Kidepo at 50: Meet the Ik tribe, a tourist attraction

The visit to the Ik tribe took two hours of climbing up Mt Molungole, in the North-eastern corner of Uganda and four climbing down. This tribe, numbering just over 11,000 people in total are considered a minority tribe, and so a tourist attraction. We set off early and drove 100km to Usake, the first Ik sub-county at Kariyo.

The drive followed the new Sudan road that Zimwe had started constructing before he, as usual, lost interest. The road, which brought development closer to the Ik mountain foot, is littered with decaying Zimwe road construction equipment; loaders, graders, pressers, trucks etc, which were abandoned after just about 10 kilometres of the road had been done. After that, we followed a motorable track up to Usake, the closest Government goes to the Ik community.

Usake is at the foot of Molungore mountain, home of the Ik. Many gathered to welcome us, a team of curious journalists bearing equipment that is worth their total GDP. Their LC I chairman, Lokoro Ochan, said his people were peaceful and comfortable in the mountains, without any urgent need for what we call development.

Speaking through the interpretation of Lotyang Mark Ben, the only Ik who works as a ranger in  Kidepo National park, Lokoro – who claimed to be 80, said they are used to the visitors from out and that it is usually Whites, the first to visit the Ik having come in 1940.

There was a school teacher who was trying to organize children into some sort of choir but they were too mesmerized by the cameras and visitors to waste time singing. It could also have been because the guy was very drunk. He knew the minister of Karamoja and what condoms were. But when I asked him if he has ever used one, he looked bewildered and said some Ik words gesturing a knife cutting the neck. I took it to mean he would rather die.

The Ik look very much like the Karimojong. The only difference is in language and the cultivation culture. They are organized under clan leadership and even when Government introduced LC system, they don’t campaign or vote for their leaders. Clan heads sit down and appoint the LC I chairman depending on how knowledgable he is about them and the outside world.

The journey up the mountain was torturous and had it not been for the guiding rangers assisting with luggage, tips and encouraging words, I would have returned to base. The tour guide was also clever enough to send the vehicles away to the other mountain side where we were supposed to slope down a gentler gradient down to the lowlands. So returning would not help because our vehicles had left. The climbing took me two hours and 14 minutes through hostile cliffs and steep slopes that can scare the less brave.

The fitter ones arrived before men and by the time I made it, the Ik community we visited gathered from their manyatta and were danced for us. The songs were spirited and the dancers appeared as entertained as the visitors. Children didn’t take part. They kept aside asking for biscuits and money the way Karimojong do in kamapala.

And when a mother would discover that her child has been given a biscuit, she would scold the child, grab the biscuit from the kid and eat it herself. Similary, I saw a man demand an Orange juice packet from a woman who complied like she was his wife.

The Ik are a closed community. According to Lokoro Ochan, the LC II chairman, people are peaceful and prefer isolation in their mountains.

They are polygamous and men marry as many wives as they want, sometimes depending on the number of bee hives one has. A respectable man owns as many as 50 bee hives and can give about five to ten as bride price. The Ik honey is thick, natural and conc and sells for sh20,000 a 5 litre jerrycan in the lowlands.

Families have many children who sleep with parents in the same small huts. After five years, children migrate to stay with their grandparents until the boys are old enough to build their own huts, about 11 to 13. Up to five or six boys normally build one hut and stay in it till one of them gets a wife. Then the rest have to leave and build another.

The huts have one room, which is everything, kitchen, bedroom, and dining. The hut I entered has a children sleeping place on the left and the parents’ place on the right, separated by the cooking stones. There was no mattress or mat, save for a trough scooped out of the floor to mark the bounds of a bed.

The rest was basically empty of normal household utensils. I asked where they kept their clothes and was told they are all being used by the hut residents. Every woman has a hut and the men make rounds among their wives in the neighbourhood.

Lotyang, himself an Ik, said the adolescent youth do practice premarital sex away from the community eye basically because virginity is not an issue before marriage and the close proximity of the community where boys and girls stay with each other every day. However, sex and marriage within the same clan is a taboo. A single manyatta houses many huts and clans.

On the way back, we took a longer but fairly less hostile route which, because of the distance was equally torturous. Descending took us about four hours and by the time we arrived at the place where the vehicles were waiting for us, my body and spirit were in shreds. By Sunday, every muscle pained and I am still wondering whether I would return to  Molungole mountains on foot.


The previous day on Friday morning, the park’s conservation officer, also known as the chief warden, Johnson Masereka, had assured us that Kidepo has 80% more chance of citing lions than any other park in Uganda. But search we did till we ran out of the morning without seeing any cat. We started planning a show down with him.

But the rest were easily available except the elephants which emigrated as soon as MPs started debating the Marriage and Domestic relations bill.

Rumour has it that the elephants were preparing to return when their colleagues in Parliament – according to the prime minister, passed another public order management bill. Masereka is not worried though, he is sure they will return to celebrate the park’s 50 years of existence.

Friday’s game ride was in the Narus valley of Kidepo. Saturday’s was in the Kidepo valley. According to Sgt Phillip Akorongimoe our guide, when the park was being planned in the 1950s, Karimojong elders were asked to suggest a name for it.

The park is comprised of two major river valleys, Kidepo river being one of them. They chose Kidepo which is Karimojomg for ‘to pick from down’. It was in reference to the dates like fruits people used to pick in this river valley.

Did I say river? Well, its kind of confusing. While other rivers have sand, Kidepo’s sand have a river! When we arrived at Kidepo river, I feared a man called Moses could have been there before us.

You remember the Moses who parted the sea of reeds for the Israelites to pass on dry ground long before Bitamazire was born? Karamajong rivers are basically seasonal, Akorongimoe explained.

After rains, they fill and flood for about three hours and then dry out to empty river beds. That is what we found in Kidepo river full of sand just. But scoop a hole in the sand and water will fill it. Stray off the road and you sink in the sand, which therefore qualifies it to be a river.

We proceeded to the South Sudan border where the Didingas live. Around there are the Kanangoro hot springs. The place also had lots of ostriches and other birds of no little esteem. We returned to base for lunch feeling like a lover after great romance but without sexual fulfillment just because we had seen no lions yet.

After  lunch, the guides were given express orders to get us lions at all costs. That meant crisscrossing the park, from the northern boader with South Sudan to the lower park. Then we saw them. Six kings of the jungle pretending not to have been lost the whole day. I loved it, I loved Kidepo.

Source:New Vision.

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