Uganda: Endangered tribe puts hope in rookie lawmaker

Young lawmaker goes from learning in a grass-thatched house to joining the ranks of 457 parliamentarians

Uganda: Endangered tribe puts hope in rookie lawmaker Uganda's young lawmaker Hillary Lokwang

By Halima Athumani


Uganda’s near-extinct Ik tribe has found hope in its first-ever elected legislator.

Named by UNESCO among Uganda’s tribes that are near extinction, for the first time in 54 years since the establishment of the Ugandan Parliament, the Ik tribe has sent it a legislator: Hillary Lokwang.

“My goal was to be a sub-country chief so I could help my people and lobby for better social services,” the 35-year-old lawmaker told Anadolu Agency.

His journey from the remote village of Lodoi, Timu Parish, Ik County, Kabong district in the Karamoja region to Parliament bears little similarity to the 457 other legislators he now mingles with.

Lokwang describes his childhood as challenging, filled with insecurity, hunger, poverty and moving long distances on foot. “I grew up in the forest with my parents, where there was no existing civilization,” he said.

Born in 1982, the youngest of seven boys was determined to get an education. Lokwang’s father, the village’s leader, though illiterate and poor, ensured that he went to the only primary school in the village.

“I started my education in 1987 in Timu Primary School, a grass-thatched house,” he remembered. “I repeated primary one for five years because of insecurity – my studies were not consistent.”

Unlike other parts of the country where one has to complete school up to seventh grade, the Ik’s first legislator ended at fourth grade and then for some time became the village teacher.

“When I started [teaching], I would just go with my plate during lunchtime, eat food, and return home,” he said. “In time I got used to school life, seeing other children playing and singing.”

Wild west Uganda

With a population of around 14,000, the Ik live on the mountain ranges around the Kidepo Valley National Park in the Karamoja region, over 400 kilometers from Uganda’s capital, Kampala.

The Ik, who subsist as fruit-gatherers and hunters, are surrounded by cattle rustlers, the Jie and Dodoth in Karamoja and Turkana in North Western Kenya, tribes which often attack the little-known Ik in a kind of “wild west” lawless atmosphere.

In 1990, due to insecurity, his family had to move and settle at a Catholic mission where he joined the Komkuny boys’ missionary school in second grade. As fate would have it, he had to drop out of school in 1993, and together with his family moved on foot to the forested areas near the Rift Valley.

Tired of staying at home, in 1995 he escaped to Kenya with eight other boys. While his companions were arrested by border authorities and sent back to Uganda, Lokwang was lucky enough to escape and continued to Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp and registered as a refugee. “I badly wanted to study, so after six months at the camp I registered to go to Canada,” he said.

But as he was the youngest, and thus seen as still deserving considerable parental investment, Lokwang said his parents sent someone to look for him, and they brought him home.

After escaping from home alone again, Lokwang moved to the Dodoth West Constituency in the Northern Karamoja region. He was then supported by Catholic missionaries until 1998, when he completed seventh grade.

On secondary school, he said, “It wasn’t easy. There was a lot of hunger yet the big boys struggled for food, and because of my size, I continuously missed [classes].”

A nun moved him to the neighboring district of Mbale, where he finished secondary school in 2004.

Mountain people

As luck would have it, in early 2012 Uganda’s first lady, Janet Kataha Museveni, who was then state minister for Karamoja affairs, visited Karamoja. Lokwang said, “I asked her to help me get a scholarship and also table before Parliament the Iks’ request to have a constituency.”

That August he enrolled in St. Lawrence University and graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in public administration and management.

In April 2015, the Ugandan Parliament accepted the proposal to give the Ik a county status, and Lokwang was elected unopposed in February 2016.

The Ik have their unique Tueso language and are also known as the mountain people. “We live on the mountain escarpments because of fear, but it’s our lifestyle,” Lokwang said.

Lokwang is lobbying the government to boost security in the area due to raids and rustlers. He is also pushing for better schools both at the lower and higher secondary levels. “My dream now is to see about 30-40 graduates in the next five years from the Ik.”

“Most of the Ik have never come to town, we still live in our grass-thatched house, or manyattas, so when my people come to the city it’s like they are seeing beautiful rocks.”

An Ik that is ready for marriage is given a gourd, pumpkin, melons and (for men) a spear to get them ready to hunt.

Beaming that he has come this far, Lokwang said, “I am proud that I’m now in Parliament where I can speak for my people and I want the world to know that we exist.”

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