Turkana - Society

In this page:
Sections (or 'Brands')
Alternations - Leopards & Mountains
Initiation - the Atapan Ceremony
Homesteads and families


Turkana mother and child Two Turkana girls

Most reference sources point out the extremely individualistic nature of the Turkana, their lack of rules and institutions, and their loose social cohesion. While this is certainly true, it is so only to an extent. By piecing together information from several sources, a clearer framework emerges, albeit one quite clearly much looser than the formalized age-sets and strictly hierarchical social organization of the Maasai, Samburu and Gabbra. Nor are there any qualitative distinctions to be made between classes; everyone is of equal status and value, although great respect is paid to the elders.
   The reason, quite simply, is that there is no need for formalized structure, as Turkana group size is limited by their environment - a large concentration of people and their herds in one place would quickly lead to the exhaustion of vegetation and thus famine, as happened during the prolonged drought of the mid-1980s, where thousands of people and animals gathered around the few remaining water sources, bringing about the total collapse of local ecosystems and the necessity of massive aid relief from overseas.

Aside from ceremonial and ritual roles, there are no tribal, sectional or 'political' leaders as such, although the wisdom of old age is highly valued, irrespective of sex, especially as the very fact of their having survived so long is seen as success in itself. The elderly are also the advisors on questions of grazing rights; their experience of weather cycles and the interactions of the various sections of the tribe means that their judgements on such matters are followed to word, and are rarely mistaken.
   Important life events are initiation into adulthood, marriage, child-bearing, and death. Death is covered under the section on Religion & Beliefs.

Sections or "Brands"

The Turkana themselves make a distinction between an agriculturalist or 'forest' section named Ngicuro or Nocuro, who lived in the western highlands on the Ugandan border and are said to have some from the Teso people; and the remaining eighteen pastoralist sections called Ngimonia or Nimonia, who came from the Jie and live in the plains. This distinction however has little if any social (or political) significance; much more meaningful is the way the Turkana have divided themselves into nineteen major sections called Ekitelas (or Ategerin?), which Anthony J. Barrett translates as 'brands'.
   The term 'brand' comes from Barrett's realisation (obvious to any Turkana, naturally), that the sections were divided not so much along territorial or paternal/maternal lines, but by the brands of their animals. Each brand occupies a given area, to whose grazing and water resources the brand has permanent access, although territorial distinctions around the edges of each brand's terrain are vague. Relations between the various brands are generally good, although disputes can arise over the ownership of wells, and cattle raiding from rival sections also occurs. In general, however, the various brands do not form the basis for everyday society; intermarriage is common; and some brands - especially in the north of Turkana District - coexist quite peacefully in the same terrain as other brands.

Alternations (moieties) - Leopards and Mountains

Turkana elder with mud-cap As mentioned above, the Turkana have no rigid age-sets; the nearest to that is their system of what ethnologists call 'totemic alternations' (or moieties) for men, which transcend all other social institutions. In this system, successive generations of males alternate between being members of the 'Mountains' (Nimur; also translated as 'stones') and 'Leopards' (Nerisai). In other words, a father who was a 'Mountain' would have 'Leopards' as sons who would in turn be fathers to 'Mountains'. Women automatically share the moiety of their parents, and then of their husband.
   Although this system sounds of little consequence, it does have importance it that each alternation binds together men of all ages, in which the elders, of course, through the respect accorded them, can wield great ritual and political power. To them, too, fall the decisions about cattle raids - how best to attack, whom to attack, and the composition of the raiding party. This is crucial for young men hoping to marry, for without large herds - which can otherwise only be acquired through inheritance - a man cannot afford to marry (see also marriage, below).
   The Mountains and Leopards have also been interpreted by a number of commentators as representing totemism, which is the belief of ones kinship or mystical relationship with an animal, plant or object. The Turkana system is not so much kinship as association, and there are (as yet) no known oral fables explaining how and why the system evolved.

