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The Iteso: Resistance, Adaptation, and Revival – Key Note Address

By Dr. Patrick Igulot, PhD

Key Note Address at the 4th Annual Teso Development International Conference, University of East London, London, UK. 18th–23rd September 2017. The theme of the conference: Teso: Past, Present, and Future. 


The history of Teso (Uganda) at the turn of the 20th century has not been told consistently. In this paper, the author attempts to systematically trace the history of Teso, it people and their way of life between 1900 to 1950. He begins by tracing the migration of the Iteso into Karamoja and their dispersion into Teso and beyond. He then identifies the major groups of the Iteso people and their geographical settlement in Teso. In the third part of the paper, he traces the introduction of a new political, social, and economic system by the Baganda, the British and European Christian missionaries, and the subsequent transfer of administration to the indigenes.  He draws lessons that the contemporary society of the Iteso people can learn from and concludes by observing that early 20th century Teso was built by outsiders, an aspect which should be a challenge to contemporary Iteso.
  1. Introduction
According to Jeremy Charles Dalton Lawrence or J.C.D Lawrence (1955), the Iteso lived a precarious life characterised by bouts of famine, disease, tribal wars and were naked before the 20th Century (1900).

However, at the beginning of the 20th Century, Semei Kakungulu introduced a new form of government in Teso, Christian Missionaries also reached Teso, and the British Government introduced a new economic system.

The introduction of a centralised administration brought peace and security, the Christian missionaries brought education while the British administration introduced cotton. All these improved the social, economic, and political situation of the Iteso.
  1. Migration
The Iteso are Nilo-Hamites, people whose origin is traced to the Nile valley, specifically, eastern Ethiopia. This group includes, the Iteso, the Karimojong, the Langi, the Kuman, and the Kakwa. Nilo-Hamites live in the plains.

There are four main divisions of the Iteso and these are:
  1. Iteso, who occupy Usuk County.
  2. Iseera, who occupy Serere, Soroti, and Amuria Counties.
  3. Ingoratok, who occupy Ngora, Kumi and Bukedea counties.
  4. Ikokolemu, who occupy Kaberamaido County.
During migration into Teso, probably from 1700, the Iteso are believed to have found Bush Men in the area. The paintings at Nyero, Ochuloi and Asuret, support this supposition. However, it is not known what happened to these people.

The Iteso migrated over six generations.  These are:
  1. Ojurata’s tadpoles – people who were short, had big heads, who lived near swamps and along rivers.
  2. Okori’s generation – Iteso who were the first to start growing crops.
  3. Onyangaese’s generation: Iteso who started to keep livestock.
  4. Otikiri’s generation – the industrious Iteso who started making crafts, beads, tanning, and musical instruments.
  5. Arionga’s generation – This is the generation that first settled in Karamoja and they were known as Iworopom. While in Karamoja, the Iworopom lived in Mt. Moroto and Mt. Okong.
During this time, a combination of limited grazing land and water and pressure from the Turkana of Kenya forced the group to split into three and these are:
  1. Okong and Angisa’s group – who entered Teso from Magoro (present day Katakwi district) and settled in Teso; part of this group proceeded and settled in Tororo.
  2. The second group settled at Mt. Kamalinga or Napak and Mt. Akisim – Southern Karamoja. Part of this group was led by Alekilet, from where present day Alekilek gets its name.
  3. The third group stayed in Karamoja – the Karimojong. These are the tired old men who stayed behind.
  1. Asonya’s generation – a group of Iteso who moved further west and south wards into Amuria, Soroti, Serere, Ngora, and Bukedea counties.
The movement of each of these generations is believed to have lasted 100 years.

From Magoro, the first group moved to Ngariam and Katakwi. The second group migrated to Toroma and Gweri. This spread throughout Soroti, Serere, and Amuria. The third group moved to Kapir, Ngora, Kumi, Bukedea, and Pallisa.

As the Ingorak continued moving south-west wards, they collided with the Iseera who were moving east wards at Agu. Meanwhile the group from Soroti collided in Amuria with the group from Katakwi.

