Turkana - History

In this page:
Mitochondrial DNA - the oldest society on earth?
Origins: the Wayward Ox and the Jie Woman
Early European explorers
Droughts of the recent past


Somewhat surprisingly, there's a fair amount of information available about the Turkana, collected not only from missionary sources and a few outstanding researchers, but by the British during their long stand-off with the tribe throughout the colonial period, during which time they never quite managed to subjugate what are still widely known as one of Kenya's most bellicose and warlike peoples. As a result, there was virtually no colonial influence in the district or on its people: no permanent roads, schools, churches, and with the exception of a few small outposts such as Lodwar, no towns or settlements either. Lodwar itself was considered so isolated from mainstream colonial Kenya that Jomo Kenyatta was sent here into one of his many exiles during the struggle for freedom. Lodwar still retains that outpost feeling, and several times I heard people exclaim, when they learned that I was headed back south, "Ah, so you're going to Kenya!"Turkana woman wearing lip-plug

After independence, the Turkana were left more or less on their own, and only in the 1970s was the district finally connected to the rest of Kenya by tarmac. Consequently, the Turkana have remained aloof to the modernization sweeping the rest of the nation, and for the most part remain essentially unfazed by persistent attempts to introduce them to agriculture, Christianity and the cash economy. This is not to say that they are stubbornly resistant to change - they are pragmatic when it suits them - but only that they rightly see no reason to change if the old ways are working as well as they have always done.
   In any case, their nomadic lifestyle has, of course, also precluded any lasting contact with the modern world and its missionaries, whether religious, political or economic. The only exceptions have have been during times of severe drought and famine, most devastatingly in the early 1970s and mid-1980s when thousands of families lost their livestock and were forced to congregate around the aid-distribution centres of Lodwar, Lokichokio and Kalokol on the west side of the lake, and at Loiyangalani on the east.

Mitochondrial DNA - the oldest society on earth?

Thanks to the famous discoveries of fossilized ancient humans around the shores of Lake Turkana, researchers, guidebooks, authors of glossy coffee-table picture books, anthropologists, ethnologists and others have for many years taken to calling Turkana-land the "Cradle of Mankind".
   Thousands of papers have been written about these fossils, but sadly the heaps of accounts, reports, abstracts, books and theses concerning Lake Turkana make scant if any mention of the present-day Turkana themselves, as any search on the internet will verify.
   They made no mention, that is, until the late 1990s, when a group of researchers began using DNA technology to estimate the relative age of individual human societies. The logic, if not the technique, is actually quite simple. Human DNA, like the DNA of all living beings, can mutate. The best-known example is skin cancer, which is caused by the DNA of skin cells mutating due to, among other factors, extreme exposure to ultraviolet light. Other factors include artificial foodstuffs whose exact working remains unknown, radiation etc., and even - according to some - global catastrophes such as massive volcanic eruptions or a meteor or comet striking the earth, which would release huge amounts of potentially carcinogenic DNA-mutating materials into the atmosphere.
   The recent research into the human genetic blueprints of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) estimates the genetic diversity of a people by counting and mapping the number of mutations in the DNA. The idea is that there are less and less as different peoples interbreed. The results of these studies showed that, with 44 'random genetic mutations' in their mtDNA compared with only four among southeast Asians and the Maori, the Turkana are - so far - the 'oldest' human society yet found on earth. Well, at least among the 34 different racial groups who were studied.
   The general conclusion is that, as humans left Africa and fanned out in successively smaller groups across Asia and the Pacific, genetic diversity was gradually reduced. What it actually means (it doesn't actually prove the 'Out of Africa' or 'African Eve' theory, although it helps), is only that the Turkana have remained a more homogenous (interbred) group than any of the other tested. Being fierce, independent, nomadic, and not exactly taken to loving their neighbours, it's easy to see how!

