Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Karimojong, their Beliefs and The Supreme (Spirits and God)


I will base the discussion of this essay on some of the basic aspects or features pertaining to the Karimojong tribal life, in relation to the supreme reality from which their life flows. The Karimojong are the Central Plains Nilotes who currently live in the North-eastern part of Uganda. Karamoja consists of different groups of people, which in this case I refer to as larger clans. From the northern part, are the Dodoth, Jie, Teuso (Iik), and the Labwor; in the central are the Matheniko in the same district with the Tepes who originally belong to Kalenjin group of people.  Within the same vicinity of the central are the Bokora, and Nyakwai (originally of Luo origin). In the south are the Pian (which includes Chekwii of Namalu), and the Pokot at the extreme boarder to Kenya.

Nature has blessed Ngikarimojong with a semi-arid climate; it is therefore for this reason that the Karimojong do not practice agriculture in a large footing like the rest of the Ugandans. Nevertheless, on the perspective of survival their exploration leans against cattle. On the general dimension, therefore, the life of the Karimojong revolves around the parameters of Pastoralism which is the basic activity. We therefore discover that even the religious beliefs, understanding of the ‘Akuj’ Deity, of the people are especially geared to the pastoralist and a very slim extent to agricultural way of living.

Belief in God

 For all Africans if not all human beings, the question of life and death is what ignites an appeal to the reality that is above all human beings. It can be an appeal to the world of “countless spirits” as John Samuel Mbiti puts it, or to the departed ancestors. These two phenomena according to the Karimojong are not easily and satisfactorily explainable simply because they are Pragmatic people. A village is there because women built the huts and men fenced it. A herd is there because a man assembled it. Sons are there because they were produced by a man and woman. What about formulating a baby in the in the womb? These therefore, raises the questions of ascertaining the origin of the one who gave our ancestors life, the one who alone can control rain or hold the sky, the one who efficiently manages calamities on animals and people, the one who makes the moving sun to rise, set and again makes it appear the next day, the one who is above the spirits and knows all about death. The Karimojong believe in the spirits of the dead ‘ngitai angikatwuak’ who live somewhere beyond or in the sky, in what is called ‘Lore apolon’ big village. In this way there is a belief in life after death, which acknowledges the reality that there is a supreme being who grants it. It is therefore; with this background that Christianity finds a softer landing in the Karimojong traditional religion. It eventually gives it vocabulary of ‘Akuj’ to refer to this Ultimate cause or deity.

On making a critical survey and considering in a comprehensive way the life of the Karimojong, religion is a main factor which permeates the very nature of their being. In the strict sense of this reality, the “sacred” is the centripetal force within which all the activities, whether good or bad, of the Karimojong revolve. During cultivation which is practiced in a small scale for food purpose, the community looks towards the sacred for rain. The elders offer sacrifices of oxen under the sacred tree called ‘akiriket’ also a name for the gathering, on the behalf of the entire community asking the mighty one for rain. This rain serves the purpose of not only making the crops grow, but more need fully for pasture and water for the animals, which saves them the trouble of moving for long distances in search for these precious gifts.

The help of God is not forgotten or taken for granted during initiation rites for both men asapan and women akiwor a ngapesur. These are moments of consecration and acknowledgement of their manhood and womanhood. Therefore being an important moment in the life of those involved and the society, the blessings of the deity ‘Akuj’ are invoked. Sacrifices are the obvious requirements for the ceremony. The chyme got from the entrails of the animal is smeared on the fore head and the chest of the newly initiated youngsters. As the elder does the smearing, he recites the ancient tenable of blessing and beckoning the help of God on the initiated. This is to enable grow as responsible members of their families and the society. There is facing Apule is place of origin. It is a sacred place which is a symbol of life for the Karimojong.