The migration of the Kumam is recent. From Magoro, Amam migrated to Soroti and his descendants moved further to Kamuda and Lale. From there, they spread as far as Ochero where they met the Lango who were migrating southwards. The Lango forced the Kuman back and periodically raided them as far as Katine.

The migration of Asonya’s people from out of Magoro is believed to have taken place between 1800–1900.
  1. Kakungulu and the Conquest of Teso
Kakungulu was a top General in the Buganda army. In 1895, he led an attempt to capture Kaberaga but was not successful.  In this battle, Kakungulu failed to capture Kaberaga. In addition, he lost 40 soldiers.

After this battle, Kakungulu got into problems with Apolo Kagwa, the Prime Minister of Buganda. Kakungulu was fined and subsequently resigned.

In 1896, the British through Captain Sitwell approached Kakungulu to help them deal with people they called Wakedi who they believed were supporting Kabarega.  The Wakedi were the Lango people.

In September 1896, Kakungulu took a team of Kumam and Iteso chiefs led by Otagi, Omaswa, and Amolo to Mengo to ask for protection from the Lango (JCD, Lawrence, 1955; Emwanu, 1967).  

Later in the same year, Kakungulu established a fort in Kaweri on the shores of lake Kyoga. He then continued collaborating with the British against the Lango, Mwanga, and Kaberega. Mwanga and Kaberega were eventually captured in April 1899 at Kangai (JCD, Lawrence, 1955; Emwanu, 1967). 

After the capture of Mwanga and Kabarega, the British appointed Kakungulu to manage the area north of lake Kyoga.

With a headquarters at Kagaa (Lango bordering Teso), Kakungulu started pacifying Teso.  He used a mixture of political persuasion, requests for protection or outright force. Whenever an area was conquered, a saza (ebuku), gombolola or (etem), mulaka (eitela) were setup and Baganda chiefs appointed.

In October 1899, Kakungulu established a fort in Sambwe (present day Pingire Sub County) under the command of Maraki Magongo. Serere was declared a saza, becoming the first in Teso.

Early 1900, Kakungulu moved his headquarters from Kagaa in Lango to Bululu, which was declared a saza. He appointed Reuben Bitege as chief (JCD Lawrence, 1955; Emwanu, 1967).  

Still within 1900, Kakungulu moved to Pallisa and set up his base at Bugwere (Budaka). From Bugwere, he conquered Bukedea with little resistance.

At the end of 1900, following fierce resistance from the people of Ngora and Kumi, Ngora was conquered and in 1901, a saza was proclaimed. Jafari Mayanja was appointed chief.

However, as Kakungulu’s sphere of influence expanded, his chiefs and commanders abused their positions and power and looted the subjugated people. This outcry reached the British Administration that intervened (JCD Lawrence, 1955; Emwanu, G. 1967). 

Kakungulu who had already established his headquarters in Mbale from where he remote-controlled operations in, and the administration of Teso, was relieved off his powers and became a ceremonial commissioner.

The British then replaced his men. In Bululu, Musabira, a Munyoro was appointed. In Serere, Ngora and Mkongoro, Uganda Police were deployed. The withdrawn Baganda Administrators were brought to Mbale.

Following a break of 2 years, Kakungulu was again sent to set up administrations in the un-administered parts of Teso in 1904.

A saza was built in Bukedea under Luka Lukanda, with outposts in Aturitur. Another saza was built in Kumi with outposts at Kapir, and Mukura. Kakungulu’s last job was establishing a saza in Soroti. 

By the end of Kakungulu’s reign in Teso in 1904, he had set up administrative units of Bululu, Serere, Bukedea, Kumi, and Soroti.

In 1907, the British used force to enter Toroma. In 1908, an outpost was established at Komolo. In 1909, a saza was established in Usuk.

The penetration of the British to eastern Teso (Katakwi, Usuk, Ngariam, etc) faced fierce resistance. One of the key personalities in this resistance was Okolimong.

