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.
According to the 2019 Kenyan census, Turkana number 1,016,174, or 2.14% of the Kenyan population, making the Turkana the third largest Nilotic ethnic group in 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 language of the Turkana, an Eastern Nilotic language, is also called 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.
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.
Turkana people speak Turkana /tɜrˈkɑːnə/). It is one of the Eastern Nilotic languages, and is closely related to Karamojong, Jie and Teso of Uganda, to Toposa spoken in the extreme southeast of Sudan, and to Nyangatom in the Sudan/Ethiopia Omo valley borderland; these languages together form the cluster of Teso–Turkana languages.
The actual name "Turkana" is something of a mystery, with the most commonly ascribed meaning being a corruption of 'turkwen', which means 'cave people', or 'aturkan' which means 'cave land'.
As there are no caves in present-day Turkana-land (at least east of the Ugandan border), they must have migrated from elsewhere. This much is certain, as each of the nineteen sections of the Turkana agree that their recent origins lie to the west of their current homeland. The story, which has been carried down from mouth to mouth for many centuries, goes something like this:
"After a while, a group of young men from the Jie section of the Karamajong were sent eastwards into the Tarach Valley (west/northwest of Lodwar in Kenya) in search of a wayward ox, whose tracks they were following. They wandered far from their people, and finally met a solitary old Jie woman called Nayece who was gathering fruit. She led the young warriors into a lush and and verdant valley, unoccupied by people, which was rich in the wild berries which still form an important part of the Turkana diet. Nayece also gave the men fire, and taught them how to cook. Impressed with the area, the men talked other young people into joining them, and together they moved in with their livestock. Nayece divided the men into territorial sections (the basis of Turkana society today), and became the mother-heroine of the Turkana. Ever since, the Turkana and Jie have been allies."
The Turkana entered Turkana basin from the north as one unit of the Ateker confederation. The Ateker cluster split as a result of internal differences leading to emergence of distinct independent groups. Turkana people emerged as a victorious group. The victory of the Turkana people in the initial Ateker conflict led to enmity between Turkana people and other Ateker cluster groups. Ateker cluster groups 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 1600s, the Turkana basin had been fully occupied by Turkana people and allied friendly groups.
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 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.
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.
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.
Livestock also plays an important part in interactions between the Turkana and other neighboring groups, and is an important aspect of warfare in the region. Raids are not unusual in Turkana society and most of the time raids are conducted it is to steal cattle from neighboring groups such as the Taposa and the Pokot. In some cases, such raids have led to intense conflict in which dozens or even hundreds of people are injured or killed. In his book, Cattle bring us to our enemies: Turkana ecology, politics, and raiding in a disequilibrium system, J. Terrence McCabe cites several incidents in which raiding caused several deaths. McCabe notes that such raids often occur between the Turkana and the Pokot and that raiding seems to have increased in intensity over the last few years.
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 and only their entrails and skin removed. Roasting meat is a favorite way of consuming meat.
The Turkana often trade with the Pokots for maize and beans, Marakwet for Tobacco and Maasai for maize and vegetables. 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 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"). Men often go hunting to catch dik dik, wildebeest, wild pig, antelope, marsh deer, hare and many more. After the hunt men go out again to gather honey which is the only sweet thing the Turkana have.
While the Turkana mainly rely on pastoralism they also cultivate some of their food. Multiple studies have made note of sorghum cultivation in Turkana society. One such study, Sorghum Gardens in South Turkana: Cultivation among a Nomadic Pastoral People, notes that while sorghum cultivation is quite productive it is more limited by environmental factors than pastoralism. The Jie, a long time ally of the Turkana, have sometimes been know to gift sorghum to the Turkana.
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.
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.The Arabs also brought Islam to the people and hence the men wear the cap weather they are Muslims or not.
Ngimurok. 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.
The Turkana social structure is looser than that of their neighbours the Maasai, Samburu and Gabra. There are male elders rather than formal political leaders and individuals belong to one of twenty-eight patrilineal clans, each with its own ways of marking the transition from childhood to adulthood.
The Turkana are one of the few groups in this part of the world who do not practise circumcision; as Juxon Barton observed, in this and in many other cultural customs, they have more in common with the Karamojong and Dodoth people of Uganda to the West. For boys, rites of passage generally involve learning how to hunt and for girls the most important transition is marriage, a contract they can enter into as young as fifteen. One anthropologist, Itaru Ohta, who has conducted fieldwork among the Turkana since the 1970s, reported that when he once “gave papers and pencils to Turkana children to draw what they wanted, most of the girls made pictures of the front aprons of married women, which are different from those of unmarried women”.
Marriage is the most important determining factor in Turkana social organisation, as clan members are not allowed to marry others from their own clan or their mother’s birth clan.
