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 the town of Lokichokio. And although vast reserves of oil continue to be discovered near Lokichokio, sadly this has yet to provide any sort of positive development for the region (Jessica Hatcher’s Exploiting Turkana: Robbing the cradle of mankind is a useful account on this topic and is available for download from Amazon).
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.
The best expression of the breadth of this cultural richness is the Lake Turkana Cultural Festival, which has taken place on the eastern shores of the lake every year since 2008, and brings together fourteen different communities from the region for performances and to share cultural traditions.
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.
Samburu-land is the vast stretch of country to the southeast of Lake Turkana inhabited for the last three to four hundred years by the traditionally nomadic Samburu people, who are very closely related to the Maasai, and speak the same language, Maa. The easiest way to explore the region is to take an organized safari, but if your budget is tight, and you have time, a flexible attitude and don’t want a spoon-fed adventure, you’ll get the maximum exposure to the area by travelling completely independently and without your own vehicle.
Some of the Laikipia settlers who ended up around Rumuruti would have dearly liked to set themselves up around the cool, conifer-draped highlands of MARALAL. But even before British administrators made this the district capital, Maralal had been a spiritual focus for the Samburu people and, despite some dithering, the colonial administrators didn’t accede to the settlers’ demands.
Maralal is a peculiar town, spread with abandon around a depression in the hills. Samburu people trudge its dusty streets – creating a brilliant collage of skins, blankets, beads, brass and iron, and giving the town a special smell, too, of sour milk, fat and cattle. You’ll see warriors in full rig on bicycles; warriors with braided hair and bracelets, but wearing jeans and singlets; women decked with flanges of necklaces; old men with sticks; and young men carrying old rifles. The main town-centre watering hole is the Buffalo Hotel: the place sets itself up for Wild West comparisons and the climate is appropriate – unbelievably dusty, almost always windy and, at 2220m, sharp enough at night for log fires. All it needs is coyotes – and even there hyenas fill the role with their nocturnal whooping.
A notable resident of Maralal until 1994 was the travel writer and Arabist Wilfred Thesiger, who had made the town his home and had adopted a number of orphaned boys. Thesiger made his name with his accounts of the Shia Arabs of southern Iraq and the Bedu of the Arabian peninsula, and followed up these achievements with several books on Kenya, notably My Kenya Days. Among the Samburu he found equally congenial companions for his old age.
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.
The Maralal International Camel Derby makes for a strange weekend during the second week of August. Anyone can enter, or just watch, as dozens of competitors from East Africa, Europe, China, Australia and South Africa battle it out over 10km amateur and 21km semi-professional stages. There is also an amateur camel triathlon consisting of 2km camel race, 5km bike ride and a 3km run. For more info head to samburu.go.ke.
The Samburu are historically close to the Maasai. Their languages are nearly the same (both Maa) and culturally they are virtually indistinguishable to an outsider. Both came from the region around present-day northwest Turkana in the seventeenth century. The Samburu turned east, establishing themselves in the mountain pastures and spreading across to the plains; the Maasai continued south.
Improvements in health and veterinary care over the last century have swelled the Samburu population and the size of their herds. Many in the driest areas of their range in the northeast have turned to camel herding as a better insurance against drought than cattle. Since livestock is the basis of relations between in-laws (through the giving of “bride wealth” from the husband to his wife’s family), having camel herds has disrupted patterns of marriage and initiation into new generations because camel herds increase more slowly than cattle herds. Memories, recording every transaction over successive generations, are phenomenal (the Samburu have only begun to acquire writing in the last four or five decades).
The Samburu age-set system, like many others in Africa, is a complicated arrangement to which a number of anthropologists have devoted lifetimes of investigation. Essentially it’s a gerontocracy (rule by old men), and the polygamous elders are assured, by the system they manipulate, of having the first choice of young women to marry. The promiscuous and jingoistic – but, by Samburu reckoning, still juvenile – warriors are forced to wait, usually until their thirties, before initiation into elderhood and subsequent marriage and fatherhood bring them a measure of real respect. In turn, they perpetuate the system on their own sons, who have everything to gain by falling in line and much to lose if they withdraw their stake in the tradition – perhaps by going to Nairobi or the coast to look for work.
For women the situation is very different. They are married at 15 or 16, immediately after the still widely performed operation of clitoridectomy and before they have much chance to rebel. But they may continue affairs with their morani boyfriends, the unmarried juniors of their new, much older husbands. This polygamy in itself seems to be an important motivating force for the whole generation system. For the warriors and their girlfriends, there’s a special young people’s language – a vocabulary of conspiratorial songs and idioms – which has to be modified with the initiation of every age-set, so that it’s kept secret from the elders.
