The Ik People

The Ik people are a tribe living in the mountains of northeastern Uganda near the border with Kenya. The only thing interesting about the Ik people is their near total lack of social structures. They have no government, not hierarchy, no religious customs or anything one would associate with human society. The members of Ik tribe spend all of their time foraging for food as their environment is extremely harsh.

Each member is able to get enough food and water to survive so there is no sharing of resources. Men will let their wife starve while they eat. Brothers will steal food from one another, even if it means death for the one. Children are usually expelled from the home at 3-5 years of age and left to forage on their own. Husbands and wives spend little time together as they are always hunting for food, which they never share with one another. In fact, marriage does not exist. They are just mating pairs and their time together is accidental.

The only reason to care about the Ik is from an anthropological perspective. It is largely assumed that early humans had social structures similar to chimps and bonobos. These social structures evolved as man evolved and therefore “society” has been a part of humanity since before there were modern humans. The Ik show that maybe it was not necessarily so. But, they could simply be a rare exception due to their unusual environment. Still, there are conditions in which humans will lose all traces of society.

I was thinking about the Ik on my run this evening. The temperature was in the low 40’s so the black males were out loitering. It is still too cold for the Hispanics to hang outside and the whites will remain indoors until it is wife beater weather. The ghetto is an unnatural environment that humans are distinctly unfit occupy, but we insist on jamming our poor into ghettos anyway. Like the Ik, people in a hostile environment will develop some strange habits.

The inside/outside life is what I was thinking about tonight. Black men look to get out of the house as soon as possible. They live off the women who dominate the house so the men have to go outside to be free to be themselves. There’s simply no place for them inside. Like male lions, they live on the edge of female life, quarreling with one another on the streets.

Hispanics seem to have evolved a different set of habits. I see underclass Hispanics outside using the cell phone and my hunch is that’s for privacy. The custom around here is for twenty people to pack into an apartment so there’s no privacy, but there is family life. As a result, they tend to remain indoors. Hispanic males will walk miles to get beer or food so you see guys walking home carrying beer on payday, but they do their drinking indoors.

Poor whites are an inside animal. Here’s where things are most obviously different. The males run the house and women are secondary. The males will do their drinking and drug taking in their own place with their friends and family. They will get high right in front of their kids. In the summer, I’ll ride through a white trash section of town and smell reefer coming from adults on their front steps, watching their kids play.

The age old argument is whether it is the environment that makes the people or is it the people who make the environment. It’s both, of course, which is why the black ghetto is different than the white ghetto, which is different from the Hispanic ghettos. At the same time, the organization of these ghettos shapes the people. Places like West Baltimore or Detroit eventually become distilled versions of the worst the people and environment can muster.

The Ik people did not end up in the mountains of Uganda by accident. Odds are they were driven their by hostile tribes. Relegated to the worst possible environment, the worst aspects of these people concentrated as the other qualities boiled off. Just as Amish have become more Amish over time, the Ik got more Ik-y the longer they were stuck in that terrible place. It seems to me that our ghetto system has the same results, concentrating qualities that should be diluted and boiling off qualities that should be cultivated.

11 thoughts on “The Ik People

  1. Pingback: Wednesday morning links - Maggie's Farm

  2. I haven’t thought about the Ik in forty years. Good grief. And I don’t remember (because I’m so ancient), but it seems that Turnbull indicated they were displaced by the government to the mountains where he observed them. Another result of government interference?

  3. Do more tales from the ghetto. It is very fascinating from an anthropological perspective. I grew up somewhat near it, but got away as quick as we could.

    • Funny, but my ghetto posts get the most traffic. I guess I’m an urban Margaret Mead, without all the lying.

  4. “Well, there’s fistfights in the kitchen
    They’re enough to make me cry
    The mailman comes in
    Even he’s gotta take a side
    Even the butler
    He’s got something to prove
    Then you ask why I don’t live here
    Honey, how come you don’t move?”

  5. Yet watch the great “moral” indignity over “gentrification” by the folks that drove out
    those evil people that actually give a crap about their “community”.
    Great “unity” and “community” CAN be seen when it’s time to destroy any, and every, thing that MIGHT
    threaten the same ‘ol same ‘ol.
    Any wonder why years of “free stuff” from “other people” has resulted in higher competition in gettin’ over for free stuff?

  6. Whether living is good or bad two blocks from the reservation depends entirely upon which way the tide is running.

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