The spirits (spirits of nature)

There exist some inexplicable facts surround the life of the Karimojong. For instance, you are hunting with a friend, lightening strikes you and leave the other undamaged. Or while passing through a sand bed on a river, you are sacked in to the quick sand, or you break a twig from a tree near a well known rock and it takes you up and you stay there for days. These occurrences are not even explainable scientifically.  According to the Karimojong they distort the Karimojong concept of God. They are regarded as works of the spirits, as Novelli puts forward “they are explained as interventions of powers which we can call spirits, mysterious like God, but different from him. While God, as any human father, gives good things and bad alike, but always for known or presumably known reasons. The spirits do for no plausible reasons but do it to punish human beings” [1]. The Karimojong categorize spirits according to the cause. There are no special names for spirits, a spirit is called by the way it manifests itself. For instance spirit of lightening is called ‘ekipye’ meaning lightening which kills. Christianity rejects the idea of numerous spirits and looks at them as destroying creation. In this way, it continues to strengthen the Karimojong ideal about these spirit beings.

The spirit of the dead

As already made clear in the beginning of this easy, it is the question of life and death that ignites the people’s appeal to ‘Akuj’ the supreme reality or deity. To the Karimojong it is very vital because association does not stop after death.  When a person dies, the Karimojong believe that he goes to ‘Lore apolon’ meaning to the big village, to live with the other spirits. Augusto Pazzaglia puts it this way “when a person dies, people say God has taken him away, he has entered the earth. He has gone to the big village. He has gone with the other spirits”. We can single out two realities here;

  • First, it is recognized that ‘Akuj’ has taken that person never to return to the earth again. Meaning that God has called this person to himself , and Christianity makes it very clear as it says, we have been called by God to enjoy glory of the saints in light, of which this glory is heaven ‘nakuj’ in the sense of the Karimojong ‘lore apolon’ somewhere beyond the sky.
  • Secondly the spirits leaves the physical body which is either buried for the case of the elders or thrown away to the bush. The spirit ‘etau’ therefore leaves the earth and lives among the other spirits who continue to keep a “close connection with their living relatives and friends. These materialize in visits made by them to the huts of their dear ones” [2]. In the same way Christianity believes that when we die our souls go back to their creator and unite with him forever and ever. We keep close association with the saints, asking them to intercede for us. We remember them in our prayers as the Church gives special dates for commemoration of some of their lives.

The elders; the friends of God and the friends of the people

The elders ‘ngikasikou’ are the senior generation who have survived and have lived for a long time. They have seen, they can testify what life is. With regard to the relationship with God, the elders are conceived as the “the repositories of the two most important factors in the life of the pastoralists, that is to say, experience and good connection with God. The first, acquired during the long years of their existence, and proved valid by the fact that they successfully managed to reach a mature age with their family and their herds. The second is, in some way implicit in the first, because no experience, good it may be, can have success without the favorable help from God” [3]. The relationship between the people and God is concretely cemented by the elders who have been known to God. They intercede for the community, Dyson Hudson points out “the elders’ most important characteristic in Karimojong eyes is an ability to intercede with the deity for assistance…to control the environment for the benefit of the community as a whole” [4].

Another important sacred role of the elders is to initiate the young. They are designated to perform this pragmatic aspect mirrored in the social organization of the Karimojong. They believe that their grandfathers handed to them the responsibility of taking care of the community; in the same way do they commend the responsibility to the upcoming generation. If it was handed to them by their grandfathers, then who handed to their grandfathers this responsibility? It is the deity ‘Akuj’! Christianity has a lot of influence in this aspect, that ‘Akuj’ is the originator of all things, seen and unseen. The Karimojong now have a conception that what is yet to be seen is already created by God.

