Turkana - Livestock (and Agriculture)

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Cattle: Uses, Bridewealth & Raiding


Proper agriculture is largely impossible on account of the climate, although a small minority of Turkana, dispossessed of their herds by droughts over the last four decades, have started to settle around the lakeshore or around one of the district's few towns, such as Lodwar, to practise small-scale cash-crop cultivation or lake fishing (using semi-hemispherical gill-nets or stone-weighted hand lines whose steel hooks are supplied by the Fisheries Department). A few semi-nomadic Turkana also practice rudimentary cultivation using a fast growing strain of millet in small depressions immediately after the rains.
   But for the most part, pastoralism - the semi-nomadic herding of animals - is quite simply the only means of survival in such an arid location.

Cattle: Uses, Bridewealth and Raiding

Like all Nilotic-speaking people (including the Luo, who only recently switched to agriculture as their primary focus), the Turkana rely almost entirely on cattle for their survival. It is an implacable logic that a man should aim to keep the largest herd of cattle possible, so that come the next drought, a comparatively large number of animals may survive. Yet although cattle are obviously crucial to the Turkana's survival, they do not revere them to quite the same extent as their boviphile Maasai cousins. Nonetheless, grass has acquired an element of sacredness for its role in feeding cattle, and it is said that when a person wishes to make peace with his enemy, he will present him with a bundle of fresh grass. It is a powerful and symbolic offering which no-one can refuse.

Cattle being watered

As with the Maasai and Samburu, the staple foodstuff in the Turkana diet is provided by a mixture of cow's milk and blood, though milk yield depends on the season, and may cease completely during prolonged dry spells. For these times, provision is made during the wet season by boiling fresh milk and letting it dry on skins, to make edodo powdered milk. In the dry season, the Turkana also eat fruit, most commonly wild berries which are either crushed to make dried meal, or mixed with blood and made into cakes.
   Only rarely - either through extreme need, an animal's infirmity or old age, or for ritual purposes such as rain sacrifices, welcoming rites and mortuary rites - are cattle slaughtered; meat for eating is provided by goats and sheep instead (only in the dry season), which are also milked. The first animals to be slaughtered will have been specially chosen and castrated long before, as are sacrificial animals. These are presented to God with a simple and bluntly honest formula, something like "This is your animal, take it" or "This is your ox, take him." The sacrificers then continue: "Give us life, health, animals, grass, rain and all good things".
   Apart from providing 80% of their food requirements, cattle have an amazing multiplicity of other uses, providing skins for clothing, mats, shelters, twine, sandals, slings, containers, bags and so on. The horns are used as containers (as they have been throughout the world), dung is burned for fuel, the hairs and tails are used as decorations and charms, the bones are turned into clubs, fat turned to oil for softening leather, stomach contents spread out for rituals...
   On a more prosaic level, cattle are offered as gifts on social occasions, whilst fines and compensations suggested by elders for transgressions such as fathering illegitimate children are also expressed in head. Cattle can also be bartered for grain, tobacco, beads and ironware, although recently, as the Turkana have advanced further into Samburu territory, some have realised the speculative value of money, and now trek far (to Baragoi, for example, or occasionally to Isiolo if relations with the Samburu permit), to exchange their cattle via money for goats, which are then exchanged back to cattle at a profit on the return journey home.

As might be guessed, a species of animal which provides so much of life's necessities must also have worked its way into the minds of the people using it. Thus, as with all the other Nilotic tribes, and many of the Cushites too, cattle serve multiple ritualistic and social purposes as well.Young Turkana warrior
   In the same way that elders are respected in part for their having survived, so a man with large numbers of cattle will be admired and respected, too, for the survival of his family and relatives rests assured. This is especially true given the scarcity of water and pasturage (which runs as a constant theme throughout Turkana life), which has itself raised the practice of livestock raiding (and the resulting warfare) to a quasi-economic pursuit, through which men are can acquire reputations for bravery as well as sudden wealth.
   This is not just a matter of pride. The symbolic bridewealth payment, which of course is made in cattle, is traditionally very high, providing young men with a powerful incentive to establish their reputations and herds through raids on non-Turkana groups. The symbolic transfer of cattle thus not only compensates the bride's family for the expense of having raised her, but also signals the man's ability to found a successful and prosperous family for his wife and future children. See also marriage.


Some Turkana have in the relatively recent past adopted the camel, presumably raided from the Rendille or Borana on the east side of the lake, or from the original Cushitic inhabitants of Turkana District after they migrated from the west with their cattle some 150-200 years ago. They have two main uses for this supercilious creature; the first, obviously, is as a pack animal ideally suited to the desert environment (the donkey has more recently been adopted for the same purpose), although some brands (sections) of the Turkana oddly enough refuse to use them as beasts of burden, nor will they mount them when a homestead moves. The second, less obvious but in many ways more important reason for the adoption of the camel, is its milk. A quick list of figures shows why:

camel milk is slightly more nutritious than cows' milk.

a camel can lactate for between 13 to 18 months, whereas cattle will dry up during prolonged periods with no rain or fresh pasture.

a camel can be milked twice a day, a cow only once.

camel's milk is easily digestible, and can be used to feed babies.

Like cattle, camels can also be negotiated as bridewealth, slaughtered on ritual occasions, and are also given between men to create or to affirm pragmatic friendships ('bond-friendships'). They are eaten only too old or ill to be of use.

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