Turkana and their fascinating way of life

Leave Nairobi behind. Leave civilization. Leave the green trees and the green grass. Leave brick walls and tiled floors behind. Keep going until Uganda is your immediate neighbour in the west, and South Sudan and Ethiopia in the North. Only then can you say that you are in Turkana land.
Turkana welcome visitors by dancing Edong'a. (Elizabeth Buhungiro)
Turkana welcome visitors by dancing Edong'a. (Elizabeth Buhungiro)

Leave Nairobi behind. Leave civilization. Leave the green trees and the green grass. Leave brick walls and tiled floors behind. Keep going until Uganda is your immediate neighbour in the west, and South Sudan and Ethiopia in the North. Only then can you say that you are in Turkana land. 

If you’re lucky, you will travel by plane and it will take approximately one and a half hours from Nairobi to get there. If you’re unlucky, you will spend at least two days on the road and you will certainly have one bumpy ride. 

When you arrive, you will be warmly welcomed by the Turkana, unless you’re a cattle-rustling Karamajong from North Eastern Uganda or the Al Shabaab from Somalia. You will also be welcomed by a natural sauna-that is the scorching sun. 

Therefore, for your sake, do not wear silk or leather, unless you want to die from heat and dehydration. If you do die, there is plenty of sand to bury you because Turkana is a semi-arid area. It is hot and dry all day long, all night long, all year long, says Boran Joseph Ekuwom, a local resident. 

A traditional Turkana home. (Elizabeth Buhungiro)

If you’re wondering how the Turkana survive in this remote, hot and sandy land where nothing grows, a local resident says, “We live by the grace of God and by the kindness of donors.” 

Perhaps that’s why they attach a lot of importance to religion. Most of them are Roman Catholics.

A nomadic way of life

Just because the Turkana receive and accept some aid, it doesn’t mean that they spend their days seated in one place with their hands stretched out. In fact, Turkana always move from one place to another, looking for water and pasture for their livestock.

After the Masaai, Turkana are the second largest group of nomadic pastoralists in Kenya. Their livestock includes cattle, goats, sheep, and camels. Their animals are the main source of food. They are also used for paying dowry and bride price. Some Turkana make their living by fishing in Lake Turkana.

A long way from civilization 

Because of their nomadic way of life, the Turkana still have a long way to go regarding economic development.

According to Dr John Ngasike, the Coordinator, Education Outreach for Mt. Kenya University and a Turkana resident, Turkana is the poorest, remotest and most illiterate part of Kenya. This can be attributed to the low level of education since some parents keep their children at home to help out with the livestock. 

Turkana women dressed in their traditional attire. (Elizabeth Buhungiro)

However, Ekuwom says the negative attitude towards education is starting to change. “Parents are starting to take their children to school because they know that it’s the only chance they have at a bright future.”

However, the chance to go to school depends on your kind of family and your gender. Lucy Asinyen, 19, says that in some parts of Turkana especially the reserves (a remote place), young girls are married off without their consent. 

“Your family will get livestock from a man, even an old one and then one day you will suddenly be told that you have to marry him,” she explains. 

Although Asinyen herself isn’t married, she is not in school. The death of her parents forced her to leave school to look after her five siblings. She wishes to complete her studies, to fulfill her dream of being a nurse but that will only happen, she says, if well wishers pay her school dues.

Young Turkana men dressed in traditional attire. (Elizabeth Buhungiro)

Another traditional norm that is yet to leave Turkana land is the use of traditional medicine. If you look closely, you will see that most of them have cuts on their bodies. 

“If you fall sick, an ‘old mama’ will make some cuts on your body to relieve you of some infected blood and/or administer some herbs,” explains a local resident. “Does it work?” “I’m still alive, aren’t I?”

A rich culture 

The real Turkana, Ekuwom says, are the ones that live in reserves and still wear hides and skins, covering up only the ‘essentials.’ However, even the urban Turkana (‘urban’ is relative in this case), still preserve a bit of their culture; they wrap themselves with cotton clothes called lesus and shukas. 

Men shave off their hair and some women have braided mohawks. For full traditional attire, men add ostrich feather caps while women adorn themselves with large beaded necklaces. 

Full attires are reserved for special celebratory occasions such as the birth of a child, a wedding, or when men come home after a successful hunt. 

During these occasions, Turkana perform their traditional dance, Edong’a which involves a lot of jumping. The location and length of a ceremony depends on the occasion. For instance, a traditional wedding ceremony is likely to be held near a lake or river and might last up to three days.

Courteous but cautious 

The Turkana are friendly and courteous and are quick to invite you to join them in celebration. However, they scrutinize every visitor. Therefore, if you visit one household, rest assured that ten households know about it. 

They are not being nosy, they are just being cautious. Being a tight-knit society is what keeps them protected from the attacks they face from local residents in neighbouring countries. It’s what keeps their beloved animals safe.


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