Life in the Karamoja region of northeastern Uganda is harsh and defined by periodic and extended droughts, sporadic and often brutal violence, cyclical cattle raiding and chronic food insecurity. Home to just under a million people, the Karamoja region is the poorest in Uganda. Low and highly uneven annual rainfall mean that the most common livelihoods strategy is to combine limited wet-season cultivation with semi-nomadic pastoralism. Local communities rely on access to markets to sell natural resources or animals, to purchase food, to acquire inputs for agricultural production to purchase veterinary medicines, to seek casual labor, and to access heath and other basic services. Raiding, theft, ambushes and poor road infrastructure affect the availability and price of grains and other essential commodities.
For most populations in Karamoja, food security is determined by access to and availability of animal protein and grains. Cultivated vegetables, wild fruits and wild greens supplement the diet. Communities with fewer animals, those that are more prone to animal diseases, and those that are more susceptible to raids are likely to be more food insecure than those with larger, healthier and better protected herds. The balance between animals and agricultural production is critical to maintaining food security. Reliance on cultivation increases when animals are lost through raids.
A dual settlement system has traditionally allowed for the mitigation of vulnerability. Manyattas are semi-permanent homesteads inhabited by men, women, children and the elderly, and are usually near areas used for cultivation. The kraals are mobile or semi-mobile livestock camps, and are inhabited by a shifting population of adolescent males and females, women, men (including male elders) and children.
In previous generations, a group would follow the same approximate migration pattern each year, with variations based on water and pasture conditions. Regular movement patterns, however, became curtailed with the increase of cross-border and internal raids in the 1970s. Insecurity brought tighter borders and strained relationships among groups within and adjacent to Karamoja.
Loss of lives and destruction of livelihoods have become a pattern of life. When the overall number of animals within a community declines to a certain point, the dual system of manyattas and kraals starts to break down. Shared access to grasslands and watering holes has decreased. Groups who often clash are separated by swathes of no-man's land. A number of prime grazing areas remain inaccessible due to insecurity. Manyattas that were once scattered are now closer together, home to larger populations, and often located closer to towns, trading centers or Ugandan military bases.