The Prodigious Turkana

The Turkana of North-Western Kenya

The Turkana tribe of North-Western Kenya

On the west of Lake Turkana (in north-western Kenya) live the Turkana tribe, a fierce, arresting, war-like folk that have had to co-exist with several other gutsy neighbours. It is, perhaps, their considerable scrimmages with Suk or Pokot – “a people who might be described as halfway between the Maasai and Turkana” – and the Matheniiko tribe of Uganda that have brought to the forefront their venerated warriorship. The Turkana tribe are often depicted as a race of giants, prodigious even, if you add the elaborate hair-dress with a circlet tuft of ostrich feathers that add to their imposing appearance, being certainly taller than many tribes of the north, and appear very big when compared to the compact Bantu people. A man of six feet is more the rule than the exception here, and as a race are as tall as some of the people in Sudan. All the same, the Turkana tribe of North-Western Kenya are a genial, hospitable people, who live much after the manner of the Maasai and talk the same. The Turkana girl wears her elaborately beaded necklace(s) which attests to her beauty, culture, and her father’s wealth.


Brief Overview of the Turkana Tribe

Against many odds, the Turkana tribe of North-Western Kenya have developed means of living in the desert and have maintained their way of life for centuries in a place where many could not. Their homeland lies in the eye of the sun, the altitude rarely rising over 1,000 metres, and the day temperature hardly falling under 35 C year-round. Except for the shores around Lake Turkana and along River Kerio, much of the country is semi-arid and in sizeable places wasteland; with no better example than the Suguta Valley in the southern area of Turkana County. Although there are many river beds in the Suguta Valley, which might suggest that rivers flow here, none of them is faintly permanent. They are all intermittent, that is, they flow immediately after a period of rain, but dry up completely. This obviously indicates a very dry climate. The total population of the vast Turkana County is still less than a million, with a population density of 12 people per square kilometre. The Turkana dwell in small groups, each group many kilometers distant from its neighbour. Their huts closely resemble those of the Maasai; usually several huts grouped within a surrounding wall of thorn bushes. The huts consist of only a close framework of sticks, sometimes covered with skins when it is wet. The chief occupation of the Turkana tribe is herding of stock, and, it may be added, the acquiring of it by fair means or foul. There is a saying used in Turkana County when there’s a parlay on the latter: “Angatun aite apei ejok edwangit abongun kogin”: “Gaining one cow on a cattle raid is better than gaining none.” Raiding and counter-raids with their neighbouring communities, that have been ongoing for well over a century, may be described as an occupation, which has brought much trouble among the tribe. They own and take pride in their herds and packs of camel, cattle, donkey, sheep and goat.

Model Ajuma Nasenyana welcome you to Turkana Festival

Settlement in Turkana County

Many Kenyans have a blind spot about the inequality and existence of life in the North of Kenya. The disparity between communities in the Central and Western Regions of Kenya, that account for twenty of the well-to-do Counties of Kenya, instead view the Northern Frontier of Kenya as a thing-a-majig monolith with only occasional thriving business opportunities but nonetheless a broad brush of inequalities, in the past utterly marginalized and neglected by even its own Government. The surprising truth is there’s as much opportunities among these marginalized Counties of Kenya as there is among the fertile highland counties. As recent development have brought to proof, the gilded mineral endorsement of Turkana in terms of oils reserves. Still and all, the North exists as a stressed out quadrum, unable to keep up with the rapidity of development in the rest of Kenya, while pressure by the harsh and inhospitable environment renders them victims of the desert. The predominant tribe on the western side of the Lake is the Turkana. Some of the minority tribes include the Luo, Kisii, and Luhya who have migrated from other regions. Turkana are by and large pastoralist, notable for raising camels and weaving baskets. The rely unsettlingly on few rivers, such as the Turkwel River and Kerio River. When these rivers flood, new sediment and water extend onto the river plains that’re cultivated after heavy rainstorms, which occur infrequently. When the rivers dry up, open‐pit wells are dug in the river beds, which are put to use for watering livestock and human consumption.

