When visitors reach Lodwar, the capital of Turkana County, a town of about 50,000 people, the first thing they are invited to see is the prison cell where Jomo Kenyatta, the founding Father and first president of Kenya, was restricted to house arrest for two years in 1959, at the height of the country’s independence freedom struggle. His cell house is today a national monument under the management of the National Museums of Kenya (NMK).
The history of the town does not go back much into the past. It all began around 1933 when Shah Mohammed, a trader, arrived on the banks of the Turkwell River and built a permanent trading centre, including a gas station. Soon after, the District Commissioner’s office, a small medical clinic and a government prison were built. In the 1960s, Christian missionaries arrived and built schools and medical dispensaries in the town and in the whole region, which still holds a reputation of an isolated area removed from the rest of the country. Only the latest oil discoveries might open this arid area to world.
If the history of Turkana is brief, not so its prehistory. The region is considered the ‘cradle of humankind’. Its archaeological sites are of international importance and still searched and studied by the NMK, due to the presence of priceless hominid finds. In 1995, Meave Leakey made an important discovery of a hominid, named Australopithecus anamensis (anam means lake in the Turkana language), of about 4.2 milion years ago. Earlier on, in 1972, a fossil of a Homo habilis (1.9 million years old) was found, followed, in 1984, by the remains of a Homo erecuts, of 1.5 million years, named ‘Turkana Boy’.
This semi-arid region, of approximately 67,000 square kilometres and located in North-Western Kenya, borders Lake Turkana in the East, the Pokot, Rendille and Samburu ethnic groups to the South, Uganda to the West, and South Sudan and Ethiopia to the North. It is the dwelling place of the Turkana people, an agro-pastoralist Nilotic human group.
The Turkana call themselves Ngiturkan and their land Eturkan. They say they arrived here a ‘long time ago’, but it must have been around the middle of the XVIII century. It appears as if they came in two waves: that of the agriculturally-oriented Ngicuro and that of the pastoral-inclined Ngimonia (even today these are the major divisions of the ethnic group). Most probably, the Ngicuro were related to the Teso (Uganda), while the Ngimonia were a breakaway section of the warrior-like Jie (Uganda). The Ngicuro live along the south-western boundary of the district and the Ngimonia along the eastern boundary.
This distinction is kept alive by the different way the two groups divide meat in a meat-feast. The apol (fasciae latae), a muscle of the iliac region, is cut by Ngicuro when raw and still attached to the kidney, and taken to the fire to roast, while the Ngimonia, who have two types of apol – one round and one long – cut them after being roasted.
All Turkana belong to two ‘totemic alternations’ (or moieties): Ngirisai (‘Leopards’) or Ngimoru (‘Stones’ or ‘Mountains’). If a man is a ‘Leopard’, his sons will be in the ‘Stones’ group. His daughters, instead, will be of his group until they marry; after that, they will belong to their husbands’ group. This grouping is related to age-set organisations, since, at each initiation, two new age-sets are formed: one ‘Stones’ and one ‘Leopards’.
The group determines the kind of feathers a man wears on his headpiece: the Ngimoru will wear black feathers from a male ostrich and dark-colored (or silver) metal ornaments; the Ngirisai will wear white feathers from a female ostrich and light-colored (or copper) metal ornaments.
Their wives are distinguished by the colour of the marriage rings. The wife of a Stone wears a black or silver alagama (‘ring’) around her neck; the wife of a Leopard, a yellow or copper one.
This two-fold division is most obvious when it comes to meat-feasts and public sacrifices. A man sits on the left or right side of the sacred semicircle (akiriket), depending on which group he belongs to. The Stones sit on the left and the Leopards on the right.
Life in Turkana
According to the 2009 Kenyan census, the Turkana number 855,399 (2.5% of the Kenyan population), making them the third largest Nilotic ethnic group in the country, after the Kalenjin and the Luo, slightly more numerous than the Maasai, and the tenth largest group in all of Kenya.
The climate is hot and dry for the most part of the year. The average rainfall is about 300-400 mm, declining to less than 150 mm in the arid central zones.
There are two important rivers, the Turkwell and the Kerio, which flow into Lake Turkana, coming from the Kenya Highlands. They have water for four to six months of the year.
Women grow millet and sorghum, but the yields are poor and only supplement their diet to a minor degree. Along the Turkwell and the Kerio banks, more settled, but less prosperous, groups of Turkana grow wheat and maize in substantial quantities.
Turkana homesteads are temporary and mainly made of thorny boughs; in some areas, palm leaves are also used. To protect themselves from wild animals, mainly hyenas, they enclose their homesteads with a fence of brushwood boughs.
Members of one family seldom live together. At the height of the dry season, a man may have up to three or four homesteads: one for the cattle and the sheep, one or two for the wife or wives, one for camels.
Milk and blood, usually mixed, form the staple diet. All big animals – expect donkeys – are bled from the jugular vein, while sheep and goats from under the eye. The man pierces the jugular vein with an arrow, while the animal is held.
Wild berries and nuts are a common feature in the diet. Meat is available when there is a meat-feast. In such an occasion, women and children are allowed to take part in the ‘banquet’.
Traditional economy is based on livestock. Animals play an important role in the payment of the bride-wealth, in compensation for crimes (fathering illegitimate children, for instance), or in ‘gift offerings’ on social occasions. Cattle are so highly valued that the Turkanas often raid other ethnic groups to increase the number of their herds. And woe to those who tell them that they are stealing animals! They are just ‘taking the animals home’, since God gave all cattle to the Turkana. This truth demands that also other pastoralist groups think the same. Reciprocal raids are everyday business. In the old days, they were carried out with spears and arrows; today, raiders use Kalashnikovs and the death toll is always dramatically high.