KABOONG – When one talks about the Ik, people will straight away think about backward forest dwellers, fruit gatherers, hunters, illegal encroachers and primitive human beings.
But this could be demystified when you visit this ethnic tribe with a population of about 8,000 people living in the mountains of north-eastern Uganda near the border with Kenya, next to the more populous Karamojong and Turkana peoples.
Before visiting this place, I asked several Ugandans about their experiences with the Ik people. Not one of those I asked knew which people I was referring to.
But a visit to the Ik in December saw them display their potential by acting, singing and performing plays that depicted their lifestyle, identity, heritage and the challenges of development in the modern world.
The Ik are listed as one of two most marginalised tribes in Uganda, at high risk of extinction, the other being the Batwa on the opposite side of the Ik’s location, in western Uganda.
To an outsider, the Ik are one of the many sub-tribes in Karamoja: the Dodoth, Jie, Matheniko and Bokora, among others. Yet these mountain people are not Karimojong. It is true they understand and speak Ngikarimojong, but the Karimojong can’t speak their language, Icetot [Teuso].
The Ik, sometimes called Teuso, though this term is explicitly derogatory, are an ethnic group that were displaced from their land to create a national park and consequently suffered extreme famine.
The Ik remain perched on the top of the Rift Valley Escarpment on the border with Kenya and Sudan, more than 420 kilometres northeast of Kampala in the District of Kaboong.
They are believed to have originated from a larger group of Kuliak-speaking people that came either from Ethiopia or from as far north as Egypt and that on their way south they divided themselves into three groups: the So, the Nyang’I and the Ik.
The Ik speak Icetot which is a Nilotic language. Although it takes much of its vocabulary from neighbouring Nilotic speaking tribes, Icetot is not understood or spoken in the surrounding areas, thus accentuating the existing physical isolation of the Ik.
The Ik literally means ‘head’, and the people are so-called because they believe they were at the head of the migration and the first of the Kuliak to reach Uganda.
History has it that on arrival in this part of East Africa, the Ik roamed freely across the borders of Sudan, Kenya and Uganda, hunting and foraging in the Kidepo Valley.
My Visit to the Ik community brought me in close contact, with the people I had just heard and read about; I made an attempt to understand and grasp the essence and character of the Ik society with difficult but found it very interesting.
Mr Peter Locem, an elder and LC 2 Chairperson of Kamion Parish, says the Ik are warm-hearted people once you reach their villages, you will be greeted warmly with traditional dancing and singing often from the finery.
Mr Locem explained that while dancing and singing, the Ik presentations through the prism of their perspectives, they create a multidimensional portrayal of Ik culture, its precious heritage and its fragile existence.
“The plays, art work, the dance and songs presented for visitors are more than just notions to the Ik tribe, these are their cultural heritage, customs and ancient beliefs which need to be preserved,” said Mr Locem.
Ms Annelies Kannekens, the Project Coordinator Karamoja Tourism Academy, Kara-Tunga Arts & Tours says getting to the Ik villages is such an amazing experience since it involves an all-day venture up and down the steep mountains-the peak of Morongule mountains with a guide who speaks only Ik.
Kara-Tunga Arts and Tours is a social tour operator specialised in developing authentic cultural tours and active outdoor adventures throughout the Karamoja region, the untouched northeast of Uganda.
Ms Kannekens says that through tourism they aim at strengthening community resilience, preserving cultural heritage and positively impacting the image of the Karamoja region.
The Ik are neighboured to the west by the large and technologically superior Dodoth Karimojong, and to the east by the Kenyan people, the Turkana, over time these two tribes have fought The Ik and forced further and further into the mountains.
The Dodoth Karimojong and Turkana are both cattle-herders have steadily muscled the Ik away from the more fertile plains up into the hills above the plains where self-production is made difficult by steep mountain conditions and, more recently, severe drought.
Where the Ik live
The Ik people stay in some twenty small villages along the escarpment between Timu forest in the north and Kidepo valley national park-the only beautiful national park.
They live at the Peak of Morongole Mountains at about 2749m above sea level and the hike to this place is a torture for those who are not fit. The 8Km long [16Km round trip is quite tough.
You will find simply stunning breathtaking scenery, the higher your climb takes you into the valleys below you and into the rift valley of Kenya. Your hike up the mountains visiting the Ik tribe will be one of the highlights of your time in Uganda; a memorable experience.
Through a rocky narrow river in which women wash their beads, you begin the hike on a steep ridge. The farther you go, the more beautiful the scenery becomes with a scattering of granite rocks that rise out of the bush, atop all of which are wide views of the surrounding cultivated mountain slopes.
“The landscape and scenery is beautiful and enjoying this beauty doesn’t come easily as the journey up is a torture. In fact, our guide had to plead with some of our colleagues who had given up to come along,” said Mr Stephen Nyadru, a warden at Kidepo National park.