Spatial Location of Turkana County in Kenya - Map of Kenya

If you write-off Ilemi Triangle from Turkana County – that disputed triangular piece of land separating Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan – then Marsabit County which covers an area of 70,961 km2 is the largest County of Kenya. As a whole, Turkana County, covering 77,000 km2 and accounting for 42.4% of the total area of the old Rift Valley Province, is split into 7 sub-counties: Turkana North, Loima, Turkana West, Turkana Central, Turkana East, Turkana South and Kibish. The settlement patterns in the county are determined largely by climate, soil fertility, availability of water, pastures, infrastructure and social facilities; mainly found in urban and peri‐urban centres. Katilu has the largest number of people, owing to its proximity of Katilu Irrigation Scheme along the Turkwel River. Hence, the most populous region is Turkana Central with a population of 253,777 in 2012. Lodwar Town the principal town and capital of the county has the highest population projected to be 54,978 in 2012. Population density in the county varies from 24 persons per km2 in Turkana Central to 5 persons per km2 in Turkana East; averaging to 12 persons per km2. Majority of households in the Turkana County sustain a family size of five upto fifteen people per home.

The Turkana tribe of North-Western Kenya under normal situation settle in the plains. Considering variations in weather, very few of them settle permanently in one place. So that during and shortly after the rains, the Turkana people are concentrated at the plains. As the drier season starts, they move mostly to high mountain areas and even to neighbouring countries of Sudan and Ethiopia in search of pasture and water for their livestock. Permanent and semi‐permanent settlements in the county are to be found along Turkwel and Kerio rivers where small‐scale irrigated farming is practiced and along the lake shores of Lake Turkana, with some social infrastructures like schools and health facilities that support human settlement. Along these areas there exist peri‐urban market centres or fish trading centers. Majority of houses belonging to communities around the lake reflects their traditions. A typical Turkana house along the lake is made of mud floor with almost 90% houses made of stick/poles and reed or poles/stick and mud walla. Variations include use thatch to roof their houses, roofing with corrugated iron sheets. The typical hut is doom shaped with walls made of sticks/poles, and then covered with pieces of cloth, skin/cloth material.

Map of the Population Distribution in Kenya.
Map of the Population Distribution in Kenya.

Migration and Origin of the Turkana Tribe

Quite unsung and fairly impressive is the fact that the migration of the Turkana tribe of North-Western Kenya is thought to be earliest among the communities of Kenya, some 1000 years ago, in company with the migration of the Luo along the White Nile. “A large number of groups were on the move, notably of the so-called Karamojong people, the Turkana, further east, and the famed Maasai and southern Nilotes. All these societies, except the Luo, were primarily pastoralists, akin to the Oromo and Somali. All tribes were searching for ’empty’ lands with a relatively low population density. Their movements were heavily dependent on natural conditions” – Africa from the 16th to the 18th century. Their affinity of language proves that the Turkana tribe of North-Western Kenya are allied to the Jie and Karamajong of Uganda, and in Kenya, the Plains Nilotic Groups Maasai (Loosekelai, Laikipiak and Purko), Samburu, Teso, Elmolo, Njemps – while such affinity of language also classes the Highland Nilotic: Kalenjin (Kipsigis, Nandi, Keiyo, Marakwet, Sabaot, Pokot, Tugen, Terik and Ogiek) and the River Lake Nilotic (Luo) in one grouping, called “Nilotic”. While most East Africans were agriculturalists, the Maasai, Pokot and Turkana were to a great extent herdsmen who drove their cattle to pasture across the plains. Livestock provided clothing and food, weapons and utensils. Among the herdsmen, such as Maasai and Turkana, livestock governed daily life and relations of kinship, as family prosperity and individual security were measured in terms of ownership.

