Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bones of Contention

Last November while we were working on the Ik dictionary project, I was trying to get the Ik word for ‘artifact’. As I queried a few of the guys, one of them lit up. I had mentioned old bones as an example of an artifact (though they aren’t really), and this guy said he found some old bones. Old human bones. When I heard this I became extremely interested in knowing how old those human bones were. “They are like stone,” he said. What?! I couldn’t believe it, so I kept asking questions. Apparently, while digging for gold (by hand) in the forest, he had unearthed a number of fossilized human remains: a skull, and a leg bone. He said that other miners with him told him the remains were a ‘ghost’ and shouldn’t be tampered with. So he just tossed them out of the hole, and they were then reburied. Knowing how important human fossils are to several scientific disciplines, I could hardly contain my excitement as I listened to his account. My imagination spun out of control.


That was mid-November, just before we flew back to the United States. At the time I never got the chance to follow up on his story. While in the US, I phoned an Ik friend and told him to tell this other guy that I’d pay him a certain amount if he recovered the fossils and brought them to me. During the three months we were away I often daydreamed and fantasized over the fame I would get and the fortune the Ik would get when world-renown paleontologists flocked to Timu to dig for more bones like the skull I was about to acquire.


Not long after we first arrived back in Timu, the guy paid me a visit. He wanted to confirm the message I had sent weeks ago over the phone. I confirmed it, and he said he would go look for ‘it’. A few days later he showed up again, and cryptically asked me to follow him (I was told people would suspect us of witchcraft for handling human bones). We walked down the hill to a clump of grass a few feet from the trail. I sensed that this was the moment of truth. He scrounged around in the grass a bit and produced a burlap sack. The sack was then turned upside-down, and what came rolling out but a…


I should’ve known. I should’ve known that what sounds too good to be true probably is. I should’ve remembered the African tendency to tell someone what they want to hear (especially if the person you are telling is becoming visibly excited). I should’ve calculated the extreme unlikelihood of a fossilized human skull being found twenty feet or more underground on the upper edge of the Rift Valley. I should’ve grasped the utter improbability of paying $50 for the next major fossil find. For what came rolling out of the bag was a human skull, sure, but one that couldn’t have been more than twenty-five or fifty years old. I stared dumbfounded at the small, white human skull before me. I tried not to look too disappointed because I knew that that is a common negotiation technique and that the guy would accuse me of it. Slowly, in broken Swahili, I tried to explain why this wasn’t what I was looking for. It took a good half-hour to convince him that I wasn’t trying to scam him. After all, I paid him for his time of digging for the skull, and for emphasis, I left the skull were it lay in the grass.


That evening another Ik man showed up with a mysterious looking ‘package’ tucked under his cloak. He had brought me another human skull! Somehow, I guess, word had gotten out that the white guy on the hill is buying human skulls. I knew this was a rumor I should quickly snuff out. It took me less time to convince the second man that I wasn’t out to find recent human remains (with all the strange things that would entail in this culture). The fiasco was almost over and done with, but not before the first man came a few days later with part of a femur of a recently (a few decades) deceased person. I turned that one down too, and since then, as far as I know, no one else has brought me any human bones. Phew!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Children of Lokinene

