In the far north of Kenya, on the searingly-hot, wind-whipped shores of Lake Turkana, lives a group of people known to their fellow Kenyans as the Turkana tribe. They call themselves The People of the Grey Bull. Tall and elegant with finely etched faces, these people speak a language called Turkan while their name, Turkana, is thought to translate as ‘the people of the caves’.
In this lies the clue to the ancient mystery of where the Turkana people came from. Nilotic by race, some say they came from Sudan, others from Ethiopia, but all agree that around three hundred years ago the Turkana settled in a mountainous region of northeastern Uganda where caves are plentiful.
As to why they left this place, the Turkana people, who are lyrical storytellers, have their own explanation. It goes something like this:
Turkana People Migrated
Many moons ago, our people lived in a land of mountains and forests. One day, a group of young warriors were herding their long-horned Zebu cattle across the wide plains when the leading bull, a massive grey beast with horns set so far apart that a man might not touch the tips of both at once, raised his head, cocked his ears and set off at a brisk trot. This was unusual: the plains were hot and the herds tired; but, knowing that the other cattle would follow the grey bull, the warriors set off in his wake.
Many days passed as the warriors followed the tracks of the bull; he was moving fast. Finally they arrived in a deep valley bordered by lilac-grey mountains and set about with berry-laden bushes. In the distance sparkled a vast jade green lake. In the foreground grazed the grey bull.
The warriors rushed forward to rope the bull, but a voice stopped them. ‘Leave him in peace,’ it said, ‘he has brought you here according to my will.’ It was an old, cracked voice that whistled like the wind; and it came from an old lady who sat beneath a bush, her lap filled with ripe berries. ‘I am Neyace’, she said, ‘follow me and I will take you to a place of peace and fertility where I will teach you to make fire. Bring your cattle.’ Awed, the warriors followed as, stick in hand, the old lady led them forward.
As night fell, they entered a silent valley filled with berry bushes. ‘Live here,’ said Neyace, ‘and send back for your maidens.’ Impressed, the warriors did as they were bid. Henceforth, these people were known as The People of the Grey Bull.
Turkana Tribe way of Life
Today, the Turkana tribe still herd their cattle, which provide them with meat, milk and blood; they are also very fond of berries. Brave warriors, inspired creators of delicate weaponry, and skilled basket-makers, they work with leather, wood, shells, horns, gourds and plumes to make headdresses so fabulous that each man carries a small stool upon which he might rest his head, resplendent with feathers and blue-dyed mud, at night. Dwellers in a harsh land, these proud and restless nomads are born survivors, but even they cannot control the one factor that dictates whether they will live or die: the rain.
Traditions of the Turkana People
Akuj controls the rain. Some say he lives among the stars, others that he dwells amid the lilac-grey peaks, but all agree that when Akuj is pleased he sends rain; and when he is angry he withholds it. Wayward like his people, however, Akuj often forgets all about the Turkana and has to be reminded as to their existence by song, dance and sacrifice.
Only certain people can define Ajuk’s moods. They are known as emuron or dreamers. To be a dreamer, a man must be ‘called away’ by Akuj and led to a land of lush grass and plentiful cattle. When he returns he is mystically changed and can ‘read’ Akuj’s will via his dreams.
Economic Activity of the Turkana People
Though increasingly diversifying into fishing and agriculture, the Turkana are herders at heart. And a man’s ability to build his herd determines whether or not he will marry. Bride prices are high, sometimes calling for over one hundred beasts. So you will often find a man to be much older than his wife; and to have more than one wife to help him keep his herds. A man with only one wife, says an old Turkana proverb, is like a man with one leg.
Marriage in the Turkana Tribe
Marriage is the traditional goal of all Turkana maidens. Around their necks are wound strings of yellow, green, blue and red beads, which are given to them by their fathers. When they marry, the beads must be handed to their sisters and replaced with those presented by their husbands. If a woman is widowed she must wear pure white beads. Traditionally both men and women wear rectangular wraps made from woven material or animal skins.
The men wear them knotted on one shoulder, the women decorate them with ostrich-egg-shell beads. There are no clans in Turkana land: every man is born into one of two ‘alternations’ – leopards or stones. If a man’s father is a leopard; then he is a stone; and so on until the end of time.
More about the Turkana People.
The Turkana are another of Kenya’s more colourful (and warlike people). Originally from the Karamajong district of north-eastern Uganda, the Turkana people 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.
Turkana Tribe – Clothing
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.
Turkana Tribe – Traditional Religion
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.