But now, after losing much of his herd to ever-lengthening droughts and cattle raids by rival clans, Mr. Longoli, a chief of the Jie clan, says he realizes that his lifestyle – and that of his children and grandchildren – must change.
They will have to forgo their nomadic tradition and settle down as crop-growing farmers.
“When I was young, the people rarely used to dig and work in the fields. But now we know that we need another way to survive,” Longoli says.
For generations the issues facing the people of Karamoja – the Karamojong – have been seen as insoluble. Wracked by cattle raiding and neglected by successive governments, these inhospitable plains seemed trapped in an intractable cycle of insecurity and dependence on foreign food aid.
But after a decade of military operations – albeit often criticized by human rights organizations as heavy-handed – the Ugandan Army says it is now winding up a disarmament campaign that has largely pacified the region and put a stop to armed cattle rustling.
"What has been done in Karamoja can be a template for dealing with insecurity among pastoral communities,” said Ugandan Army spokesman Felix Kulyagiye. “The Ugandan Army has employed both carrot and stick method: employment of persuasion and force where required."
The improved security situation has enabled the government and international community to shift the focus from emergency aid to sustainable development for the Karamojong – trying to convince people to settle down and plant crops.
This stands in stark contrast to southern Somalia, where the Al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab rebels control large swathes of territory, or even neighboring Kenya’s Turkana district. Cattle raiding in Turkana, which borders Uganda’s Karamoja region, is still rife, because the Kenyan Army’s disarmament campaign has been patchy.
So while nomadic communities in Kenya’s Turkana region and in southern Somalia are bearing the brunt of a famine-inducing cocktail of drought and conflict, the Karamojong have not been hit as hard.
Uganda's plan sees payoff
While that may be due to more favorable weather in Karamoja this year, the Ugandan government says it is the first sign that their policy of making the Karamojong settle down to farm is paying off.
"The Karamojong people had lost the will to struggle against the odds to and produce their own food," Janet Museveni, minister for Karamoja and wife of
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, said in a recent statement. "Our first task was to motivate people to begin the struggle for of food production again," Museveni said, pointing to tractor hire programs as an example.
Karamoja, though, is still a long way from being a success story.
Beyond the psychological and physical scars left by a decade of military operations, this year 140,000 people will still receive food aid, the World Food Programme (WFP) says. That figure represents just over 10 percent of the population; down from 90 percent of Karamojong who were receiving such handouts after a lengthy drought three years ago.
And that, aid workers say, is not just because of government policies, but also a change in strategy by nongovernmental organizations, which had earlier been accused of entrenching a dependency culture in Karamoja.
“In the past we have been going in whenever there is a crisis and dumping emergency aid there,” says Hakan Tongul, deputy country director for WFP in Uganda. “Now we are shifting it slowly to try, and in the longer term, get people off dependency.”
Whereas previously WFP has spent around $70 million annually on food aid, last year it spent just $32 million in Karamoja. And much of that went on building things like dams and vegetable gardens, rather than merely providing handouts.
But while this approach is helping the Karamojong adopt a more sustainable combination of agriculture and cattle-keeping, it's been a difficult sell, in terms of attracting funding. Foreign donors are more willing to send emergency food aid than invest in developing sustainable livelihoods, according to Mr. Tonkul.
And he acknowledges that the change in emphasis has not yet been tested in earnest. Indeed, the rains in Karamoja this year have been better than elsewhere.
“We will only know if this really works the next time a serious drought happens [here in Karamoja],” he says.
Still too ‘top-down?’
Meanwhile, some observers fear that the shift toward crop-growing is one that is being imposed from above – and is therefore not sustainable. If the Karamojong feel that they are being coerced into giving up their old way of life, then currents initiatives won’t work, according to a local NGO worker.
“If you just force somebody to do something without them understanding it, then it will definitely fail and there will be no sustainability,” says Ochero Ogora, a project coordinator for the Kampala-based African Leadership Institute in Karamoja. “It has taken very long for the Karamojong to be looked at as more than just wild people who cannot be helped,” he says.
What almost everyone agrees on is that in the long-term, the Karamojong must look to other skills and industries to make life in this harsh region sustainable.
For Talabem Lokwii, that already means surviving off what lies under Karamoja’s soil – unknown mineral reserves.
Since losing his animals to raids and droughts, Mr. Lokwii is one of hundreds of Karamojong eking out a little over a dollar a day digging in a perilous hole in the informal Rupa gold mining site.
“The gold has become for us now what our cows used to be,” Lokwii says.
Local NGO workers say that if development comes this could show that life in Karamoja can continue.
"The minerals are diverse and plenty and the potential for mining here is great,” says Simon Nangiro, chairman of the Karamoja Mining Association. “Imagine the situation where there is nothing, where their gardens cannot grow anything and they have no animals. Here, they have an alternative. At least if they can work in the mine, they can afford to eat.”
--- Research for this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.