The Turkana are a Nilotic people native to the Turkana County in northwest Kenya, a semi-arid climate region bordering Lake Turkana in the east, Pokot, Rendille and Samburu people to the south, Uganda to the west, and South Sudan and Ethiopia to the north. They refer to their land as Turkan.
Turkana man with children in traditional Turkana clothing
|Related ethnic groups|
|Nyangatom of Ethiopia (Dongiro), Maasai, Samburu, Kalenjin, other Nilotic peoples|
According to the 2009 Kenyan census, Turkana number 855,399, or 2.5% of the Kenyan population, making the Turkana the third largest Nilotic ethnic group in Kenya, after the Kalenjin and the Luo, slightly more numerous than the Maasai, and the tenth largest ethnicity in all of Kenya. Although this figure was initially controversial and rejected as too large by Planning Minister Wycliffe Oparanya, a court ruling (Feb 7, 2012) by Justice Mohammed Warsame stated that the Kenyan government accepts the 2009 census figures for Turkana.
The Turkana people call themselves ŋiTurkana (The Turkana). The name means the people of Turkan. They are mainly semi-nomadic pastoralists.
The Turkana are noted for raising camels and weaving baskets. In their oral traditions, they designate themselves the people of the grey bull, after the Zebu, the domestication of which played an important role in their history. In recent years, development aid programs have aimed at introducing fishing among the Turkana (a taboo in some sections of The Turkana society) with very limited success.
Famous Turkana include Paul Ereng, the 1988 800M Olympic Champion and 800M former indoor world record holder, supermodel Ajuma Nasenyana; and key Kenyan government officials, including: Kenyan Ambassador to Thailand, H.E. Dr. Richard Titus Ekai; Minister of Labour, Hon. John Kiyonga Munyes - MP; and Hon. Ekwee Ethuro, current Speaker of the Senate and former MP for Turkana Central.
The Turkana refer to themselves as "Ngiturkan" and their land as "Eturkan". The Turkana ethnic group as a whole is composed of two major divisions, each composed of territorial sections. The major divisions are: the Ngimonia, divided into Ngissir and non-Ngissir sections; and the Ngichoro, divided into Ngilukumong, Ngiwoyakwara, Ngigamatak, Ngibelai, and Ngibotok.
The Turkana entered Turkana basin from the north as one unit of the Ateker confederation. This cluster split as a result of internal differences, leading to the emergence of distinct independent groups. The Turkana people emerged as a victorious group in the subsequent conflict, which led to enmity between the Turkana and other Ateker cluster groups, who formed military alliances against the Turkana. The Turkana emerged victorious again by co-opting young people from conquered groups. The military power and wealth of the Turkana increased in what is now the northern plains of Turkana.
The establishment of the Turkana people developed as a distinct group which expanded southwards conquering ethnic nations south of its borders. The Turkana people easily conquered groups it came in contact with by employing superior tactics of war, better weapons and military organization. By the 1600s, the Turkana basin had been fully occupied by the Turkana and their allies.
There was a relative long period of peace among indigenous ethnic communities around Turkana until the onset of European colonization of Africa. Sporadic conflicts involved Turkana fights against Arab, Swahili and Abyssinian slave raiders and ivory traders.
European colonization brought a new dimension to conflict with Turkana putting up a lasting resistance to a complex enemy, the British. The Turkana put up and maintained active resistance to British colonial advances leading to a passive presence of colonial administration. By the outbreak of World War I, few parts of Turkana had been put under colonial administration.
From World War I through to the end of World War II, Turkana actively participated in the wars as allies of Britain against invading Italy. Turkana was used as the launching pad for the war against invading Italian forces leading to the liberation of Abyssinia.
After World War II, the British led disarmament and pacification campaigns in Turkana, leading to massive disruptions and dispossession of Turkana pastoralists. The colonial administration practiced a policy of deliberate segregation of Turkana people by categorizing Turkana Province as a closed district. This led to marginalization and underdevelopment in the lead up to Kenya's independence.
