About the Turkana Tribe

Importance of Livestock for the Turkana

Why Kenya's cattle raids are getting deadlier | Kenya News | Al Jazeera

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 & 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’.