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The Mountain People revisited: Curtis Abraham went to Ik-land in Uganda and saw how wrong Colin Turnbull, the British-born American anthropologist, was in his 1972 book on the Ik, the mountain people. (Feature: Uganda).

On 1 February 1966, Colin M. Turnbull, while among the Ik people of Karamoja, northeast Uganda, wrote a letter to his friend and boss at New York's American Museum of Natural History.

Responding to an idea suggested by Shapiro (a noted anthropologist in his own right who had once devised a method for identifying unknown soldiers during World War II) of a thorough documentation of how a traditional society reacts under famine conditions, Turnbull answered nervously:

"Brother, you talk of stress again. Let me put my two remaining nerves together and I'll be delighted to think of attempting something more full of stress than what I am coping with now!"

Turnbull went on to write The Mountain People, his acclaimed and controversial portrait of the Ik during the devastating 1965-66 famine in that region.

In the book, he wrote of witnessing food being snatched out of the mouths of elderly Ik, children swallowing dirt and stones for food, Ik mothers abandoning their very young children to fend for themselves, women stuffing their mouths with "grass" while the more energetic ones followed vultures to scavenge rotting carcasses.

Sex to the Ik was simply a way of getting rid of semen. The Ik defecated on each other's doorstep including Turnbull's. He called them the "Loveless People" and said they "were as unfriendly, uncharitable, inhospitable and generally mean as any people can be".

He said their society was akin to the inhumane conditions under which the Jews, Gypies, Blacks and countless others were exterminated in Nazi death camps during World War II. In this, he saw not only the inevitable extinction of the Ik, but projected it on a global scale and predicted the ultimate destruction of mankind.

Many of the world's leading academics, scholars and personalities were quick to applaud Turnbull for The Mountain People, including Sir Julian S. Huxley, one-time director of UNESCO.


However, the book caused a storm of controversy when it was first published in 1972. The Norwegian anthropologist, Fredrick Barth, recommended that both Turnbull and his book be sanctioned, "and to be held up as a warning to us all." The Ik themselves, upon hearing of the contents of the book, felt that Turnbull had given them a bad reputation ("If Turnbull were to return to our land, we shall bury him alive!") and asked if it was possible to take legal action against him. However, The Forest People, Turnbull's earlier and endearing chronicle of his experience among the Ituri pygmies of what is now the DRCongo, and The Mountain People are often seen as complementary accounts of humankind's potentiality for good or evil.

Turnbull's impassioned prose in The Mountain People brought him international literary recognition. A Washington Post article in 1972 reported that the book had been nominated for a National Book Award in Contemporary Affairs. It did, however, win the 1974 Annual Award of the National and American Academies of Arts and Letters "for bringing together both art and science."

The book went far beyond anthropological circles. The story of the Ik was produced into a theatrical play by Peter Brook, the renowned British film and theatre director.

Les Ik (The Iks) as the play was titled in France, was staged not only in a number of European capitals including Paris, London, Vienna and Venice but in 1976 it toured the United States as a gift from the government of France to America for its bicentennial celebrations.

Valery-Ann Gisgard D'Estaing, daughter of the former French president, who, as a cultural attache travelled with the cast to the US, said the play was "both moving and convincing."

However, Turnbull's study was deeply flawed both on ideological and ethnographical grounds. For starters, Turnbull's "love affair" with the pygmies (as Margaret Mead is said to have called it) greatly coloured his perception of the Ik.

Although Turnbull made it known in the book that he had no academic expectations, he did, consciously or unconsciously, expect to find a people similar to the Ituri Pygmies, which is one reason why he continued to insist in his writings that the Ik were indeed a traditional hunter/gathering community even though all the evidence suggests that the Ik have been practising agriculture for over 2,000 years.

This yearning to be among the pygmies often gripped Turnbull while among the Ik. In a field report written to Harry Shapiro on 13 January 1966, Turnbull lamented: "What the hell am I doing up in those arid wastelands of the north when there are pygmies, no less in lush tropical forests much closer to the delights of Kampala?"

He would tell something of the sort to Denis Hills, the British journalist and author who visited Turnbull in 1k-land in July and August 1966, and who years later was sentenced to death by Ugandan president, Idi Amin.

Turnbull also harboured his own personal expectations before he left New York for Ik-land. For when he heard of the brave and jovial character of individual Ik tribesmen from Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, the American author who met some of the Ik while living among the Dodo pastoralists in the area, "Colin's eyes lit up."

A large part of Turnbull's misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the Ik also arose from his ideological outlook of traditional societies. He and others like him arrived on the African continent with the naively romantic view of primitive man as the "noble savage", a view that assumes that all societies that seem simpler than modern Western society have retained those virtues absent in more advanced societies.

Alive and well

Despite Turnbull's fatalistic predictions of the inevitable extinction of the Ik ("These people are finished as a society", he wrote to Shapiro in 1966) current population figures for the Ik, which was gathered by Oxfam, says that they number over 5,000 strong and that their society continues to grow along the lines of 2.7% annually, the average growth rate for Uganda.

As to the factual accuracy about the Ik society, Turnbull appears to have seriously missed the mark. Among other things, he chose the wrong place for his field camp. At that time Pirre, an isolated area about 40 kms southeast of the Uganda/Sudan border which is today a deserted and dangerous no-man's land, was on the periphery of the Ik areas.

Moreover, it contained members of neighbouring pastoral tribes like the Dodos, the Toposa and the Diding'a, some of whom became Turnbull's main informants like Lomeja who was really a Diding'a from Sudan.

