About the Turkana Tribe

Early Explorers 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.