Country Matters: Let us never go the way of the Ik

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The Independent Online
IN MY experience country people tend to be good- natured and generous - and no doubt this is why nimbyism, which seems to be gaining ground everywhere, is causing so much bad blood. Selfishness is unattractive in any context, but especially in rural communities if it deprives people of rights to which they have long been accustomed.

Yet before you worry too much about the possible uses of former school buildings, or the course of a particular footpath or road, consider the plight of the Ik, the African tribe memorably portrayed by Colin Turnbull in his book The Mountain People.

When this first appeared in 1972, it caused outrage - so revolting, so inhuman was the behaviour which it described. Now republished as a paperback, it remains just as shocking and a salutary warning against the breakdown of social values which we are now beginning to witness in our own country.

A peripatetic anthropologist, who died only a few weeks ago, Turnbull studied primitive communities in Africa, India, Tibet and Polynesia. In 1992, he was ordained a Buddhist monk by the Dalai Lama. Yet never did he endure more rebarbative companions than during his time with the Ik, among whom he lived in north-eastern Uganda between 1964 and 1967.

Principally hunter-gatherers, who moved about the country in their perpetual search for food, the Ik also lived for some of the time in villages of grass huts, each surrounded by stockades of grass and reeds. So harsh was their struggle for survival that they had abandoned what we think of as basic human values: they had lost all use for love, kindness, sentiment, honesty or altruism, and were motivated entirely by individual self-interest.

This manifested itself in the most brutal forms. Food being their greatest necessity, they fought for it, stole it from each other, lied about it, and when they got some, stuffed themselves until they vomited, so that they could cram down everything available.

Even in times of famine, men who returned to their village after a successful hunt would creep back laden with meat and then slip out before dawn to sell it at the police post, without having given their starving wives or children a mouthful. On one occasion, during a season of particular hardship, a young man who had been away for months reappeared so fat from heavy eating that the author hardly recognised him; but he brought nothing with him except three gourds of honey, which he took straight to the police post for sale.

Along with love, the Ik had long since rejected all notion of family. Children were thrown out at the age of three, and formed themselves into gangs, which raided crops, fought each other, and generally competed for survival. The aged - that is, those over about 25 - were similarly disregarded and cast out. As Turnbull remarked bitterly, this made good biological sense: 'The children were as useless as the aged, or nearly so; as long as you keep the breeding group alive, you can always get more children. Anything else is racial suicide.'

One dreadful episode concerned a girl called Adupa who was, even by local standards, slightly mad. Driven out by her family, tormented by other children, she clamoured for some sort of affection, until in the end her parents shut her into their compound and went away, promising to bring food. 'When they came back she was still waiting for them. It was a week or 10 days later, and her body was already almost too far gone to bury.'

Cruelty was endemic. Adults and children alike found the sight of others suffering pain highly amusing. Turnbull described how men would watch 'with eager anticipation' as a child crawled towards a fire, 'then burst into gay and happy laughter as it plunged a hand into the coals'.

Once, a woman dumped her baby on the ground while she was working out in the fields, and a leopard carried it off. The mother was delighted, because 'she was rid of the child and no longer had to carry it about and feed it'. Still better, it meant that the leopard must be somewhere close, sleeping off its meal, and would offer the hunters an easy kill. 'The men set off and found the leopard, which had consumed all of the child except part of the skull: they killed the leopard, and cooked it and ate it, child and all.'

The question which Turnbull never solved was of how his subjects had descended to such depths. He felt sure that they had once been far less vicious than when he knew them, and he attributed their decline at least partly to the reduction of their old hunting grounds, much of which had been taken as a national park. With their nomadic movement restricted, and their whole existence constrained, the Ik's hardship became such that 'the family simply ceased to exist'.

At the end of his book the author made draconian proposals for dealing with the people he had 'learned not to hate'. The government of Uganda, he recommended, should round the Ik up 'in something approaching a military operation' and deport them to parts of the country 'sufficiently remote for them not to be able to return'. Further, he suggested that men, women and children should be dispersed at random in groups of about 10. Age, sex or kinship were immaterial, he declared, so badly had the tribe's social structures broken down: the only hope of rehabilitation was for each small unit to be integrated into the life of the community among which they had been deposited.

Needless to say, the Ugandan government never put these ideas into practice; and in a new introduction to the paperback edition of his book, written only last year, Turnbull recorded that the Ik were still surviving in a pocket of north-east Uganda. After 20- odd years, his view of them had softened slightly, and he expressed the mild hope that they might somehow recover some of their more admirable qualities, and 'again be what they once were'.

But he did not soften his original warning that our own society is heading for collapse. In the weakening of marriage, in our tendency to dump tiny children in day schools and old people in homes, he saw a breakdown of the family identical with that which he had witnessed in Africa. In our ever-increasing acquisitiveness and obsession with material gain, he saw us rapidly going the way of the Ik.

People who read his ghastly but unforgettable indictment will surely hesitate before leaping selfishly to the defence of their own back yards.

'The Mountain People', Pimlico, pounds 10.

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