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People of Kenya: Turkana

The desert, lake Turkana safari
Rock art, Loiyangalani, Turkana

The Turkana tribe is a nomadic pastoralist people that inhabit Turkana land in northwest Kenya – a vast tract of land encompassing mostly thorn scrub and semi desert, representing one of the harshest regions of Africa.

They are distinguished for being great survivors living in harsh and inhospitable terrain. It is the second largest pastoralist community in Kenya after the Maasai people in masai mara, totaling at about 350,000 people in population. They speak the turkana language.

They originally came from the Karamojong region of North Eastern Uganda at around 400 years ago. The community, like the Samburu and Maasai, still maintain their undiluted traditional way of life. Like all the pastoralist tribes Livestock are the center of the people’s economics, representing both a food supply and wealth.

Camels, cows and goats are the favoured animals, along with some donkeys and sheep ad now days they engage in small scale agriculture and fishing in the Lake. Like the Maasai and Samburu, the Turkana people are very colorful; they adorn themselves with colorful necklace and bracelets decorated in red, yellow and brown colored beads.

The main garment for the people is a woolen blanket. The marital status was determined by the type of attire worn by a woman. The men cover their head with mud, which is then painted blue and decorated with ostrich and other feathers.

Body tattooing was traditionally used to indicate achievement in the community. Men or warriors who killed enemies were tattooed to indicate what they have done for the community. Unlike most other tribes, there is no circumcision among the Turkana.. Initiation into adulthood is a somewhat subdued affair with minor rituals marking the event for boys every four years. Girls are considered adults once they are married.

Turkana men can take as many wives as they have cattle to buy them with. A marriage is only considered to be finalized after the first child has begun to walk; usually around three years after the initial ceremony.

Most of turkana still keep their traditional beliefs unlike most of Kenya’s native people who have had their religious pushed aside by Christianity. Their god is called Akuj, who is prayed to directly or through the spirits of ancestors. Animal sacrifices are common during drought periods, to please Akuj.