The transmission of power

When the elders or the ruling generation diminishes by natural death or disease, to the point that they can no longer defend the village, the warriors begin to pressurize their fathers to hand over power of decision making to them. The “main rite that indicates the passing of power and consecration of the new group is that of the braking of the rear thigh-born of the sacrificed ox” [5]. This ceremony is called ‘akidung amuro’ which is literally translated as the division of the thighs of the ox. The thigh born is the barrier between these two groups, and the one passing on the power is the one that strictly breaks it, dissect and consume the meat. The ceremony takes place in ‘Nakadanya’ North–west of Moroto. Many attend this ceremony in exception of women. It is said that during this ceremony, all the fire is put off in the whole region. When the ceremony is over, the fire that was used to roast the sacrificed ox is the one that will again light up the region in dedication of the new ruling group to God ‘Akuj’. Therefore the elders who have handed power do not rule again, but their words are given attention and paramount consideration. Bruno Novelli in his book “Aspects of the Karimojong Ethnosociology” noted that the last handing over of power took place in October 1956. The Karimojong have not forgotten this crucial moments more so with the coming of Christianity which affirms a practice like this. A vivid example is the consecration of the leaders of the Church like priests and bishop, who lead the people of God. When they are consecrated they are made elders of the congregation, and the rite of ordination binds them to it.  


The Karimojong being religious gurus have a series of rites which govern and somehow define their way of living. They range from individual, family, communal, and clanic rites, to the rites of cycle of life, and to the rites of Pastoral and agricultural life. Due to the interest of time, I will enumerate them as in Bruno Novelli’s “Karimojong Traditional Religion: A Contribution”;

  • Under the umbrella of individual, family, communal, and clanic they include; ceremony for initiation of ‘amuron’(diviner), the cure of a sick person by ‘amuron’, ceremonies for various sicknesses, ceremony for rainbow, ceremony in order to receive the blessing of the elder, the blessings of parents when their children leave for the dry season kraals, blessings for the coming back of a person after long absence, ceremony for a person who disappeared, ceremony in times of pestilence and epidemic like ‘akoro’ (hunger) or ‘eron’ (famine), thieves, sacrifice to avert outward events, ceremony to honour elders called ‘ekipeyos, and the ceremony to redress the infringement of exogamy.
  • Under the rites of the cycle of life are the rites of birth and marriage, they include; ceremony for pregnancy and deliverance, naming of the children, ceremony of the birth of a handicapped child, twins, and the ceremony of the stick ‘ekeat’ (special one for women in the circle of marriage), the ceremony of elopement, choice of the cattle ‘akidwar’, transfer of animals to the bride’s family ‘eloto’.
  • Under the rites of pastoral and agricultural life, they include; driving of animals to their enclosures, fertility of animals, feasting of the elders ‘akitocol’, communal killing of name-oxen, blessing of hoes and seeds, ceremony of late rain, against one who holds rain, ceremony against birds and harvest time.  There are also rites of initiation which will be discussed briefly because of their importance. 

Rite of initiation

Many authors who have written about the Karimojong rite of initiation have given a say about female initiation called ‘akiwuor’, this is perhaps to give room for inclusiveness that enables the Christian rites of initiation to easily amalgamate with the traditional ones. This can be for easy understanding of Christianity, which does not exclude women, among the natives. No wonder the authors are missionaries! We should therefore note that, the Karimojong strictly give an upper hand to the male initiation called ‘asapan’ than that of women because it insignificant.

Asapan “Is not merely the slaughter of an animal for a feast, but a sacred, religious occasion, where the death of the victim is the instrument for the consecration of the initiands” [6]. Ben Knighton continues to elucidate very clearly in the mind of a Karimojong that “the sense of threatened rivalry for religious allegiance is only compounded by the fact that nearly all the baptized informants are also initiated at some later date, and come to value that initiation….in other words the spiritual condemnation of such sacrificial practices has rebounded because the mass of the Karimojong have accepted the rite of normal Christian initiation without it affecting their cultural rights” [7] he continues to explain that any attempt to reject this practice by regarding them pagan is a European lack  of appreciation of the goodness, irreducibility and inevitability of the African tradition. The Christian rites of initiation like baptism, Eucharist, and confirmation can be related with this since their goal is one.


