Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ik: The mountain people

Some folks have asked us recently if there are any books written about the Ik. As far as we know, only one book has been written entirely about the Ik (another specifically about the grammar of Ik has been written in German). That book is called The Mountain People, written by a British anthropologist named Colin Turnbull. Turnbull lived among the Ik off and on for a couple of years in the 1960s, and the book is a description of the Ik, his experience among them, and his reaction to them. The book paints a very harsh and negative picture of the Ik, making it sound like the Ik were sub-human. Turnbull went as far as saying that Ik society was beyond saving.

If you want to read any one piece of literature about the Ik, start with The Mountain People.

What may not be evident from a first reading of the book, though, is that it is almost as much about the author as it is about the Ik. In other words, the book gives us insight into Colin Turnbull's inner life and the struggles he faced, even though it often projects those onto the Ik. Perhaps that's why the book has been so controverial, and why Turnbull was so criticized for his writing. Moreover, giving us a window into the lives of the Ik through the life of Turnbull, the book ends up being a profound glimpse into the dark side of human nature.

What helped me understand what and how Turnbull wrote on the Ik was Roy Richard Grinker's biography of Turnbull called In the Arms of Africa. We all tend to fear and criticize what we don't understand. Before, Turnbull seemed like the bad guy, the enemy. But after reading this biography, I came to pity him for many things and even admire him for others. I pity him for his often disillusioned idealism about the goodness of humankind and for his litany of tumultuous relationships. I admire him for his pursuit of "love, beauty, and goodness" and for seeing anthropology as an art as well as a science. I personally am like Turnbull in that having grown up in minority sub-cultures (Mennonite, home-schooled, missionary, etc.), I tend to side with the minority and want to champion their rights. Furthermore, in the past two years in Karamoja, I have experienced in my own heart some of the feelings of betrayal, horror, and disgust that Turnbull said he experienced. This biography by Grinker led me to stop thinking "how I can disprove Turnbull?" and rather start thinking "what can I learn about human nature through the Ik, Turnbull, and their now infamous acquaintance?"

Besides these two books, a number of articles are available that touch on various aspects of Ik history, culture, and language. I may be able to provide some of them to you upon request.

Happy reading!


Cassidy said...

Thank you. :)

Sam Beer said...

i'm actually reading The Mountain People right now, and was interested to see your thoughts regarding it. Glad to have found this post!