as many wives as they want to as long as they have the dowry to pay for them. It is one of those societies where dowry is still taken very seriously.

How are Karamojong communities structured?

The Karamojong are of Nilotic background. Their language has Nilo-Saharan Kalenjin roots which is the common family of languages for pastoralists in South Sudan, Kenya and Uganda. The Karamojong migrated to this region of Uganda around 1600 from Ethiopia and settled near Mount Moroto. The Karamojong’s are grouped by clans and by territorial sub groups which are the Bokora, the Pian, and the Matheniko. These clans often raid each other’s cattle but due to government intervention and confiscation of their guns, there are fewer raids today. Their communities follow the guidance of the elders and things are done according to democratic lines.

Why visit a Karamojong/ Manyatta?

The Karamojong Manyattas are interesting to visit because they are one of a kind you will not find one anywhere else in Uganda. A visit to a Manyatta can be very educational and enlightening. There is such a rich culture in these villages that has been preserved over the centuries and has not been eroded by civilization. Visiting a Manyatta is a unique experience everything from the structure of the village, the homesteads, to the people and the language, all gives you a sense of community and togetherness. Scarcely dressed children will greet you in a very welcoming manner as you enter the village and you will see old men reclining on headrest stools wrapped in tunics, sharing tales of old to the young and old, about the traditions and ways of their people, or simply observing the goings on in the village.

Invites into their homes are a real privilege. The interior of their homes is mostly smeared with dung and mud and they do not have beds and much furniture but the little they have, they are proud of and do not take for granted. Let’s not forget the cultural dances and the singing, a visit to a Manyatta is not complete without music and dance, do join in and jump as high as you can to the music. Manyatta visit is a worthwhile trip to make during your Uganda safari. Discover and learn more about the Karamojong people. You can plan it together with a visit to Kidepo valley national park-one of the best game parks in Africa.

What to carry during your visit to the Karamojongs

Because it is scorching hot especially in the dry season, remember to carry a wide brimmed hat and some sun glasses for protection. Jeans instead of shorts are a better not only because they are more culturally acceptable in the villages but also because you will need the protection from the thorn bushes.


The Sabiny’s (Sebei)

Sebei is an ethnic group of Uganda which speaks Sebei, a Nilotic language. Many members of this ethnic group occupy three districts of Kapchorwa, Kween and Bukwa found in Eastern Uganda. Their territory borders the Republic of Kenya which is a home to more than five million Kalenjin, a large ethnic group to which the Sebei belongs. The Sebei, now known mainly as Sabiny, speak sabiny, a Kalenjin dialect spoken by other smaller groups of Kalenjin stock around Mount Elgon. The Sebei and these smaller groups inhabiting the hills of Mount Elgon collectively are referred to as the Saboat. The Sabiny, like the rest of the Kalenjin, circumcise teenage boys and girls as a rite of passage.

History of the Sebei or Sabiny people

Modern Sebei consists of three formerly independent but closely interrelated tribes living on the northern and northwestern slopes of Mount Elgon in eastern Uganda. The term Sebei has come into use in modern administrative parlance and the descendants of these three tribes now identify themselves as Sebei. In language and culture, the Sebei are closely affiliated to the people on the southern slopes of Elgon; indeed, modern politics largely severed these close ties, though a good deal of intermarriage and movement between the territories and some psychological identity remain.


The Batwa people and their Culture

The Batwa are short indigenous people who were forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers, living and practicing their cultural and economic way of life in the high mountainous forest areas around Lake Kivu and Lake Edward in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. The Batwa are widely accepted as the first inhabitants of the region who were later joined by farmers and pastoralists. The Batwa are still to be found living in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo with an estimated total population of 86,000 to 112,000. As their traditional forested territories were destroyed by agriculturalists and pastoralists or gazetted as nature conservation areas, the Batwa were forced to abandon their traditional lifestyle based on hunting and gathering. Some were able to develop new means of survival as potters, dancers and entertainers while others became dependent on occasional work and begging. Virtually all were rendered poor and landless. These indigenous people were the original dwellers of the ancient forest and were known as the ‘keepers of the forest’. The Batwa lived in harmony with the forest and survived by hunting small game using bows and arrows and gathering plants for both food and medicinal purposes.

In 1992, the lives of the Batwa changed forever, when the forest became a national park and world heritage site in order to protect the endangered mountain gorillas that reside within its boundaries. The Batwa were evicted from the park and became conservation refugees in a world that was very unfamiliar to them. Their skills and means of subsistence were not useful in this modern environment and they began to suffer. In 2001, when the Batwa tribe was on the edge of extinction American medical missionaries, Dr Scott and Carol Kellermans came to their rescue. They purchased land and established programs to improve the conditions and lives of the Batwa. This included the building of a schools, hospitals and housing. The Kellermans also developed water and sanitation projects and found ways that the Batwa could generate income and sustain themselves. These projects are now managed and operated by the Batwa Development Program (BDP). BDP works closely with the Batwa community to try to ensure that their indigenous rights are respected and they also benefit from the forest being a national park and tourist attraction. Today, Batwa live in small communities and they welcome travelers in their homes sharing with them detailed information regarding their traditional forest life. Batwa are believed to have loved the forest like their lives and they knew well that God had blessed them with the forest as their own.

 The Batwa Cultural Experience

The Batwa cultural experience was created by the displaced Batwa pygmies to educate their children and to share their amazing heritage and traditions with the world. A day spent with the Batwa gives you the opportunity to enjoy the following:

  • Hike in the forest with the people of the forest. You will have a Batwa guide and he will provide you with the chance to see the forest and its habitants through their eyes.
  • See how they lived and hunted in the traditional manner. Enjoy trying out your hunting techniques as the Batwa teach you how to shoot with a bow and arrow.
  • Visit a traditional Batwa homestead and learn from the women how to prepare, cook and serve a meal. You will also have the opportunity it samples the dishes.
  • Talk to a medicine man and learn about the medicinal properties of the forest flora.
  • Hear ancient legends and traditional songs.

