By Hilary Bainemigisha
I never appreciated the real compulsion for anybody to abandon his home in the name of exploration until I visited game parks and loved the experience.
Still, it never occurred to me that you can explore the world of other humans until recently. USAID, through their Uganda Tourism for Biodiversity programme, is funding African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) to expand the experiences that park visitors can have.
The famous leaping dance
Kidepo Valley National Park’s 50 years jubilee accorded me a rare visit to the Ik people, scattered up Mount Molungole, a few kilometres from heaven.
Uganda Wildlife Authority is implementing the biodiversity project and next time you trace my footsteps, there will be a clear trail up to the top of the mountain, with refreshing stop-overs. But the day last week when I lifted myself high up Molungole, it was the natural crude path that took two full hours of climbing through rocks and cliffs.
Mt Molungole is in Kaabong District, in the north-eastern corner of Uganda. The natural wild habitat is home to the Ik people, who, according to a 2011 population survey, numbered 11,217 in total.
According to The State of Uganda’s Populations report, they are prone to famine and other vagaries of nature. Being far from hospitals, a preventable diseases can wipe away thousands before the rest abandon the villages for new places further up the mountain.
In the 1980s, malaria and cholera took a harsh toll and hundreds were killed as others migrated across the border into Kenya. “The Ik have lost about a quarter of their population in the past 15 years due to continuous epidemics, drought, disease and raids from violent semi-nomadic neighbours, the Dodoth, the Jie and the Turkana who find them an easy target,” the report said.
A typical Ik homestead
“The Ik have, therefore, chosen not to keep livestock to reduce the risk of raiding.” To reach them, we drove through the new Sudan road whose construction was not completed.
The road, which brought development closer to the Ik, is littered with decaying Zimwe road construction equipment; loaders, graders, pressers, trucks etc., which were abandoned at several points after working on just about 10km of the road. The road then gives way to a ‘motorable’ track up to Usake, the first Ik sub-county at Kariyo. That is the closest development goes to the Ik community.
Some Ik had gathered to welcome us, a team of curious journalists bearing camera equipment that was worth their total GDP.
Speaking through the interpretation of Mark Ben Lotyang, the only Ik who works as a ranger in Kidepo National park, Lokoro Ochan, their LC1 chairman, welcomed us and explained that the Ik preferred to live in isolation. “We love our peace,” he said. “We have no urgent need for what you call development.”
A drunken Ik school teacher, with three missing front teeth, spoke some English. He could not remember the name of the minister for Karamoja, but knew what condoms were. When I asked him if he has ever used one, he looked bewildered and said some tough Ik words with a beheading gesture. He probably meant ‘over my dead body’.
The journey up the mountain was torturous and, thanks to the guiding rangers, Phillip Akorongimoe and Naboth Ochen, who assisted us with luggage, tips and such encouraging words as; ‘Stop eating a lot of sausages’, we made it in two hours.
We were welcomed to a general festival of song and dance by very amiable people. We danced along, holding each other the Ik way — by the waists. Children did not take part in the dance. They kept aside asking for biscuits and money; and when a mother saw her child getting something, she would order the child to hand it over. Similarly, men ordered wives to hand over any goodies in pretty much the same manner. It was a real pecking order.
According to Ochan, the Ik are polygamous. Men marry as many wives as they want, sometimes depending on the number of beehives one has. A respectable man owns as many as 50 beehives and can give about five to 10 hives as bride price. The honey they produce is thick and natural and costs sh20,000 for five litres. The first wife has a ‘husband’ status over other wives and wife inheritance after divorce or widowhood is practiced.
Virginity is not an issue before marriage, and Lotyang confided that adolescents do engage in premarital sex away from the community eye. The close proximity of boys and girls in the community affords many opportunities. However, sex and marriage within the same clan is a taboo and adultery (of the woman) is punished by death.
The Ik are as close to their culture as our parents were during their childhood. The experience brought me nostalgic memories of my own childhood in rural Mbarara when we were still closer to culture and social innocence. Our children will never know what fun it was.
Who are the Ik?
A little boy with a baby strapped to his back was one of the beneficiaries of our biscuit handouts
The Ik look very much like the Karimojong. The only difference is in language and culture. They are subsistence farmers whose language belongs to the highly divergent Kuliak sub-group of Nilo-Saharan languages. They were hunter-gatherers until the 1960s when their land was declared a national park. They withdrew into the mountains and took up cultivation, hunting and bee keeping.
They are organised under clan leadership and even when the Government introduced the local council (LC) system, they do not campaign or vote for their leaders. Clan heads sit down and appoint the LC1 chairman depending on how knowledgeable he is about the outside world.
The communities live in several small villages arranged in clusters and surrounded by an outer wall. Inside were several huts and granaries. The hut I crawled into was one single room which is a kitchen, bedroom and dining.
The children’s sleeping quarters were separated from the parents’ side by cooking stones. There was no mattress or mat, save for a trough scooped out of the earth floor to mark the bounds of a bed. There was little sign of normal household utensils. I asked where they kept their clothes and was told the clothes are all being used by the hut residents.
Ik women washing their feet in a stream
Every woman has a hut and the men make rounds among their wives in the neighbourhood. Children move out after five years of age, to stay with a grandmother until they are about 11 to 13. The girls get married and the boys team up in groups of five or six, and build one hut to stay in till they get a wife and leave.