Turkana - Feature Articles

A Turkana Dance

This is an extract from Melinda Atwood's book Jambo, Mama, and is reproduced by kind permission. Don't be put-off by the prospect of yet another mzungu safari journal: this one is superb.

A Turkana Dance, by Melinda Atwood

Within half an hour of our arrival the curious had started to gather and my tent was quickly surrounded by children and nursing mothers all seated on the ground around my "verandah." They were watching me settle in. As I did some hand laundry and shook the dust out of everything else, my every move was carefully observed. At one point a herd of goats appeared determined to eat their way under my tent but I very quickly put a stop to that. I had tried several times to shoot some photographs, but it caused such a fury that I had given up. Billy had better luck with the video camera. It had a telescoping viewfinder that allowed him to stand facing in one direction while surreptitiously shooting in another. Billy would get Esecon to stand to his left and wave to him while he shot pictures of the people on his right. The final results often had a strange horizon that tilted at odd angles, but it worked well enough. We were extremely anxious to have pictures because this was the most exotic and strangely colorful of all the places we had stopped.

The land we had driven through as we approached Kaputir was far more barren than anything we could have imagined. So many parts of Kenya are lush and green that although we were prepared for it, the landscape was shocking in its severity. There was only a sandy desert for miles in all directions, with nothing but what looked like tumbleweed to break the monotony. We had been driving through sand storms for days, and none of us, except of course Esecon, could believe how desolate the landscape had become. And yet, here at Kaputir, with the river affording the blessing of water and the blue shapes of the distant mountains of Uganda rising on the far horizon, the views were suddenly quite beautiful. There was even some greenery. Water brings forth life and where there is water flowing above the ground in a riverbed there are trees, grass, and even shrubbery of sorts growing on its banks. There was also a sliver of new moon that rose that night just over the top of the mountain range, reflecting its silver light for just a moment before quickly descending again. That left stars by the millions to cover the extraordinary expanse of sky.

Billy and I were so intent upon having photographs of Kaputir and the people there that he had negotiated a special deal with the village elders.The arrangement was that Billy would buy two goats and slaughter them and then host a party for all the villagers with the cooked goats as the final treat. Their side of the bargain was that they would allow us to photograph, with both video and SLR cameras, the ensuing dances and ceremonies. It took two full days to finalize these arrangements with groups of old men standing around the kitchen tent bickering over every detail. Billy finally told Esecon what it was that we wanted, and then left him to thrash out the finer points with the assistant chief, the head man on the other side of the bargaining table. Large quantities of tea were poured and even larger chunks of chewing tobacco handed out. Every detail was discussed and rediscussed. There was endless haggling over the number of goats and the quantity of beer and who was to dance and when. As these negotiations were a form of entertainment for the villagers, they had been rather protracted. Once it had been decided that beer was to be provided for the most prominent of the elders, the deal was struck. The festivities were to begin at 4pm. When the heat was beginning to lose some of its sting.

The intense heat we had been experiencing for the past days had begun to take its toll. We were all dehydrated and sick, but I was feeling the lowest. I had always heard that if it's dry the heat doesn't seem so bad. Not so. Jake and I had been on the Amazon River, and that was nothing like this. Every day, with every foot we descended, it grew hotter until it was over 120 degrees at Kaputir. At that temperature, sweat evaporates faster than it can collect into droplets, and you can lose quarts of body fluid every day without realizing it. At that rate, it is almost impossible to replace fast enough. You also upset your electrolyte balance so badly that water alone isn't going to help. (That is where dehydration salts should have come in, or just a proper mixture of salt and sugar, or Gatorade. But we didn't know that then.) One ends up feeling nauseated, weak, headachy, dizzy, lethargic, and eternally thirsty. When we reached Kaputir Billy had finally produced the canvas bathtub and, because there was ample water, had ordered the tub filled and me to sit in it. After spending the hottest hours of the day soaking myself , I felt momentarily cooler and a bit less ill.

Billy and I didn't know how badly dehydrated we all were. We should have, I had experienced it before when dancing in the summer heat, but we didn't. We knew we needed a great deal of water and we thought we were drinking enough, at least we tried, but it tasted quite strange, and it was always far too warm. We were doing what we thought was right but always running at a deficit. And running to the loo. Another fact we later learned was that due to the low water table level in that part of the world, the water is so full of minerals that it is like drinking pure Enos. That's liver salts, also known as a laxative. These minerals cannot be filtered out, and so no matter what we did to try to alleviate this problem, it just got worse. More than half of the crew were ill as well. Many times we had to stop the convoy as one of the crew raced off into the distance "looking for a bush." Everyone was suffering from what the Brits, in their eternal quest to make things sound nicer than they really are, call a 'runny tummy.'

I had willingly repaired that afternoon to what John Samburu called "Mama Safari's swimming." (John was a fairly common name and so we added Samburu, this particular chaps tribe, to distinguish him from the other Johns.) After lying in my canvas tub reading a book for a few hours I did feel greatly revived. However the soothing effects were temporary as the temperature still hovered around 120 F and I had not really addressed the real cause of the problem. But the impending Ngoma was too exciting to miss, so I was out of my tub and busy stuffing my pockets full of film and extra batteries when the people began to gather.
   As the time approached the sound of singing could be heard back by the kitchen tent. I had heard the Maasai singing and some Samburus at one of the lodges , but this was the real McCoy. It was high pitched and strangely melodic and seemed to consist of about five separate notes. As with much African music there was a question and a response format and the two together reminded me of a child's nursery rhyme song.

By 4pm Billy and I were at the site of the proposed dance, with Esecon and Lambat standing by to hold lenses and pocket exposed film. There were a few quiet minutes as the elders took their seats on their little stools and opened their beers and the children gathered around to watch. Then it seemed as if everything exploded. It began with the women, led by the witch doctor, dancing into the circle. They all held hands and moved forward with a slight jumping motion. Once fully into the clearing they closed the circle and with arms around each other's waists, all singing together, they started a heel dropping motion. With backs arched and chins jutted forward they shrugged their shoulders forward causing their heads to bob and their necklaces to bounce up and down. As their feet beat the rhythm of the dance into the earth the dust rose in ever thicker clouds. We kept the cameras firing, shooting roll upon roll of film. Both SLRs were going all the time with the video camera in Lambat's hands when Billy and I weren't working it. We used close up lenses and wide angle lenses. We shot slides and we shot prints. We were playing National Geographic.

The men entered next. They too were singing a five note song and jumping and clapping in time, but their presence changed the group dynamic. Esecon later explained to us that the dances performed were about war and victory and killing animals and courtship. Sometimes all the men sang and jumped in a competitive style, while at other times they sang together and followed each other's movements. As all this was going on Billy and I stood on stools or lay on our bellies to catch every angle. We moved around the dancing circle and shot through the dust and the moving bodies.

At 6pm the chief stood up and indicated that the end had come. Everything stopped quite abruptly and the villagers disappeared back into the brush. The feast of the goat meat had begun. Billy and I were drained, but so exhilarated that we hadn't even thought about the heat for two hours (and I normally thought about the heat every minute of every day). We considered ourselves extremely lucky, as we knew that this part of Kenya would soon become too dangerous for the likes of us to ever visit again. The culture of the Turkana people is dying as well, what with the dams and the shifta [bandits] and civilization in general encroaching upon the territories more every year.

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