The Ik people (sometimes called Teuso, though this term is explicitly derogatory[further explanation needed]) are an ethnic group numbering about 10,000 people living in the mountains of northeastern Uganda near the border with Kenya, next to the more populous Karamojong and Turkana peoples. The Ik were displaced from their land to create the Kidepo Valley National Park and consequently suffered extreme famine. Also, their weakness relative to other tribes meant they were regularly raided. The Ik are subsistence farmers who grind their own grain.
The Ik people live in several small villages arranged in clusters, which comprise the total "community". Each village is surrounded by an outer wall, then sectioned off into familial (or friend-based) "neighborhoods" called odoks, each surrounded by a wall. Each Odok is sectioned into walled-off households called asaks, with front yards (for lack of a better term) and in some cases, granaries.
Children by age three or four are sometimes permanently expelled from the household and form groups called age-bands consisting of those within the same age group. The 'Junior Group' consists of children from the ages of three to eight and the 'Senior Group' consists of those between eight and thirteen. No adults look after the children, who teach each other the basics of survival. However, it is not certain whether this practice is typical Ik tradition or merely triggered by unusual famine conditions. Joseph Tainter proposes this fragmentation to be an artifact of the dire circumstances where each person must depend on their own resources alone to find food and the age peers band together primarily to protect themselves from older stronger children who would take their food. He also argues that the present social fragmentation is the result of extreme deprivation on a more complex and functional culture, an argument also made by Colin Turnbull.
In 1972, British-American anthropologist Colin Turnbull published an ethnography about the Ik titled The Mountain People. The book provides an examination of Ik culture and practices based on information he gathered during a stay in the years 1965–1966. He depicts the Ik as a people forced into extreme individualistic practices in order to survive. Using the few remaining elderly Ik as sources, he attempts to describe the former Ik society (including hunter-gatherer practices; marriage, childbirth, and death rituals and taboos; religious and spiritual beliefs, and other aspects). Much of the work, however, focuses on the then-current condition of the Ik people during a severe famine brought on by two consecutive drought years.
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! – The Mountain People, Ch. 2, p. 35.
Turnbull became very involved with the Ik people, and openly writes about his horror at many of the events he witnessed, most notably total disregard for familial bonds leading to the death of children and the elderly by starvation. He does speak warmly about certain Ik, and describes his "misguided" efforts to give food and water to those too weak to provide for themselves, standing guard over them to prevent others from stealing the food. Turnbull shares these experiences to raise questions concerning basic human nature, and makes constant reference to "goodness" and "virtue" being cast aside when there is nothing left but a need to survive (even going so far as to draw parallels to the individualism of 'civilized' society). Overall, living with the Ik seems to have afflicted Turnbull more with melancholy and depression than anger, and he dedicated his work "to the Ik, whom I learned not to hate".
While popular, the book was controversial, and the accuracy and methodology of Turnbull's work has been questioned. Turnbull himself mentions his sources' uncooperative nature and tendency to lie. Bernd Heine gives the following examples to support his claims that Turnbull's conclusions and methodology were flawed.
Heine endorsed the conclusion of T.O. Beidelman.
This book cannot be discussed in any proper sociological terms, for we are provided with only snatches of data. Rather than being a study of the Ik, this is an autobiographical portrait of the author utilizing the Ik as counters for expressing his personal feelings and experiences in the field.
Turnbull also argued that Ik society was already destroyed and all that could be done was to save individual tribal members. Consequently Turnbull advocated to the Ugandan government forcible relocation of random tribal members (with no more than ten people in any relocated group).
In 1975, Turnbull's book provided the source material for a play called The Ik, written by Colin Higgins and Dennis Cannan. The play, directed by Peter Brook, premiered in Paris in 1975, and was produced in London in 1976 by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It also toured the United States in 1976 as a bicentennial gift from the French government.
Physician and poet Lewis Thomas wrote an essay entitled "The Ik"; Cevin Soling read this as a child, sparking an interest that ultimately led to his making a documentary, Ikland (2011). It was produced in the mid-2000s by Spectacle Films and directed by Soling and David Hilbert. The film depicts the Ik people in a positive light by showing how easily befriended they are, how they survive and live as families, their music and dancing and even their ability to step into acting roles. The documentary concludes with members of the tribe staging a performance of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, as a metaphor of redemption.