Initiation - the Atapan ceremony

Atapan ceremony By virtue of their not practising circumcision (the Turkana and the Luo are the only Kenyan tribes to shun the practice), the Turkana consider themselves superior to all their neighbours, who of course in turn despise the Turkana for what they see as something of a perversion. It's not just their neighbours who see this as an abnormality: a number of articles I've come across start with the assumption that all East African pastoralists traditionally practised circumcision, and thus claim that the Turkana abandoned this rite. However, as far as I know there's no evidence showing this, nor indeed is there proof that circumcision wasn't simply adopted by other Kenyan peoples under the influence of new neighbouring tribes more powerful than themselves, such as the Maasai.
Elder with mud-cap and headrest   Whatever, there is little fuss surrounding the initiation of boys into men, which signifies their passage into adulthood,. The ceremony, which by all accounts is quite brief, takes places after particularly good rains, on average every four years when the boys are between sixteen and twenty years old. Along with the Luo of Lake Nyanza (Victoria), the Turkana are the only major Kenyan tribe not to practice circumcision, whether male or female. Instead, the boys' passage into manhood is signified by their placing a blue ochre mud cap on their heads. Before then, they wear smaller mud caps ('masks') with three different colours - red, yellow and purple. Once initiated, a man had the right to hold a proper spear, instead of the wooden sticks used by the boys.


Turkana wedding: the sacrifice of the bullFor women, marriage is the first and primary stage of adulthood. Turkana girls are usually married when between 15 and 20 years of age. They usually have some say in the selection of an appropriate husband. The wedding itself may take a couple of days and is perhaps the most important event in Turkana social life. There is much ceremony, dancing and feasting.
   As mentioned elsewhere, a Turkana man can marry several women, so long as he is able to pay the bridewealth for each. And among the Turkana, this is hefty by any standards. As a young boy I met in Baragoi explained (proudly insisting on writing it himself into my notepad): "Turkana people especially Old Generation can marry even 10 women so longer he is rich to avoid the dowry. 1 woman can cost 20 cows 30 goats and 15 camels and some donkeys."
   Another source states that bridewealth ranges from an average of 50 cattle to 100 or even more goats, although it can partly be paid out of the herds of the groom's family, uncles, stock associates and bond-friends (but must be paid back later). Nonetheless, all this puts great pressure on young men to acquire livestock through raiding neighbouring tribes. Evidently, not all raids are successful, and there will invariably be men who remain poor despite their best efforts. For these, a special arrangement is made which involves the abduction of their bride, albeit with the consent of both sets of parents. Two brideless men can also arrange to exchange sisters, again not without the consent of the families.
   Turkana marriages take place over a approximate three year period, until the first child has begun to walk. Child-bearing doesn't have much fanfare in Turkana society but it represents the second stage of adulthood for the Turkana woman. When the first child reaches walking age, a ceremony ratifying the marriage is held in which a bull is sacrificed and the bride sprinkled with the dung of the animal.
   One internet source states that "the purpose of this extended time is to ensure the ritual, spiritual, and social well-being of those involved". I'm not really sure what this means, and not having found other information, I'm tempted to make a link with a belief that is common throughout Africa, namely that a child is not really alive (and is not yet given its adult name) until it has passed the first few critical months or years of its life. This phase is determined by the time during which a lot of babies succumbed to diseases or weaknesses and died. Children of this age were regarded as half-spirits, and were thus a link between the living and the living-dead (the ancestors) who dwelt in the limbo of remembrance. When the children had passed this stage of life, little cuts were made in their ears (in the same way that the ears of cattle are sometimes clipped), to symbolise the separation of death from life. The rite is also supposed to "prevent" deaths among other members of the in the family.
   The Turkana extended marriage may just be that: to ensure that the ancestors are placated by enveloping the child in a limbo state of marriage, or perhaps to mirror the child's own limbo state. Either way, I digress.
   How does a woman feel when her husband takes another wife? A lot of nonsense is spoken by uninformed and self-righteous Westerners on the subject of polygyny, yet the practice is common throughout East African cattle herding societies. Let me be clear: to regard an African tradition in its specific context, and to form an opinion, one needs to ditch pre-existing Western morals and prejudices. Africa is Africa, and not some place where Eurocentric social mores should be projected. To believe blankly that, regardless of the social or environmental context, "polygyny is nothing more than the exploitation of women and that wives in a polygynous household are weak" is simply an expression of ignorance and prejudice, and doesn't fit the reality.Turkana wedding: ritual dance
   As to the reasons, no one - not even the Turkana - really know why it's okay to take several wives. It just is, in the same way that a European man won't really question the restriction on his having only one wife (and it is a restriction). The reasons are as many and as complex as humans are, but are essentially - in my hopefully not entirely ignorant opinion - related to the man's ability to take (afford) another wife, and the natural urge of males to procreate with as many females as possible so as to increase the likelihood of his progeny (via his genes) surviving to create their own offspring. If one refuses to accept this for humans, then one would surely be refuting the entirety of evolutionary thought. The only differences between the Western view, where polygyny is mostly illegal, and the Turkana view, where it is desire able, is purely one of the society's attitude, needs and requirements. A Turkana's existence is harsh and uncertain by any standards, and the likelihood of an early death of either a man or a woman is high, whether from disease, famine, raids, or (in the case of women), their 'disappearance' when carried off as prizes by raiders.
   Another angle, again from the internet: "the rationale for a man to have more than one wife is usually a combination of more sexual partners, more children, and, above all, increased social prestige."
   Among Turkana women, a wife "generally considers it an economic advantage for her family to have additional co-wives since the women help each other in doing domestic chores and in caring for their animals. The co-wives may also help their husband find a new bride. They interview young women with a goal of finding one who will be compatible with them and hard working. Their husband usually must have their approval before going ahead with the wedding. For him, an additional wife also has disadvantages. The co-wives may get together, gang-up on him, and force him to do things that he does not want to do. More wives can mean more potential domestic trouble for a husband."

