The Ik Tribe

Anthropologist Colin Turnbull (1972/1995) studied the Ik, a formerly proud nomadic people in northern Uganda whose traditional hunting lands were taken from them by the government. Devastated by drought, hunger, and starvation, the Ik turned to a form of extreme individualism in which selfishness, emotional numbness, and lack of concern for others reign supreme. The pursuit of food has become the only good, with society replaced by a passionless, numbed association of individuals.
Imagine, for a moment, that you were born into the Ik tribe. After your first three or four years of life, you are pushed out of the hut. From then on, you are on your own. You can sleep in the village courtyard or take shelter, such as you can, against the stockade. With permission, you can sit in the door-way of your parent’s house, but you may not lie down or sleep there.There is no school. No church. Nothing from this point in your life that even comes close to what we call family. You join a group of children aged three to seven. The weakest are soon thinned out, for only the strongest survive. Later, you join a band of eight to 12-year olds. At 12 or 13, you split off by yourself.

Socialisation usually involves learning some aspect of life by what you see going on around you. But here you see coldness at the centre of life. The men hunt, but game is scarce. If they get anything, they refuse to bring it back to their families, saying, “Each one of them is out seeing what he can get for him self. Do you think they will bring any back for me?”

You also see cruelty at the centre of life. When blind Lo’ono trips and rolls to the bottom of the ravine, the adults laugh as she lies on her back, her arms and legs thrashing feebly. When Lolim begs his son to let him in, pleading that he is going to die in a few hours, Longoli drives him away. Lolim dies alone.

The children learn their lesson well: selfishness is good, the survival of the individual paramount. But the children add a childish glee to the adults’ dispassionate coldness. When blind Lolim took ill, the children would dance and tease him, kneeling in front of him and laughing as he fell. His grandson would creep up and with a pair of sticks drum a beat on the old man’s bald head.

Then there was Adupa, who managed, for a while, to keep a sense of awe of life. When Adupa found food, she would hold it in her hand, looking at it with wonder and delight. As she would raise her hand to her mouth, the other children would jump on her, laughing as they beat her.

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