Seers as War makers, Peace Makers, and Leaders within the Karamoja Cluster

Pastoral populations living within the Karamoja Cluster (namely Uganda, South Sudan, Kenya, and Ethiopia) believe that particular people known as ‘seers’ possess special capacities that enable them to foresee and manipulate the future. With this ability, seers perform an important role within communities as they are central players in decision-making concerning security, raiding and war making, peacemaking, and migratory patterns of people and livestock. Therefore, the Feinstein research team believes seers are an important group to engage with in the effort to build greater regional peace and stability. However, many government officials and NGOs operating in the Karamoja Cluster continually marginalize these influential community leaders, limiting the amount of knowledge the seers can impart on regional peace and stability processes.

Feinstein field research throughout the Karamoja region will allow us to document and analyze how seers operate within their own communities and shed light on the complex nature of their relationships with other tribal groups, both friends and enemies. To complement the findings of this work, we have incorporated a photography component that will assist in illustrating the daily activities of seers and other members of their pastoral communities and draw attention to the environmental and economic challenges that many within the Karamoja Cluster face today. It is these environmental and economic challenges that spur some of the armed conflict in the region at present.

With both the written and visual aspects of the work carried out simultaneously, this project will help lay the groundwork for future strategies that seek to help better network seers with local leaders, government agencies, and NGO activities whose aim is peaceful resolution to conflict and peaceful co-existence among pastoral groups in the Karamoja Cluster.

Feinstein has been conducting research with pastoral groups in east Africa for over a decade. Through its commitment to the region and its innovative research, it has established strong relationships with many pastoral communities that live within the Karamoja Cluster. As most groups within this region are dependent on healthy, large livestock herds, the work of Feinstein has focused on helping these groups maintain strong foundations for sustainable livelihoods. Through their successful research work with pastoral communities in the eradication of rinderpest, a devastating disease among female cows, Feinstein researchers have achieved the trust and respect of the pastoral communities. These successes have been enabled by the center’s ability to move freely among and between the different pastoral groups in the region.

Without the assistance of seers and their ability to negotiate between tribes, both friend and enemy, Feinstein researchers would have encountered difficulties in gaining access to certain populations. Therefore, it was during these earlier research efforts that Feinstein witnessed first-hand the role of seers as both effective war makers and, importantly, peacemakers. Seers quickly became important actors in the center’s efforts to work with pastoralists to manage conflict in non-lethal ways and provide safe passage to vaccinate cattle. Additionally, over the last four years Feinstein researchers have worked intensively in the Karamoja region documenting and analyzing factors contributing to high levels of violence and conflict. As before, the role of seers in helping to prevent or perpetuate violence surfaced as a key factor.

The greater Karamoja Cluster encompasses regions within northeastern Uganda, South Sudan, northwestern Kenya, and southwest Ethiopia. These regions are inhabited by nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoral peoples who practice transhumance in fragile and unpredictable ecological zones. These populations are minorities within their respective countries, and are often at odds with or under attack by the governments in the regions where they live and move with their animals. Human development indicators rank these groups among the least developed and most vulnerable groups within each of their respective countries.

Local populations believe that seers have a unique relationship with the future as they ‘see’ into the future and are able to intervene in future events. As such, seers are involved at a fundamental level in determining their communities’ security and well-being, as well as their relations with other tribes or groups in the region. Seers are also influential in regards to their communities’ relationship with outsiders such as NGOs or government agencies. Regardless of their skills, or perhaps because of them, both colonial powers and the independent governments of the countries they reside in have systematically marginalized seers.

Our research seeks to better understand the role of seers as forces for both war and peace, and to use this information to inform local and national governments in alternative ways to engage with pastoral populations to address some of their most pressing needs of security as many live in areas that are highly insecure and that lack any law and order functions.

Years one and two of the research are focused on working with seers in northern Uganda and southern Sudan, followed by work with seers in northeastern Kenya.

The Feinstein team working in the Karamoja Cluster on issues of security has enjoyed collaborating with UN agencies, including UNICEF and OCHA. The team has also worked with NGO actors and local government officials in the region to further its efforts to inform peace and security initiatives. It remains the goal of this team to maintain strong links with policy and programming actors to share findings and important field data throughout its research work in the Karamoja Cluster.

A final international report will be published with findings from the field research and disseminated within the countries worked in (Uganda, Sudan, and Kenya) and internationally. Additionally, briefings will be conducted at policy and programming offices and agencies to influence developments in the region and in other areas where pastoral and indigenous populations face similar challenges.

Photographs taken by the Feinstein team will accompany both the final report and briefings to enhance and provide additional context to research findings. Additionally, photography depicting livelihoods-, health-, security-, and peace-related themes have been used by the center’s team in Karamoja, Uganda, to hold eight different outdoor photography exhibitions in three districts of Karamoja. With Feinstein team researchers present at each exhibition, people from surrounding communities were able to discuss the research findings with the Feinstein researchers and engage with other community members present at the exhibitions. The photography exhibitions were attended by clan leaders, local government officials, Ugandan military officers, religious leaders, school teachers, and national and international staff of humanitarian agencies. With over 800 people attending the eight exhibitions in total, the exhibitions were successful in both bringing local people together and sparking debate among them about important issues affecting Karamoja and pastoralism.

Research findings will demonstrate how seers can be brought into the fold of national and regional efforts to bring peace and stability to the Karamoja Cluster. There are no other research projects at present looking at the influence and power seers have within this insecure region. Through patient and diligent research, Feinstein can build upon a decade of work in the region to inform its regional and international partners to develop practical steps to realize a more stable region in the near future. In order to confront the environmental challenges due to climate change that are already underway and impacting the region’s pastoral groups, political solutions must be found to ease the social and economic tensions that persist. This research intends to help find those solutions.

This research builds on the center’s past three years of specific research on the causes and effects of armed conflict among several key pastoral groups in South Sudan and northeastern Uganda. It is also complemented by ongoing regional work region focusing on livelihoods, status, and conflict in the Karamoja districts of northeastern Uganda.

Feinstein’s research team will work with local human rights and NGOs in the Karamoja cluster committed to finding ways to lessen the areas high levels of violence and insecurity. Furthermore, and equally important, as the center has established strong linkages with local leadership within various Karamoja groups involved in the study, we will continue to rely on these relationships to learn from and share information with as the study progresses. Finally, as mentioned above, Feinstein will continue to work closely with UN agencies with an established presence in the Karamoja Cluster including UNICEF and OCHA.