About the Turkana Tribe

The Turkana of North-Western Kenya

The Turkana tribe of North-Western Kenya

On the west of Lake Turkana (in north-western Kenya) live the Turkana tribe, a fierce, arresting, war-like folk that have had to co-exist with several other gutsy neighbours. It is, perhaps, their considerable scrimmages with Suk or Pokot – “a people who might be described as halfway between the Maasai and Turkana” – and the Matheniiko tribe of Uganda, that have brought to the forefront their venerated warriorship. The Turkana tribe are often depicted as a race of giants, prodigious even, if you add the elaborate hair-dress with a circlet tuft of ostrich feathers that add to their imposing appearance, being certainly taller than many tribes of the north, and appear very big when compared to the compact Bantu people. A man of six feet is more the rule than the exception here, and as a race are as tall as some of the people in Sudan. All the same, the Turkana tribe of North-Western Kenya are a genial, hospitable people, who live much after the manner of the Maasai and talk the same. The Turkana girl wears her elaborately beaded necklace(s) which attests to her beauty, culture, and her father’s wealth.


Brief Overview of the Turkana Tribe

Against many odds, the Turkana tribe of North-Western Kenya have developed means of living in the desert and have maintained their way of life for centuries in a place where many could not. Their homeland lies in the eye of the sun, the altitude rarely rising over 1,000 metres, and the day temperature hardly falling under 35 C year-round. Except for the shores around Lake Turkana and along River Kerio, much of the country is semi-arid and in sizeable places wasteland; with no better example than the Suguta Valley in the southern area of Turkana County. Although there are many river beds in the Suguta Valley, which might suggest that rivers flow here, none of them is faintly permanent. They are all intermittent, that is, they flow immediately after a period of rain, but dry up completely. This obviously indicates a very dry climate. The total population of the vast Turkana County is still less than a million, with a population density of 12 people per square kilometre. The Turkana dwell in small groups, each group many kilometers distant from its neighbour. Their huts closely resemble those of the Maasai; usually several huts grouped within a surrounding wall of bush.

The huts consist of only a close framework of sticks, sometimes covered with skins when it is wet. The chief occupation of the Turkana tribe is herding of stock, and, it may be added, the acquiring of it by fair means or foul. There is a saying used in Turkana County when there’s a parlay on the latter: “Angatun aite apei ejok edwangit abongun kogin”: “Gaining one cow on a cattle raid is better than gaining none.” Raiding and counter-raids with their neighbouring communities, that have been ongoing for well over a century, may be described as an occupation, which has brought much trouble among the tribe. They own and take pride in their herds and packs of camel, cattle, donkey, sheep and goat.

Model Ajuma Nasenyana welcome you to Turkana Festival

Settlement in Turkana County

Many Kenyans have a blind spot about the inequality and existence of life in the North of Kenya. The disparity between communities in the Central and Western Regions of Kenya, that account for twenty of the well-to-do Counties of Kenya, instead view the Northern Frontier of Kenya as a thing-a-majig monolith with only occasional thriving business opportunities but nonetheless a broad brush of inequalities, in the past utterly marginalized and neglected by even its own Government. The surprising truth is there’s as much opportunities among these marginalized Counties of Kenya as there is among the fertile highland counties.

As recent development have brought to proof, the gilded mineral endorsement of Turkana in terms of oils reserves. Still and all, the North exists as a stressed out quadrum, unable to keep up with the rapidity of development in the rest of Kenya, while pressure by the harsh and inhospitable environment renders them victims of the desert. The predominant tribe on the western side of the Lake is the Turkana. Some of the minority tribes include the Luo, Kisii, and Luhya who have migrated from other regions. Turkana are by and large pastoralist, notable for raising camels and weaving baskets. The rely unsettlingly on few rivers, such as the Turkwel River and Kerio River. When these rivers flood, new sediment and water extend onto the river plains that’re cultivated after heavy rainstorms, which occur infrequently. When the rivers dry up, open‐pit wells are dug in the river beds, which are put to use for watering livestock and human consumption.

Spatial Location of Turkana County in Kenya - Map of Kenya

If you write-off Ilemi Triangle from Turkana County – that disputed triangular piece of land separating Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan – then Marsabit County which covers an area of 70,961 km2 is the largest County of Kenya. As a whole, Turkana County, covering 77,000 km2 and accounting for 42.4% of the total area of the old Rift Valley Province, is split into 7 sub-counties: Turkana North, Loima, Turkana West, Turkana Central, Turkana East, Turkana South and Kibish. The settlement patterns in the county are determined largely by climate, soil fertility, availability of water, pastures, infrastructure and social facilities; mainly found in urban and peri‐urban centres. Katilu has the largest number of people, owing to its proximity of Katilu Irrigation Scheme along the Turkwel River. Hence, the most populous region is Turkana Central with a population of 253,777 in 2012. Lodwar Town the principal town and capital of the county has the highest population projected to be 54,978 in 2012. Population density in the county varies from 24 persons per km2 in Turkana Central to 5 persons per km2 in Turkana East; averaging to 12 persons per km2. Majority of households in the Turkana County sustain a family size of five upto fifteen people per home.

The Turkana tribe of North-Western Kenya under normal situation settle in the plains. Considering variations in weather, very few of them settle permanently in one place. So that during and shortly after the rains, the Turkana people are concentrated at the plains. As the drier season starts, they move mostly to high mountain areas and even to neighbouring countries of Sudan and Ethiopia in search of pasture and water for their livestock. Permanent and semi‐permanent settlements in the county are to be found along Turkwel and Kerio rivers where small‐scale irrigated farming is practiced and along the lake shores of Lake Turkana, with some social infrastructures like schools and health facilities that support human settlement. Along these areas there exist peri‐urban market centres or fish trading centers. Majority of houses belonging to communities around the lake reflects their traditions. A typical Turkana house along the lake is made of mud floor with almost 90% houses made of stick/poles and reed or poles/stick and mud walla. Variations include use thatch to roof their houses, roofing with corrugated iron sheets. The typical hut is doom shaped with walls made of sticks/poles, and then covered with pieces of cloth, skin/cloth material.

Map of the Population Distribution in Kenya.
Map of the Population Distribution in Kenya.