The Turkana are another of Kenya’s more colourful (and warlike people). Originally from the Karamajong district of north-eastern Uganda, the Turkana number around 250,000 and live in the virtual desert country of Kenya’s north-west. Due to their isolation, the Turkana are probably the last affected by the 20th century of all Kenya’s people.
Like the Samburu and the Maasai (with whom they are linguistically linked), the Turkana are cattle herders first, although more recently they have taken up fishing the waters of Lake Turkana and even growing the occasional crops, weather permitting. But unlike the other two tribes, the Turkana have discontinued the practice of circumcision.
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The traditional dress of the Turkana people is amazing, as is the number of people who still wear it — catching a bus up in the north-west is a real eye-opener for a first-time visitor. The men cover part of their heir with mud which is then painted blue and decorated with ostrich and other feathers. The main garment they wear, despite the blast-furnace heat of the region is a woollen blanket (usually a garish modern checked one) which is worn around the shoulder.
Traditional accessories include a small wooden stool carved out of a mingle piece of wood (used either as a pillow or a stool), a wooden stick with a distinctive shape, and a wrist knife. Both the men and the women wear with great flourish the lip plug through the lower lip. The women wear a variety of beaded and metal adornments, much of it indicating to the trained eye events in the woman’s life. A half skirt of animal skins and a piece of block cloth are the only garments worn, although these days pieces of colourful cloth are not uncommon for use as baby slings.
Tattooing is also common and usually has special meaning. Men are tattooed on the shoulders and upper arm each time they kill an enemy — the right shoulder for killing a man, the left for a women; it’s surprising the number of men you still see with these markings. Witch doctors and prophets are held in high regard and tattooing on someone’s lower stomach is usually a sign of witch doctors’ attempts to cast out an undesirable spirit rather than any sort of decoration.