As time went on, the British began to ‘indigenise’ the administration of Teso. In Kumi, they appointed Oumo as chief while in Ngora, Ijala who had betrayed his father, was appointed.

In 1908, Teso was now peaceful, save for the newly conquered Usuk. This situation attracted missionaries and Rev. A. L. Kitching of the Church Missionary Society settled in Ngora.

In 1909, the administration of Teso was moved from Mbale to Kumi (JCD Lawrence, 1955, Emwanu, G. 1967). In this year, cotton was introduced. In 1910, a ploughing school was established in Kumi.

In 1911, a cotton experimental station was set up in Kadungulu. In 1916, Kadungulu station was closed and moved to Simsa in Soroti and in 1920, the station was moved to Serere. Within 4 years (1909 – 1913-14), Teso was producing a third of cotton in Uganda (JCD Lwawrence, 1955; Emwanu, 1967).

In 1912, ginneries were built in Bugondo and Bukedi and by 1920, there were 20 ginneries in Teso. As much as cotton production boomed, there was difficulty transporting cotton across the land to the lake where it was shipped.

Transport only improved at the end of 1920 when the railway line reached Soroti in 1929.

On 11 July 1912, Kumi district was formally created. However, administering Teso (that included Omoro) from Kumi was challenging, mainly to due to raids by the Lango and Karimojong.

In 1915, a post was established at Omoro and put under a Muganda agent.  By 1917, the people of Omoro were growing cotton and paying tax. After a few years, Omoro was made a saza and transferred to Lango.

In 1914, the headquarters of Teso was moved from Kumi to Soroti.

In 1918, there was severe drought which caused famine. However, the government established a policy of compulsory grain storage at chief’s headquarters and later at family level. Communal gardens of millet were set up and these were supervised by chiefs.
  1. Native Administration 
By 1913 Teso was administered by the Iteso. Iteso chiefs had been appointed in all sub counties and all counties had county councils. However, Baganda chiefs (who were called agents) were retained to mentor the newly appointed local Iteso chiefs.  

By 1919, self-rule had been firmly established in Teso that only Iteso were eligible to become county chiefs.

In 1920, the first etesot County Chief, Nasaneri Iporiket was appointed chief of Kumi county. Later, Enoka Epaku, Eria Ochom, and Isaka Onaba were appointed county chiefs of Soroti, Usuk, and Serere counties, respectively.

In 1926 Enoka Epaku was dismissed from his position and exiled in Fort Portal allegedly for inciting local people not to do public works, pay tax, ‘trumped up’ corruption, etc. However, evidence shows that the British became scared of Epaku’s performance and popularity with the local people and lower chiefs and feared a possibility of an uprising (Emwanu, 1967).

The performance of the Iteso chiefs was not satisfactory for several reasons including having low education, running a new system, etc. Because of this, the counties were split.

Amuria County was created from Soroti, Ngora from Kumi, Kasilo from Serere, and Napak, from Usuk.

To support self-rule further, two Baganda chiefs were appointed to advise County Chiefs. Timiteo Mukasa was Adviser for Kumi, Ngora, Usuk, and Napak while Eria Gyagenda advised Serere, Kasilo, Soroti, and Amuria.

In 1937, the District Commissioner for Teso, F.R. Kennedy sought to indigenise self-rule further. Accordingly, he replaced the Banganda names of saza and gombolola for Ateso version of ebuku and etem.

Secondly, he incorporated apolok ka atekerin (clan leaders) into councils. By doing this, Kennedy earned the support of local people because the system of apolok ka atekerin built on the age-set system had been destroyed by Kakungulu. 

