A voice for the Ik

Since our last article about the Ik people was written, the Ik have been granted their own county. The significance of this may not be fully evident to you, but for decades, if not centuries, the Ik have lived under the dominance of neighbouring tribes. Now, for the first time the voice of the Ik people will be heard in Parliament. 

Long ago before their neighbours, the Dodoth and Turkana, were as numerous as they are now, and before they all acquired the AK-47 rifle, the odds between them and the Ik were more even. Then there were sure to have been clashes, but when everyone has a spear or a bow and arrow, it’s fairer to both sides.

From the mid-20th century, the British had control over Uganda and therefore Karamoja. Those days were the beginning of the age of nyeriaŋ ‘modernity’ and nyapukan ‘government’. Before then, the Ik fended for themselves. Since then, they’ve had to ultimately bow before the mysterious authority of the Government, extending its far reach from Kampala.

When the British left, their administrative structure remained largely in place, with the vacant spots filled by native Ugandans. In the case of the Ik, the administration of the district in which they lived came under control of the majority group, the Dodoth (a sub-tribe of the Karimojong). To most outsiders, Karamoja was thought to be the land of the ‘Karimojong’, and they were imagined to be a more or less homogenous group of people. Little did most know, the ‘Karimojong’ themselves had divided up into at least ten sub-tribes over the last couple of centuries. Not only that, but within Karamoja, often hidden geographically and politically, there were and still are a number of minority ethnic groups. These include the Tepeth and Nyang’i (related to the Ik), the Sebei and Pokot (minorities in Karamoja but also numerous outside Karamoja), the Napore, Mening, the Okuti… and the Ik.

In the northernmost district of Karamoja (formerly Kotido, now Kaabong District) many of the most powerful positions in local government have been filled by members of the majority Karimojong sub-tribe: the Dodoth. In principle, this makes sense and is not wrong. But in practice, many of the Dodoth politicians and leaders have used their position and power not only to jockey for personal gain but also to guarantee resources for their own ethnic group, not infrequently at the expense of the minority groups living in the district.

That is a little window into the historical context from which the news of the new Ik county now comes. Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni’s wife, the First Lady Janet Museveni, also happens to be Prime Minister for Karamoja. She is reputed to be a believing Christian. In recent years she has seemed to take a special interest in the minority peoples living among the dominant Karimojongs. We are told that the directive for creating a county for the Ik alone came straight from the top. Since the Ik do not qualify for their own county in terms of population, this indicates that a special provision was made for them on the part of the President and First Lady. God bless them for that!

Last Tuesday a Kaabong District council meeting was held to determine whether the local councillors would agree to the Ik having their own county to themselves versus including two Dodoth sub-counties within the new Ik county. Apparently the resolution for the Ik county still gave the district room to alter and restrict the Ik’s options. And so we were contacted by two Ik leaders to ask if we could drive a group of Ik down to Kaabong to attend the meeting. Amber and I both felt right away that this was something we wanted to be a part of. So I (Terrill) drove seven Ik men and one Ik woman down. The meeting was five hours long, with no break (though I did sneak out for some lunch!), lots of other stuff on the agenda, with the main reason for the meeting (Ik county) saved for last. Two people were opposed to the Ik having the county to themselves. Their statements were weakly delivered and unfavourably received. The Speaker of the Council pushed hard for the resolution to come to a vote. It did, and the result was 18-1 in favour of an Ik-only new county!

Now, for the first time in history, the Ik people have political representation and visibility that can penetrate through or high-jump over their oppressors. This is a victory in the building of the Ugandan nation and in the rights of minority groups and in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ in which diversity of peoples is welcomed and celebrated. It’s true that this new county will not spell the end of the many trenchant problems the Ik have. Certainly it will mean the creation of many new problems. But having their own county will mean that the Ik will have an Ik representative in the heart of the Ugandan government (Parliament). It will mean the allocation of more resources toward all the basic things the Ik need like healthcare, road networks, schools, etc. But to me, the best thing it means is that something progressive is finally happening! The gears of history are grinding, and the wheel of the world has made another revolution. The old, static regime of ethnic domination is showing cracks and early signs of crumbling. This gives us hope. Christ, the Changer, the Life-giver is at work!

Thank you to all who have been praying for the Ik. It has made a difference! Please continue to pray for the Ik man who will become a Member of Parliament. Pray that he takes his job seriously and strives to represent the needs of his people to the Ugandan government!

Related stories

Branching out

Paul and Helen, along with their three girls, serve in Kotido, a town in the Karamoja region of northern Uganda.

> Read more

Practical education

Adam Willard, AIM’s Unit Leader for Uganda, has lived with his family in remote places in three different countries over several years. He shares that one similarity they have seen in each of these places is the struggle to educate church leaders in contextual and reproducible ways.  

> Read more

Shaping lives

Gordon and Grace McCullough worked in Uganda between 1967 and 1997. Initially teaching for two years and then later serving as AIM missionaries for thirteen years.

> Read more

There are so many ways you can be a part of reaching Africa's unreached peoples with the good news of Jesus Christ.