15 September 2020

The Misery Of The Ik Of Uganda (Or Not)

I am not convinced by this single account of the accuracy and authenticity of this account of the Ik people of Uganda

But since it is published in a well written book length account by a reputable publisher and an author who we have some reason to believe is better informed than most, I recount it anyway, because it is so striking:
The Ik are a people of northern Uganda who live at what must surely be the extreme of deprivation and disaster. A largely hunting and gathering people who have in recent times practiced some crop planting, the Ik are not classifiable as a complex society in the sense of Chapter 2. They are, nonetheless, a morbidly fascinating case of collapse in which a former, low level of social complexity has essentially disappeared.

Due to drought and disruption by national boundaries of the traditional cycle of movement, the Ik live in such a food- and water-scarce environment that there is absolutely no advantage to reciprocity and social sharing. The Ik, in consequence, display almost nothing of what could be considered societal organization. They are so highly fragmented that most activities, especially subsistence, are pursued individually. Each Ik will spend days or weeks on his or her own, searching for food and water. Sharing is virtually nonexistent. Two siblings or other kin can live side-by-side, one dying of starvation and the other well nourished, without the latter giving the slightest assistance to the other. The family as a social unit has become dysfunctional. Even conjugal pairs don't form a cooperative unit except for a few specific purposes. Their motivation for marriage or cohabitation is that one person can't build a house alone. The members of a conjugal pair forage alone, and do not share food. Indeed, their foraging is so independent that if both members happen to be at their residence together it is by accident.

Each conjugal compound is stockaded against the others. Several compounds together form a village, but this is a largely meaningless occurrence. Villages have no political functions or organization, not even a central meeting place.

Children are minimally cared for by their mothers until age three, and then are put out to fend for themselves. This separation is absolute. By age three they are expected to find their own food and shelter, and those that survive do provide for themselves. Children band into age-sets for protection, since adults will steal a child's food whenever possible. No food sharing occurs within an age-set. Groups of children will forage in agricultural fields, which scares off birds and baboons. This is often given as the reason for having children.

Although little is known about how the Ik got to their present situation, there are some indications of former organizational patterns. They possess clan names, although today these have no structural significance. They live in villages, but these no longer have any political meaning. The traditional authority structure of family, lineage, and clan leaders has been progressively weakened. It appears that a former level of organization has simply been abandoned by the Ik as unprofitable and unsuitable in their present distress (Turnbull 1978).
From Boing Boing via Doug Belshaw at his website Open Tinkering from The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter who appears, in turn, to rely on Turnbull (1978) as a source.

Wikipedia recounts criticism of Turnbull's ethnography upon which Tainter relies:
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.

* There is evidence that Turnbull had limited knowledge of Ik language and tradition—and virtually no knowledge of the flora and fauna of the region. He seems to have misrepresented the Ik by describing them as traditionally being hunters and gatherers forced by circumstance to become farmers, when there is ample linguistic and cultural evidence that the Ik were farmers long before they were displaced from their hunting grounds after the formation of Kidepo National Park—the event that Turnbull says forced the Ik to become farmers.

* Some of Turnbull's main informants were not Ik, but Diding'a people. Lomeja, a local who helped teach Turnbull the Ik dialect, was undoubtedly Diding'a, and according to informants of linguist Bernd Heine (who studied the Ik in early 1983) spoke only broken Ik. Moreover, three out of the six villages Turnbull studied were headed by non-Ik people.

* Turnbull's claim that Ik raided cattle and frequently did "a double deal" by selling information concerning the raid to the victims is not corroborated by the Dodoth County Chief's monthly reports, as well as records of the Administrator in Moroto between 1963 and 1969. Rather, these files and reports actually suggest that the largest number of cattle raids occurred in parts of Dodoth County where no mention of Ik raiding livestock can be found in any of these documents.

* Turnbull's claims that adultery was common among the Ik is contrary to statements of informants interviewed by Bernd Heine in 1983. They reported that during the two years Turnbull stayed in Pirre there was only one case of adultery. Heine writes: "All Ik elders interviewed stated that there are no indications whatsoever in the oral traditions to suggest that adulterers were burnt in the past." (Turnbull's work itself expressed doubt as to the veracity of his source's claims to that effect.)

* Heine adds, "...Turnbull's account of Ik culture turned out to be at variance with most observations we made—to the extent that at times I was under the impression that I was dealing with an entirely different people."

Heine endorsed the conclusion of T.O. Beidelman.

"This book cannot be discussed in any proper sociological terms, for we are provided with only snatches of data. Rather than being a study of the Ik, this is an autobiographical portrait of the author utilizing the Ik as counters for expressing his personal feelings and experiences in the field."

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). . . .
Physician and poet Lewis Thomas wrote an essay entitled "The Ik"; Cevin Soling read this as a child, sparking an interest that ultimately led to his making a documentary, Ikland (2011). It was produced in the mid-2000s by Spectacle Films and directed by Soling and David Hilbert. The film depicts the Ik people in a positive light by showing how easily befriended they are, how they survive and live as families, their music and dancing and even their ability to step into acting roles. The documentary concludes with members of the tribe staging a performance of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, as a metaphor of redemption. 
It is generally true that there is a general trend that the empathy that is a unifying thread of political liberalism tends to decline with economic privation (and that secularism tends to decline with insecurity). But, Turnbull's account is probably over the top in its inaccuracy.


Mitchell said...

I remember reading about this years ago - that Turnbull had written about the Ik as a culture lacking in mutual support, and then critics saying that he had encountered them as they were experiencing social breakdown because of famine. Also that his depiction of the Ik was heavily colored by preoccupations of the west's 1970s - the idea that technological society might break down, and hippie new left criticisms of individualist culture.

I haven't read Turnbull or his critics so I don't know how true any of this is.

Maureen Lycaon said...

In fact, it seems that the Ik today are not at all like Turnbull described. Visitors to Uganda can even visit them; supposedly, they welcome tourists.


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