Lost in regional strife, will nomadic Turkana be forgotten in Kenya?
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
February 4, 2008

The Turkana people of northern Kenya, thrown into prominence by the war in neighboring Sudan, may be in danger of being forgotten again.

Turkana is a dusty, wind-swept province in northern Kenya, where scorching temperatures are only occasionally punctuated by short, but life-sustaining bursts of rain. More than 300,000 Turkana, a nomadic tribe, make their home here. For hundreds of years they've received little or no attention beyond sporadic interest from missionaries and anthropologists - it was only the horrors of war across the border that brought outside awareness of their plight. Now, with hostilities in South Sudan diminishing and the U.N. winding down operations for Sudanese refugees, the Turkana may be left to themselves again - but without anyone adequately addressing the changes in their lives brought by the war.

All photos by Rhett A. Butler
The Turkana - 340,000 in all - are a fiercely traditional tribe living mostly in this North Carolina-sized region of Kenya, west of Lake Turkana, south of Sudan, and east of Uganda. Turkana culture and existence are centered on livestock; virtually all their wealth is tied up in goats, cows, camels, donkeys, and sheep. While this allows the Turkana to be mobile - moving with water availability - it leaves them especially vulnerable to environmental stress, disease outbreaks among livestock, and banditry. Cattle rustling is so widespread - it's a rite of passage for males - that elementary school-age herders carry AK-47s, made widely available by the conflict in Sudan.

Lacking agriculture and savings accounts other than their livestock, the Turkana live on the brink of starvation. An extended dry season can destroy their sole source of wealth and nutrition, leaving children with bellies swollen from malnutrition, and the elderly and infirm withering away. Still, the Turkana are a proud people who are reluctant to give up their way of life. Part of this reluctance is a response to the harsh conditions of their environment, but some is because of misguided advice in the past from outsiders. While development experts have at times tried to persuade them to take up agriculture, the Turkana know that northern Kenya has too little rainfall to support most food crops. When rains do come, they can wreak havoc, causing rivers to overflow their banks, and wiping out fields, roads, and even unprepared communities.

Elaborate fashion

Top: Turkana woman; bottom: Turkana man
Even as hunger stalks them and their livestock, the Turkana cling to elaborate traditions when it comes to fashion. Women are adorned with colorful beads that reflect their wealth, marital status, and social standing. They take great pains in arranging their hair, shaving their heads except for a patch of small braids and sometimes dyeing and styling their hair as an orange-red mohawk. Men, who shave their heads or keep their hair short, traditionally carry knives made of steel and goat hide - supplemented today by those AK-47s. They also carry small stools, known as ekicholongs, which serve both as seats and as headrests. They carry staffs of varying lengths and thickness, used for walking as well as keeping livestock in line.

The Turkana build homes out of sticks, palm fronds, and animal skins, although today, around permanent settlements, the shelters are often weather-proofed with plastic tarps and discarded grain sacks from aid agencies. Handicrafts are fashioned from animal parts, and baskets are woven from sticks. Water - which women carry great distances from wells dug in dry stream beds - is typically transported in jerry cans instead of the traditional tanks made from animal parts. Between fetching water and herding livestock, the Turkana spend much of their day walking, and are commonly seen along roads, looking for rides on passing vehicles.


The Kakuma refugee camp was set up in 1992 to accommodate 12,000 "lost boys and girls" of Sudan - unaccompanied children who first fled into Ethiopia to avoid fighting in Sudan. Many returned to Sudan, but then had to flee again, this time to northern Kenya. The camp grew quickly with refugees from the violence of Africa's Great Lake region, including Sudanese, Rwandans, Burundis, Somalis, Ethiopians, and Ugandans. At its peak in the early 2000s, the camp housed more than 100,000 refugees and was split into seven zones along roughly ethnic lines, divisions which remain today.

Homes of refugees in Kakuma. Refugees are provided with building materials upon arrival in the camp. Homes are demolished once refugees leave the camp.

Little Mogadishu

Barbed wire around a WFP compound

Construction vehicles lining up in a convey near the Kenya-Sudan border
Establishing the camp in the marginal lands of the Turkana has presented challenges and caused conflict between the native Turkana and refugees, 80 percent of whom today are ethnic Dinka from Sudan.

The Turkana have flocked to the camp because of its services and opportunities for trade. According to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), there were roughly 7,000 Turkana living around Kakuma when it was established in 1992; today there may be 40,000 who increasingly rely on the camp for commerce. Still, there is uneasiness between the refugees and the Turkana. The Turkana have difficulty understanding why aid agencies distribute food, health care, and education to refugees while they live in abject poverty and at the mercy of rainfall in a marginal environment. This, coupled with limitations imposed on both groups by UNHCR, has bred resentment and conflict between the two groups: in 2003 more than a dozen were killed in clashes.

Nevertheless, there is a symbiotic relationship between the groups. Refugees - relatively cash-rich from remittances but resource poor - rely on the Turkana for charcoal, firewood, and water. In exchange, refugees pay the Turkana in currency which is used for buying foodstuffs and medicine for livestock. Still, the refugees are comparably better off, with access to health care and education, reliable food rations, and capital inflows to establish businesses - the camp even has a business district known as Little Mogadishu. In comparison, the Turkana have little idea of whether they will eat the next season, but they have freedom of movement and the right to own livestock - opportunities denied the refugees.


