My recent safari to Uganda was altogether wonderful for many reasons, but one of the highlights was our visit to The Ik people. This minority Ugandan community lives in the midst of The Karamoja region in North-East Uganda, close to both the border with South Sudan and the border with Kenya.
The Karamajong people are also a fascinating tribe in North Eastern Uganda. They are a Nilotic tribe for whom cattle form a vital part of the culture. The cattle are herded communally and provide the staple food of cow blood and cattle blood. From a very young age the Karamajong boys assist in herding the cattle.
For centuries the Karamajong raided cattle from related cross-border tribes – The Topaza of South Sudan and the Turkana of Kenya and were raided in return. Cattle raiding was an integral part of the lifestyle of this warrior tribe. When Idi Amin’s government collapsed a large armory was abandoned and in this way military rifles fell into the hands of The Karamajong Warriors. This escalated the impact of their cattle raiding and the cocktail of warriors, rifles and Ugandan civil turmoil resulted in the Karamoja region becoming a lawless, dangerous frontier badlands. Some years ago the Museveni government confiscated the firearms held by the Karamajong and the area is now considered safe for travel, but it still has the atmosphere of a remote frontier. The towering young Karamjong warriors strike an intimidating pose in spite of the slightly absurd woolen pork-pie hats that they wear.
In spite of this area being considered safe for travel, the long history of violence and crime has left the authorities hyper-vigilant and during our hike we were escorted at all times by heavily armed, silent soldiers in camouflage uniform.
In the midst of the Karamajong region, caught between the cattle raiding tribes live an agricultural people known as The Ik. This tiny tribe speaks a unique dialect unlike anything spoken by their neighbours. The tribe numbers no more than 10,000 people. They used to live in the lowlands but when they were forced-out by the creation of The Kidepo National Park, as well as finding themselves suffering in the midst of the violent cattle raids, they moved to live on the top of Mount Morungule where they continue to grow various crops. The fields of maize grown on the steep slopes of the mountain, can be seen in this photograph.
Their villages are extended family units, further sub-divided into closer family units all surrounded by walls of branches, and accessed via very short gates, which serve as a security system.
Anyone stealing anything and trying to escape in a hurry has to stop to get through the low gates and can theoretically then be caught. I noticed an additional benefit of these gateways – even the oldest people in these traditional villages are remarkably supple – they have to be! Here you can see a famous Belgian TV star struggling through a doorway.
The Ik people live a very remote existence. It is a two-hour hike from the highest dwellings to the nearest road. Even the oldest people regularly make the journey to the lowlands to trade grains.
Many of the women are ornately decorated with patterns of scarification, unlike anything I have seen before.
At a remarkably young age the girls assist in raising their siblings.
Up at the highest village we met this beautiful Ik Mona Lisa, complete with enigmatic smile
Because the Ik people do not keep livestock they must trade the grains that they grow for meat from the Karamajong people in the lowlands. A cow had been slaughtered that day at the base of Mount Morungule and as we descended we passed many Ik people returning up to their villages carrying fresh meat.
Our visit to The Ik people took about 15 hours including the long drive, the hike and the inevitable vehicle breakdown; and it was an altogether incredible day. What made it all the more special was that one of our party has a respiratory problem that makes it extremely difficult for him to exert himself. He had never before hiked this far or this high and had trained for months for the ascent to the upper Ik villages. It was a very special experience to be able to share with him the achievement of this enormous goal.