Water is one of the most important symbols among this pastoralist people. It is a scarce resource and very precious among the Karimojong. Water among the Karimojong is paradoxical. It is essentially a blessing from God and at same time can destroy life. However destructive it can be, it is to a greater percentage good with its badness embedded in it. For instance, when a person is dreamt of by the diviners or any other person that he/ she is going to face a calamity, water is sprinkled to cleanse off the bad spell. In the same way an elder can use water to curse a disobedient youth. In olden days water was used together with a sacrificed animal. When Christianity peeped in people can use water alone without an animal. This is because they have observed and adopted how Church people do.    


Sacrifices, ‘amuronot’ (singular), ‘ngamuronisia’ (Plural) have a very high spiritual dimension according to the Karimojong people. They are done in sacred grove called Akiriket whose trees are never cut. The assembly that meets there to perform rituals is also called by the same name. sacrifices  in this shrines are offered to the ‘Akuj’- God, “the non personalized deity of the Karimojong, occupying the regions of the above, manifested in the sun, moon, stars, and the sky itself, and utilizing on occasions ‘spirits’(wind, lightening) as the agents of purpose. The deity is the creator of all things, and in its gifts lie equally prosperity and disaster according to the material condition it causes to transpire in the world. Though manifested in nature, the deity controls it and may alter natural conditions at will” [8] as presented by Dyson-Hudson in his work on the Karimojong.

The greatness of God in controlling nature can be reflected in the Karimjong sayings like God is Great ‘epol Akuj’. The sacrifices are offered to God in prayer and in thanksgiving;

  • In prayer as to ask the deity for the good things like rain, that is a source of life for both humans and the animals, for good fortune, children and in the special way to cleanse one if he has killed an enemy.
  • In thanksgiving as to thank him for good harvest, enough rain, the prevailing prosperity. Sacrifices are offered by initiated elders who sit in rings while at the shrine, those others who are not yet initiated can also participate but passively.

We relate these sacrifices with the sacrifice of the Holy mass in Christianity. The elements found especially commemoration of the sacrificial lamb, are not that very different in practice from what the Karimojong do. This makes Christianity to easily be grasped by the traditional people. In our liturgy some of the aspects of practice have been Christianized, people refer the Church as ‘Akiriket’ because what happens in there is a reflection or in the strict sense a commemoration of the sacrificial lamb that was slain for the sake of human kind, as the ‘amuronot’ is slain for the good of human life and survival in the community. It is survival because it is a society craving to live in the hard conditions. There is ‘Akigat’ in the shrine, a special moment to ask from God. It is very beautiful that in our liturgy of Moroto and Kotido dioceses, this aspect is specially remembered and it is done in the mode of a shrine, it may slightly differ due to the incorporation of the elements of this western religion.


The Karimojong still adhere concretely to their traditional religion and culture. Christianity as much as it has influenced it has not dismantled the subtle elements in it. Ben Knighton in the introduction of his book “The Vitality of the Karimojong Religion” agrees with this fact. He writes “the traditional African religion of the Karimojong, despite the multiple external influences of the twentieth century and earlier, has remained at the heart of their culture as it has changed with time”. With this brief survey of the Karimojong religion, we discover that culture as well is a living witness of religion and continues to influence it from different dimensions.



NOVELLI, Bruno. (1999). Karimojong Traditional Religion: A Contribution. Comboni Missionaries: Kampala.
NOVELLI, Bruno. (1988). Aspects of Karimojong Ethnosociology. Verona: Italy.
KNIGHTON, Ben. (2005). The Vitality of Karimojong Religion: Dying Tradition or Living Faith. ASHGATE.
PAZZAGLIA, Augusto. (1982). The Karimojong: Some Aspects. Bolonga: Italy.
MBITI S.J., (1969). African Religions & Philosophy. Heinemann: London.

[1] Karimojong Traditional Religion, p. LVII
[2] Karimojong Traditional Religion, p. 20
[3] Karimojong Traditional Religion, p.42
[4] The vitality of the Karimojong Religion, p.178
[5] The Karimojong: some aspects p. 97
[6] The Vitality of the Karimojong Religion, p.162
[7] Ibid p. 162
[8] Karimojong Traditional religion, p 42