Ugandans’ century-long journey home to Ethiopia
Tensions were high in Ethiopia as the New Year began, with the country emerging from civil war and ethnic divisions running deep. But in January, surprising news brought hope: over a hundred Ugandans arrived, returning to their ancestral homeland after a century away. Their journey began with a drought a hundred years prior, which forced their forefathers to flee – but now a vision called them home.
A century ago, the small Nyangatom village in southern Ethiopia’s Omo River valley faced devastation as the longest drought crippled their pastoralist community. Facing starvation and death, the elders made the fateful decision to migrate east, crossing into Uganda to escape the drought.
There, they adapted, taking up farming to survive in their new land.
But memories of their origin remained.
Each harvest, the elders would gather the young and recite the tale of their people – of the “blessed sky” and soil they left behind. Many longed to see their beloved country one final time. According to community leader Vincent Ocen (Pastor), “Our elder received a vision that the time had come to return home.”
And so, in January, over one hundred Ugandans of Nyangatom descent arrived back on Ethiopian shores.
The Foreign Ministry announced their arrival, sparking public intrigue – rumors swirled they were fleeing an apocalyptic prophecy. Uganda police launched an investigation into why so many would suddenly depart.
But for these returnees, home was not a place to flee doom, but a place to find peace after a century-long journey caused by forces outside their control.
Vincent refuted earlier speculation, stating “We are Ethiopians. Our ancestors were from Nyangatom. Our parents raised us telling us our origin is here and that we should always remember.”
“Many had passed longing to see their homeland once more, begging on their deathbeds to be buried in their ancestral soil,” the Pastor says. “So we did not come, we simply returned home.”
Last January, 372 people from eastern Uganda’s Turkana community made the journey to return. For three months they stayed at Light of Life Church in Nyangatom, welcomed by John Aticho (Pastor). “We discussed housing them long-term with the local government and community,” he explained. The residents agreed to provide land so the returnees could contribute permanently.
“A while back, there was a road construction and near to it was the camp where the workers were stationed. After 3 months of accommodations within the church compound we moved them to the old camp site,” John said.
He says the move to house them long-term was carried out after discussions were held with the “Narwe” kebelle residents (where the camp and the church is located in) and the Nyangatom Woreda authorities. It was then agreed to provide land so the returnees could contribute to community permanently.
Language and culture foster close ties between communities and also smooth the transition. “We have the same culture and have almost the same language. They understand and speak Nyangatom at about 75 percent,” said a local resident, noting they descend from the same clan scattered across Ethiopia, South Sudan, Kenya and Uganda.
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development registered the area as Karamoja Cluster – land straddling about 8,382 km of border area touching eight countries and peoples. While this cross-border area holds 13 pastoralist and agro-pastoralist communities, seven to eight groups reside in Uganda, one has now resettled in Ethiopia.
Pastor Vincent leads the 372 who began in Turkana. “It was not a simple decision,” he stated. “We planned how to reach Nyangatom safely, where we could live, and affordable travel for all.” The returnees sold possessions for one-way tickets home. Security along the journey posed difficulties as well, as conflicts sometimes erupt on the route.
“Traveling was not easy. We didn’t do it at a snap of our fingers,” he stated. “Right after we decided to come back we had to figure out how we would reach Nyangatom, where we could reside and even explore safe and affordable ways for all of us to travel.”
The people had sold their properties and their belongings to have a one-way ticket to home. The leader explained that the issue of road security was another matter they had to consider, as conflicts sometimes erupt on the route.
To facilitate the different needs of the 13 communities, IGAD established the Karamoja Cross-Border Development Facilitation Unit (CBDFU). Considering the Cluster as one ecological zone, the Authority states that its development is best achieved through a consolidated development plan introducing cross-border cooperation and an institutional framework.
The CBDFU will focus on four key intervention areas to unify the region. This includes cross-border dialogues to resolve pending issues, developing community-driven projects, supporting programming and policy dialogues, and promoting rural growth, conflict prevention, and partnership-building.
The community who relocated from Uganda have found acceptance in Ethiopia’s Narwe kebelle, providing Identification cards. “We are Ethiopians. We had early discussions with the Nyangatom Woreda authorities and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who believed us,” said Pastor Vincent.
The returnees have taken up farming, although residents remain mostly pastoralist
Upon receiving their land, the returnees preferred agriculture. “It was our primary livelihood in Uganda, what we learned there and brought back home,” explains Pastor Vincent.
Community leader said, “We are plowing the land and working to establish a permanent irrigation system. We are doing the things you do when you are home.”
The CBDFU aims to foster sustainable development and regional stability by overcoming boundaries and better coordinating grassroots initiatives across the Karamoja cluster. Time will tell if this new collaborative approach can truly unite disparate communities as “one ecological zone.”
The resettled Ugandans of Nyangatom descents are putting down roots in their ancestral land once more through community and agriculture: shared roots and heritage can still call estranged peoples home.
Tamerat Getachew contributed to this story.