A main road through Kakuma

Turkana settlement near Kakuma. Around the camp, Turkana huts integrate food aid bags and trash as a building material

While some teenagers have known nothing but life in Kakuma, the refugee camp was never meant to be a permanent home for displaced populations. Now that relative peace has returned to southern Sudan, UNHCR has made it considerably more difficult for Sudanese to qualify for refugee status. Working with the government of South Sudan, it is repatriating refugees living in the camp. The repatriation process got off to a slow start, but is now accelerating. The camp's population fell from 91,000 in 2006 to 63,000 near the end of 2007.

As the U.N. pulls out of northern Kenya and aid groups shift operations into Juba and Rumbek in Sudan, some observers say that UNHCR will leave little more than 500 meters of tarmac road and scattered borehole water pumps. "Bill," a veteran development expert, notes that aid agencies focus on short-term fixes, and have missed opportunities to leave northern Kenya a better place for the Turkana. Instead of spending more than a million dollars a year for nearly two decades on gasoline for fuel generators, Bill says, development agencies could have invested in wind farms to exploit the region's strong and consistent breeze. The wind farms would have helped the Turkana make the transition from the disappearance of the camp and the departure of aid groups.

Turkana woman in Lokichoggio

Turkana in Nanam

Turkana goat herder

Turkana children in Nanam

Aerial view of the Turkana landscape
While some groups have tried to interest the Turkana in agriculture, farming is not viable in much of the province because of water scarcity. Growing jatropha - the oil from which is increasingly used as a feedstock for biodiesel production - may be an option, but the Turkana are conservative and skeptical of a government that has neglected the area, providing few roads, hospitals, schools, or security against bandits. They also distrust outside groups after one Norwegian NGO planted a noxious thorny plant that has spread rapidly and been a bane to herders. Given this performance, government and development groups have had a difficult time persuading the Turkana to pursue new livelihoods.

But despite resistance to new ideas, Turkana culture is changing. Family groups are now putting up permanent structures and no longer abandoning villages. But when they stop pursuing rainfall to more fertile areas, overgrazing and land disputes follow. At the same time, traditional practices are out of step with the changes occurring in the region. Fetching water from pits dugs in stream beds presents health risks in and around towns, and Turkana women now may be seen filling water containers from trash-strewn and oily puddles in the middle of dirt roads.

Turkana who have reduced their reliance on herding now need to find other ways to make a living. In Lokichoggio, the last town before the so-called "No Man's Land" between Kenya and Tanzania, Turkana women wander the streets selling charcoal and sometimes themselves to buy flour and tobacco.

Not all change is for the worse - indeed, a sedentary lifestyle brings advantages for the next generation of Turkana. As nomads, children were rarely schooled, but today they can attend schools set up by missionaries and even by the refugee camp - an estimated 10 percent of students in Kakuma are Turkana. Among some town-dwelling Turkana, there is optimism that cultural tourism could eventually draw visitors to the region, providing employment opportunities for locals as translators, guides, security guards, and staff in hotels.

John Lokorio, of the Songot community near Lokichoggio, is working on establishing a tourism project with the nomadic Turkana of Nanam and Songot Mountain. He believes that by highlighting the culture of the Turkana and offering comfortable accommodations for travelers, the project could bring stable income to the community, even after the U.N. leaves. But efforts to launch the project have been difficult. Lokorio has won support from community elders but has failed to gain backing from an NGO, which the government says is needed to qualify for a grant.

Some possessions of a Turkana household in Nanam
A different approach can be seen at the Culinary Institute of Africa, also in Lokichoggio. This is run by the AFEX group, a firm that provides logistical support for aid and development groups working under difficult conditions in the region. The Culinary Institute offers academic programs to train locals in hospitality services, including cooking and meal preparation, interacting with clients, housekeeping and laundry, and basic first aid. These skills are helping locals find employment with organizations working in the surrounding area. Some students have gone on to become managers in other parts of the country and in neighboring Sudan.

Still, for all the aid brought to the region, little has trickled down to the Turkana. Schooling and training are helpful to the few Turkana who receive them, but most Turkana continue to live as they did in the past. With climate change expected to cause further drying and desertification in the region, the Turkana may be facing an ever more meager future.


A visit to the Turkana promises to be an adventure.

Arrangements can be made via the AFEX group, which can provide accommodations, transportation, security, and most importantly, local guides, translators, and friendly access to Turkana communities. AFEX runs a surprisingly deluxe operation in Lokichoggio, which still serves as a major jumping-off point for agencies working in Sudan. The camp, dubbed "Hotel California" houses employees from various NGOs and U.N. bodies, and offers high-speed Internet access, electricity, laundry services, and excellent food. AFEX can also make arrangements for visiting the Kakuma refugee camp.

Safety: The U.S. State Department advises travelers against visiting this part of Kenya because of ongoing civil strife and banditry. AFEX can advise visitors on specific risks as well as offer advice on minimizing danger.

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