Traditionally, both men and women wear wraps made of rectangular woven materials and animal skins. Today, these cloths are normally purchased, having been manufactured in Nairobi or elsewhere in Kenya. Often, men wear their wraps similar to tunics, with one end connected with the other end over the right shoulder, and carry wrist knives made of steel and goat hide. Men also carry stools (known as ekicholong) and will use these for simple chairs rather than sitting on the hot midday sand. These stools also double as headrests, keeping one's head elevated from the sand, and protecting any ceremonial head decorations from being damaged. It is also not uncommon for men to carry several staves; one is used for walking and balance when carrying loads; the other, usually slimmer and longer, is used to prod livestock during herding activities. Women will customarily wear necklaces, and will shave their hair completely which often has beads attached to the loose ends of hair. Men wear their hair shaved. Women wear two pieces of cloth, one being wrapped around the waist while the other covers the top. Traditionally leather wraps covered with ostrich egg shell beads were the norm for women's undergarments, though these are now uncommon in many areas.
The Turkana people have elaborate clothing and adornment styles. Clothing is used to distinguish between age groups, development stages, occasions and status of individuals or groups in the Turkana community.
Today, many Turkana have adopted western-style clothing. This is especially prominent among both men and women who live in town centers throughout Turkana.
The Turkana rely on several rivers, such as the Turkwel River and Kerio River. When these rivers flood, new sediment and water extend onto the river plain that is cultivated after heavy rainstorms, which occur infrequently. When the rivers dry up, open-pit wells are dug in the riverbed; these are used for providing water to the livestock and also for human consumption. There are few, if any, developed wells for community and livestock drinking water, and often families must travel several hours searching for water for their livestock and themselves.
Livestock is an important aspect of Turkana culture. Goats, camels, donkeys and zebu are the primary herd stock utilized by the Turkana people. In this society, livestock functions not only as a milk and meat producer, but as form of currency used for bride-price negotiations and dowries. Often, a young man will be given a single goat with which to start a herd, and he will accumulate more via animal husbandry. In turn, once he has accumulated sufficient livestock, these animals will be used to negotiate for wives. It is not uncommon for Turkana men to lead polygynous lifestyles, since livestock wealth will determine the number of wives each can negotiate for and support.
Turkana rely on their animals for milk, meat and blood. Wild fruits are gathered by women from the bushes and cooked for 12 hours. Slaughtered goats are roasted on a fire. Roasting meat is their favorite way of consuming meat. The Turkana often trade with the Pokots for maize,beans and vegetables and Marakwet for tobacco. The Turkana buy tea from the towns and make milk tea. In the morning, people eat maize porridge with milk, while for lunch and dinner they eat plain maize porridge (nang'aria) with a stew. Zebu are only eaten during festivals, while goat is consumed more frequently. Fish is taboo for some of the Turkana clans (or brands, "ngimacharin"). After the hunt, men go out again to gather honey, which is the only natural sweetener available in traditional diets.
Houses are constructed over a wooden framework of domed saplings on which fronds of the Doum Palm tree Hyphaene thebaica, hides or skins, are thatched and lashed on. The house is large enough to house a family of six. Usually, during the wet season, they are elongated and covered with cowdung. Animals are kept in a brush wood pen. Due to changes in the climatic conditions, most Turkana have started changing from the traditional method of herding cattle to agro-pastoralism.
A clear boundary is not drawn between the sacred and the profane in Turkana society. In this regard, Turkana traditional religion is undifferentiated from Turkana social structure or epistemological reality—the religion and the culture are one. The Turkana are pastoralists whose lives are shaped by the extreme climate in which they live. Each day, one must seek to find the blessings of life—water, food, livestock, wives, children—in a manner that appeases the ancestral spirits and is in harmony with the peace within the community. Properly following the traditions (ngitalio) in daily life will certainly lead to blessing. Blessings are understood to be an increase in wealth, whether livestock, children, wives or even food. It is only through proper relationships with God (Akuj) and the ancestors, proper protection from evil, and participation in the moral economy of the community that one can be blessed.
