Turkana - Introduction

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Facts & Figures


Turkana girl with babyWith a population of somewhere between 250,000 and 340,000, the Nilotic-speaking Turkana are Kenya's third-largest tribe, as well as the country's second-largest group of pastoralists, after the Maasai.

The majority live in Turkana District of Rift Valley Province in the arid northwest of Kenya, bounded to the north by Sudan, by Uganda to the west, to the south by the Pokot and Samburu peoples, and to the east by Lake Turkana (formerly called Lake Rudolf) and its volcanic hills. Two major rivers cut into the district from the south, neither of which flow all year round, and when they do often flood with such sudden violence that no one dares live near them. The Turkwel wells up in the Cherangani Hills, over 200km southwest of its mouth on the west shore of the lake, and feeds from a number of seasonal rivers up along the border with Uganda. The Kerio begins life much further south in the Elgeyo Hills, but is almost always dry by the time it reaches the Turkana. It, too, empties into the mildly alkaline waters of Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, and the subject of many a traveller's dream.

In spite of the seemingly miraculous anomaly of the lake, this is not - at first glance - a promising place for life: the land for the most part is parched desert plain strewn with rusty sun-baked rocks, coarse sand and small outcrops, and some low and equally barren hills. The climate is dry and often blisteringly hot, and the paltry annual rainfall of around 250-300mm prevents any but the hardiest of desert plants from growing: spiny acacia, low thorn bush and seasonal grasses. In any case, rainfall patterns are unreliable and patchy; short rains during April and the long rains from June to early September, but in many years the rainfall is scant or fails altogether.
   To the west, however, the land rises to the lightly forested Rift Valley escarpment bordering Uganda, whose richer pastures are hotly disputed with the Karamajong of Uganda, from whom the Turkana split a few hundred years ago. Children's drawings (they're cool!)

As a result of their hostile environment, in which drought plays a regular part (a severe drought is reckoned to occur roughly once every ten years), survival is very much the primary concern. Like the related Maasai, cattle are the primary wealth (although goats and camels are sometimes also kept), providing for almost all the Turkana's material and nutritional needs, as well as being symbols of social standing intricately bound into the tribal fabric.
   And so the Turkana move, constantly, chasing the clouds in the hope of rain and the small patches of freshly sprouted vegetation which it gives. As rainfall is uneven and unreliable, this can only be accomplished by the tribe fragmenting into small groups, for what there is of pasture is insufficient to feed a large number of livestock, and hence people.

Given the sparsity of grazing lands and cattle pastures, competition with neighbouring tribes is fierce and relations are generally volatile, usually verging on warlike. Mutual enmity is especially deeply-rooted with the Toposa of Sudan and the Karamojong and Dodoth of Uganda, where conflicts over cattle pasture and cattle raiding have led to a recurring cycle of raids and counter-raids over cattle in which rifles or automatic weapons are now primarily used. The Turkana's southerly neighbours - the Pokot - have a more ambivalent relationship with the Turkana, a lot depending on how the rains have fared and whether they share common enemies across the border in Uganda; whilst the Samburu to the southeast of the lake have gradually been crowded-out of their traditional dry season pastures as the Turkana cross the Suguta Valley into Samburu District in ever greater numbers, with predictably bloody consequences. In general, it seems that the Turkana are more often instigators of such raids rather than victims, and as a result are feared by many.Lake Turkana east shore
   No administration has been able to control the Turkana's territorial expansion, whether in colonial or post-independence times. Yet for the Turkana, cattle raiding is not so much a 'mere' matter of pride and manliness as it is for the Maasai. Rather, it is the necessity of guaranteeing one's own survival whilst weakening one's competitors, and is equally important in securing the wealth necessary to obtain a wife, for bridewealth payments are made in cattle.

Drought and hunger are a recurrent feature of life, and surviving them are what has made the Turkana who they are today: a proud, self-sufficient people, adept fighters and territorial expansionists, indifferent to the lures of 'progress' and change.

Facts & Figures

Also known as: Turukana, Turkwana, Ngaturkana, Ngaturkwana, Ngiturkwana, Bume, Buma.

Ethnic group: Plains/Eastern Nilotics. Formerly called Central Nilo Hamites or Nilo Cushites; less commonly called Central Paranilotes, Teso-speaking group, and Ngitunga group. The Turkana are sometimes classed under the Karamajong (Karamojong, or Karimojong) ethnic cluster ("Karamajong Cluster"), which includes the Karamajong, Jie, Dodoth (Dodos), Teso, Eyan, Toposa, Donyiro (Dongiro), and Jiye.

Neighbouring tribes: Borana, El Molo, Marakwet, Pokot, Rendille, Samburu. Toposa (Sudan). Karamajong and Jie (Uganda).

Language: Turkana (Nilo-Saharan, Eastern Sudanic, Nilotic, Eastern, Teso-Turkana). Similar to Karamajong and Teso. Related to Toposa. Two dialects (southern and northern Turkana). Low literacy (the 25-50% officially quoted sounds perfectly implausible).

Population: Estimates vary greatly: from 203,000 (1979) to 340,000 (1994). Second largest group of pastoralists in Kenya.

Location: Turkana District, Rift Valley Province, bordering Uganda and Sudan. Also in Samburu, Trans-Nzoia, Laikipia, and Isiolo Districts.

Way of life: The majority are cattle herders, though many also herd goats. Some have adopted the camel. A small minority, dispossessed of their herds in previous droughts, now engage in small-scale agriculture and fishing on Lake Turkana.

Religion: The vast majority have retained their traditional beliefs. 5-10% Christian, and then mostly only nominally.

References: This information has been gathered from a number of sources. The best general sources about Kenyan culture are Andrew Fedders & Cynthia Salvadori's excellent "Peoples and Cultures of Kenya" (1979: Transafrica, Nairobi), and the equally good series of booklets produced by the Consolata Fathers in Nairobi, sadly now out of print. Specific sources that have been of help in writing this site are credited where appropriate.

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