I’ve only been among the Ik people for a couple of hours but anything is starting to seem believable.
Mzee Mateus Yeya Acok, a headman in Uganda’s most mysterious tribe, is sitting outside the hyena-proof stockade that surrounds Nalemoru Village. Perched on a windswept ridge high above Uganda’s beautiful Kidepo Valley National Park, Nalemoru, which means ‘village on a highpoint’ in the Ik language, is well named.
In 1972 the Ik became famous in a book called The Mountain People by Oxford-educated anthropologist Colin M. Turnbull. According to Turnbull, daily life among the Ik seemed to be a constant series of almost unbelievable atrocities – teenagers gleefully stole food directly from the mouths of starving elderly; a mother celebrated when a predator relieved her of the responsibility of caring for her child; grandparents joyfully watched a baby crawl into a fire. It made powerful reading and, at the time, it shook the world of travel literature.
Images of Turnbull’s brutal characters flicker through my mind as Kidepo ranger, Phillip Akorongimoe, parks his LandCruiser and we begin our climb up Morungole Mountain with two AK47-toting troopers from the Uganda People’s Defence Force. While things have been peaceful since the disarmament that was taking place when I last travelled to the region in 2008, there are still regular patrols in this area bordering northern Kenya and South Sudan.
“Morungole was considered sacred,” wrote Turnbull. “I had noticed this by the almost reverential way with which the Ik looked at it – none of the shrewd cunning and cold appraisal with which they regard the rest of the world.”
Within an hour of climbing I’m struggling to remind myself that 50 years after those words were written, I’m on my way to a rendezvous with the nastiest people in the world. This is even harder to imagine because Mzee Hillary, a 64-year-old Ik man with a charmingly open smile and a chatty demeanour, has joined our little convoy to guide us to his highland home.
As we trek, Mzee Hillary points out the sacred fig trees where animal sacrifices are made to bring the rain and shows me shady copses where wild honey is collected to be used in Ik marriage ceremonies. There are groves of medicinal bushes that serve as a natural pharmacy, treating everything from earache to constipation to scorpion stings. We are joined by a group of Ik women and children carrying water from the stream. They seem determined to fill every minute of the three-hour walk with happy chatter and laughter and I wonder if these people are the same tribe that Turnbull travelled among for almost two years, complaining that his efforts to understand them were constantly frustrated by their moody silence. Back then the Ik still lived in the lowlands and although Turnbull tried to convince guides to take him to the peak, he never visited Morungole and describes it in his book as “a dark mass, always hidden in haze”.
Our trail follows a narrow ridge, overlooking the sweeping curve of Kidepo Valley, and South Sudan, which seems just a stone’s throw away. About 50 kilometres away in the other direction is the Turkana country of northern Kenya. Over the centuries, the Ik had become accustomed to persecution from all sides; they were trapped between warlike tribes such as the Toposa and Didinga of Sudan and at the mercy of cattle-crazed Turkana warriors from Kenya.
“We would buy cattle from the Turkana,” one old man tells me, “but they would follow us home and steal the cattle back again. In those raids Ik often died.”
“It was like a deadly game of football,” my guide Phillip explains. “Sometimes the different tribes played at home. Sometimes they played away. And always the Ik were caught in the middle.”
The misty summit rises steeply against gathering storm clouds when we finally reach the Ik’s highest village. The thatched roofs of the bandas (huts) are barely discernible behind the thorny stockade that protects precious goats from leopards and raiders, and people from hyena-riding witches. Elder Mzee Paulino Lukuam greets me with an exchange of the triple-grip handshake that is habitual among many African people. I know it took Turnbull a long time before being allowed to see inside a village, so I’m surprised when Mzee Paulino invites me into his private compound within minutes of meeting. I have to crouch to crawl through the low door into the round mud-and-thatch banda that’s about three metres in diameter. I’d read that Ik parents evict their children to sleep outside, curled like dogs from the age of three, but Paulino and his wife share their little hut with seven children.
As we duck through the asak – the low tunnel out of the family compound – Phillip tells me, “They’re still proud of a culture that has remained [almost] untainted. One almost unique thing about the Ik compared with other tribes in this area is that there is virtually no sex outside marriage and most women will only ever sleep with one man in their lives.”
I wonder how this tradition could have remained alive when, according to Turnbull’s experiences when he lived here in 1965 to 1966, Ik women “regarded their bodies as their greatest assets in the game of survival”.
I am no closer to solving the mystery of the British anthropologist’s bitter relationship with the tribe, but then mystery has surrounded the Ik for thousands of years. Nobody is sure where they originated but linguists have noted similarities between the Ik language and speech from southern Egypt. I’ve heard mystifying rumours their language was peppered with words that sounded Latin and Phillip had told me some Spanish travellers he’d brought here were even able to decipher occasional words. I question old Mzee Mateus in Spanish with no success whatsoever, but he’s eventually able to explain the mystery: apparently an Italian Catholic pastor called Father Florence had lived among the Ik in the 1960s and 1970s and had left many words behind including a tradition of Christian names.
When Kidepo Valley National Park was gazetted in 1958, the British colonial government forced the Ik to stop their traditional hunting and move to the foothills. By the early 1980s, pressure from neighbouring tribes, along with drought and famine, had forced the Ik to take to the peak of their sacred mountain. The Ik, now having dwindled to a total population of around 10,000, have retreated as far as they can possibly go.
Only once did the Ik take Turnbull close to Mount Morungole – to what they called their Place of God. “…The Ik had become increasingly uncommunicative,” he wrote. “Never again would they take me near that place, or talk about it. But, as little as I knew, I felt that for a brief moment I had made contact with an elusive reality, a reality that was fast retreating beyond Ik consciousness.”
Mzee Mateus was a young headman when Turnbull came to visit and remembers the anthropologist (who died in 1994). When I show him a copy of The Mountain People he is excited to recognise some old friends in the aged black-and-white pictures.
I don’t mention the contents of the book but the old man says, “I heard that he wrote some impolite things about us.
“If Colin Turnbull ever came back I would simply tell him, ‘Please, there is no business here that we are going to welcome you for. Please leave us and go home.’”Mzee Mateus Yeya Acok is now almost 90 years old and believes that he has been blessed with a long life because, as a boy and young man, he always obeyed his parents. As he speaks, the younger people and children huddle around us, listening to the old man’s reminiscences in respectful silence.
“When I was a boy we’d sit on the plains staring at the peaks of Morungole with its colobus monkeys and great stores of wild honey,” he tells. “Now we sit on Morungole shivering in the cold, gazing over the savannah far below with the endless game that is now forbidden to us. Life has always been hard for the Ik but we’re tough. Times will keep changing but in another thousand years there will still be Ik on Morungole Mountain.”
Qatar Airways flies from most major Australia cities to Entebbe.
The best time to watch wildlife in Kidepo National Park is during the dry seasons from June to September and December to February. During peak rainy season (March to May) the trek to the Ik villages can be extremely challenging. The Uganda Wildlife Authority can provide more information as can the Uganda Tourism Board, while Safari Bookings can help you find the right safari for you.