Turkana - Feature Articles

Journey to Lake Turkana

By Jens Finke; written after a trip to west Turkana in 1996.

Journey to Lake Turkana, by Jens Finke

Kalokol, west Turkana

"Yes, yes, life!" exclaims the old man, desperately vying for our attention amidst a dark cloud of hustlers. "God in Almighty Father ... the Man is the Lord!" He is barefoot and extremely wizened, and arrives at the same time as the pick-up truck we've been waiting for. The man's milky eyes glisten under the leaden sky, his mouth stuck in a lopsided but well-lubricated grin. For ten minutes, this poor soul unwittingly puts the fear of God into Justina, who's half-asleep and later describes him only as mad-looking and rather frightening.
   The wind whistles through the dilapidated shacks that line the end of the road that is Kalokol. The air is cloying and hot, a storm overnight having lifted the desert up into the sky into an all-swaddling haze. Already, our clothes are tattooed with wavering circles of evaporated sweat, and it's only eight o'clock in the morning.
   The old man continues spooling verses half-learned from some missionary man until, seeing us evidently bemused, changes tack and launches into a bizarre song to the rhythm of something playing on a distant radio, whose words consist only of "social" and "security" repeated over and again.
   "I am able to talk, yes?" he asks, as the hustlers attempt to pull him away. He hands a note to Justina: "I am poor... starving ... good Christian, help me, please." I write him my address as the matatu makes to leave, and the last I see is his spinning aglee amidst the small crowd, his face lit up by an almighty grin, the scrap of paper held high above his head.

On all sides the horizon is blurred through dust: chimney-stack termitaries and flat-topped acacia resolve and dissolve in a murky ochre haze. The track is rough and hard to follow, avoiding shifting sand dunes. Solitary red-robed figures stride out of the gloom, tall and slender, something like denizens of Giacometti's dreams, then vanish into the haze from whence they came.
   We pass small nomadic manyatta settlements - half a dozen straw huts with conical roofs - and we stop beside one where a crowd of charcoal makers are engrossed in discussions with two camel herders, their animals congregated nearby under some thorn trees. A gentle thudding rhythm rebounds from the murky sky: somewhere, maize is being pounded.
   Some women approach us, keen to sell trinkets, but we just want photographs. "No problem," say the women: "200 shillingi apicha." 200 shillings (£3) for a photo!? This was our first encounter with the legendary bargaining powers of the Turkana, which basically means they charge you a small fortune for anything 'Turkana' and steadfastly refuse to bargain, seeing as they are Turkana and therefore are the monopoly. Summarily, our load was lightened of cash as well as of passion fruit, which sort of summed it up, really.

Two days from Nairobi - as far north as one can travel without risking ambush by Somali bandits - is the tiny lakeshore settlement of Eliye Springs. Although no more than a trickle, its waters sustain a few families of goat herders and fishermen.
   The springs feed a clear pool, home to tiny fish and frogs and pea-green reeds and mosses; further down, they irrigate a small oasis of raffia palms and fodder greens, before disappearing into the sandy shore in a brittle pasture of tick-infested khram-khram grass.
   Lake Turkana is a miraculous anomaly in a parched and unforgiving land. Formed several million years ago in the tectonic upheavals that created the Great Rift Valley, it is the largest permanent desert lake in the world, covering some 7,500km2. Extinct volcanoes enclose the horizon, and the heat is so intense that when the blustery wind from Mount Kulal on the eastern shore temporarily ceases and clouds gather overhead, raindrops sometimes evaporate before they even reach the lake: 'ghost rain'.
   This elemental mood is bolstered by the world's largest population of Nile crocodile (some 15,000); evidence of a time when the lake fed into the Mother of Africa herself. The crocs survive on another Nilotic ancestor, the giant perch, which itself feeds on a profusion of blue-green diatom algae - among the earliest forms of life on earth. This prehistoric lake has long also been a focus for Man: its shores have revealed the oldest-known fossil remains of Homo habilis (and, some think, the 'missing link').

The Turkana themselves remain largely untouched by the modernisation sweeping the rest of Kenya, and despite recent droughts proudly preserve their ways of life as semi-nomadic cattle, goat and camel herders. The women wear loose smocks or else go topless, and invariably have incredible stacks of necklaces piled up from their breasts to their chins - tokens of courtship or marriage: multicoloured plastic beads; blackened acacia seeds; delicate strings of tilapia fish vertebrae; and tiny glass beads embroidered onto bands of leather. The older women's necklaces are encrusted with dirt (they are never removed), and they sometimes also wear plugs of metal or wood in their lips: legacy of slaving days when the Turkana sought to devalue their women (in the eyes of the trader) and thus protect her and the tribe; the plugs serve nowadays as reminders that the Turkana have never in their history been conquered. Even the men, who elsewhere are first to become 'westernized', still carry their traditional spears and knives, the most gruesome being 'Turkana knives' - vicious disks of razor-sharp iron worn around the wrists, formerly used in the still frequent inter-tribal raids over grazing rights in which lives of cattle are more often prized than those of their drovers. Nowadays, however, it is more likely the Kalashnikov which settles such disputes: bordering Sudan, Turkana land is awash with weapons, and with the desert encroaching everywhere, survival depends on them.