"If Dr. Coliin had gone to Timu Forest, he would have met only the Ik people there," says Pilipino long'oli, the 1k Mkungu (government appointed chief) of Pirre in 1965.

The Timu is a forested area of some 70 square kms near the Uganda/Kenya frontier. It is the ancestral homeland of the It.

This was confirmed by various accounts of explorers, writers and British military personnel who mentioned them as living in he Timu Forest, most of them being "forest people."

The Timu is also the Ik ritual centre as all agricultural related rituals begins here, then spread out in an east to west direction.

The behaviour of the Ik at that time, according to independent dent witnesses, was nothing our of the ordinary as Turnbull made them out to be. "It was only hunger. They were only starving people," says David Itoga, a former police officer who was stationed at Pirre during Turnbull's visit.

In his effort to portray the Ik as "incredible subhumans", Turnbull wrote that their society was devoid of rituals. Not so. The Ik have a small but vital number of rituals related to agriculture, including Itowe-es ("blessing the seeds"), Dziber-ika mes ("beer of the axes"), Inunum-es ("opening the harvest"), and Iroikes.

According to Fausrino Lopye, the nyampara or "headman" at Pirre in 1965, Turnbull's method of collecting data from his various Ik and non-Ik informants leaves much to be desired. Evidently he relied heavily throughout his stay in 1k-land on the linguistical skills of one Sergeant A.E. Abwatu, one of 20 police officers who were stationed there between 1963-1967.

Loype states that Turnbull would ask the sergeant a question in English, then Abwatu would ask Arum, Turnbull's chief informant in Akarimojong, the language of the pastoralist, then relay Atum's answer back to Turnbull in English. None of the Ik language was spoken.

Worse still, Sergeant Abwatu was not a native of Karamoja but belong to the Ireso people whose territory borders Karamoja in eastern Uganda. Iris to this reliance on Abwatu that the Ik say is the reason behind why Turnbull missed certain vital aspects of Ik culture.

Pilipino Longoli says that unless Abwatu came to assist Turnbull with interpreting, Turnbull was more inclined to remain inside his hut or landrover and did nor venture our.

His aloof disposition is also littered throughout The Mountain People with such passages like:

"I could not see the view of course, then neither could I see the Ik, and even though they were the people I was meant to he studying and I had been there only three months or less, the privacy gave me intense pleasure."

The Turkana threat

In writing about Ik relations with the Turkana nomads from Kenya, Turn-bull has given us a one-sided view. He writes very fondly of the Turkana, even devoting an entire chapter to them in which he claims that of all the pastoralists in the region, the Ik "liked the Turkana the best." Yet he failed to emphasise that it is the Turkana who cause the Ik their greatest problems.

"The people disturbing us are the Turkana," says Philip Asroui, an informant and one of a handful of Western-educated Ik who recently passed away.

Although the Turkana had been traditional traders with the Ik over the last century (they once traded cattle, goats and their diary for 1k tobacco and gourds), it is they who now loot, rape and even kill members of this small agricultural community. Over the last decade, there has been an escalation of these raids during which Ik homes and their food granaries have been burnt by marauding bands of Turkana.

In spite of their "fame", the Ik still remain a neglected population. Part of this apathy has surely to do with the stereotypical perception of the people of Karamoja as primitive savages by the rest of Uganda.

However, organisations like the UN World Food Programme and the Roman Catholic Church try to cater for the Ik in times of need like the serious food shortages that occurred in 2000.

Since Turnbull's day, some important changes have taken place within the Ik society. One of the most important has been their venturing out of their mountain stronghold.

"Before, they did not like to see anybody apart from the Ik themselves. They wanted to maintain what they were," says Father Simon Lokodo, a Dodo parish priest formerly at Kaabong. "But now the Dodos have gone to their areas to farm and the Ik have taken an effort to learn Akarimojong which is of great importance to them to come out of their mountain environment."

Like other tribes in the region, the Ik (a traditionally peace loving society) have obtained modern firearms. Such weapons the Ik have bought and lease from neighbouring pastoralist peoples like the Dodos and use them mainly for hunting and protecting themselves against Turkana attacks.

The acquisition of AK47 and G3 automatic and semi-automatic rifles will only increase since the Ik live in a zone of rampant gun and ammunition trafficking, mainly by former rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SLPA). Some members of the 1k are also joining rebel movements such as the SPLA.

The Ik, like some other groups in Karamoja, face an uncertain future. Due to the unpredictability of rain and unproductive soils, successful harvests vary from year to year. The wide ownership and use of illegal guns in Karamoja has dramatically depleted the once vast herds of wild game that hunters like the Ik depended on.

The receding forest like Timu has made the gathering of roots, fruits and vegetables by Ik women more difficult. But the most serious threats to their survival are the Turkana raids and the unprovoked attacks by other pastoralists.

Ultimately the Ik saga says more about the internal hopes, dreams and aspirations of individuals like Turnbull rather than the external realities of the people they study.

And on a continent like Africa where the wounds of colonialism still run deep, the psychological scar far from healed, the Ik suffer not only from the obvious inferiority complex that grips Africa as a whole hut they are also bearing an extra burden of being "the most savage sub-humans on the planet" simply because of one foreigner's naivety and unfulfilled expectations.

How many other Westerners like Turnbull have been similarly wrong in their interpretation of traditional cultures in Africa and elsewhere?
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Author:Abraham, Curtis
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6UGAN
Date:Feb 1, 2002
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