Essentially, Turkana believe in the reality of a Supreme Being named Akuj. Not much is known about Akuj other than the fact that he alone created the world and is in control of the blessings of life. There is also a belief in the existence of ancestors, ngipean or ngikaram, yet these are seen to be malevolent, requiring animal sacrifices to be appeased when angry. When angered or troubled, the ancestors will possess people in the family in order to verbally communicate with their family. There is also the recognition of “The Ancestor”, Ekipe, who is seen as much more active in the everyday lives of people, yet only in negative ways. There is much concern over protecting one’s family and oneself from the evil of the Ekipe. Turkana Christians and missionaries equate ekipe with the biblical character of Devil or Satan and this has shifted more traditional understandings of ekipe away from “an evil spirit” to “The Evil one”. Turkana religious specialists, ngimurok, continue to act as intermediaries between living people and ancestors and also help in problem solving in communities.
As in most African traditional religions, traditional religious specialists in Turkana are present and play an active role in almost every community event. Ngimurok help to identify both the source of evil, sickness or other problems that present themselves, and the solution or specific cure or sacrifice that needs to take place in order to restore abundant life in the family and the community. There are various types of diviners differentiated by the emuron’s source of revelation. According to Barrett, the “true diviners,” also known as the “diviners of God”, are the most respected of the ngimurok because they receive revelations directly from Akuj, normally through dreams. These “true diviners” follow in the pattern of the most famous Turkana ngimurok, Lokerio and Lokorijem. The latter regularly received dreams from Akuj informing him of the location of the British Army during early 20th century colonial struggles, and the former is said to have used the power and knowledge of God to divide Lake Turkana so that warriors could walk across the lake to steal camels.
These ngimurok of God can still be found throughout Turkana, each in their own territory, alongside specialized ngimurok who have received specific abilities to read tea leaves, tobacco, intestines, shoes, stones and string. There are also hidden evil specialists, ngikasubak, who use objects in secret to work against people in the community, and ngikapilak, who specialize in pronouncing very strong curses employing the use of body parts from those recently deceased, but these are not included in the term emuron. Ngimurok are the people that Akuj and the Fathers speaks to in dreams; they are also the ones who can communicate with the ancestors to discern what sort of animal sacrifice is needed to restore peace, bring rain, find a remedy for a child’s illness, or who can properly bless the families at a wedding.
The ngimurok in each area receive direct revelations from Akuj, who is still directly active and concerned with the creation. These ngimurok do not speak or receive messages through an intermediary god or spirit through possession. While ancestor possessions are common in Turkana, they normally occur among younger people at the home, so that the ancestor can communicate their message to those in the home. The emuron would then be consulted as to what should be done. Ngimurok are not known as people who are normally possessed. Apart from the ngimurok, there are also important clan rituals in Turkana that represent the acknowledgement and transitions of life force. The most important rituals are the birth rituals (akidoun), male and female initiation rituals that do not include circumcision (asapan and akinyonyo), marriage rituals (Akuuta), annual blessing sacrifices (Apiaret an awi), and death rituals (Akinuuk). Each of these rituals is overseen by the elders of the clan, both men and women. The elders also oversee the community-wide wedding rituals, but an emuron normally plays a role in blessing the marriage.
- Kiplagat, Sam (Feb 8, 2012). "No Repeat Census for North Eastern, Turkana". The Star. Retrieved 10 February 2012.
- Barrett, Anthony (1998). Sacrifice and Prophecy in Turkana Cosmology. Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa. p. 112.
- Barrett, Anthony (1998). Sacrifice and Prophecy in Turkana Cosmology. Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa. p. 106.
- Lamphear, John (1993). "Aspects of Becoming Turkana" in Becoming Maasai, ed. T. Spear and R. Waller. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press. p. 96.
Wood bowls, containers, cow bells and head rests from the Turkana people. http://www.douglasyaney.com/tribes-turkana.html
- Various photographs and further explanation of the Turkana can be found at Ejoka.com. Various missionaries have collaborated on the creation of this supplement.
- Photo gallery of Turkana people near Lokichoggio, Kenya
- A larger collection of art objects from the Turkana people. Arts of Kenya online collection, Indiana University Art Museum