At this Ik community, vehicles are left about 24km away, there is no mobile phone network in these ranges; so, if one chose to hike, then hiking is what one had to do.
And once you are there, the community officially welcomes you with their traditional dances characteristic of cattle keepers.
All the team I travelled with joined in the dancing, shared the biscuits and water we had carried before we were taken to tour one of the Manyattas guarded by an elderly woman who demanded for money before allowing us in.
Hiking up to the Ik villages can be one of the rare opportunities that are worth experiencing while taking guided tours of the Morongole Mountains.
How the Ik live, community structure of the Ik
The Ik live in several small villages arranged in clusters, which comprise the total “community” and each small village is surrounded by an outer wall.
According to the area MP Mr Hillary Lokwang, each small village is surrounded by an outer wall, and then sectioned off into familial (or friend-based) “neighbourhoods” called Odoks, each surrounded by a wall.
“Each Odok is sectioned into walled-off households called asaks, with front yards (for lack of a better term) and in some cases, granaries,” said Mr Lokwang.
Mr Lokwang says children by age three are sometimes permanently expelled from the household and form groups called age-bands consisting of those within the same age group.
He adds that the Junior Group consists of children from the ages of three to eight and the Senior Group consists of those between eight and thirteen.
“No adults look after the children, who teach each other the basics of survival, however, it is not certain whether this practice is typical Ik tradition or was merely triggered by unusual famine conditions in the past”, said Mr Lokwang.
He adds that this fragmentation is an artefact of the dire circumstances where each person must depend on their own resources alone to find food and the age peers band together primarily to protect themselves from older stronger children who would take their food.
He explained that the present social fragmentation is also as a result of extreme deprivation on a more complex and functional culture of the Ik.
Ms Betty Kwagala, a Makerere University researcher and sociologist says, although many a Ugandan have been referring to the Ik as people who live like wild animals, they should now be viewed as people who have a distinct culture.
“We have examined stereotypes of indigenous people and shown how indigenous cultures have changed across generations and examined the cause of these changes, so we equally believe that these people are not primitive,” says Ms Kwagala.
The leadership among the Ik points at the Turkana from Kenya as a regular menace in terms of raids, raping and killing their members forcing them to go deep into Morongole hills for safety.
Mr Locem, an elder adds that the Dodoth also dabble in similar atrocities and that the Ik are also caught in the middle of the two groups’ attacks on one another, being accused of not warning one of the other’s presence.
Ms Kannekens says the Ik are principally hunter-gatherers, who moved about the country in their perpetual search for food, they also live for some of the time in villages of grass huts, each surrounded by stockades of grass and reeds.
She explained that these harsh conditions and struggle for survival had them abandon basic human values: they lost all use for love, kindness, sentiment, honesty or altruism, and were motivated entirely by individual self-interest.
The LCV chairman for Kaabong Mr Mark Obuku said people who have known deeply the Ik over an extended period of time should have discovered that they have fondness for one another, family or friends, and their wholehearted desire to preserve their language and culture in the face of adversity.
Culture and marriage among the Ik
The cultural heritage of the Ik people is very rich and waiting to be explored by any visitor spending their time at Kidepo Valley national park.
Mr Locem says that the Ik pay between 5 – 10 bee hives as bride price instead of commonly used cattle among other tribes that surround them like the Karimojong in Uganda and Turkana in Kenya.
He explained that the IK tribe possesses other unique cultural habits like the number of beehives being the determinant; a man can marry as many wives as he wants.
The Author Colin Turnbull’s view in his book The Mountain People (1972), says the Ik are said to have come from Ethiopia. They first settled in Kenya before crossing into Uganda where they first settled in the lowlands before the Karimojong began suspecting them to be informers of their rivals the Pokot in Kenya, with whom they have a long history of cattle rustling.
Turnbull adds that the Ik, just like the Batwa, live on the mountain slopes but that the Ik, even from the surface of the spelling and sound of their name, are so unique that not even their neighbours the Karimojong, understand them.
Mr Nyadru says that although desperate, the plight of the Ik is not a lost cause and he believes that with some much needed understanding from the outside world, the Ik can survive.
He revealed that progress has already been made on many fronts and that besides UWA forces, government troops from the UPDF have been employed in Kamion to guard against raids from the Turkana tribe.
“And as UWA we are already giving them money from revenue sharing grants to help them start tourism activities in the area to attract tourists and some income for the local people. Last year in November we gave them Shs 72 million to finance the implementation of conservation projects identified in the area,” said Mr Nyadru.
According to Mr Nyadru, taking guided tours within the Ik villages will enable you to encounter and ask these local people questions about their ancient lifestyle, how they bring up their children, nature of leadership in the community among others.
Get to the Ik, get the amazing cultural experience and you will visit it and visit it again.