Last Tuesday, April 5th, 2015, the Ik were granted their own county. The significance of this may not be fully evident to you. For decades, if not centuries, the Ik have lived under the dominance of neighboring tribes. Long ago, before the Dodoth and Turkana were as numerous as they are now, and before they all acquired the AK-47 rifle, the odds between them and the Ik were more even. Back in those days, there were sure to have been clashes, but when everyone has a spear or a bow and arrow, it's fairer to both sides. In the mid-20th century, the British had control over Uganda and therefore Karamoja. Those days were the beginning of the age of nyeriaŋ 'modernity' and nyapukan 'government'. Before then, the Ik fended for themselves. Since then, they've had to ultimately bow before the mysterious authority of the Government, extending its far reach from Kampala.
Once the British left, and left their administrative structures largely in place, the vacant spots were naturally filled by native Ugandans. In the case of the Ik, the administration of the district in which they lived came under control of the majority group, the Dodoth (a sub-tribe of the Karimojong). To most outsiders, Karamoja was thought to be the land of the 'Karimojong', and they were imagined to be a more or less homogenous group of people. Little did most know, the 'Karimojong' themselves had divided up into at least ten sub-tribes over the last couple of centuries. Not only that, but within Karamoja, often hidden geographically and politically, there were and still are a number of minority ethnic groups. These include the Tepeth and Nyang'i (related to the Ik), the Sebei and Pokot (minorities in Karamoja but also numerous outside Karamoja), the Napore, Mening, the Okuti...and the Ik more often known as the 'Teuso'. To take the northernmost district of Karamoja (formerly Kotido, now Kaabong District) as an example, many of the most powerful positions in local government have been filled by members of the majority Karimojong sub-tribe: the Dodoth. In principle, this makes sense and is not wrong. But in practice, many of the Dodoth politicians and leaders have used their position and power not only to jockey for personal gain (as one would expect) but also to guarantee resources for their own ethnic group, not infrequently at the expense of the minority groups living in the district.
Over the years, this ethnic discrimination and political marginalization has meant many different things for the Ik. Relief food designated for the Ik in times of famine often got 'stuck' in frontier Dodoth villages. Ik would then have to walk hours to collect their just due only to find it had been stolen. Contractors winning government bids for infrastructure development for the Ik would often swindle Ik people they hired to carry out the work (at best) or (at worst) not do the work at all and still get paid for it. For example, the health center in our Ik village that was built in 2007 a) was built on the backs of Ik unskilled labor who were promised payment but were never paid and b) was never even finished. But the contractor not only got paid in full but also got away with his corruption. Another example, a hugely lucrative government contract was given to completely redo the main road running to Timu. The contract was given to some guys who a) didn't know what they were doing, b) royally screwed up the road making it worse than it was before in some places (though better in others), and c) got paid for it. But because all this corruption takes place in the Ik area, people higher up never find out about it.
As long as the Dodoth could keep the Ik under wraps politically, they could keep benefitting (i.e. stealing) from any initiative directed at the Ik from government, NGOs...anyone. And as long as the public and government outside the district or outside Karamoja were kept from even knowing the Ik existed, the sweet little arrangement the Dodoth had could remain unchallenged.
That is a little window into the historical context from which the news of the new Ik county now comes. Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni's wife, the First Lady Janet Museveni, also happens to be Prime Minister for Karamoja. She is reputed to be a believing Christian. In recent years she has seemed to take a special interest in the minority peoples living among the dominant Karimojongs. We are told that the directive for creating a county for the Ik alone came straight from the top. Since the Ik do not qualify for their own county in terms of population, this indicates that a special provision was made for them on the part of the President and First Lady. God bless them for that!
Last Tuesday a Kaabong District council meeting was held to determine whether the local councillors would agree to the Ik having their own county to themselves versus including two Dodoth sub-counties within the new Ik county. Apparently the resolution for the Ik county still gave the district room to put their own spin on it. And so we were contacted by two Ik leaders to ask if we could drive a group of Ik down to Kaabong to attend the meeting. Amber and I both felt right away that this was something we wanted to be a part of. So I (Terrill) drove seven Ik men and one Ik woman down. The meeting was five hours long, with no break (though I did sneak out for some lunch!), lots of other stuff on the agenda, with the main reason for the meeting (Ik county) saved for last. Two people were opposed to the Ik having the county to themselves. The one, the district LCV, who is a 'top dog', stood up to make his argument for including Dodoth in the Ik county, but he appeared to grow timid and lose steam right off. His statements were weakly delivered and unfavorably received. The Speaker of the Council pushed hard for the resolution to come to a vote. It did, and the result was 18-1 in favor of an Ik-only new county! After the vote, another opponent tried to start questioning it, but because he was being unruly and interrupting the Speaker, the Speaker threw him out of the meeting! This was a clear answer to our prayers the night before, that the self-seeking opposition would be 'shut up'. Indeed they were, either by self-intimidation or forceful removal by a policeman! Good times.
Now, for the first time in history, the Ik people have political representation and visibility that can penetrate through or high-jump over their Dodoth oppressors. This is a victory in the building of the Ugandan nation and in the rights of minority groups and in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ in which diversity of peoples is welcomed and celebrated. It's true that this new county will not spell the end of the many trenchant problems the Ik have. Certainly it will mean the creation of many new problems. But having their own county will mean that the Ik will have an Ik representative in the heart of the Ugandan government (Parliament). It will mean the allocation of more resources toward all the basic things the Ik need like healthcare, road networks, schools, etc. But to me, the best thing it means is that something progressive is finally happening! The gears of history are grinding, and the wheel of the world has made another revolution. The old, static regime of ethnic domination is showing cracks and early signs of crumbling. This gives us hope. Christ, the Changer, the Life-giver is at work!
Thank you all who said a prayer or two over the meeting last Tuesday. It made a difference! If you care to, say another prayer or two for the Ik man who will become a Member of Parliament. Pray that he takes his job seriously and strives to represent the needs of his people to the Ugandan government!
Here is the Ik delegation waiting for the meeting to start:
And here are some of the group celebrating afterward by eating lunch: