The colourful and warlike Turkana people are an important pastoral community living in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province. Their daily lives are shaped by the extreme climate in northern Kenya, and as with other tribes in the country, they are traditionally nomadic.
The history bit
Originally the Turkana tribe came from the Karamojong region of Uganda and legend has it that they arrived in Kenya after chasing after a runaway bull. They speak a Nilotic language similar to the Maasai, and live in harsh and dry desert-like environments. The British saw little value in this land and consequently the Turkana were the least affected of all Kenya’s people during the 20th Century changes in the country.
Livestock is the main source of food and wealth and thus central to the Turkana culture. Goats, sheep and camels provide meat and milk, as well as being used in bride-price negotiations. Cattle are highly prized, and it is an accepted custom to raid neighbouring tribes to steal their animals. These raids have become dangerous in recent years thanks to increased use of firearms by the tribesmen, and it’s quite common to see herdsmen carrying rifles whilst out tending to their stock.
Water is scarce in this region and the Turkana have to dig wells in dry river beds for their animals (and themselves) to drink. They sometimes have to walk for several hours before finding a suitable water source.
The Turkana tribe doesn’t have a strong social structure, and extended families live together self-sufficiently, although sometimes collective animal grazing takes place. Polygamy is part of the Turkana culture, and a man can have as many wives as he can afford. This is another way of displaying his wealth, and the more children he has, the higher his status in society.
Turkana clothing is almost as colourful as the Maasai and Samburu, with men wearing bright woollen blankets and women adorning themselves with beaded jewellery. Quantity and quality of this jewellery indicates the social standing of the woman, so people can tell with once glance her status. Women also wear animal skin clothing, whilst men cover their heads with mud, painting it blue and adding ostrich feathers. Both men and women wear a lip plug in the lower lip.
Whilst the men are out protecting the animals the women are at home looking after the children and making necklaces and bracelets. Men also craft weapons such as knives and spears, and are very skilled at metalwork, wood and stone carving. Turkana men carry wooden stools for sitting on in the hot sand, and also for headrests to keep their heads off the ground and protect ceremonial head decorations.
The Turkana follow a traditional African religion. They pray to their god Akuj or the spirits of their ancestors for blessings in times of hardship, like the many droughts they have faced over the years. The Turkana believe that following their traditions each day will lead to blessings, which in turn will provide an increase in wealth, whether that be livestock, wives, children or food. Witch doctors are also popular, and they often tattoo stomachs to cast out unwanted spirits.
The Turkana Today
Whilst cattle remain the most important livelihood of the tribe, many communities now engage in small scale agriculture as well, when the climate allows. Those living near Lake Turkana also use fishing to provide an income, and some Turkana men have taken outside employment in the security services, or have become guards.
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