About the Turkana Tribe

Traditional Life of the Turkana Tribe

The Prodigious Turkana Warrior

The fantastic chignons (akitok) sported by the Turkana warrior are one of the most elaborate hairstyles among the nomadic peopling of Kenya. The chignons are formed by pulling their hair at length and plastering the mass with red clay and animal fat. More eccentric styling consists of dead ancestors hair matted together with red earth and plaited on to their own hair. The striking chignons, sometimes reaching down the back almost to the waist, are poked with a few ostrich feathers and long bits of wire which curls backwards and upwards over the head. These enormous head-dresses and chignons of plaited hair and mud surmounted by ostrich feathers add considerably to their imposing appearance. The Turkana men, like the Maasai, did not traditionally wear any dress, with the exception, perhaps, of a skin hung from the shoulder and/or a loin cloth (atele/ngatelei). A curious pendant of glass or agate is worn by the Turkana warrior attached to the lower lip, known as the atepes or ngatepeso. A similar ornament is worn by the Acholi on the Nile. Other ornamentation adorned by the Turkana warrior, and men in general, include: ngiteroi/aikiiki (ornament for men on which feathers are put); akaparaparat (oval-shaped ear ornament), ankwangat (metal armlet), apukot/ngapukoto (cap or hat traditionally made of straw), aumo/ngaumoi (cap for old men made of pelican’s feather); ngakalaca (headband), and alagama/ngalagam (necklace made of thick wires and beads).

It is common-place to see the Turkana men carrying about little wooden semi circular stools (ekicolong) and pillow. They use it during the daytime as a very inadequate seat and as a pillow at night to keep their treasured chignons off the ground. Their shields are smaller than those of the Masai. The Turkana warrior affects a posture similar to that of the Maasai, that of standing on one leg with the other resting on the inside of the thigh. Concomitantly, the Turkana warrior have a great reputation for ferocity, the early explorer having, in most cases, to fight their way when crossing their country. Count Teleki encountered great difficulties with the tribe, resulting to gunning more than a dozen men to secure his way. The Turkana tribe, being pastoralists, hold their cattle highly, and so do their rivals; so when cattle raids take place, the Turkana warrior will defend his herd to his death. Somewhat uniquely, the Turkana, unlike their opposite-number Maasai, do not perform circumcision as a right of passage from being a boy (edia/ngide) to man (esapat/ngisapa: esorokit/ngisorok): In its place, they perform a ceremony known as ‘asapan’, where boys of age are socially initiated to adulthood. “For the boys, the rite of passage to manhood is learning to hunt an animal with a single throw of the spear, to show strength and skill. If they succeed in this endeavor, the elderly dismember the animal and smear the contents of the stomach and intestines on the young body in sign of blessing”. Afterwards, ostrich feathers, which are rare and valuable, are bestowed on the initiate, as a sign of maturity, which also marks the end of the ritual of passage.

Turkana man resting on his ekicolong. Image courtesy of Victor Englebert
Turkana man resting on his ekicolong. Image courtesy of Victor Englebert

The Beautiful Turkana Girl

The Turkana girl wears her elaborately beaded necklace(s) which attests to her beauty and her father’s wealth. Since birth her father gives her brightly colored red, green, blue and yellow beads until, at the marriageable age of 20 years, has accumulated as much as her neck can handle. In most cases the necklaces may weigh 10 kilograms (18 pounds). Once the Turkana girl marries, she will give her beads to younger sisters and her husband will present her with new ones. As a widow she will again remove her beads and replace them with white ones. The ornamentation adorned across all stages of the beautiful Turkana girl’s life are as a varied in their symbolic use as they are dashing in their appearance and uniqueness. They include: amaritoit (ear-ring); epedeit (ear-ring made of small beads); egelit (armlet); alagama (necklace shaped with thick wires); ekaboobait (finger-ring); akoroumuwai (beaded necklace); ngalukyo (beaded ornament for girls worn on the head); akoli (the women’s belt); aruba (girls’ belt); akitepes (newly married women’s belt); eboli (belt like ornament for girls decorated with beads); akopot (leather ornament worn beneath the knee); ekude (girls’ front apron); adewel (married women’s back apron); and aremai (leather ornament decorated with beads for girls worn on the back, from neck to waist); and more. The Turkana of North-Western Kenya say of a bride: “It’s the things a woman wears that make her beautiful”. A Turkana woman wears for life magnificent multi-layered beaded ornaments indicative of her tenor stage in life; unmarried, married, with a child or widow. For the beautiful Turkana girl, marriage marks the most important transition, that should be between the members of the clan or the mother’s clan as a mode of strengthening the kinship and social alliances.

To a large extent, the Turkana tribe are split into two main clan groups; Ngirisai (Leopard) and Ngimor (Stone or Mountain). If a man is of the Ngirisai clan, his sons will be of the Ngimor clan. His daughters will be of his clan til they marry, when they will take their husbands grouping. The grouping also determines the kind of feathers a man will wear on his headpiece: Ngimor (Stones) often sport black feathers from a male ostrich and dark-coloured metal ornaments; Ngirisai (Leopards) usually wear white feathers from a female ostrich and light-coloured metal ornaments. Furthermore, the Turkana have almost 20 sub-clans and each has a unique cattle brand which helps them to identify their livestock. In order to marry, a man must possess a goodly wealth in terms of cows. After obtaining the consent of the girl, he must also get the approval of the future bride’s family. Having attained his status of esapat (man), it is the object of the young adult to accumulate a decent herd of cattle, with urgency, for the beautiful Turkana girls is worth her weight in cattle. He will be in a better position if his father is in title of a sizeable herd. The dowry or marriage (akoota) negotiations are lengthy, but friendly. The groom (ekewotan/ngikeutak) delivers to the bride (apese nakoota) a gift of marriage negotiation (akibut) in terms of cattle, after presenting the girl to his family on the assumption he will marry her. Ahead of the wedding, bride wealth (ngibareng akoota) is presented to the bride’s family. On the wedding day (ngikotasya) an ox (ekuma) is also presented, which will be ritually speared.

When not under threat, Turkana livelihood depends primarily on their nomadic and pastoralist livelihood, the patriarchal system dictating residential patterns; with the women living, raising children and tending young animals in the rural semi-permanent hamlets, while the able men migrate (200 to 500 kilometers per year) to graze their livestock. Under this mise en scène, the Turkana women are the cornerstone of their families, their resilience most notable in managing the affairs of the household, and especially during seasons of severe drought. It is incumbent on the women in wartime or during drought, when livestock are often wiped out by drought or by cattle rustlers, the men compromised, to act, carefully plan, be self-giving and rely on a fusion of luck, sometimes reducing them to beggars, to keep their families alive. That lingering apprehension and uncertainty has molded them to be dynamic and speculative, and today they are perpetually engaged in small-scale income-generating activities like charcoal-making, fetching firewood to sell, weaving mats and baskets, and gathering fruit to help their families survive. What little income is generated from the sales is also used to pay basic school levies for their children. In a handful of areas like Lokichoggio, Kerio, Tarach and Turkwel Rivers, farming is primarily conducted by the women, who grow crops like sorghum and forage for wild foods. In spite of everything, a weighty concern for many young women to this day appears to be collecting enough beads in their neck jewelry to entitle them to a high dowry.

The Beautiful Turkana Girls. Image Courtesy of Daily Nation
The Beautiful Turkana Girls. Image Courtesy of Daily Nation