Origins: the Wayward Ox and the Jie Woman

The Turkana are the largest of the seven ethnic groups that make up what is called the 'Karamajong cluster', which includes the Karamajong, Jie, Teso, Dodos and Donyiro in Uganda, and the Toposa of Sudan.
   The actual name "Turkana" is something of a mystery, with the most commonly ascribed meaning being a corruption of 'turkwen', which means 'cave people', or 'aturkan' which means 'cave land'. As there are no caves in present-day Turkana-land (at least east of the Ugandan border), they must have migrated from elsewhere. This much is certain, as each of the nineteen sections of the Turkana agree that their recent origins lie to the west of their current homeland. The story, which has been carried down from mouth to mouth for many centuries, goes something like this:

A long time ago, the common ancestors of the Turkana, the Jie and of all the other 'Karamajong' tribes, lived in a place called Apuli, which was in southern Sudan or Ethiopia. Some 300 to 500 years ago, they began to migrate southwards to their present homeland in the far northeast of Uganda.
   After a while, a group of young men from the Jie section of the Karamajong were sent eastwards into the Tarach Valley (west/northwest of Lodwar in Kenya) in search of a wayward ox, whose tracks they were following.
   They wandered far from their people, and finally met a solitary old Jie woman called Nayece who was gathering fruit. She led the young warriors into a lush and verdant valley, unoccupied by people, that was rich in the wild berries which still form an important part of the Turkana diet. Nayece also gave the men fire, and taught them how to cook.
   Impressed with the area, the men talked other young people into joining them, and together they moved in with their livestock. Nayece divided the men into territorial sections (the basis of Turkana society today), and became the mother-heroine of the Turkana. Ever since, the Turkana and Jie have been allies.

Historically, this story is not disputed: the Turkana, as well as most historians, accept that the Turkana broke with the Jie around the middle of the eighteenth century, probably during extreme drought, and migrated eastwards over the Dodoth Escarpment in northeastern Uganda and into Kenya following the Tarach (or Tarac) river. Their "cave land" (aturkan) may well have been a hill called Moru a Nayece, though I'm afraid I know nothing more about it. The migrations may also have been caused by livestock overcrowding, brought about by successive migrations from the north, which - if the present climate is anything to go by - would have led to protracted feuding and fighting between the various Karamajong groups.
   Once in Kenya, the seasonal Turkwel and Kagwalassi (or Nakwehe) river valleys would have aided rapid dispersal into present-day Turkana District.

It is generally accepted that at least two separate migrations into Kenya took place, most probably in the form of successive sweeps, as there's also an oral history which states that, some two to three hundred years ago, the Turkana started to move southward towards the Kagwalassi and Turkwel Rivers which flow into Lake Turkana, where the episode with the wayward ox in the Tarach Valley occurred. The Turkana themselves make a distinction between an agriculturalist section named Ngicuro (who live in the western highlands on the Ugandan border), who are said to have some from the Teso people; and the remaining eighteen pastoralist sections called Ngimonia, who came from the Jie.

What is important to note is that the Turkana are indisputably related to the Karamajong tribes (and keep a number of their traditions to the present-day, such as not circumcising), and that they came originally from the north in what is now southern Sudan or Ethiopia. This southward-moving pattern is familiar throughout Kenya, not just among Nilotic and Cushitic tribes, but also among the Bantu of central Kenya and the Mijikenda of the coast. This would seem to reflect the increasing aridity of the northern tropics, which is the same mechanism by which the Sahara expanded and still continues to expand, pushing its original inhabitants outwards like foam on the edge of a wave.
   The wayward ox could simply be a metaphor for a leader, which fits in well with Turkana's celebrated love for wandering: there are apparently 23 separate words in the Turkana language for describing styles of walk - if anyone knows them, I've love to hear!

Early European Explorers

Ptolemy's Map of the World, which dates from around 150 AD, shows two lakes as the presumed sources of Nile, both of them north of the Mountains of the Moon (now called Ruwenzori). The western one was almost certainly Lake Victoria, while the eastern one may well have been Lake Turkana. Although the lake no longer flows into the Nile, it certainly did in the past, albeit several millennia before Ptolemy's time.
   Whatever, its existence was already known before the first Europeans set eyes on it, and was marked as "Lake Zambura" on early maps, and known to mid-nineteenth-century explorers as Lake Samburu.