According to JCD Lawrence, this was a turning point in the administration of Teso and marked the start of local government.
  1. Lessons
  1. Military and political weakness. The Iteso were militarily and politically weak and this is why Kakungulu conquered much of Teso within 5 years. Teso had strong men but they lacked advanced equipment and importantly, were not properly coordinated.
  1. The Iteso were adaptive. They welcomed new comers such as missionaries, explorers and adventurous and embraced new ideas such as education, religion, cotton growing, etc. By 1913, the Iteso were already reaping the benefits of cotton production.
Further, the Iteso were adaptive because they adapted to situations over time, starting with Ojurata’s generation of people who were hunters and gatherers, Okori’s generation of people to adopted cultivation to Onyanagaese’s generation when livestock was adopted and the industrial generation of Otikiri.
  1. The colonial government had a strong economic agenda. It introduced and promoted cotton production, infrastructure such as roads, water ways, ginneries, etc. were constructed or put in place to support the local economy.
  2. Government was firm in solving problems. For example, enforcing food production and storage to prevent famine. Secondly, to support economic activities, research was embedded within the economic strategy.
  1. Professional approach to problems. For example, when cotton was introduced, Cotton Instructors were appointed and later Ploughing Instructors. Later, Stock Inspectors and Veterinary Officers were appointed. Veterinary Officers alone in Teso from Europe were 8 by 1821.
  2. Prior to the advent of foreigners (the Baganda, Indians, and Europeans), the Iteso were organised and coordinated as illustrated by their ability to come together and request Buganda Kingdom for protection from the Lango.
However, their organisation and coordination was weak. This is illustrated by the fact that they had not been able to defend themselves from outsiders, hence the need and request for external help from the Buganda.    

Further, even when the Iteso resisted foreigners and their rule, they were nevertheless conquered, mainly because of military and political weakness. If the Iteso were stronger military and formed political alliances, perhaps, Kakungulu would not have conquered the whole area in the few years as he did.
  1. Common interests, resistance and opposition. At the advent of Baganda rule, the Iteso resisted intrusion and domination. The battle of Opege in Ngora led by Okalany, another battle also in Ngora led by Oluka, Omiat in Amuria and Okolimong in Usuk are some examples.
Once foreign rule was established in Teso district, the people opposed injustice such as forced labour and unfair taxes. For example, people would be caned for refusing to do public works, they would sit on people’s stomachs or make them to hold hot iron.
  1. Education being part and parcel of the Iteso. At the inception of foreign rule, there were no Iteso with experience in the type of administration that Kakungulu introduced. This is the reason the Baganda intellectuals dominated the administration of Teso.
However, after indigenisation, the Iteso who became chiefs did so mainly based on their physical characteristics (being giant), hard work, courage and obedience. But when administration became more complicated (involving cotton production, taxation, etc.), ascension to chieftaincy shifted to education. Recruitment to the civil service depended on education. Because of this, the Iteso embraced education.
  1. Unity and collective action. By the 1920, based on the chieftaincy system, the Iteso had developed unity. For example, there was a forum of chiefs that met twice a year to consider pertinent issues in the district. In 1920, the Governor, W.G Adams called a meeting where the name Teso and Iteso were decided.
  1. Conclusion
The story of Teso has four aspects:
  1. Peace and a pattern of administration from Kakungulu;
  2. Christianity, education and health from Christian missionaries;
  3. Communications and trade from the activities of early European and Indian traders;
  4. Social, economic and political advancement from the British administration.
All these aspects have one thing in common, they were all externally instigated.

The pertinent question is, if 20th century Teso was shaped and built by outsiders, what about 21st century Teso?  

Author's Profile

Patrick Igulot is a Sociologist. He recently graduated with a PhD in Sociology from City, University of London following research on vulnerability and risk to HIV infection in Uganda. He attended Makerere University where he received a Master’s in Sociology in 2010 and Bachelors of Social Science in 2001. Between 2003 and 2013, he worked in The AIDS Support Organisation (TASO) Uganda where he held different positions in different stations including at TASO Jinja, TASO eastern regional office in Mbale and at TASO Soroti. Dr. Igulot currently works as a lecturer and researcher. In addition, he works as the Executive Director of Iteso Welfare Association (IWA) UK, a 25-year old organisation whose mission is to contribute to the advancement of the people of Teso.