This highly intricate system is now beginning to collapse in many areas, with a widespread disruption of pre-colonial ways; even the circumcision initiation of boys to warriorhood is less of a mass ceremony. While herds are still the principal criterion of wealth, people in some areas are turning to agriculture. There are enormous problems for such initiatives, especially when there’s no aid or government support, but they do show that the standard stereotypes don’t always fit. As for the morani warriors, opportunities for cattle-raiding and lion-killing have diminished with more efficient policing of their territories, although there are still frequent clashes with the Turkana on their northern borders. For some, tourist hunting has taken over: morani in full rig, striding past the beach hotels, looking for sales opportunities or liaisons, are no longer an unusual sight.
Arriving in Maralal, you’ll invariably attract a flock of (often annoying) “guides” offering evening excursions to see traditional dancing in nearby manyattas, or else visits to local Samburu witch doctors and blacksmiths and Turkana villages. Use your judgement before accepting, making it absolutely clear how much you are prepared to pay. Recent visitors have reported relatively non-commercial and very worthwhile excursions.
An attempt to tame the guides by organizing them into disciplined groups is the Young Plastic Boys’ Co-operative Self-Help Group, named after the street children who used to make dolls and trinkets using plastic bags and cartons. They have now progressed, under the guidance of the KWS and various NGOs, to carving and selling woodcrafts, spears and other souvenirs. Their shop is near the market, and sells a decent range of Pokot, Turkana, Rendille and Samburu crafts (or items inspired by those cultures), and they should also be able to sort you out with a reliable guide, should you need one, and advise on onward travel if you’re having difficulties. If you want to look further for crafts, seek out a Plastic Boys offshoot, Classic Curios, a little crafts shop opposite the Jamaru Restaurant.
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.
Fringed by swaying palm trees and teeming with wildlife, the windswept western lakeshore feels like an oasis in this sun-baked region, and is certainly the most obvious focus of a trip to Turkana. It is, however, fairly inaccessible – many of the attractions in the area are difficult (if not impossible) to reach by public transport, and roads between them are few. Still, these wild, windswept beaches are hard to beat for their end-of-the-world appeal, and the sense that you’ve got the vast desert lake all to yourself.
A trip to the Central Island National Park is highly recommended, and the park warden or one of his rangers will normally accompany you. Make sure, however, that the boat you go in is thoroughly lake-worthy, equipped with life jackets, and that the crew know what they are doing – vicious squalls can blow up fast and it’s more than 9km to the island. This is one of two island national parks in the lake (the other is the less accessible South Island), which, together with Sibiloi National Park on the northeast shore of the lake, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Central Island is a unique triple volcano poking gauntly out of the water. Most of the island is taken up by two crater lakes (a third has dried up) hidden behind its rocky shores. One of the lakes is the only known habitat of an ancient species of tilapia, a reminder of the time when Lake Turkana was connected to the Nile. The island is also the nesting ground for big colonies of water birds but, like some African Galapagos, it really belongs to the reptiles, with crocodiles found here in large numbers. The vegetation is scant, but some of the sheltered lees are overgrown with thick grass and bushes for a short period each year, and the nests are dug beneath this foliage.
During the journey between Lodwar and Kalokol, look out for the standing stones of Namoratunga, 15km southwest of Kalokol some 50m off on the south side of the road. They’re easy to miss, being only a small cluster of metre-high cylindrical stones, but the Turkana are in the habit of balancing small rocks on top of them, so you’ll know them when you see them. Like a miniature Stonehenge, the pillars are a spiritual focus and the scene of a major annual gathering of Turkana clans, usually in December. The stones pre-date the arrival of the Turkana, but little is known about them, even by the people themselves (the name “namoratunga” is used by Turkana to describe any standing stone site). One theory is that the stones were aligned with the positions of important stars in Eastern Cushitic astronomy and were used to determine the dates of ritual ceremonies. Some people call them “dancing stones”, following a legend that told of a tribe dancing on the site, who were turned to stone by the ridicule of a group of new arrivals, the Turkana. More plausible reasons for their existence might be the concentration of haematite and copper ore around the site, the smelting of which (for making weapons) has historically had ritual significance. Uphill from the stones you’ll find several raised rock cairns covering ancient graves, some perfectly delineated with larger regular stones. It’s a fascinating site, and all rather mysterious.