TelekiThe first non-Africans to reach the lake were in all probability Arab traders in ivory or slaves, if the various trade beads found around the lake are anything to go by. The first Europeans to reach the lake were the Transylvanian count Sámuel Teleki von Szek and the naval officer Lieut. Ludwig von Höhnel. They arrived at the lake with their expedition in 1888, after having set out from Pangani (now in Tanzania) in February 1887, and climbed both Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. In time-honoured tradition, they completely ignored the local name for the lake (Basso Narok, which meant 'Great Water'), and instead christened it Lake Rudolf, in honour of their Habsburg patron, the crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who later committed suicide (the name was officially changed to Turkana in 1975).
   Teleki described the expedition's delight - and subsequent disillusion - on reaching the lake, in his diary entry for March 6, 1888 (these are extracts from several sources, unfortunately all quite loosely translated, as I haven't been able to see an original copy of his diary):

The expedition campAfter several months of journeying, from October 1887 to March 1888, we approached Lake Rudolf. There was a mighty mountain mass looming up before us. We hurried as fast as we could to the top of our ridge, the scene gradually developing itself as we advanced, until an entirely new world was spread out before our astonished eyes.
   The void down in the depths beneath became filled as if by magic with picturesque mountains and rugged slopes, with a medley of ravines and valleys, which appeared to be closing up from every side to form a fitting frame for the dark green, gleaming surface of the lake stretching away beyond as far as the eye could reach.
   For a long time we gazed in speechless delight, spellbound by the beauty of the scene before us, whilst our men, equally silent, stared into the distance for a few minutes presently to break into shouts of astonishment at the sight of the glittering expanse of the great lake which melted on the horizon into the blue of the sky.

But the approach to the lake the next day hid disappointment:

...when the sun rose higher its rays were reflected from the smooth black surface of the rock, causing an almost intolerable glare, whilst a burning wind from the south whirled the sand in our faces, and almost blew the load off the heads of the men ... after working our way through plains covered with black streams of lava, and dotted with craters from one of which clouds of smoke rose, we finally stood upon the beach of the lake. The beautiful water stretched away before us, clear as crystal... although exhausted we felt our spirits rise, rushed down shouting into the lake ... and, bitter disappointment: the water was brackish.

The expedition was almost completely dehydrated, and it is easy to understand the delusion they felt on discovering that the water was saline and undrinkable. Yet actually, had they tried, they would have realised that the water is drinkable... obviously, nobody had bothered asking the lake's inhabitants (not surprisingly, as the expedition seemed happier firing on local people than trying to talk with them).

An elephant destroying the expedition’s boatFor all its exotic allure to the Europeans of the time, the report of the expedition had one important scientific result. In 1891, the Viennese geologist Eduard Suess, who had never been to Africa but had collected the explorers' accounts on his desk, realised that when plotted on a map, Lake Turkana and its smaller companion to the northeast, Chew Bahir, appeared as links in a connected chain leading north to the Red Sea. He declared that the whole line of country from Lake Nyasa in the south to the river Jordan in the north had been fractured by a connected series of earth movements. He called the feature a 'graben', which is German for a trench or a grave. Thus was the way laid open to the geological understanding of the formation of the Rift Valley, which itself led to the now widely-accepted theory of plate tectonics in the twentieth century.

Droughts of the recent past

Turkwel River - aerial view Turkwel River - aerial view

In such times of extreme drought, the Turkana are at their most vulnerable. But helping them is not as simple as it sounds. In the 1960s and 1970s, after a period of drought and wars, the Kenya government together with the United Nations resolved to 'help' the Turkana by transforming them into farmers. The people affected were primarily goat herders from along the Turkwel River, who traditionally fed their animals on the pods of acacia tortilis trees (or 'umbrella thorn', for its distinctive spreading crown), which the Turkana call ekwar. Some of these trees are individually-owned, but others - the primary fall-back in times of drought, for humans too, as the pods can be made into a porridge, and Maasai eat the immature seeds - are communally-owned. A group of elders were the arbiters of when each family would be allowed to feed off the communal acacias, which both avoided conflicts and helped preserve a valuable drought resource. However, when the farming projects failed, the Turkana went back to goat herding, but no longer had the firm guidance and restrictions of their elders about where and when to feed their herds. As a result, disputes escalated and the acacia trees quickly became depleted. Any trip around Kalokol will still reveal the scars of that time - I was told that there had once been thick woodland here, but for the most part all I saw was scrub.
   The depletion of woodland has also accelerated in the last few decades, as poverty-stricken people have turned to producing charcoal to sell to townspeople in the administrative centres and military posts, with obvious results. And with trees gone, erosion occurs so much more quickly, which in turn hastens the onset of the next famine as there is nothing left in the soil to capture what little rain does fall on this dry and dusty land.

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