Identification. The Iteso comprise the second-largest ethnic group in Uganda and a significant portion of the non-Bantu-speaking minority in Kenya's Western Province. The Iteso of Uganda have not been well described, but significant studies exist of the political and economic dimensions of colonial rule in their territory. For the Iteso of Kenya, there are substantial studies of social organization, social change, and ritual processes. The Iteso have an undeserved reputation in Kenya for cultural conservatism, whereas in Uganda they have been described as being among the most economically adaptable of people. In common with many of the peoples of the Kenya-Uganda border region, they have a history of extensive multiethnic contact and have come to share many customs with neighboring peoples, although not at the expense of their identity or cultural distinctiveness.
Location. In Uganda the great majority of Iteso occupy Soroti District and some of the adjacent areas in the north-eastern part of the country. Farther east and south, they constitute about half of the population of Bukedi District. These Iteso are separated from their more northern Ugandan colleagues by Bantu-speaking peoples, notably the Gisu, Banyole, and Bagwere. They are not separated spatially from the Kenyan Iteso of Busia District in Western Province, with whom they share a common border. The Iteso of Soroti District, Uganda, are called the Northern Iteso in the ethnographic literature; the Iteso of Bukedi District, Uganda, and Busia District, Kenya, are called the Southern Iteso. The Southern Iteso occupy the foothills of Mount Elgon and the surrounding savanna. The Northern Iteso environment varies from low and wet near the shores of Lake Kyoga and its neighboring swamps to high and arid in the north. In both areas, annual rainfall is separated into two wet seasons—the "short" and "long" rains. It varies considerably from year to year and locality to locality, averaging 150 centimeters a year in Kenya. The Iteso have always moved their households in response to changes in economy, politics, and climate. After the 1950s, land scarcity and colonial (later state) control prevented the Iteso from adapting their economy to the environment.
Demography. The latest reliable census for Uganda (1969) lists 600,000 Iteso living in Soroti District and 65,000 living in Bukedi. Approximately 150,000 Iteso resided in Kenya in 1979. Population densities range from about 32 per square kilometer in the more arid portions of northern Uganda to over 500 in the densely populated areas of Kenya. In Kenya, where the population has increased dramatically in the late twentieth century, the majority of Iteso are now under 15 years of age. Life expectancy has also increased, but recent figures are not available. Until the 1960s, half of all children died before reaching adulthood.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Iteso speak an Eastern Nilotic language. The Eastern Nilotic Branch of Nilotic is divided into the Teso-speaking and Maa-speaking (Maasai) branches. The Teso Branch is further divided into speakers of Ateso (the language of the Iteso) and those of the Karamojong cluster, including the Turkana, Ikaramojong, Jie, and Dodoth in Kenya and Uganda.