Sacred burial site of Nayeche near Moruanayeche. Image courtesy of TurknaLand
Sacred site of Nayeche near Moruanayeche. Image courtesy of TurkanaLand

Mythological Origins of the Turkana Tribe

The 93 kms expedition from Lokichoggio to Kakuma towns travels through an unfrequented and unusual arid landscape interspersed by fetching hillocks and ranges, most elevated of these: Songot Mountain (near Lokichoggio); Pelekech Range and Loima Hills (nearby Kakuma). Just 10 kms south of Kakuma Town, astride Murwana Nayeche Hill, is one of the most culturally important sites in Turkana County. The sacred Nayeche Site is enshrined as the final resting place for Nayeche, the Turkana tribe ‘heroine of origin’. Legend has it, the Jie People of northern Uganda and the Turkana of Kenya all maintain that Nayeche (a Jie woman) followed the footprints of a gray bull across the inhospitable arid plains and settled around the shore of Lake Turkana, where she progenerated the Turkana tribe. The site is marked by a pile of stones, neatly arranged around an almost circular enclosure. Traditionally, a layer of stone is usually built over an eminent leader’s grave and anyone who passes by afterwards adds a stone to the top of the pile. Gazing at the sun-scorched pile of stones at the hallowed shrine, it’s cogent to muse on the Turkana tribe’s religion; to imagine how they related to the divine. Far from where it once was, but unlike many tribes around Kenya, where centuries-old systems of religion were pushed aside by Christianity, the Turkana are an exception, keeping to their traditional beliefs. Their supreme deity is locally known as “Akuj” (sky), who they pray to directly and oft-times through invoking the ancestral spirits. Even so, Akuj is not part of everyday life, the natives orderly directing their actions and would be reverence in seasons of disasters, penury and calamities, living in superstition, and awaiting directives (blessings) that would transform their current predicaments; especially when rain is needed! Animal sacrifices are common during drought periods, to please Akuj. “The clan rituals in Turkana which represent the acknowledgement and transitions of life force, such as birth, initiation, marriage, annual blessing sacrifices and death rituals are overseen by the elder or “ngikarikok” of the clan.


The Traditional Life of the Turkana Tribe

A Typical Turkana Homestead. Image Courtesy of Travel Blog
A Typical Turkana Homestead. Image Courtesy of Travel Blog

The Turkana Traditional Homestead

The Turkana call themselves “Ngiturukana”, their language “Ngaturukana”, and their traditional homestead “adakar or ngadakarin”. In character with societies the world over, the family (awi or ngauyei) is their basic unit. The compound of a single family homestead is typically comprised of a man (ekile or ngikilyok), his wives (aberu/ngaberu – singular), children (ikoku/ngide – singular) and [if] an older unmarried daughter (apese nakoota). The common adakar, much same as the Maasai bomas, structurally and functionally, comprises of: a series of all weather huts set up in about a circular formation – night hut (akai/ngakais), day-time hut (ekoli/ngikolya), and a small night-hut made by an unmarried girl for her boy friend (etyam); roofless sleeping huts; day house; working area. The interior of the all-weather huts have containers along the walls, the uppermost section reserved for storing ostrich feathers and tobacco etc,. and is made of wood, skin lid and base. Considering the Turkana are semi-nomadic, their huts are only temporary. A neat frame is constructed on bend sticks and their spaces filled with skin, or palm and leaves; and the whole circular hut may be plastered with a mixture of earth and cow dung. The inside of the main hut is divided into two – one room is for the warrior and the other is for the children and elderly. The huts of 2-5 families (eiyenet/ngiiyenet) are build close together in a circle and surrounded by a fence of sticks/branches for protection. The livestock krall (anok/nganokin) occupies the safest quarter of the adakar (homestead). Akin to the Maasai, watches are kept at night by the women. This is to allow the men to turn out fresh in case of alarm. For this purpose the porches of the huts have the doorways arranged so as to face the entrance to adakar, so that the women may sit in the shadow of the porch and watch over the weak spots in the fence.

