The Ik people (sometimes called Teuso, though this term is explicitly derogatory are an ethnic group numbering about 10,000 people living in the mountains of northeastern Uganda near the border with Kenya and South Sudan, next to the more populous Karamojong and Turkana peoples.
The Ik were displaced from their land to create the Kidepo Valley National Park and consequently suffered extreme famine.
Also, their weakness relative to other tribes meant they were regularly raided. The Ik are subsistence farmers who grind their own grain.
Today only a small number of the Ik remain, living perched on the top of the Rift Valley Escarpment on the border with Kenya and South Sudan, 420 kilometres northeast of Kampala in the District of Kotido.
The Ik language is a member of the highly divergent Kuliak subgroup of Nilo-Saharan languages.
The Ik originated from a larger group of Kuliak-speaking people that came either from Ethiopia or from as far north as Egypt.
On their way south they divided into three groups: the So, the Nyang’I and 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
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.
Flanked to the west by the large and technologically superior Dodoth Karimojong, and to the east by the Kenyan people, the Turkana, over time the Ik have been forced further and further into the mountains.
The Dodoth Karimojong and Turkana are both cattle-herders who steadily muscled the Ik away from the more fertile plains up into the hills. Above the plains, self production was made difficult by steep mountain conditions and, more recently, severe drought,
Both of which tax their foraging methods. In contrast to both of lifestyle of hunter-gatherers, capturing game from the Kidepo Valley and growing only a few crops to supplement their diet.
However, during the 1960s, Milton Obote declared the area a Ugandan National Park, meaning the expulsion of the Ik and a halt to their hunting way of life lifestyle of hunter-gatherers, capturing game from the Kidepo Valley and growing only a few crops to supplement their diet.
However, during the 1960s, Milton Obote declared the area a Ugandan National Park, meaning the expulsion of the Ik and a halt to their hunting way of life.
Adding to the Ik’s worries of drought and a lack of game as they were forced from a hunter-gathering mode of living into one based on crop production, the Ik became caught between the mutual cattle raids carried out by the Turkana and Dodoth peoples.
‘When the cattle raiders pass through they normally attack us’ explains one of the parish chiefs, referring to the widespread habit of looting and burning Ik villages whenever the opportunity arises. Both herder groups now refer to the Ik by the derogatory term of ‘Teuso,’ literally meaning ‘poor people of dogs, without cattle or guns.’
Today the diminishing Ik are around 5,000 in number and face the daily struggles of insecurity, hunger and lack of water. These problems are compounded by having little political representation to help them struggle out of this situation.
The Turkana are a regular menace in terms of raids, raping and killing members of the Ik, coming across the border from Kenya to do so. The Dodoth also dabble in similar atrocities. 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.
One such situation leads to another, larger problem: namely, a lack of food. The Ik do not keep livestock due to fear of it being taken from them. They have resorted to other methods but a constant fear of being shot whilst going out to collect food or water remains - especially when they have to leave their own community to travel to a far away borehole..
Even once Ik women have covered excessive distances down from the mountains to reach a borehole, they are then forced by armed Dodoth groups (every cattle herder carries a gun) to wait in line until all others have finished. That is to say the cattle, the men, the children and finally the Dodoth women must drink before the Ik can take their turn.
On a political front, the Ik’s perceived insignificance as cultivators compared to the represented needs of their pastoral neighbours makes changing the situation almost impossible. Governed by Dodoth, the sub county office in Kalapata does not represent the Ik in a neutral light and the district office at Kotido does not even cast its eye over Ik inhabited territory.
Language is also a problem for this oppressed people. They 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.
Even when members of the Ik journeyed to Kampala for political ends, they were unable to understand what was being said or the substance of possible solutions. Anything that was discussed was manipulated by the Dodoth representatives for their own benefit, whilst Ik leaders were left in the dark.
As a people, the Ik seem to epitomise a population that has been forgotten by its own government.
Their isolated existence means they have just two primary schools and have only recently built a medical clinic that relieves them of a 30km trek to the hospital.
Diseases such as cholera and malaria dealt a heavy blow to the Ik population during the 1980s, such was the inaccessibility of medical care. A social worker describes the Ik as ‘a real case of deprivation and social injustice’ and explains that ‘no single social facility has ever been erected in the area by the authorities…’
It comes as no surprise that only 4 people amongst the Ik have ever been to secondary school and even doing so has not secured them a job.
The Ik people live in several small villages arranged in clusters, which comprise the total "community". Each village is surrounded by an outer wall, then sectioned off into familial (or friend-based) "neighborhoods" 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.
Children by age three or four are sometimes permanently expelled from the household and form groups called age-bands consisting of those within the same age group. 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 merely triggered by unusual famine conditions.
Joseph Tainter proposes this fragmentation to be an artifact 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 also argues that the present social fragmentation is the result of extreme deprivation on a more complex and functional culture, an argument also made by Colin Turnbull.
In 1972, British-American anthropologist Colin Turnbull published an ethnography about the Ik titled The Mountain People. The book provides an examination of Ik culture and practices based on information he gathered during a stay in the years 1965–1966. He depicts the Ik as a people forced into extreme individualistic practices in order to survive. Using the few remaining elderly Ik as sources, he attempts to describe the former Ik society (including hunter-gatherer practices; marriage, childbirth, and death rituals and taboos; religious and spiritual beliefs, and other aspects). Much of the work, however, focuses on the then-current condition of the Ik people during a severe famine brought on by two consecutive drought years.
Turnbull became very involved with the Ik people, and openly writes about his horror at many of the events he witnessed, most notably total disregard for familial bonds leading to the death of children and the elderly by starvation. He does speak warmly about certain Ik, and describes his "misguided" efforts to give food and water to those too weak to provide for themselves, standing guard over them to prevent others from stealing the food. Turnbull shares these experiences to raise questions concerning basic human nature, and makes constant reference to "goodness" and "virtue" being cast aside when there is nothing left but a need to survive (even going so far as to draw parallels to the individualism of 'civilized' society). Overall, living with the Ik seems to have afflicted Turnbull more with melancholy and depression than anger, and he dedicated his work "to the Ik, whom I learned not to hate".
While popular, the book was controversial, and the accuracy and methodology of Turnbull's work has been questioned. Turnbull himself mentions his sources' uncooperative nature and tendency to lie. Bernd Heine gives the following examples to support his claims that Turnbull's conclusions and methodology were flawed.
Turnbull also argued that Ik society was already destroyed and all that could be done was to save individual tribal members. Consequently Turnbull advocated to the Ugandan government forcible relocation of random tribal members (with no more than ten people in any relocated group).