Albert J. Tricarico, Jr.
"The problem with Karamoja," a man in Entebbe told me, "is that the people are not civilized. They wear no clothes, raid for cows, and kill people. Ah, those Karimojongs!" This was the response I recently received when I said that I live in Karamoja. It was not the first time I had heard such a thing. He went on to suggest the two things that will help the Karimojong people most: education and disarmament. "Take all their guns, and put the children in school." That was his program for change.
When I tell people who live in other parts of Uganda that I am from Karamoja, I am sometimes not believed. People laugh. "You can't live there." "They will shoot you." "They will eat you." These are some of the things I have been told. Usually it is a look of utter shock that I see on the faces of the people whom I tell.
It is true that there is a history of violence in the region. Karamoja's reputation is deserved, though it is exaggerated. The Karimojong live in remote, northeastern Uganda. They love to accumulate cows. Their practice of cattle raiding is well known. In the past, they openly rejected efforts to bring education to the region. Not long ago, many moved about without clothes. Some still do.
The people, apart from grace, are enslaved to the sins of drunkenness, stealing, lying, violence, idleness, and jealousy. Polygamy is widely practiced. Animism is their faith, and superstitions of various kinds have captured their hearts and direct their conduct.
And ... they are just like you and me.
"But by the grace of God I am what I am," wrote the apostle (1 Cor. 15:10). What is good is produced by grace. People who are mastered and harmed by sin have only one hopeJesus Christ. Sin is the great equalizer; we are all in trouble and need help. The gospel is the universal hope for recovery from sin's destructive program. Praise God for the inexpressible gift of his son! (2 Cor. 9:15).
This is why the Orthodox Presbyterian Uganda Mission is committed to Word-based ministry, combined with works of mercy. We in the Mission want to love our neighbors in many ways, which is why we have a clinic, a farm, and a workshop. It is why we drill wells, teach literacy, and deliver community health instruction. But at every turn we want to love people in the very best way. Above all else, the Karimojong people need Jesus. We have Jesus, and we want to give him to them.
But how is the work to be done? Where does the Mission go? How are venues for ministry chosen? How long do you work in one field before the time comes to move to another? These are questions we asked over ten years ago, when we began our work here, and we still ask them. The opportunities for ministry are as vast as the needs of the people are deep. The openness of the Karimojong to have us in their midst and to listen to our message is amazing. They love to welcome us! So how do you choose? How do you go about the work?
There is more than one approach to these questions. Right now, there are eight villages that host Bible studies and/or gospel preaching on a regular basis: Nakaale (our home village), West Kopetatum, East Kopetatum, Moruathia, Atedeoi, Akuyam, Namalu, and Nakathian. Other places, like Okudud and Namorupus, are visited occasionally. Each village ministry is unique and has its own story. The villages are at different stages of development as well. We have, on occasion, made the difficult decision to "shake off the dust" (Matt. 10:14) and discontinue a work that does not appear to bear fruit. Here are a few profiles of works currently on our list.
In Nakaale, there is a congregation of seventy-five people under the care of the Mission. As the Mission's first preaching venue, it naturally developed into something of a "home church" for the missionaries. The church meets across the path from the residential compounds in a structure built by the Mission. We expect that this work will continue to develop, and we pray for God's provision of indigenous leaders to shepherd the flock.
About seven years ago, some of the people worshiping in Nakaale asked the Mission to start meetings in Kopetatuma village about two kilometers away. It seemed wise to do this, and so to this day we conduct Sunday worship services and Friday afternoon studies in that village. The work is small and we review it from time to time, wondering about its viability.
Last year, a Kopetatum man named Mariko participated in our work-for-food program. He requested that we come to his place, known as East Kopetatum. This has become a regular meeting place on Fridays and some Sundays, and we have enjoyed some of the richest interactions there. When the time comes for local leaders to take up some of the work, perhaps Mariko will be among them.
In 2007, we conducted a weeklong evangelistic effort in Nakathian, the home of a secondary school where some students in the church attend. Two of the men present that week joined our readers' fellowship, which meets once a month on a Saturday morning. At that meeting, we read Bible lessons in Karimojong with friends from various villages and encouraged the men to take the lessons home to their people. While meetings at the original location in Nakathian have stopped, another ministry emerged from our time there.
We asked the two Nakathian men (Abram and Francis) where they thought we should go next. Without hesitation, they suggested Okudud, a new village about twenty kilometers south of Nakaale. We brought the gospel to the people there for a week. The next year we drilled a well for them. Since that time, we have had gospel meetings there on the Lord's Day. The first time I visited after the well was finished, I opened the meeting with the question, "How do you like the water?" I had to wait quite a while for the applause to subside before bringing the Word to them. We have had as many as one hundred people come to meetings in Okudud.
Our work in the town of Namalu (ten kilometers from Nakaale) is unique. We labor there in connection with an established church and its pastor, Rev. Zachary Emuron. Emuron (as he likes to be called) is a strong believer and an ally of the Mission. He helped us translate our gospel booklet and loves to have us come and preach in the congregation he serves. We do this once a month. On Tuesdays, we join him for literacy and health instruction (provided by Martha Wright and Leah Hopp), along with Bible teaching.
We don't know what this relationship will produce, but we are praying that the Mission's influence there, along with the significant ministry that Emuron has to us, will continue to unite us. Perhaps, as the Lord wills, he will join us in more formal ways in the future.
So, sometimes we meet a person who invites us to come to his village. Sometimes there are connections made with members of the church, students we support, or neighbors who inquire. Sometimes a request comes from someone who has been helped by our diaconal ministry. Sometimes a location is identified for drilling a well, and we conduct meetings in connection with that. Sometimes an idea comes to us, and sometimes we ask friends within our sphere of ministry what they think. These are some of the ways that God has led us to bring the gospel to particular Karimojong villages.
Of all the groups, the most mature is the one meeting in Nakaale. We have identified a number of men over the years as potential leaders, but are disappointed that all but one of them have left us. Presently we do have two young men translating for us who may be candidates for leadership one day. We pray to that end and invite you to do the same. We also enjoy the fellowship of a Kenyan brother who is a strong believer and has recently begun teaching in the church.
The rest of the groups are at various levels of infancy, with potential leaders present in some of them. The work in Karamoja is, at this stage, very much a seed-planting work. We continue to look for the best opportunities, and plead with the Lord to favor our labors with a harvest of righteousness for his name's sake.
I told the Entebbe man that I believe in education. I oppose violence and the use of illegal weapons. I also told him that education and disarmament will not bring about the change that matters most. The Karimojong need Jesus more than anything else. They need to turn from their idols and serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9). They need to discover the delights of living under a kind master. They need to long for heaven while they live in righteousness, peace, and joy until heaven comes. He did not seem to disagree.
Please pray for the Lord's blessing on the proclamation of his gospel in Karamoja. We long to see people refreshed by grace and committed to holiness. We want to proclaim Jesus faithfully and live for Jesus. We want the Karimojong to see themselves as God sees themsinful, broken, needy, and loved. We want the name of Christ to be known, treasured, and glorified. Please send large prayers to heaven, not only for Karamoja, but also for Mbale, our other mission fields, and for the harvest around the globe.
The author is an OP missionary to Uganda, laboring in Karamoja. New Horizons, May 2011.