BOOK: Colin Turnbull, "The Mountain People"
Colin Turnbull: The Mountain People. London: Triad/Paladin, 1984. (First ed.: New York: Simon and Schuster, and London: Jonathan Cape, 1972.) 0586084886. 253 pp.
This book is about the Ik people, who live (or used to live when the book was written — I don't know whether they still do) in northern Uganda, near the border with Kenya. They used to be a perfectly ordinary tribe of migratory hunter/gatherers, but at some point most of the territory where they had been used to roam was declared to be part of a national park and, in order to protect the wildlife there, its human inhabitants such as the Ik were forbidden from living or hunting in the park any more.
They had little choice but to embark on a more settled way of life. What was left of their traditional range was a largely mountainous area where they now started to build semi-permanent villages (usually abandoned after a few years, and a new village built not very far from the old one) and rely on farming to a much greater extent than before. But the area was not fertile enough; every four years or so there was a severe drought (ch. 5, p. 117), and sometimes there were such droughts for several years in a row. Years upon years of permanent scarcity exerted a relentless pressure upon them, turning their lives into nothing but a ceaseless struggle for survival.
Under this pressure, their society eventually disintegrated. What remained was little but a mass of supremely selfish individuals to whom most of the principles that we naively imagine to be universally human, e.g. the notion that parents should look after their children, or that people should help their close friends and relatives, seemed simply absurd.
A transformation like this is, of course, somewhat shocking; one would hardly expect that a whole tribe, a formerly quite viable society, could go down the drain like this. This is what makes this book so interesting and worth reading. But there are also other interesting things besides the description of Ik society; the author's travels throught he land of the Ik, the beautiful mountainous scenery, his efforts to establish good contacts with the Ik and become familiar with their society, the neighbouring tribes, the Police Post, the incessant cattle raids — all in all it's an interesting view of what sort of things an anthropologist's field work in Africa may consist of (or may have consisted of, a few decades ago, but probably much remains the same).
One also appreciates the style in which the book is written: the author simply describes what he has seen and experienced, without unnecessary wringing of hands or passing judgment on the Ik. In fact he doesn't hesitate to admit that given the circumstances in which the Ik found themselves, the path they took was logical and natural and the one by which each individual tried to maximize his or her own survival. Here's an illustrative comment on the way people stopped caring not only for the elderly, but even for their children: “there simply was not room, in the life of these people, for such luxuries as family and sentiment and love. [. . .] 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. So let the old go first, then the children. Anything else is racial suicide, and the Ik, I almost regret to say, are anything but suicidal.” (Ch. 5, pp. 108–9.)
“For those positive qualities we value so highly are no longer functional for the Ik; even more than in our own society they spell ruin and disaster. It seems that, far from being basic human qualities, they are superficial luxuries we can afford in times of plenty, or mere mechanisms for survival and security. Given the situation in which the Ik found themselves as I headed toward them, man has not time for such luxuries, and a much more basic man appears, using much more basic survival tactics.” (Ch. 1, p. 27.)
“[T]here is one common value, apart from language, to which all Ik hold tenaciously. It is ngag, ‘food.’ This is not a cynical quip — there is no room for cynicism with the Ik. It is clearly stated by the Ik themselves in their daily conversation, in their rationale for action and thought.” (Ch. 6, p. 112.)
Parents kick their children out of the house at the age of three. Children from age three to seven live in ‘bands’ of 6–12 children, in which a newcomer of course begins on the lowest rung and then gradually progresses as he or she grows older. In the end his or her next younger colleagues kick him or her out of the band, and he or she has to join a new band consisting of children age eight to thirteen, where he or she is again the youngest and thus least important member. At thirteen or so he or she is again kicked out by his or her next younger colleagues, and from then one is an adult. “These friendships [between children of similar age in a band] are temporary, however, and inevitably there comes a time, the time of transition, when each turns on the one that up to then has been the closest to him; that is the rite de passage, the destruction of that fragile bond called friendship. When this has happened to you three or four times you are ready for the world, knowing friendship for the joke it is.” (Ch. 6, p. 114.) “For most the plump years, the stomach-filled years, the good years, were between about fifteen and nineteen&rdquo (ch. 9, p. 191).