Guiltily assured of our own survival by our comparative wealth, we rented a small house, part of a defunct tourist lodge which had a thatched roof made of decaying raffia fronds which soaked our bed on the two, rare and fortuitous, occasions it rained. At dawn and at dusk, flamingoes, pelicans and gannets gathered on the mud flats by the shore, the flamingoes ranged in single-file like pink birthday candles. The presence of crocodiles was belied by a flotsam of washed-up fish bones, clumps of feathers attached to bloodied bones, and even, once, a goat skull. But our time here was blissful and lethargic: nothing to do except long walks and swims in the lake, mindful of crocodiles.
   The Turkana know their lake as The Great Water -perhaps the best description for a sea which almost daily changes aspect: one moment, a tranquil pond of jade and vision of holiday brochure paradise with its palm-flanked beaches and birds, the next a treacherous mass of crashing waters and churning foam, the sky concealed by leaden clouds split only by lightning. As capricious as it is violent, The Great Water is treated with respect bordering on veneration by the Turkana.
   One evening, we passed a pregnant young woman, dressed only in a loin cloth and her necklaces, sat in the water with gentle waves lapping her thighs. Further along lay a bundle of papers and envelopes, tightly wrapped in raffia and strands of blue and green rope, awaiting the next storm to carry it away. The lake is a repository of memory: a constancy, ever-renewed, and sacred through its role as giver and taker of life. When a person dies, the Turkana believe, they remain in limbo in a spirit world until no more remembered by their descendants. Only then, truly forgotten, do they pass into the void that is death or nothingness. Remembrance of these living-dead is practised by a number of means: prayers, libation and offerings, such as the bundle of letters and envelopes that traced gentle curves in the sand along the foam-laced shore.

Another evening, sat atop some dunes to watch the dusking sky reflected on the lake and the mountains beyond, we were joined by two boys and their mothers, anxious to sell us necklaces, dolls made of raffia fruit and ostrich feathers, and copper bracelets twisted from 'captured' lengths of telephone wire.
   Conversation was difficult, and flies whirled around our heads, whining plaintively. Finally, the youngest boy, Paul, began giggling. We looked at him but couldn't understand his mirth, until we noticed he'd pulled his penis out of a tear in his shorts and was playing with it, avidly awaiting our reaction. On seeing our stares, he burst out laughing. The mothers smiled, embarrassed, and the older boy, who had until then remained silent, asked:
   "Well then, so where are you from?"
   "You speak good English," we replied, somewhat astonished.
   "Yes I do," he said, turning his eyes up coyly. "I speak Turkana, Kiswahili and English. I learn it at school and also I like Maths, Science and P.E." He giggled, then asked for a pen. "I want to be a scientist," said Patrick.

Another evening, we saw three teenagers by the lake. The girl was bare-breasted and pretty, the boys in shorts, courting and laughing. As we approached, the girl started dancing flirtatiously, writhing like a snake for the benefit of us, I thought, as well as for the boys. On a full moon, they tie tin cans to their ankles filled with stones and pretend to ignore the girls' flirting, but that evening a half moon hung, waning, and they ran away as we approached.

After a week, the van which had promised to take us back to Kalokol hadn't turned up and, in desperation (with no alternative transport or money), we realised the only way out was to walk, 55km across the desert at night.
   About two in the morning, we met an old man and a young woman walking towards us. The sickle moon was sinking, and in the half-light they appeared like ghosts from the night. The old man carried a long spear, and in his other hand a wooden headrest shaped like a small stool. Tucked in his belt was a knife, and on his head a single white ostrich plume which fluoresced like the moon.
   The woman's eyes, too, glowed - like a cat's eyes - floating almost free of her body, for the black paint on her face - symbol of her marriage - effaced her features and merged her with the night.
   The old man wore sandals made of old car tyres -'5000-mile shoes' - and his legs were wiry but unquestionably strong. His knees were cracked like bark, and dry as the dust which nestles between the crevices of an old tree. The Turkana are walkers par-excellence, thinking nothing of covering even 70 kilometres a day. They do so, of course, out of necessity: permanent water and pasturage are precious and fiercely-guarded commodities, and so they spend their lives, like their Saharan cousins, chasing the clouds, ever hopeful of rain...
   The old man greeted us with astonishment, and told us many things we did not understand, and finally we shook good-bye: his hands were strong, tender and warm. Justina and I hobbled away on blisters and sore thighs, as the couple strode effortlessly along the way we had come, the woman silent, the old man chuckling. Only then did I realise she was pregnant. Life, forever, continues regardless.

Wife of a Turkana tribe chief, near Baragoi.
Corel 1999, www.concierge.com

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Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle
Planosphere.com - fine art photography