Now that we're spending more time in the village, we're getting to know the Ik a little better. Before when we were just visiting the village, it was always a highlight to interact with the children. Now that we live here, things are different. I'll start by saying a bit about the girls of Lokinene, which we don't see as often as the boys. They are put to work in the home. We see many passing by with jerry cans (or gourds) of water on their heads that they've collected from the local well and are carrying home. Without a doubt, these little girls are all stronger than I am. They make a trip to the well several times a day for the family's water supply. Water is precious in the village and this job is very important to the family. Terrill made an observation last night that this may be one reason why the Ik seem to want big families...they need children to help them perform the duties of daily life for survival. The workload is bigger without children to help. Little girls can also be seen carrying their siblings on their backs. Sometimes a neice or cousin will be recruited from a neighboring village to carry a child around. This neice may also live with the family in order to provide full-time care for a younger child. I've seen children as young as four or five carrying a baby around. Girls may also wash clothes, collect firewood, prepare food and assist their mothers with other household chores (such as putting fresh mud on the walls of the house). One very important thing I've noticed is that girls are always wearing a skirt. Even if the skirt is a discarded piece of cloth that is tattered and old, it's tied around the waist and the girl is covered. Not so for boys. Ah...the boys of Lokinene. They usually have more free time than the girls. Every day they come and stand outside our fence to watch what we're doing. If we go walking, they follow. They give a running commentary in Ik of what we're doing. Now that Terrill can understand a good bit of what they're saying, we have to chuckle to ourselves at their comments. The boys are put to work at times. They may assist their fathers & brothers in hunting or gathering honey. They may go out into the forest to find wild food. They may be sent to the fields to pull weeds or keep the birds away...but these jobs do not keep them occupied for very long. The problem is this: there is no school in Lokinene. Correction...there is a school building, but no teachers or supplies. So, many children are not educated here. Each family might pick one or two children to attend school elsewhere. Then the children will be sent to Kamion (another Ik area), Kalapata or Kaabong (Karamojong areas) for several years of school. They live at the schools. Money and circumstances determine how long a child gets to stay in school. What we can't figure out is how a family would be able to pick the one child that gets to attend. Those that go to school inevitably will have better futures. For one thing, the school systems will start teaching English which helps people get jobs with foreigners (like us). Please pray for teachers to come to this area.
One day last week we allowed some boys to come inside our compound to play. They brought their slingshots and their cardboard cars...both homemade.

This one brought a 'live' friend. At least he wasn't inflicting pain upon the bird.
They fashion their cardboard cars & trucks after vehicles they've seen come to Lokinene. They call their vehicles: lorries. They were proudly pulling them around our driveway. Sometimes I think they bother us just to get some attention. Everyone at home is either too busy working or attending to smaller children. We get annoyed almost every day at constantly responding to their begging, but we're beginning to realize that this may be the only way they know how to relate to us. Pray that we'll know how to interact with these children in lasting ways.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Yesterday our clinic hours were passing smoothly when someone ran up breathlessly with the message that an Ik man had been bitten by a snake in his garden. We told him to have the man carried up to us so we could assess his condition. When they arrived, we saw that the man looked ‘badly off’. He couldn’t walk and was confused. The Ik had already applied their traditional cures: plant fiber tourniquets and an herbal remedy on the bite itself. Not knowing what kind of snake it was, and not wanting to take any chances with this guy’s life, we decided that I would drive him to the hospital in Kaabong. On the way I tried a new road that has recently been made through the ‘bush’, thinking it was a shortcut. Big mistake. The road turned out to be terribly bumpy and rocky, sometimes little more than a cattle path. We finally got to the hospital where the nurse began treating the man. Later, a couple of doctors from Doctors Without Borders came by to check on him. Seeing that the man was stabilized, the rest of my crew and I grabbed ‘lunch’ and headed back to Timu.


The trip between Kaabong and Timu is usually tiring, but a roundtrip in under five hours is exhausting. I hadn’t exactly planned to spend my day that way. But what I had planned, or rather, hoped for was language and culture-learning opportunities. What I got was five hours with a group of happy Ik (happy to be going to Kaabong, and happy because of ‘lunch’) chattering in four languages: Ik, Karamojong, Swahili, and English. It was like a linguistic narcotic overdose. I heard so much language I can’t even remember any of it. As for cultural observations, here are a few I was able to make:

  • The Ik know how to treat a poisonous snakebite. It’s no wonder too, given that for centuries traditional cures were all they had. There wasn’t a hospital or an ambulance.
  • The Ik appear to dramatize or exaggerate their need for help in an urgent situation. I don’t blame them for that either, for the same reason that they are accustomed to being neglected by the ‘outside’ world.
  • The Ik often prefer local beer (mes) to food, even for breakfast or lunch. I offered to buy lunch at a restaurant for all my passengers in Kaabong, but all of them turned down my offer in favor of procuring some mes. This thick beer fills them up more than food, they claim. Who can blame a chronically hungry people for wanting to feel full?