In much of Turkana County, the material culture is still traditional, in the sense that most homesteads, household equipment and utensils are made from local raw materials and have not been influenced much by contact. Neither has the nature of settlements and house construction changed substantially from what it was in 1888, when Teleki and von Hohnel first visited the area. Although it may be said that the Turkana style of pastoralism represents an ancient mode of adaptation, almost no other ethno-archaeological work has been published on them or any of the other classic East African pastoral tribes. The homesteads are mainly raised by the women, although men may assist in gathering of the necessary materials. Each wife constructs her own compound. The senior wife’s compound is consisted of a day hut, a roofless sleeping area, a bad weather hut, a general work and cooking area and a livestock kraal. A spear (akwara), for example, is used for cutting and woodworking, but it is primarily a weapon. The bad weather house contains nearly one-half of the objects. It is typified by a high frequency of containers and is unique in the presence of three special fat containers (akgitum) made from skin. The day house is next in the frequency of containers, including two of the three metal vessels. In contrast, little is found in the sleeping hut. The work and kitchen area contains most of the primary tools, which are housed in a brushwood structure (ekevo), as are as the only pottery found in the compound. Today, Turkana pottery has substantially been replaced by purchased metal pans. Hearths and fire pits may be found in the kitchen area, in the sleeping Irut outside the kraal, for protection of the stock from predators, and outside the entire homestead, for driving away mosquitoes.

The Prodigious Turkana Warrior

The fantastic chignons (akitok) sported by the Turkana warrior are one of the most elaborate hairstyles among the nomadic peopling of Kenya. The chignons are formed by pulling their hair at length and plastering the mass with red clay and animal fat. More eccentric styling consists of dead ancestors hair matted together with red earth and plaited on to their own hair. The striking chignons, sometimes reaching down the back almost to the waist, are poked with a few ostrich feathers and long bits of wire which curls backwards and upwards over the head. These enormous head-dresses and chignons of plaited hair and mud surmounted by ostrich feathers add considerably to their imposing appearance. The Turkana men, like the Maasai, did not traditionally wear any dress, with the exception, perhaps, of a skin hung from the shoulder and/or a loin cloth (atele/ngatelei). A curious pendant of glass or agate is worn by the Turkana warrior attached to the lower lip, known as the atepes or ngatepeso. A similar ornament is worn by the Acholi on the Nile. Other ornamentation adorned by the Turkana warrior, and men in general, include: ngiteroi/aikiiki (ornament for men on which feathers are put); akaparaparat (oval-shaped ear ornament), ankwangat (metal armlet), apukot/ngapukoto (cap or hat traditionally made of straw), aumo/ngaumoi (cap for old men made of pelican’s feather); ngakalaca (headband), and alagama/ngalagam (necklace made of thick wires and beads).

It is common-place to see the Turkana men carrying about little wooden semi circular stools (ekicolong) and pillow. They use it during the daytime as a very inadequate seat and as a pillow at night to keep their treasured chignons off the ground. Their shields are smaller than those of the Masai. The Turkana warrior affects a posture similar to that of the Maasai, that of standing on one leg with the other resting on the inside of the thigh. Concomitantly, the Turkana warrior have a great reputation for ferocity, the early explorer having, in most cases, to fight their way when crossing their country. Count Teleki encountered great difficulties with the tribe, resulting to gunning more than a dozen men to secure his way. The Turkana tribe, being pastoralists, hold their cattle highly, and so do their rivals; so when cattle raids take place, the Turkana warrior will defend his herd to his death. Somewhat uniquely, the Turkana, unlike their opposite-number Maasai, do not perform circumcision as a right of passage from being a boy (edia/ngide) to man (esapat/ngisapa: esorokit/ngisorok): In its place, they perform a ceremony known as ‘asapan’, where boys of age are socially initiated to adulthood. “For the boys, the rite of passage to manhood is learning to hunt an animal with a single throw of the spear, to show strength and skill. If they succeed in this endeavor, the elderly dismember the animal and smear the contents of the stomach and intestines on the young body in sign of blessing”. Afterwards, ostrich feathers, which are rare and valuable, are bestowed on the initiate, as a sign of maturity, which also marks the end of the ritual of passage.

Turkana man resting on his ekicolong. Image courtesy of Victor Englebert
Turkana man resting on his ekicolong. Image courtesy of Victor Englebert