Marriage is also important because it reinforces social alliances and creates clan support networks. Polygamy is encouraged so that a Turkana man may create a large working unit. A group of women interviewed on camera by anthropologists Judith and David MacDougall in the 1970s concurred, saying:
“A man should marry as often as possible, to feed and herd his animals… He should have at least two wives. One wife is a misfortune, like a man with
For a Turkana man, marriage also marks the first step in becoming an independent livestock owner. This is because, as in neighbouring cultures like the Samburu, the groom must supply the family of the bride with ‘bridewealth’ – a payment in cattle (possibly up to one hundred) or even highly prized camels.
In the Turkana system of livestock ownership, all livestock is allocated to a woman’s ‘hut’, a space where married women set up huts once they have had a child. Prior to marriage, a man’s livestock technically still belongs to his mother’s hut and he will have to share any milk or meat with his siblings. Once married, that livestock transfers to his new family. It can sometimes take a man years to acquire enough livestock to satisfy the bridewealth, which explains why many men do not marry until their thirties and are often much older than their wife. Each wife means another bridewealth payment so it is unusual for a man to be able to afford more than two or three wives.
Arranged marriages (akota) are not unknown, but a male suitor will normally approach the girl’s kin to gain consent for their marriage. This might entail several visits and group discussions between the two parties and their parents, siblings and friends. Kinsmen of the woman, especially her parents, may take advantage of this opportunity to ask the suitor for numerous gifts, starting with small items such as tobacco, sugar, tea leaves and gourds, then requesting more substantial gifts such as clothes, blankets, cooking pans, goats or rams. Once it is agreed at these informal meetings that the union will go ahead, a formal, public round of negotiations about the bridewealth begins. This process, known as eloto, can be quite lengthy.
Turkana - Religion and Beliefs
Despite their independence, their bravery and their freedom of movement, the Turkana are unable to control the single most vital element for ensuring their continuing prosperity: rain.
Rainfall is erratic, although usually sufficient to provide enough fresh grazing for the animals. But every few years (on average every ten), a natural cycle which may be connected to the El Niño effect causes a devastating drought, and with it the decimation of herds and the deaths of many people. Contrary to what many people believe, these droughts are not a cruel anomaly of nature (or global warming), but a naturally recurring if unpredictable event which the Turkana must survive. Yet the unpredictable nature of these events, as well as the terrible toll they take, have inevitably led them to explain this - and rainfall in general - as the work of a force beyond their control. This force is God, whom the Turkana call Akuj.
Akuj - God
The vast majority of the Turkana still follow their traditional religion, which on the surface seems straightforward enough. There's one supreme God - Akuj - who is associated with the sky, and who can be addressed through prayer or through intermediaries such as diviners and living-dead ancestors. Like most people living in dry lands, the Turkana associate God with the provision or non-provision of rain. If God is happy, he will give rain. But if he is angry with the people, he will withhold it.
For the Turkana, the 'above' is a world divided between Akuj (God) or Akuj Nameri (God of the Stars) and Nipen or Ngiapan (spirits). Animal sacrifices are made both to Akuj and the spirits, so as to placate them at times of drought, famine, flooding, animal epidemics or any other disaster beyond human control.
Prophets and Diviners - the Dreamers
With such an unpredictable God as Akuj, it pays to be forewarned. This is the work of various diviners and prophets known collectively as emuron, who are able to interpret or predict Akuj's plans through their dreams, or through other means such as the reading of a sacrificed animal's intestines, tobacco, "string", gourds and stones, and most famously through the tossing of sandals, whose configuration when fallen back to earth can be interpreted (akiteyen; "caused to know") as a sign. Most are men (ngimurok), although there are some women, too (ngamurok). The emuron are God's chief representatives, purifiers of age-sets, predictors of the outcome of raids or war, and rainmakers. There role is not only one of prediction, but also to find the causes and cures of disease, and thus they also function as doctors. When people have troubles, they approach the appropriate emuron, who will divine the proper course of action to take. Often, a diviner will have a certain limited area of responsibilities defined by the extent of their powers. In a case where other skills are needed, they will work together towards the common end.
Initiation of a Dreamer
The most powerful form of emuron is the ekerujan or "dreamer", who has the closest union with Akuj, for it is in dreams that Akuj speaks most clearly to humans.
Rain and Sacrifice
Self-evidently, the dreamers can only be as accurate as Akuj or the extent of their powers allow them to be. In any event, they are powerless to prevent God from acting out his schemes or from forgetting to bring rain. Theirs is only a transmissive role.
Anthony J. Barrett, in his introduction to Sacrifice and Prophecy in Turkana Cosmology, writes:
Prophecy, sacrifice, the sacred and Akuj are intricately connected. Without prophecy, there would be no reason for sacrifice; without the sacred, the sacrifice would have no sense; and without God, the sacrifice would be done for nought.
Death and the Ancestors
The death of a family head is very important because it raises the problem of settling the inheritance. Death of a family head or older person is accompanied by intense mourning. The body is disposed of by burial and often a meat feast will follow.