Turkana woman in northern Kenya.
The Turkana—340,000 in all—are a fiercely traditional tribe living mostly in this North Carolina-sized region of Kenya, west of Lake Turkana, south of Sudan, and east of Uganda. Turkana culture and existence are centered on livestock; virtually all their wealth is tied up in goats, cows, camels, donkeys, and sheep. While this allows the Turkana to be mobile—moving with water availability—it leaves them especially vulnerable to environmental stress, disease outbreaks among livestock, and banditry. Cattle rustling is so widespread—it’s a rite of passage for males—that elementary school-age herders carry AK-47s, made widely available by the conflict in Sudan.
Lacking agriculture and savings accounts other than their livestock, the Turkana live on the brink of starvation. An extended dry season can destroy their sole source of wealth and nutrition, leaving children with bellies swollen from malnutrition, and the elderly and infirm withering away. Still, the Turkana are a proud people who are reluctant to give up their way of life. Part of this reluctance is a response to the harsh conditions of their environment, but some is because of misguided advice in the past from outsiders. While development experts have at times tried to persuade them to take up agriculture, the Turkana know that northern Kenya has too little rainfall to support most food crops. When rains do come, they can wreak havoc, causing rivers to overflow their banks, and wiping out fields, roads, and even unprepared communities.
Lost in regional strife, will nomadic Turkana be forgotten in Kenya? February 4, 2008