The Iteso (or people of Teso) are an ethnic group in eastern Uganda and western Kenya. Teso refers to the traditional homeland of the Iteso, and Ateso is their language. Iteso is plural (two or more people from Teso), Etesot and Atesot are singular. Etesot is for male person from Teso and Atesot is feminine. Iteso are believed to have migrated from Abyssinia (Ethiopia).
In Uganda, Iteso inhabit the districts of Soroti, Kumi, Katakwi, Amuria, Bukedea, Serere, Ngora, Pallisa, Kaberamaido, Tororo, Kapelebyong and Kalaki. Iteso are very generous and hospitable people. The cultural drink of Iteso is 'ajon' (malwa), commonly consumed in local ceremonies and social gatherings. They practice crop and animal farming and attach great value to land.
Teso traditions relate that they originated somewhere in what is now Egypt in the area of Alexandra. They are believed to have descended from the Hebrew Joseph who had married a black Egyptian. Later when the Israeli slaves left Egypt for the promised land, the group followed the blue Nile river into Ethiopia. They then moved in a south easterly direction and settled in North Eastern Uganda, in what is now Karamoja. The word Karamoja lends itself into Karamojong which means " the old person is fatigued". Legend has it that either as a sect, a clan or of a similar tribal identity to the Karamojong, tt is from here that they obtained the name Iteso, a derivative word, meaning "graves". The oldmen--the Karamojong--- where concerned, perhaps even anxious that if these group of Karamojong moved on, they would die hence becoming "graves", from which the word "atesia" originates, and the tribal name, Iteso, took on. Some accounts indicate bible or scriptural influence where by the Iteso saw a land, part of the promise to Jacob, the grand son of Abraham, as a land divided by small rivers originating from the White Nile, theirs was the Upper Nile area. From the Ethiopian mountains is where they saw the land. They later migrated south West over a period of centuries.
Northern and southern Teso
They were part of a larger group of Nilo-Hamitic peoples who include; the Masai and Turkana of Kenya, the Nyangatom of present-day Ethiopia, Karamojong, the Topotha of South Sudan, all are part of Ateker. The Ateker further split into several groups, including Jie, Turkana, Karamojong and Teso.
The Teso established themselves in present-day north-eastern Uganda, and in the mid-18th century some began to move farther south. During the course of this latter migration, conflicts ensued with other ethnic groups in the region, leading to the split of Teso territory into a northern and southern part.
Ugandan and Kenyan Teso
In 1902, part of eastern Uganda was transferred to western Kenya - leading to further separation of Teso.
Northern Teso occupy the area previously known as Teso District in Uganda (now the districts of Amuria, Soroti, Kumi, Katakwi, Pallisa, Bukedea and Kaberamaido). Southern Teso live mainly in the districts of Tororo, Bugiri and Busia in Uganda, and Busia District in Kenya's Western Province.
In Uganda, the Iteso live mainly in Teso sub-region, i.e., the districts of Amuria, Bukedea, Butebo, Kaberamaido, Kapelebyong, Katakwi, Kumi, Ngora, Serere and Soroti, but also in Bugiri and Pallisa, as well as in the districts of Tororo and Busia. They number about 3.2 million (9.6% of Uganda's population). Until 1980, they were the second largest ethnic group in Uganda. As of 2002 they were the fifth largest but this has remained questionable especially since there has never been any genocide that could have massacred more than a half of the Iteso populace. Most of the Iteso therefore contend that they are still the second largest ethnic group in Uganda. In fact the figure portrayed by UBOS is rather a political statement than an accurate recording of the Iteso in Uganda. Most Teso elites continue to argue that, since the national budget is disbursed based on population numbers, some individuals in government often manipulate these figures to suit their political interests and as such, as long as the current NRM government continues in power, the national population census figures can never be accurate but rather will continue to serve selfish political interests in order to justify why some areas in the country like Teso, remain poor and underdeveloped.
The Iteso in Kenya, numbering about 578,000, live mainly in Busia county. The Kenyan Teso people are an extension of their Ugandan counterparts in that they were merely separated by the partition of East Africa during the historic scramble and partition of Africa just like the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania and the Oromo of Kenya and Ethiopia. They are among the Plain Nilotic groups closely related to the Turkana, Karamojong, Toposa, Kumam, Lango and the Maa groups of the Maasai and Samburu. The prominent people in Teso include the current governor of Busia County, Hon Sospeter Ojaamong, Hon Albert Ekirapa, Ojamaa Ojaamong, Oduya Oprong, Pancras Otwani, educationists like Isogol Titus, Silvester Silver Omunyu and student leaders like Titus Adungosi,Odula Ongaria Meshack Patrick Emongaise, Samson Iliwa and Opama Silas Okatagoro(Information Scientist). The Iteso people are located in Western Province of Kenya currently in Busia County which is in South of Mt. Elgon. In Busia county, they inhabit two subcounties currently, Teso North and Teso South Subcounties. Still, a large number of them inhabit parts of Bungoma and even Trans Nzoia Counties which are dominated by the Bukusu of the Luhya community. Teso people are the only Plains Nilotic people whose lifestyles underwent drastic changes. Having been pastoralists since time immemorial, these people are now the most successful farmers in both Western Kenya and Eastern Uganda. In recent years the people have changed much of their lifestyle. They used to exhume the dead after some time because of population pressure on their land and they no longer have bushes to dump the bones of people who died long time ago. Now they use cement graves—a sign that they have embraced new ways of dealing with the dead. They believe in one God (Akuj/amsabwa) and also in life after death.
List of notable people in Teso:
- Hon. Sospeter Ojaamong, Kenyan politician
- Hon. Mary Emaase Otucho, Kenyan politician
- Prof. Olubayi Olubayi, Board member of Kiwimbi Organisation
- Patricia Apolot Ugandan female professional martial artist.
- Johnrich Kasiba, Kenyan businessman and media proprietor. Emuria Fm
- Opama Silas Okatagoro(Librarian, Brookhouse International School, Nairobi)
Omakada Charles Imo Upcoming Educationist The Ochoggia family original from Changara now settled in Bungoma/TransNzoia Counties. A family of librarians: Sylvester Otenya (formerly Director KNLS, University Librarian Egerton/Kabarak / Presbyterian Universities), Raymond Euppa Ochoggia (University Librarian, Maseno University), Raphael Ekappel Euppah (Research Librarian, The World Bank), Steven Okware Euppa (Librarian, Kisii University) and Daniel Okiring Euppa (Librarian, KNLS)
- Karp, Ivan (1978). Fields of Change among the Iteso of Kenya. Routledge; Reprint edition (2005). ISBN 0-415-32990-6.
- Mwakikagile, Godfrey (2009). Ethnicity and National Identity in Uganda: The Land and Its People. New Africa Press. ISBN 9987-9308-7-5.
- Shillington, Kevin (2005). Encyclopedia of African History Volume 1 A-G. New York: Routledge. pp. 1912 pages. ISBN 1-57958-245-1.
- 2002 Uganda Population and Housing Census: Analytical Report (Uganda Bureau of Statistics)