thenextwave

Revisiting the Ik

Posted in research by thenextwavefutures on 8 February, 2017

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The book club I’m a member of has just read the 1970s anthropology book The Mountain People, by Colin Turnbull. At the time it was a cause célèbre: my wife went to a theatre production at London’s Roundhouse based on it. Since then it’s become more controversial.

The Ik (pronounced Eek) are a group who live in Uganda, close to the Kenyan border. They had, at least by Turnbull’s (contested) account, been a nomadic people, but they had been excluded from most of their lands and had become farmers. They weren’t Turnbull’s first research choice, but he had some funds to spend and permission fell through for the first two locations.

Actually, the Ik weren’t even his first choice once he got to Uganda, and he knew precious little about them even when he arrived. At the start he’s accompanied by two young men from the area who have agreed to act as translators, but they take his money and mislead him, as far as one can tell from the text. The local leader offers to build him a house as a gift, or so he believes, and in no time at all, Turnbull finds he’s paying for a large team of builders to put it up.

Although much of the book is about how farming has reduced the Ik to a desperate plight, and he’s there during a terrible period of famine, he seems both incurious and unobservant. Some customs he observes is great detail (the divorce ritual, for example) while asking few questions beyond it.

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