This weakening of social ties doesn't mean that there is absolutely no cooperation between individuals; they have a system of mutual obligations where doing one person a favour makes the recipient ‘indebted’, meaning he must repay you the favour when you ask him to. But since he doesn't want to be indebted in this way, he'd often really rather prefer that you not help him. But since you want him to be indebted to you in this way, you try to help him in such a way that he cannot refuse... “[A]nd so you have the odd phenomenon of these otherwise singularly self-interested people going out of their way to ‘help’ each other. In point of fact they are helping themselves, and their help may very well be resented in the extreme, but is done in such a way that it cannot be refused, for it has already been given. Someone, quite unasked, may hoe another's field in his absence,” etc. (ch. 6, p. 121).
In a harsh life like this, people age quickly. At twelve or thirteen, one is grown-up; “a happy man in his late middle age, which is to say he was in his early twenties” (ch. 3, p. 68). “Giriko at twenty-five was forty, Atum at forty was sixty-five, and the very oldest, perhaps a bare fifty, were centenarians.” (Ch. 9, p. 190.) This reminds me of a shocking scene from some Holocaust-memoir type of book I once read, but I forget which one (perhaps The House of Dolls), where a high-school girl ends up in a concentration camp relatively late in the war; at some point she has a conversation with another inmate, an elderly grey-haired woman — and it turns out that they are the same age, only that the second woman had been in the camp since the first days of the war.
There are many heart-rending scenes of people meeting their end in this most selfish of societies, where the old and weak would end up being the butt of everybody's jokes and have the food stolen out of their very mouths. The plates are also quite touching, as are the curiously terse and matter-of-fact captions next to them. “Blind Logwara . . . when he tried to reach a dead hyena for a share of the putrid meat, his fellow Ik trampled him underfoot. He thought it quite funny.” “Losiké in happier days, still active as a potter. In a few months she was, like all useless things, to be abandoned to her fate.” Most of the Ik shown in the plates came to a sad end.
Ch. 7, p. 138 has some curious facts about “the splendid pastime of wife beating, which, surprisingly, among the Ik follows a formal procedure”.
Ch. 5 also describes their marriage customs. The bride had to be ‘captured’, although the thing was really agreed upon in advance. “The time was invariably the evening, to give the cover of darkness. The opportunity offered itself when the girl to be captured left the outer stockade, after dark, for a final defecation. [. . .] At this rather delicate moment she was seized and made off with” (p. 106).
The Ik seem to be the ultimate libertarians. “It is certainly difficult, through a study of Icien behavior, to establish any rules of conduct that could be called social, the prime maxim of all Ik being that each man should do what he wants to do, that he should do anything else only if he is forced to.” (Ch. 8, p. 152.)
They had formerly had some religious beliefs, but most of that was gone during the disintegration of their society. “There was an undeniable contrast between the reverence shown by the old for tales of long ago, including those of Didigwari [a sky god], and the total lack of interest among the young.” (Ch. 8, p. 158.) (This reminds me of a similar difference between the young and old in WW2-era Ukraine, observed by Malaparte in his Volga Rises in Europe, see e.g. ch. 16 there.) They used to have ritual priests, the last of which, Lolim, died, old, weak, denied food or shelter by his children, while Turnbull was there (ch. 8, pp. 165–70). Turnbull and a colleague later tried to help Lolim's widow, which moved her to tears: “she was crying, she said, because all of a sudden we had reminded her that there had been a time when people had helped each other, when people had been kind and good” (ch. 9, pp. 187–8).
Their views on sex: “It was even unique to her [Nangoli's] family that sex should be an occasion for pleasure, for it was more commonly and openly referred to as a necessary chore, and mildly pleasurable, like defecation.” (Ch. 10, p. 208.) Men often considered it a waste of money, as “[f]or the girls it was their major asset, and they were not going to dispose of it wastefully. The second factor was the expenditure of energy involved, and the young men, the only ones smitten by this ridiculous urge, pointed out that it required much less energy to masturbate.” (Ch. 10, p. 209.)
This will illustrate the kind of climate the Ik had to deal with: on one “particularly good night” there were two rainstorms, the first lasting ten seconds, the other thirty-two seconds (ch. 10, p. 212).
On the Ik language: “Archie Tucker, the English linguist, accepted an invitation to come up and see just what this extraordinary language was, for it certainly was not Sudanic or Bantu. Archie finally pronounced, with no little satisfaction, that the nearest language he could find to this one was classical Middle-Kingdom Egyptian!” (Ch. 2, p. 35.) And one of the Ik with whom Turnbull had the most dealings is named Atum (“another tantalizing connection with ancient Egypt!”, ch. 3, p. 53). I wonder if it's true, and if yes, how did a pocket of speakers of Eyptian get so far south, and how it managed to preserve itself throughout so many centuries.