The Beautiful Turkana Girl

The Turkana girl wears her elaborately beaded necklace(s) which attests to her beauty and her father’s wealth. Since birth her father gives her brightly colored red, green, blue and yellow beads until, at the marriageable age of 20 years, has accumulated as much as her neck can handle. In most cases the necklaces may weigh 10 kilograms (18 pounds). Once the Turkana girl marries, she will give her beads to younger sisters and her husband will present her with new ones. As a widow she will again remove her beads and replace them with white ones. The ornamentation adorned across all stages of the beautiful Turkana girl’s life are as a varied in their symbolic use as they are dashing in their appearance and uniqueness. They include: amaritoit (ear-ring); epedeit (ear-ring made of small beads); egelit (armlet); alagama (necklace shaped with thick wires); ekaboobait (finger-ring); akoroumuwai (beaded necklace); ngalukyo (beaded ornament for girls worn on the head); akoli (the women’s belt); aruba (girls’ belt); akitepes (newly married women’s belt); eboli (belt like ornament for girls decorated with beads); akopot (leather ornament worn beneath the knee); ekude (girls’ front apron); adewel (married women’s back apron); and aremai (leather ornament decorated with beads for girls worn on the back, from neck to waist); and more. The Turkana of North-Western Kenya say of a bride: “It’s the things a woman wears that make her beautiful”. A Turkana woman wears for life magnificent multi-layered beaded ornaments indicative of her tenor stage in life; unmarried, married, with a child or widow. For the beautiful Turkana girl, marriage marks the most important transition, that should be between the members of the clan or the mother’s clan as a mode of strengthening the kinship and social alliances.

To a large extent, the Turkana tribe are split into two main clan groups; Ngirisai (Leopard) and Ngimor (Stone or Mountain). If a man is of the Ngirisai clan, his sons will be of the Ngimor clan. His daughters will be of his clan til they marry, when they will take their husbands grouping. The grouping also determines the kind of feathers a man will wear on his headpiece: Ngimor (Stones) often sport black feathers from a male ostrich and dark-coloured metal ornaments; Ngirisai (Leopards) usually wear white feathers from a female ostrich and light-coloured metal ornaments. Furthermore, the Turkana have almost 20 sub-clans and each has a unique cattle brand which helps them to identify their livestock. In order to marry, a man must possess a goodly wealth in terms of cows. After obtaining the consent of the girl, he must also get the approval of the future bride’s family. Having attained his status of esapat (man), it is the object of the young adult to accumulate a decent herd of cattle, with urgency, for the beautiful Turkana girls is worth her weight in cattle. He will be in a better position if his father is in title of a sizeable herd. The dowry or marriage (akoota) negotiations are lengthy, but friendly. The groom (ekewotan/ngikeutak) delivers to the bride (apese nakoota) a gift of marriage negotiation (akibut) in terms of cattle, after presenting the girl to his family on the assumption he will marry her. Ahead of the wedding, bride wealth (ngibareng akoota) is presented to the bride’s family. On the wedding day (ngikotasya) an ox (ekuma) is also presented, which will be ritually speared.

When not under threat, Turkana livelihood depends primarily on their nomadic and pastoralist livelihood, the patriarchal system dictating residential patterns; with the women living, raising children and tending young animals in the rural semi-permanent hamlets, while the able men migrate (200 to 500 kilometers per year) to graze their livestock. Under this mise en scène, the Turkana women are the cornerstone of their families, their resilience most notable in managing the affairs of the household, and especially during seasons of severe drought. It is incumbent on the women in wartime or during drought, when livestock are often wiped out by drought or by cattle rustlers, the men compromised, to act, carefully plan, be self-giving and rely on a fusion of luck, sometimes reducing them to beggars, to keep their families alive. That lingering apprehension and uncertainty has molded them to be dynamic and speculative, and today they are perpetually engaged in small-scale income-generating activities like charcoal-making, fetching firewood to sell, weaving mats and baskets, and gathering fruit to help their families survive. What little income is generated from the sales is also used to pay basic school levies for their children. In a handful of areas like Lokichoggio, Kerio, Tarach and Turkwel Rivers, farming is primarily conducted by the women, who grow crops like sorghum and forage for wild foods. In spite of everything, a weighty concern for many young women to this day appears to be collecting enough beads in their neck jewelry to entitle them to a high dowry.

