Straddling the Ethiopian border at its northern end, Lake Turkana stretches south for 250km, bisecting Kenya’s rocky deserts like a turquoise sickle, hemmed in by sandy wastes and black-and-brown volcanic ranges. The water, a glassy, milky blue one minute, can become slate-grey and choppy or a glaring emerald green the next. Turkana’s climate is extremely hot and dry for ten months of the year, and very humid during the rains. The lake is notorious for its strong easterly winds and the squalls whipped up are the cause of most accidental deaths on the lake, rather than hippos or crocodiles.
The lake was discovered for the rest of the world only in 1888 by the Hungarian explorer Count Samuel Teleki de Szék and his Austrian co-expeditionary Ludwig von Höhnel. They named it Lake Rudolf after their patron, the Crown Prince of Austria. Later, it became eulogized as the “Jade Sea” in travel writer John Hillaby’s book about his camel trek. The name “Turkana” only came into being during the wholesale Kenyanization of place names in the 1970s. By then, it had also been dubbed the “Cradle of Mankind”, the site of revelatory fossil discoveries in the field of human evolution. Apart from a couple of basic lodges and one or two windy campsites, the tourist infrastructure is nil, while only a single paved road reaches the region, stretching from Kitale to Lodwar (in dire condition) and on to Lokichokio. Turkana’s fortunes may be changing, however: in 2012, vast reserves of oil were discovered near the town of Lokichar, a development that promises to bring infrastructure and investment to Turkana. What effect this will have on this isolated region remains to be seen. Turkana’s traditional cultures are still very much a vibrant part of the scene, wherever you travel: the people you’re most likely to encounter are Turkana on the western and southern shores, Samburu south of Loiyangalani, Elmolo to the north of Loiyangalani, and Gabbra further east. The Turkana and Samburu are pastoralists, who hold their cattle in great reverence; the Gabbra herd camels; while the Elmolo are traditionally property-less hunters and fishers.Read More
Ecology and wildlife of Lake Turkana
Ecology and wildlife of Lake Turkana
Lake Turkana is the biggest permanent desert lake in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a shoreline longer than the whole of Kenya’s sea coast. Yet 10,000 years ago its surface was 150m higher than today. It spread south as far as the now desolate Suguta Valley and fed the headwaters of the Nile. Today it has been reduced to a mere sliver of its former expanse. A gigantic natural sump, with rivers flowing in but no outlets, it loses a staggering 3m of water through evaporation from its surface each year (nearly a centimetre every day). As a result, the lake water is quite alkaline – although you can just about drink it, and it’s not hostile to all aquatic life.
Turkana’s water level is subject to wild fluctuations. From the mid-1980s to 1997, the level receded steadily, leaving parts of the former shoreline more than 8km from the lake. But heavy El Niño rains in 1998 led to a 6m rise in the lake level in less than a year. Fish stocks recovered and former fishing communities rediscovered their vocation. Since then, however, the level has fallen again, the lakeshore receding by as much as 1km in some places. The massive Gilgel Gibe III dam under construction on Ethiopia’s Omo River – Lake Turkana’s biggest source – poses a huge threat to the lake and may lower the water surface by up to 10m with a rise in salinity that would threaten fish stocks and wildlife and the livelihoods of thousands of people. The Friends of Lake Turkana, who are active in opposing the dam, have a highly recommended website (wfriendsoflaketurkana.org).
The prehistoric connection with the Nile accounts for the presence of enormous Nile perch (some weighing more than 100kg) and Africa’s biggest population of Nile crocodiles – some 10,000 to 22,000 of them. Turkana is one of the few places where you can still see great stacks of crocs basking on sand banks. There is a profusion of birdlife, too, including European migrants seen most spectacularly on their way home between March and May. Hippos, widely hunted and starved out of many of their former lakeshore haunts through lack of grazing, manage to hang on in fairly large numbers, though you won’t see many unless you go out of your way.
Until a few decades ago, the Turkana, the main people of the western shore of the lake, had very little contact with the outside world, or even with the Republic of Kenya. Turkana people did not traditionally wear clothing, though the women wear several tiers of beads around their necks and, if married, a metal band too. Turkana men are rarely seen without their akichalong, a small wooden headrest, like a stool, which they recline on at any opportunity. Many still wear a wide bracelet on their wrists called an aberait, which is in fact a weapon. Although it’s usually covered with a leather guard, the edge of the aberait is razor-sharp, and can be wielded in a fight like a slashing knife, while leaving the hands free.
Linguistically, the Turkana are related to the Maa-speaking Samburu and Maasai. Indeed, along the northwest shore of the lake, the people are probably an old mixture of Turkana and Samburu, although, like the Luo (also distantly related by language), the Turkana did not traditionally practise circumcision. They moved east from their old homeland around the present-day borders of Sudan and Uganda in the seventeenth century. The desolate region between the lake and the Ugandan border that they now occupy is barely habitable land, and their daily struggle for existence has profoundly influenced the shape of their society and, inevitably, helped create the funnel into modern Kenya that Lodwar, with its road, has become.
The Turkana are more individualistic than most Kenyan peoples and they show a disregard for the ties of clan and family that must have emerged through repeated famines and wars. Some anthropologists have suggested that loyalty to particular cattle brands is a more important indicator of identity than blood ties or lineage. Although essentially pastoralists, always on the move to the next spot of grazing, the Turkana, with characteristic pragmatism, have scorned the taboo against fish so prevalent among herders, and fishing is a viable option that is increasingly popular. They also grow crops when they can get seeds and when there’s adequate rainfall. Often the rains fail, notably during the prolonged drought of the early 1980s, which took a terrible toll on Turkana children. The situation eased up until 2007, when, again, a prolonged drought set in. Although the rains have been good for the past few years, life here is still very much a matter of day-to-day survival, supplemented here and there by food aid.
Turkana bellicosity is infamous in Kenya (Turkana migrants to the towns of the south are frequently employed as askaris). Relations with their neighbours – especially the Merille to the north of the lake, the Samburu to the south, and the Pokot to the southwest – have often been openly aggressive. British forces were engaged in the gradual conquest of the Turkana – the usual killings, livestock raids and property destruction – and they succeeded, at some cost, in eventually disarming them of their guns in the 1920s. But the Merille, meanwhile, were obtaining arms from Abyssinia’s imperial government, and they took advantage of the Turkana’s defenceless position. When war was declared by Italian-held Abyssinia in 1940, the British rearmed the Turkana, who swiftly exacted a savage revenge on the Merille. They were later disarmed again. Since then, the Turkana have fallen victim to heavily armed Toposa raiders from Sudan, who are thought to have killed as many as ten thousand Turkana in the far north. But a tribal peace pact signed in 2011 seems to be holding, and the region is relatively quiet at the moment.
Turkana directness is unmistakeable in all their dealings with wazungu. They are, for example, resolute and stubborn bargainers, while offers of relatively large sums for photos often leave them stone cold – not necessarily from any mystical fear of the camera, but because of a shrewd estimation of what the market will stand, and hence, presumably, of their own reputation.