Homesteads and families

From an ethnological point of view, the only really meaningful Turkana social structures are those of the family (awi) and the herding group (adakar). The adakar is a loose cooperation of up to five independent families, who live and herd their animals together, and thus benefit from mutual protection against ngoroko, or cattle-raiding bandits. The homestead clusters are called ngadakarin. However, there are no lasting bonds to tie the families together beyond friendship: if one family decides to go its own way, there is no stigma or constraint attached to them doing so. Essentially, this is the equivalent of a local street or neighbourhood in a settled society.

A Turkana homeThe awi family essentially consists of the husband and his wife or wives and their children, although they frequently also include grandparents or close relations, or dependent women. The wife maintains close ties with both her husband and her father and brothers. Married sons remain with their father, becoming increasingly autonomous as their own personal herds grow, while daughters leave when they are married and join the family of their husbands.

The family encampment or homestead - also called awi - is the physical centre of daily life, which itself centres around the livestock, which are guarded at night in corrals within the encampment.
   The awi napolon is the main enclosure where the head of the family lives with his first wife. Adjacent is the awi abor, the enclosure belonging to a man's additional wives and their children, as well as married sons. The huts are built by the wives, and are of two types: the aki or akai is the night-time sleeping hut, a low dome made of woven branches covered with animal hides, though latterly plastic sheeting and tarpaulin has also been used. The ekol or ekal, which is used by day, is much the same but lacking the skins, thus allowing breezes to circulate. The homestead's main entrance faces east, with the chief wife's two huts on the right. The homesteads of the other families in the adakar are built nearby.
   The huts are abandoned when the homestead shifts, which may be several times a year according to the proximity of water and grazing lands, or whenever when a person dies (see death under Religion & Beliefs).

In search of water Young Turkana woman fetching water Turkana women collecting water
The search for water

As is universal, the women tend to the home and their children, and also gather berries and herd the family goats and sheep. Girls help the women with their tasks, and are responsible for the arduous task of fetching water and firewood. The boys assist the men with herding the larger animals - cattle and sometimes camels - and in the occasional hunt, where anything from snakes to crocodiles are caught.
   During the dry seasons, the men will leave the women in their long and often dangerous search for pasture and water with the cattle. During the rains, as there is no need to search far for pasturage, the families settle in more or less the same area year after year.

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