Batwa trails in Bwindi impenetrable forest national park are different from the Batwa trail in Mgahinga gorilla national park but both experiences reward you with a memorable experience.

Why visit the Batwa communities

Batwa pygmies have an interesting history of how they harmoniously lived together with wild animals in the forest. In trying to adapt to a normal life after their eviction from the forest, Batwa have now started different coffee shops where travelers can enjoy coffee as they listen to stories, others make craft products such as baskets, hand bags, hats, bead and mats among others. Travelers are encouraged to buy these products as an indirect support to these less developed people. More still, an interaction with the Batwa is a great opportunity to understand in depth their ancient forest life and their co-existence with wild animals. In conclusion therefore, be part of Batwa community trails in Bwindi, meet the indigenous forest people and enjoy a memorable time.


The Bamasaba/ Imbalu Culture

The Bamasaba ancestor, Maswahaba migrated from the Ethiopian Mountains traveling via Lake Turkana to Sironko and settled around Bududa where he fell in love with a Maasai girl who was known as Nabarwa. The family of Nabarwa demanded that in order for Maswahaba to marry their daughter he had to undergo their rite of circumcision. He agreed to do so.


Circumcision among the Bagisu (Bamasaaba) occurs during the leap years and held every two years during August. The culture of circumcision was adopted by the Bamasaba from their in-laws the Maasai people. The men among the Bagisu tribe undergo initiation ceremonies known as (Imbalu) whereby the ritual is performed upon reaching puberty and those who abscond are hunted down and forcefully and scornfully circumcised. Before the day of circumcision, the initiates are tuned up by having them walk and dance around the villages for three days and here their heads are sprinkled with cassava flour and painted with malwa-yeast past, their relatives dance with them and there is much drumming and singing as a sign of happiness in the culture because it is believed that once a boy is circumcised he becomes a true Mugisu and mature person. The Bamasaaba ancestors lived on Bamboo shoots also known as malewa in the Lugisu language. These bamboo shoots are collected from bamboo trees on top of Mt. Elgon.


The Ik People and their Culture

The Ik tribe sometimes called Teso; is an indigenous community residing in Karamoja region, northeast of Uganda is part of the cultural safaris to Kidepo National park. In the local language, “Ik” loosely translates to ahead of migration or the first to migrate here. The Ik tribe migrated from Ethiopia, first settled in Kenya and later migrated to the Karamoja region. True to the meaning of their name, they were the first settlers in Karamoja region possibly running away from their warrior neighbors. In comparison to the other communities, the Toposa, Turkana and Jie of the semi-arid East African region, the Ik community did not have a lot of wealth but they kept a few heads of cattle, goats, sheep and chicken but possessed special skills at hunting wild game, gathering edible fruits, flowers, leaves, tubers and cultivated land to grow some food crops in the Karamoja plains.

The neighboring communities to the Ik tribe outnumbered them in population and unfortunately were traditional warriors that took pride in raiding the weak communities. Karamojong warriors who believed their god Akuj gave them birthright of all cattle anywhere including cattle for the Ik outmuscled them and confiscated their cattle. The Ik community abandoned livestock keeping and concentrated at hunting game, growing food crops, tending to traditional apiary and gathering edible items from the Karamoja plains. The 1960s wildlife protection and conservation movements rubbed salt in the Ik community wounds as their ancestral land converted into a game reserve. The Ik tribe vacated their lands but were not compensated and they agonizingly shifted to unknown world high into the Mount Morungole ranges. The Ik tribe inhabits the Morungole mountain ranges that rise to 2,750m from the Karamoja plains. The montane vegetation cover in the highlands with cool breeze due to high elevation is largely different from grassland and woodlands in the valley with the burning heat. The travelers get magnificent views of the rift and the lands besides encountering unique wildlife species. The most exciting of them all is interaction and sharing the life experiences with the Ik people.

The Ik lifestyle

The Ik communities gather in villages. The entire village, odok is fenced against foreign intruders and wild animals while individual households, asak have a large yard that may include a food granary, rack for household utensils, kraal for goats and sheep and pit latrine. The Ik are traditional polygamists and marry as many wives as they are able to pay dowry. The Ik community measure dowry in number of goats, sheep, chicken, beehives and monetary cash. To the rest of the world these are so cheap items to talk of, but to the Ik they are very hard to get. The Ik husbands elect an asak for each wife and husbands make rotational visits in the same odok.

Child bearing is sign of blessings to humankind and to the Ik tribe raising children is a social responsibility. The parents share the asak with infants up to a certain age, 4 years on average and then the grandparents pick them up. The grandparents are a living information data bank from which children acquire basic life survival skills. At an average age of 13 years, the grandchildren leave their grandparents asak. Boys of the same age group elect their own asak and live as a gang, while girls are “mature” and ready for marriage.

The traditional Ik culture embraces wife inheritance after losing a partner or divorce. Sex promiscuity is highly punishable, incest is a taboo and adultery are punishable by death. Because youths have their own asak, it is possible to get partners and date in secrecy. Currently, there are 10,000-15,000 less educated, less skilled, not traveled, and not exposed Ik individuals in the whole planet largely in Morungole mountain ranges. The Ugandan government is sensitizing them about health, hygiene, education, farming, security, housing and other fields. The civil society is empowering them through skilling and income generating projects. Being in the neighborhood with Kidepo valley national park has raised the awareness of the Ik tribe to international world. The travelers on safari to Uganda who visit the Ik get a true image of the Africa in its original sense.


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