Three elements make up the world of the Turkana: human beings (ngitunga), animals (ngibaren) and Akuj (God). The animals (cattle, camels, goats, sheep and donkeys) are central to the political, economic and religious experience in their life. Cattle are highly regarded, and are only seldom slaughtered, since they provide milk, blood, skins, dung (used as fuel).
The Turkana use livestock to pay the bride-wealth, to celebrate initiation rites, to make sacrifices. An animal is part of any important ritual, be it of joy or of sadness. At the death of a person, an animal of the same gender of the deceased is sacrificed, not before having consulted the emuron (diviner) on the characteristic it must have. A castrated animal can never be a sacrificial victim.
The qualities of the various animals are praised in stories, songs and dances. The Turkana have an incredibly rich vocabulary to describe the shape, the size, the colour, the look, the horns, the ears of each animal.
Animals’ bodies are ‘socialised’ through marks and brands. A lot of time is spend modelling horns into extravagant shapes and notching ears. Special cuts in the ears and particular branding patterns indicate ownership.
Animals play an important role in every step of a person’s development. It is by means of a sacrificed bull that a young man becomes an adult during the rites of initiation, thus getting the right to marry, create a family and join the elders in the guidance of the society. At initiation, a man takes the name of his favourite animal; after that, he praises and imitates it when singing and dancing, when going on a cattle raid and in daily conversation.
If you ask a woman the genre of her child, she answers: ‘he is a bull’, or ‘she is a cow’. If the authority of an elder is questioned, he will defend himself by saying: ‘We are the bulls’.
Animals legitimise the birth of children. They even ‘enhance’ the fertility of a marriage.
The possession of cattle makes man into a ‘superman’, almost a ‘spirit’. After all, the forefathers have become ‘ancestors’ and in strict connection with the divine world through the ‘generosity’ they expressed towards animals by celebrating feasts and making ‘animal sacrifices’. A domestic animal reaches the apex of its ‘glory’ when it is chosen as a sacrificial victim.
A ‘domesticated’ animal is more than just an animal: through its close relations with man, it becomes almost ‘human’. That is why a human easily identifies himself with an animal
The livestock provides the identity of the human group, by defining its parameters and affinities, its genealogy and its political and economic activities. The animal, not the human, is the mark that shows the membership of a specific group.
A warrior may show his bravery in killing an enemy or a wild animal through some scars on his shoulder. But it is his favourite animal that bears the mark of his identity with the clan. Actually, the mark of the animal ‘is’ the name of the clan to which a person belongs. The men of the same initiation group are considered brothers because they have sacrificed the same bull.
In ‘forming’ the clan, the animals create and perpetuate the relations even between the living and dead members. They ‘belong’ to the clan whose brand they bear; in fact, they are the property of the ancestors as much as they are of the head of a family.
When social or personal relations are strained or break up, it is always an animal that ‘mediates’ the healing and the recreation of those relations. When the Turkana say that ‘livestock creates the home’, they really mean it.
…and Akuj, the Supreme Being
The Turkana are a monotheistic people. They believe in one God, known as Akuj, the creator of the universe. ‘All things belong to Akujî, they say. They call upon him in times of great need, through prayers and chants and through animal sacrifices. The Turkana believe that Akuj is the source of all power: if he decides to intervene, nothing can stop him.
Akuj is female.
If a Turkana sees that the person he is talking to is doubtful or sceptical about what he says, he immediately bends over, puts his forefinger in the sand, then brings it to his mouth, wets it with saliva and points it to the sky, saying: ‘One God! What I am saying is true. If it is not, let Akuj kill me’.
Akuj is a female. The ‘a-prefix’ does not leave any doubt. Christian missionaries, thinking to have been invested ‘from above’ with the mission of revealing ‘the Father’ of Jesus Christ, decided to consider Akuj a male and to use ‘lo’ (the masculine relative pronoun, which is used to make adjectives) when describing God. For example: ‘Ee Akuj, lo ipolokinit ibore daang’ (‘O Omnipotent God’). The Turkana did not create a fuss: they let the foreigners address Akuj as they preferred, but they kept praying to ‘Aku, na ipolokinit ibore daang’ (‘na’ is the female relative).
Akuj is one and undivided. He can do both good and evil: he brings rain and drought, death and life, reward and punishment, good luck and bad luck. Nothing happens outside his control. He plays an active part in everything. So, he can be asked to stop or change the course of any event.
Akuj allows the spirits ñ both good and evil – to operate in the life of human beings, to correct their habits or to punish their evil deeds. If someone does not respect the elders, or is selfish when it comes to food sharing, Akuj will intervene to punish that person.
Ancestors live in the great akai (home) of heaven close to Akuj. If a human group forgets its ancestors, misfortune is what comes upon them: how can they forget the real owners of their flocks? Then, someone in the clan will be given the task of offering a sacrifice.
Like a parent who corrects his or her child, Akuj punishes those who break the law, be they young or old. In most cases, God intervenes directly, without resorting to witchcraft, which is the work of evil people and evil spirits (ngipian).
In the past, God lived very close to people. He would even come down from the sky (called akuj, like God himself) just to enjoy the nice smell of the food women were cooking. One day, a woman, while crushing some seeds in the mortar, hit God in the face with her pestle. Deeply offended, Akuj withdrew very far from the earth. Yet, he is still in contact with people through mediators. Akuj is essentially good. However, people or the spirits can make him angry through their misbehaviour.
A bird spotted in daylight or an animal found in the wrong place are deemed evil spirits. These animal-spirits are dangerous and they make Akuj angry. When, however, people break the law ñ by robbing a Turkana, resorting to witchcraft or black magic, or disobeying the rules of clan ñ Akuj allows the spirits to take control of the whole situation. In the worst case, he can even allow them to ‘kill’ the culprit.