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, on which they recline 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. In 2015, raids and violent clashes between the Pokot and Samburu left 92 people dead, 400 goats stolen and 350 families displaced.
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. A tribal peace pact was signed in 2011, which helped matters, 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.