Visit Loiyangalani in May or June, and you’ll find the annual Lake Turkana Festival taking place. Initiated in 2008 by the German embassy and coordinated by National Museums of Kenya, members of all the main communities of the northwest – Borana, Burji, Dassanech, Elmolo, Gabbra, Garee, Konso, Rendille, Sakuye, Samburu, Somali, Turkana and Wata – gather in their thousands, in finest traditional garb, to dance and sing.
But the festival is as much about reconciliation as it is about partying. It brings together ethnic groups who have frequently fought over grazing rights and have bitter histories of conflict and mutually exclusive world views. It’s a memorable experience to wander down Loiyangalani’s main street – renamed Festival Avenue for the occasion – and see a group of Samburu warriors in their best beads and hair being appraised by their opposite numbers from the Turkana community, and then see a cluster of Dassanech girls from the far north, being admired by two Borana elders.
The high point of the festival comes on the third afternoon, when everyone troops out to the festival grounds (a flat piece of desert, with a useful rocky ridge on one side that gives local kids a good vantage point) and – after a series of suitably verbose speeches by various politicians finally ends – each tribe’s festival troupe takes it in turn to present their cultural traditions through performances of music and dance.
It’s not a huge event, which means you can get as close to the action as you want. There’s a marquee and seating – first come, first served – but it’s just as much fun to wander through the crowds of locals and participants, visit the ethnic houses at the edge of the arena that each troupe has built, and enjoy an atmosphere of unrestrained goodwill. The festival is also a photographer’s dream. Everyone takes pictures of everyone (including locals, with their mobiles, of tourists), and for the occasion, nobody minds or dreams of asking for payment.
As the sun goes down, on the last day, the performances shift from vivid dance and song to message-driven drama, then a fashion show in traditional costume, and finally a disco, capped by a famous local singer.
Festival events (all free) are held at various sites around Loiyangalani. If you want to attend, book accommodation and transport as early as possible: it’s a popular annual event and demand tends to outstrip Loiyangalani’s limited accommodation options.