The Beautiful Turkana Girls. Image Courtesy of Daily Nation
The Beautiful Turkana Girls. Image Courtesy of Daily Nation

Importance of Livestock for the Turkana

Turkana are among the pastoral communities who inhabit the North-Western Kenya, around the western and southern shores of Lake Turkana. They live, therefore, in a dry part of the country and have developed a way of life adapted to the severe conditions found in this region. As semi nomadic people they have adapted their way of life to take advantage of all the scanty possibilities given to this region by nature. They keep a variety of animals; camels (ngikaala), cattle (ngaatuk), goats (nganginei), sheep (ngamezekin) and donkeys (ngisikirya). Camels are kept because they are well adapted to dry conditions and are able to live for several days without water. More important to the Turkana, perhaps, is the fact that camels will eat the bushy vegetation and leave the grass for cattle, and have the advantage of being able to endure the driest possible conditions. Saddles are easily made out of sacking stuffed with ribs of grass or straw. These are fastened with girths and secured to the chest and hind-quarters of camels (and sometimes donkeys) with webbing, allowing plenty of play. The strain only comes on the latter in going up/down hill, when they prevent the saddle riding forward or slipping back. Nevertheless, camels are not held by the Turkana in such great esteem as cattle. Zebu cows are the major source of wealth.  It is the quantity of animals that matters rather than the quality. Like the Maasai, the Turkana drink cows’ blood mixed with milk, and prefer to kill their goats and sheep for meat. The sheep, normally a Persian variety, are mostly found close to Lake Turkana, where the slightly higher rainfall rosies better pasture. Although the camel provide one means of transport, most families have several donkeys to carry their belongings. Without donkeys travelling would far more difficult. Among the Turkana, Luo, Kalenjin and Maasai, it was the custom to freely lend and borrow cattle and to use them for providing bridewealth. In this way, each family herd came to be widely dispersed among kin and friends often living far away, that was to the benefit of both individuals and the community as a whole.

Life in the Inhospitable Turkana County

It is, perhaps, needless to point out that a good rainfall plays a most important role in selection of any kind of land for cultivation, and none knows better that Turkana County is one of the driest and most inhospitable places on earth than the 1,000,000 inhabitants who eke out a living in the semi-arid area. As we now know, much of the region is covered with open bush, a very poor, thorny type savanna; with bare soil between the bushes and very little grass cover to protect the surface from erosion. Indeterminately, the importance assigned to farming, livestock-raising and hunting contrasts with the lack of value given to fishing, apart from amongst the populations living along the banks of Lakes Turkana. The centuries old tendency to move wherever grass and water is available, in endless competition and conflict with the Karamajong, Toposa, Dadoth, Pokot, Rendile, Samburu and Merille drastically declined in recent years, largely due to the effects of livestock diseases, effects of colonial and post-colonial policies and adverse climate change. By the turn of the 20th century, Turkana tribe had become less truculent than before as they suffered from Abyssinian raids from the north, as they prepared to usher a European administration of their county. As the pressures of conforming to new stringent rules ensued, the Turkana tribe were forced to pull up stakes even further sourthwards, and they were found at certain seasons as far south and east as the Elbarta Plains in Samburu County.

Fishing As The New Way of Life

Faced with radical herd losses, thousands of Turkana households moved to the western shores of Lake Turkana for fishing and/or herding. The declaration as a ‘closed district’, that persisted until the 1970s, led to territorial loss that sparked overcrowding of herds, and therefore overgrazing and decline of the remaining pasturelands. This policy affected all the tribes in the North. The region’s ethnic communities most heavily dependent on River Omo or Lake Turkana are the Mursi, Bodi, Kwegu, Suri, Kara, Nyangatom, and Dasanech, in the lower Omo River basin, and the Turkana, El Molo, Rendille, Samburu, Gabbra (and some Dasanech) along the shores of Lake Turkana. For most stockowners, goats and sheep became key components of their herds, since the small stock can survive conditions of deteriorated grasslands and diminished water sources far better than cattle. Even camel herds declined. As things worsened, there was general movement to fishing: A livelihood that absorbed more Turkana over the next few decades through the Government, missionary and aid efforts as well as by the Turkana’s own initiatives. Despite a high failure rate of the fishing projects themselves, many Turkana became skilled fishers. Most of these Turkana began fishing with simple basket nets, though some soon turned to harpoons and then began constructing rafts by lashing together the trunks of doum palm trunks—a technology that’s extant today. Gill nets eventually became somewhat dominant among the anglers and wooden boats are now widespread and in high demand. Kalokol remains main-point for fish collection and trading for Turkana County.

