07/18/2012 08:23 EDT | Updated 09/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Karamoja: Land of the Cattle Rustlers

Welcome to Karamoja, land of the cattle rustlers.Karamoja is the most isolated region in Uganda, bordering South Sudan and Kenya. Soldiers from the Ugandan Military patrolled the streets with heavy machine guns; billboards implored warriors to "Put down the gun and get an education."

It was 6:59 p.m. Only one minute until the power comes on, the restaurant owner told us. Every night from 7 p.m to 11 p.m, she said, but at no other time. But the minute came and went, and the restaurant remained in darkness. The only light was from my flashlight. But this wasn't the only sign that something was different about this place.

Soldiers from the Ugandan Military patrolled the streets with heavy machine guns; billboards implored warriors to "Put down the gun and get an education." Our hotel had no hot water and barely any cold water. Most of the traffic on the road in town was caused by hundreds of goats wandering in search of food. The Karamajong walked the streets in shukas, with big, hoop earrings, colorful necklaces and the occasional heavy scarring or missing limb.

Welcome to Karamoja, land of the cattle rustlers.

Karamoja is the most isolated region in Uganda, bordering South Sudan and Kenya. Google Maps thinks otherwise, though. It told me that the distance between Soroti, where the paved road ends before heading north, and Moroto, in northern Uganda, was only 176.8 kilometres and that it would take less than three hours.

But as we drove off the last of the paved road, I began to doubt that assessment. The road was bumpy and dusty, marred by potholes and deep ruts. Occasionally we'd drive over flooded areas or through thick, sludgy mud. It was slow going for our vehicle, but for a good part of the eight hours it took us to traverse this road, it was a single lane for barreling two-way traffic. There were no speed limits; the rule of the road was that there were no rules.

As part of my work, I provide support to the Uganda Youth Network's Karamoja youth empowerment team, and so this was a trip to meet with local representatives and other NGOs in the region. It was my first trip up to Karamoja. One colleague told me as long as I didn't have any cattle with me, I'd be fine on the trip. No cattle: check.

Historically, cattle were extremely important to the pastoral Karamajong, but drought, disease and cattle rustling laid waste to the herds. Karamoja is desperately poor and remote. Statistics are bleak and depressing: the illiteracy rate is 88 per cent; the life expectancy is 42 years old. Populated by semi-nomadic pastoralists that move across the semi-arid plains with the cattle, the region was wracked by years of extremely violent cattle rustling and arms trading. Only recently has the region become safe for travel. Of course, the Canadian government (like most Western governments) cautions against "non-essential travel to the Eastern overland route to Karamoja from Kampala due to banditry and occasional clashes between ethnic communities."

The Karamajong came from Abyssinia in the 1600s and are part of the same ethnic group as the Masai. The Karamajong believe that they own all cattle by divine right but this only partially explains the violence; even before colonization, the Karamajong traded guns for cattle with the Ethiopian gunrunners, Arab slave traders and poachers. When they refused to give up their guns during colonization, movement within and out of the region was heavily restricted. Since then, the region has fallen behind in development.

As part of our work, we met with local Karamajong youth in their village. The village was dusty with round- thatched huts; small fires burned, cooking maize and sorghum. The Karamajong people are often exceptionally tall; the women wear plaid kilts with a plaid shuka draped over their shoulders. The youth demonstrated their traditional dancing and singing, their pride in their warrior heritage defiant and steadfast.

Far past the village, along the horizon, the lush Mount Moroto rose dramatically out of the flat landscape, its peaks shrouded by hazy mist. As we sat in a circle talking to the Karamajong youth, many of them former warriors, it was hard to believe that as recently as 2006, "civilians' walked the street, pistols sticking out of their belts... People often shot randomly in the air and nobody used to care." The violent cattle rustling accounted for 70 per cent of the deaths of men between the ages of 30 and 39. Even now, there remain sporadic outbreaks of violence.

But now, the youth face an uncertain future as they move away from violence and towards something more peaceful. And in the face of development, these traditional lifestyles will change. Already the landscape is being irrevocably altered as the youth embrace the latest high-stakes occupation: small-scale mining. The remoteness and wild west reputation of the area also present barriers to development. Prejudices over the Karamajong's tribal traditions and violence impede public support for economic and social development in the region. This only intensifies their marginalization. The Karamajong have a long way to go before they are seen as Ugandans, and see themselves as Ugandans.

The power did eventually come back on, but it couldn't even begin to illuminate the wide expansive night sky. We may have been a few hundred kilometres from Kampala, but standing in this quiet town, under a star-lit canopy that has watched these warriors follow their cattle for hundreds of years, the fast paced modernity of Kampala, with its lights, casinos and never ending traffic, felt like a million miles away.