The Karamoja region in north-eastern Uganda is plagued by lawlessness, disease and conflicts between armed tribes which routinely carry out raids on their rivals’ cattle herds.
White Fathers missionary Fr Zacharie Sorgho from Burkina Faso wanted to leave as soon as possible when he was posted to a mission station in Moroto, one of Karamoja’s five districts, during his novitiate.
He said: “At first I felt insecure… I was scared, but I was also anxious to know them, their way of life, their traditions and customs.”
But after his ordination he was sent back to work in the isolated region in the grip of semi-nomadic tribes, the Karamojong.
Night-time attacks by groups of 50 to 60 tribal warriors armed with AK-47s, who seized the cattle of neighbouring tribes, were frequent occurrences in the area.
Fr Zacharie explained how the warriors saw killing the enemy as a sign of social status – and were surprised when the priests revealed that they had never killed anyone.
He said: “Killing was a proof of your manhood for the Karamojong.”
The young men scarred their bodies, marking each man they had killed.
Repeated attempts by the government to bring order to the region have met with failure: “The army tried to disarm them, but they were afraid of the tribes.”
Even the rebel guerrilla force, the Lord’s Resistance Army, which destabilised many parts of Africa and is responsible for more than 70,000 internal refugees in Sudan, only came to the region twice and was repelled both times by the tribal warriors.
Fr Zacharie said: “The atmosphere is one of violence and insecurity, and what is important for these people is survival – the strong one remains – the weaker one dies.”
The missionary described how, because of the climate of fear, whenever small stones hit the sides of their vehicle as they travelled along the rough roads they were afraid they were being fired upon.
“When you travel by car, you pray the rosary and always invoke the saints’ protection throughout the whole of your journey,” said Fr Zacharie.
Because of the danger of vehicles being ambushed the missionaries preferred to travel at night or at late evening to avoid attack – as the violent tribesmen were either asleep or carrying out cattle raids.
Fr Zacharie said that cattle were absolutely central to the economy and culture of the people of Moroto to the extent that missionaries need to tailor their preaching and catechesis to the local mentality.
“If I was to preach a homily the people wouldn’t listen – unless I mentioned cows,” said Fr Zacharie stressing the importance of the animals to the Karamojong tribes.
The White Father observed: “What missionaries need to do there is to learn the local culture, learn the language and try to understand their way of living.
“Then we try to bring Gospel values into that culture, taking into account what they have already.
“Some aspects of their culture stress already the importance of God, but not necessarily the God of the New Testament.”
With cattle being central to tribal life one White Father, Franz Pfaff, initiated the Happy Cow Project to try and stop the violent raids destabilising the Karamoja region.
“He told them: ‘When you take care of your cow, your cow is happy and has fewer ticks – and then you have no need to raid,’” said Fr Zacharie.
But Fr Pfaff’s efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Instead of following the advice tribesmen continued to let their cows die of sickness while coveting others’ herds.
“Even if their cows are multiplying they still want more. They believe all the cows in the world are meant for them.”
Fr Zacharie told Aid to the Church in Need he would approach local men as they sat tending livestock, and use these conversations to address various issues, such as trying to convince tribal elders to stop blessing the young warriors’ cattle raids.
He underlined the difficulties of trying to change old ingrained ways of thinking: “The society was so closed it was not possible to open them to a new mentality,” he said.
But creative thinking allowed him to address pressing problems, such as female genital mutilation (this is not practised by the majority Karimojong population, but by other smaller tribes in the area).
When a girl is 12 she is given in marriage and may be worth 60-70 cows to her parents.
Stressing the health problems that can result from the practice, such as the spread of HIV/Aids (up to 40 girls will all be mutilated with the same blade) he was able to convince some parents to abandon the practice.
He said: “Some people came to the awareness that their society needed to be changed.”
While the White Fathers may not have baptised many people, or convinced the warriors to stop their cattle raids, they were able to improve the situation of those living in the area.
They frequently ferried the sick to hospital, dug boreholes for clean water, and helped those employed digging stone for cement secure a living wage.
Yet at the end of the day it is not success, but being faithful to Jesus that the White Father sees as the most important thing.
“We are here for the Word of God and everything comes from the Word of God. If we accept this everything else will follow.”
John Newton is a press officer for Aid to the Church in Need