About the Turkana Tribe

Migration & 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 Turkana Traditional Homestead

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

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.