George Walford: The Ik

One type of reform increasing in popularity (though the ideological structure of society makes it a statistical impossibility that it should win majority support) is that promoted by the ecological and conservationist movement, leading to (among other things) the establishment of game reserves in Africa. Do the well-intentioned reformers, and the journalists who support their efforts, always realise the effects the game reserves have upon the lives – and the deaths – of the people who had been depending upon hunting the now-protected animals for their living? Colin M. Turnbull, undertaking the rite de passage proper to an anthropologist, went to live with the Ik, an East African tribe of hunter-gatherers who had been excluded from their former hunting-grounds when the Kidepo National Park was established; attached to their mountains they had refused the offer of re-location as farmers. These passages are from his book The Mountain People, 1973:

Turnbull describes what the life of the Ik will have been before the establishment of the game reserve, the life of the hunter-gatherer:

He knows the world he lives in as few others do, and he lives in sympathy with it rather than trying to dominate it. He is the best of conservationists, knowing exactly how much he can take from where at any given time. His nomadic pattern is geared to this knowledge, and what appears to others to be a precarious existence probably affords the hunter a much greater sense of security than is felt, say, by many farmers. For the farmer the results of a year’s work may be destroyed overnight, whereas the most the hunter can lose is what he can replace tomorrow. p.21

We have no direct knowledge of the former life of the Ik but good reason to believe:

that they were, much like other hunters and gatherers, an easy-going, loosely organized people whose fluid organization enabled them to respond with sensitivity to the ever changing demands of their environment. There is ample evidence in their language that they once held values which they no longer hold…

The book is on their condition now they have been excluded from their hunting grounds so the game may be preserved in accordance with ecological principles:

Hunger was indeed more severe than I knew, and the children were the next to go. It was all quite impersonal – even to me, in most cases, since I had been immunized by the Ik themselves against sorrow on their behalf. But Adupa was an exception. Her stomach grew more and more distended, and her legs and arms more spindly. She thought that parents were for loving, for giving as well as receiving. Her parents were not given to fantasies, and they had two other children, a boy and a girl who were perfectly normal, so they ignored Adupa, except when she brought them food that she had scrounged from somewhere. They snatched that quickly enough. But when she came for shelter they drove her out, and when she came because she was hungry they laughed that Icien laugh, as if she had made them happy.

Partly through her madness, and partly because she was nearly dead anyway, her reactions became slower and slower. When she managed to find food – fruit peels, skins, bits of bone, half-eaten berries, whatever – she held it in her hand and looked at it with wonder and delight, savoring its taste before she ate it. Her playmates caught on quickly, and used to watch her wandering around, and even put tidbits in her way, and watched her simple drawn little face wrinkle in a smile as she looked at the food and savored it while it was yet in her hand. Then as she raised her hand to her mouth they set on her with cries of excitement, fun and laughter, beat her savagely over the head and left her. But that is not how she died. I took to feeding her, which is probably the cruelest thing I could have done, a gross selfishness on my part to try and salve and save, indeed, my own rapidly disappearing conscience. I had to protect her, physically, as I fed her. But the others would beat her anyway, and Adupa cried, not because of the pain in her body, but because of the pain she felt at that great, vast empty wasteland where love should have been.

It was that that killed her. She demanded that her parents love her. She kept going back to their compound… Finally they took her in, and Adupa was happy and stopped crying. She stopped crying forever, because her parents went away and closed the asak tight behind them, so tight that weak little Adupa could never have moved it if she had tried. But I doubt that she even thought of trying. She waited for them to come back with the food they promised her. When they came back she was still waiting for them. It was a week or ten days later, and her body was already almost too far gone to bury. In an Ik village who would notice the smell? And if she had cried, who would have noticed that? Her parents took what was left of her and threw it out, as one does the riper garbage, a good distance away. pp. 131/2

It was then that I saw Loiangorok for the first time. He… could not even raise his frail bones off the ground, and was dragging himself along on his side, as though he were swimming. Loiamukat… stepped right over the old man and continued down the path. I shouted to him to find out who it was, and he replied, “Loiangorok – don’t worry, he’s my father.” Which, knowing Loiamukat, I thought was the best of reasons for worrying… while I was nursing Loiangorok that there was a sudden exodus from the village, distant shouts of laughter, and then someone running back to tell me to come quickly. At first I thought it was a trick to get me away from the old man while in the middle of feeding him, so I finished that first and then went to see what the excitement was about. It was someone else whom I had never seen before, dead Lolim’s widow, Lo’ono. She too had been abandoned, and had tried to make her way down the mountainside. But she was totally blind and had tripped and rolled to the bottom of the [small ravine] and there she lay on her back, her legs and arms thrashing feebly, while a little crowd standing on the edge above looked down at her and laughed at the spectacle. pp 225/6

And I thought of other old people who had joined in the merriment when they had been teased, knocked over or had a precious morsel of food taken from their mouths. They knew that it was silly of them to expect to go on living, and, having watched others, they knew that the spectacle really was quite funny. So they joined in the laughter. p.228

While the Ik became partly desocialised under extreme deprivation, while they watched their parents and children starving to death, they were sometimes able to see animals, their former food supply, in the game park from which, on the best ecological principles, they were now excluded. The ecologists will not have intended these consequences of their reforms. The point being made here is that society is more complex than the reformers allow, so much so that the best-intentioned reform is almost certain to have unintended and unexpected consequences. These are not always as disastrous as they were for the Ik, but they are always something to bear in mind when tempted to condemn as unfeeling reactionaries the groups that resist reform.

And there is more to it than that. Reform is called for by the abuse which creates the need for reform. Apart from that abuse the reform has no function, and it is because the effects of reform are rarely or never limited to the abuse at which it is directly aimed that it produces unexpected, unintended, and usually unwanted results. In the present instance the establishment of Kidepo National Park as a game reserve was intended to avert the extinction of certain species by a society so powerful that it has to exercise self-restraint (by applying ecological principles) if it is not to damage the environment on which it depends. Unfortunately for the Ik that was not the whole story; their society too was involved, a society living in harmony with its environment and husbanding the wild life on which its survival depended. In their society the abuse was not present and the reform, accordingly, did harm instead of good.

from Ideological Commentary 12, August 1984.