The disintegration of Ik society was not a sudden process. It took some time before the old people died, the ones who could still remember the times when people would occasionally help each other or do something at least moderately altruistic. But once this process was complete, it seems that there is no way back (ch. 9, p. 192).
Near the end of the book, the author mentions a famine relief effort organized by the government. Food was provided for everyone, but the government only transported it as far as the nearest town. The strong and healthy Ik could get there from their villages and were supposed to pick up the food not just for themselves but for their weak, elderly, or ill relatives as well and carry it to them. But almost without exception this idea of bringing food to a weak or elderly person struck them as absurd, as a laughable waste of food, and they would routinely stuff themselves full of it on the way home, even to the point of vomiting, rather than bringing any of it to their starving neighbours and relatives (ch. 11, pp. 232–3).
Turnbull ends with a very bleak view on the future of the Ik: after this disintegration of their society, there is no doubt that they will eventually die out if left to themselves; and as there seems to be no practicable way to help them rebuild their society, Turnbull suggests that it might be best if they were divided into small random groups and forcibly resettled, so that they would lose their identity and merge into the still normally functioning societies among whom they would be settled. But he realizes that this sort of thing couldn't be done, as it would cause an outcry among the human rights organizations (ch. 11, pp. 233–6). Now that more than 30 years have passed since this book was written, whatever was destined to be the fate of the Ik has probably already played itself out; but I wonder what it was.
Of course, a question one can hardly help wondering about when hearing of something like the Ik is whether anything similar could also happen to our modern society. Unfortunately, what Turnbull offers on this subject (ch. 12) is little more than a few generalized rants against modern society. From them it isn't quite clear what specifically it is that bothers him, why he feels that those developments suggest that our society may be disintegrating among similar lines than that of the Ik, what he feels to be the causes of this supposed disintegration (as there clearly is, in the modern world as a whole, no such extreme scarcity of food as the Ik had been subject to), and why he feels (as it seems clear he does) that further disintegration of our society along those lines is so very likely. Perhaps his rants and doomsday-mongering are simply an artefact of the period in which his book was written; the late 60s and early 70s were no doubt a turbulent period, especially in the U.S. (where the author lived and worked when he wasn't doing fieldwork).
As for me, I agree that some amount of disintegration of society clearly is going on, and has been going on for decades before Turnbull's book was written as well as in the three or so decades since it has been written. But at the same time we haven't seen this process go as far as it has in the case of the Ik, nor does it seem likely to go so far in the foreseeable future. We may be more individualistic now than people were fifty or a hundred years ago, but we are not completely oblivious to the notions of kinship, friendship, affection, and so on.
Most of us in the at least moderately developed world live only in relative scarcity, not absolute one. That is, I'm neither starving nor naked, and I own a computer and a bicycle and could even buy a car if I wanted one. But I want, of course, more than that; one wants an SUV, a gigantic plasma TV, a villa, an exotic holiday; things some people have, but most of us don't: that is relative scarcity. I suspect that complete disintegration of society the way we saw in the case of the Ik is only possible in conditions of absolute scarcity, not only relative scarcity such as we have now.
And our society functions entirely on relative scarcity: the basic needs of most people are met, and they therefore have the time to contemplate other less necessary wishes; and the whole of the capitalist economy is based on the process of encouraging these wholly unnecessary desires, so that people buy all sorts of unnecessary products and services: and to earn the money with which to pay for them, they seek jobs, in the process of which they simultaneously create these unnecessary products and services and, most important of all, enrich the capitalists — which is of course the motivation for this whole vicious cycle.
Thus, as long as our present lamentable capitalist system persists, we will probably have as much relative scarcity as possible, but no more of absolute scarcity than is inevitable. Therefore I don't doubt that disintegration of society will continue (it's in the interests of the capitalist class after all — weak, disconnected individuals are more easily made insecure through advertising and thus induced to buy unnecessary products and services), but not quite along the same lines as that of the Ik.
For more examples of how societies can collapse due to environmental reasons, see Jared Diamond's excellent book Collapse. Although Diamond doesn't mention the Ik, they are an illustrative example of how dramatic, and how irreversible, the social consequences of extreme environmental pressure can be.
Earlier in his career, Turnbull had done a lot of work among the Congo pygmies, and wrote a book about them, The Forest People. This also sounds potentially interesting.