The Turkana tribe of North-Western Kenya

Developments and Future of Turkana County

Cultivation is almost impossible in this area without some sort of irrigation. The Turkana women do not irrigate their small garden plots that they cultivate, but they do try and select low lying land that is a good possibility of being flooded when there’s rainfall. Often, however, there is no rain and the millet seeds that have been planted are wasted, but sometimes there is a crop of millet and the grain forms a useful addition to the diet during the dry season. In spite of their animals and the occasional crop of millet, many Turkana tend to lead lives that may be viewed as demonstrating apathy, as they experience persistent poverty. Year after year, with renewed promises to solve the privation, the Government must support Turkana families with family relief. International agencies, such as Oxfam, supply food to the Turkana, provided that they settle down around the food centers.  Many Turkana, therefore, no longer have many animals and are completely dependent on famine relief for survival. The situation is most unsatisfactory, however, there have been three recent developments that might improve the lives of these tribesmen. After decades of under-investment and marginalization, recent discoveries show that Turkana sits on sizeable natural resource wealth in Kenya. Massive groundwater aquifers at least 200 billion m3 with reportedly 1.2 billion m3 annually recharged: enough water for the county! In September 2013, the Government of Kenya alongside UNESCO announced a discovery that could transform the lives of the million people living in Turkana; although a considerable investment is needed to get the water set at 210 metres.

Over and above that twist of fate, is the recent discovery of oil wells, situated in the southern region of Turkana County, Block 10BB, which were drilled to an intermediate depth of 1,041 meters by British exploration firm Tullow Oil and successfully logged and sampled. Finally, it may come as a surprise to think of fishing becoming important in the most arid part of Kenya. As disorienting as the foreshock of fishing for the Turkana was, cementing their exile within the land of poverty, the dream state of this industry holds much promise, with the necessary acts of investment. Lake Turkana is the largest, virtually untapped, freshwater fishery in Africa and, there are attempts to expand this industry by developing transport and fishing technologies. On November 3rd, 2014, the last bit of sun shone in Turkana. Around the world thousands had circled this day on the calendar, the date of the next total eclipse. Lake Turkana offered the best chance of clear skies along the entire eclipse track through Africa. As the last bit of the sun’s disk disappeared behind the moon’s disk, everything changed! The sky darkened, with sunset colours girding the eclipse chasers. The air cooled, and animals went silent. High up in the sky, the sun’s searing disk disappeared, replaced by a black hole encircled by the electric-white halo of the solar corona. The sun never shone on a better day than that when the Turkana tribe of North-Western Kenya can sustain themselves and live a comfortable, productive and humane life that they deserve. For their perseverance, diversity, and will to face the toughest condition, it is about time they enjoy the best of this ‘lost paradise’.

Drone adventure-Turkana County (Lake Turkana, Lodwar). By HB Online

Overview of Early Voyages to Lake Turkana

In striking contrast to the central and southern half of Kenya, the broad tract of desolate and unexplored country in the north of Kenya attracted little attention before the 20th century. It was an utterly desolate, waterless country, with great natural obstacles of volcanic mass. It was, till then, known to the outside world as a near desert country profuse in little tribes, all differing from one another to a greater or lesser degree in customs and language. Of little value in relation to commerce, industry and transportation, what we now call Turkana County and the area around Lake Turkana (formerly known as Lake Rudolf) rapidly became an iconic geographic space in East Africa at the close of the 19th century. “Early fascination in it by European explorers was motivated by exploration, hunting, ivory trading, and, rather importantly, colonial expansion. For at the time, Lake Rudolf was believed to be a possible source of the Nile, and therefore crucial to European colonial ambitions to control the river”. While Lake Rudolf attracted a good share of adventurers set on ivory hunting or scientific exploration, some, unlike their equivalents today, were in the service of European colonial powers. In many instances, a hunting trip was merely a convenient cover, and in others it was subsequently used to press a colonial power’s claim of first presence. For in the final analysis, the role of Lake Rudolf in the late nineteenth and in early twentieth centuries as a fabled and iconic geographic space was mainly linked to colonial expansion and the political ambitions of competing imperial powers.

