The Ik are a hunter-gatherer and agricultural group who live in the Morungole mountains, around the Kidepo Valley, in northeastern Uganda. They are few, numbering several thousand, but are famous within anthropology because of Colin Turnbull’s extraordinary book The Mountain People, for which he was roundly criticized within anthropology. Turnbull is perhaps the only anthropologist to conclude his study with a recommendation that the group he studied be destroyed by being forcibly resettled into small units throughout the country.
Turnbull worked with the Ik in the mid-1960s. While he was there, a severe drought struck, making living conditions difficult. Moreover, the Ik’s livelihood had been adversely affected by their recent eviction from the Kidepo National Park. Turnbull’s book is a devastating and horrific account of a society that is both falling apart and willfully destroying itself. He describes scenes in which handicapped children have their food stolen from them by their peers and are eventually locked up in their home and left to die by their parents; where elders fall into gulleys and are laughed at and mocked by their fellows; where family members fight to strip the ornaments from their dead relatives; and where sisters steal tea from their brothers as they lie dying of gunshot wounds inflicted by cattle raiders.
The book was poorly received. There was a general feeling that the Ik were being badly represented by an anthropologist who had come to hate them. Perhaps the kindest comment was that this was an account that could best be understood as describing the consequences of the drought on the anthropologist, not the Ik. Turnbull was later criticized by Heine, who found many faults with his understanding of the language and his interpretation of events. Heine suggested that the disturbing events Turnbull saw were really the product of his own malevolent attitude.
Turnbull’s account lives on, however, in literature about the consequences of protected areas on rural groups. It is taken as an early case of a detailed description of what can happen to people when they are denied access to rural resources by conservation. This literature is marked by its uncritical use of Turnbull’s work, ignoring both the critiques of his findings, Turnbull’s own conclusions, and the complex idealism that defined Turnbull’s work.
- Grinker, R. R. (2000). In the arms of Africa: The life of Colin M. Turnbull. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Heine, B. (1985). The mountain people. Some notes on the Ik of northern Uganda. Africa, 55, 3-16.
- Turnbull, C. (1973). The mountain people. London: Jonathon Cape.