Finally, the snake bite episode provided me and Amber a chance to strengthen friendships. For a few fleeting moments, we felt part of this community we’re here to serve.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Nyang'ia People

A few weeks ago (yes, we're behind on this blog) Amber and I jumped into our truck with our Karamojong friend Nguran Mickey Pascali and headed to Lobalangit. Lobalangit (the "place of soda ash") is the home of the Nyang'i people. These people split off from the Ik at an unknown time in history and were then cut off completely by invading Karamojong. Their language changed from Ik as it came into contact with new neighboring peoples and eventually began losing ground to Karamojong. As long ago as 1932, a guy named Driberg said of the Nyang'ia that only the old people speak their language. Younger generations preferred to speak Karamojong.

Almost two years ago Amber and I made our first fieldtrip to document the Nyang'ia language. That time we collected about 150 words from an old man who we were told was one of two surviving speakers of the language. Since then I've been meaning to get back to continue the research, so a few weeks ago between coming back to Kaabong from furlough and moving up to Timu, we decided to make another trip. This time we stayed for two days and found five speakers of the language. All are very old, and when they pass, the language will be officially extinct. We managed to collect about a hundred more words and several hours of audio and video recordings.

The man below is named Ongor Tongome. He was the first speaker we talked to. When we asked him how old he was, he didn't know, but he said he was born during the 'world war'. Which one, I wonder? He said it was before 'motorcars' came to Uganda. Tongome was very welcoming and worked with us for a couple of hours but then got tired.

The next speaker was met with was Naira Chilla, the woman pictured below. She was seated in the dirt out in the hot, hot sun. My laptop and other electronic equipment didn't work so well in the heat. Neither did we, come to think of it. Naira was happy to share her knowledge of old Nyang'ia with us, but she grew confused quickly.

The two handsome gentlemen pictured below are named Lokwang Chilla and Komol Isaach. They were sharp and worked well together by prompting each other. We were on a great roll collecting Nyang'ia words but were interrupted by a rainstorm.

Everywhere you go in Uganda, children are wonderfully friendly. These Nyang'ia kids in Lobalangit were no exception. Here's Amber posing with a group.

This was the last data-gathering session we had, before the rainstorm. We needed to get back to the Catholic guesthouse in Karenga before the roads got impassable.

We wanted to get a record of the language before it dies out, not only for science and posterity, but because Nyang'ia is one of only two languages closely related to Ik. The third, Soo/Tepeth, spoken in three spots in southern Karamoja, is also on the brink of exctinction. Most likely, in the next 10-20 years, Ik will become the proverbial last of its kind. When Nyang'ia and Soo/Tepeth are lost, whole systems of knowledge and unique ways of seeing the world will be lost with them.
Happily, a linguist friend of ours is applying for a grant that would enable him to come this summer and spend 4-6 weeks trying to document and describe as much of the language as possible. With all we have going on travelling and among the Ik, I had decided, sadly, that I wouldn't pursue the Nyang'ia project further. But if someone else can come to help, that would be great!

Thursday, April 1, 2010


We arrived in Lokinene (Timu) three days ago. The road was badly washed out by rain, but otherwise we had no trouble. It was exciting to learn of a new road that has recently been blazed through the 'bush'. It's a short cut to Timu.

When we opened the doors to our house, we had a few surprises waiting for us. The first was the thick layer of dust covering everything. We promptly got to washing and sweeping (and are still doing it three days later).

The second big surprise was the population of mice that had taken up residence as our houseguests while we were gone. Or maybe we should think of them as house-sitters or renters. In any case, they had taken over the premises. In the last three days we've killed about ten baby mice and about that many adults of various sizes. (Our other house had a number of shrew-like rodents with tiny eyes and long snouts...go figure). The grossest part of the ordeal was finding the mouse nest behind our bookcase. Mama mouse took off running (we caught her last night) with one baby. Meanwhile the other babies scattered as we swiped at them with a broom. Rather grim business, if you ask me.

Our yard was also quite overgrown, but an older gentleman named Luka has been doing a wonderful job of 'lawn care' over the last two days. Soon it will be in tip top shape.

Despite these house-warming challenges, we are thrilled to be back on the ridgetop in our quaint little hobbit house.