Between 1888 and 1910, a progression of expeditions arrived on the shores of Lake Rudolf (Turkana), differentiated by purpose, direction of approach and scope of geographic inquiry, but all sharing a quintessential discovery quest. “They were adventurers and risk takers at heart, men whose courage, daring and resources enabled them to overcome the enormous obstacles presented by climate, geography, and disease. That so remote a place, surrounded by vast inhospitable spaces, served as an iconic magnet speaks to the role of this lake as also enabling nineteenth-century travelers to define and confirm their idealized Victorian male image”. In 1887, Crown Prince Rudolf convinced Count Samuel Teleki von Szek, an avid sportsman, to undertake a journey to ‘‘discover’’ the great north. Teleki and von Höhnel set out from the East African coast on 18 January, 1887, with close to four hundred men. Slightly over a year later, on 5 March, 1888, they finally came within sight of the southern end of the lake. For von Höhnel, seeing the lake for the first time from the heights of a dusty ridge was a romantic aesthetic experience, the culmination of a quest for an iconic geographic space. The usually meticulous scientist and geographer put aside his sextant and compass and gave vent to his deep emotions. The Italian, Captain Bottogo, in 1895-1897, started up the Juba River and visited the northwest end of Lake Rudolf. About the same time A. H. Neumann, starting from British East Africa, made a hunting trip up the east shore of Lake Rudolf. In 1898, Captain Welby made a trip from Addis Ababa, passing down the chain of Lakes Zwai, Margherita and Stefanie, and from then on to the north frontier of Lake Rudolf.


Encounters with Colonial Government

‘Colonial encounters’ is something of a dirty phrase in Kenya’s historical circles. Since independence when the country wend into self-rule in 1963, the issue has only once been deliberately revisited with ‘torture’ compensation of hundreds of Mau Mau veterans from Central Kenya by the British Government. That was in the aftermath of atrocities and peremptory rule, when the colonial government unleashed a state of emergency that hailed the full out war on natives opposing the oppressive land policies. Look where you may in Kenya but colonial legacies are almost always recalled as a tyrannical government that exercised power in a cruel or arbitrary way. In any case, that was world then, no different as in all of Africa. Shortly after the discovery trips to Lake Rudolf, the British domination of Turkana region began, largely from its colonial base in Uganda. As alluded to earlier, the region had little economic prospects and much of the early interests were largely focused around the Nile River region, and part of the strategy was to secure the northern end of Lake Turkana, thought to have been a source of River Nile. As it unavoidably happened, dispossession of the northern Turkana during the late 19th and early 20th centuries occurred mostly at the hands of the British colonials, but fighting between the Turkana and neighbouring ethnic groups in the transboundary region worsened the impacts of this dispossession.

The British, bearing the power of might, defeated the Turkana in 1914-1915 and significantly increased their military print in the area. British forces confiscated massive numbers of Turkana livestock, expropriated large portions of Turkana lands and thoroughly disrupted customary seasonal patterns of patrolalism and exchange throughout the region. “They also disarmed the Turkana tribe, greatly weakening their fighting capacity and placing them at a disadvantage relative to their northern neighbours, particularly the Nyangatom and Dasanech, who had superior access to firearms through their connections in Ethiopia”. According to northern Turkana oral accounts, the Turkana experienced similar stresses in their relations with Pokot and Jie tribes to the west and southwest. Moreover, with imposition of a hut tax on the Turkana tribe, the colonial government was able to confiscate more livestock as the penalty for nonpayment. Unrest in the region—in part, a reaction by the Turkana to these and other aggressive policies by the government—provoked further reprisals and livestock seizures. Food insecurity for the pastoralists was extreme in these early years. Eventually, the colonial government declared a ‘closed district’ policy in the region, a situation that persisted until the 1970s. Meanwhile, the British moved their headquarters from Lorogumu to Lodwar. A small trading center for decades, Lodwar (sited centrally) grew to become the administrative capital of Turkana County—now the largest town in northwestern Kenya, with a population of more than 81,000.