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TURKANA PEOPLE: KENYA`S BEAUTIFUL SEMI-NOMADIC NILOTIC PEOPLE
Turkana people are agro-pastoralist Nilotic people native to the Turkana District in northwest Kenya, a semi-arid climate region bordering Lake Turkana in the east, Pokot, Rendille and Samburu to the south, Uganda to the west, and South Sudan and Ethiopia to the north. They refer to their land as Turkan.
According to the 2009 Kenyan census, Turkana number 855,399, or 2.5% of the Kenyan population, making Turkana the third largest Nilotic ethnic group in Kenya, after the Kalenjin and the Luo, slightly more numerous than the Maasai, and the tenth largest ethnicity in all of Kenya.
The language of the Turkana people is also called Turkana; their own name for it is ŋaTurkana or aŋajep a ŋaTurkana.
The Turkana people call themselves ŋiTurkana (The Turkana). The name means the people of Turkan. They are mainly semi-nomadic pastoralists.
The Turkana are noted for raising camels and weaving baskets. In their oral traditions they designate themselves the people of the grey bull, after the Zebu, the domestication of which played an important role in their history. In recent years, development aid programs have aimed at introducing fishing among the Turkana (a taboo in some sections of The Turkana society) with very limited success.Tullow Oildiscovered oil in Turkana county in Kenyathis March. In early May,Tullow announced that its Kenyan project had so far contained “more than double [the oil] encountered in any of our East African exploration wells to date.”
Famous Turkana include Paul Ereng the 1988 800M Olympic Champion and 800M form indoor world record holder; supermodel Ajuma Nasenyana, and key Kenyan government officials including: Kenyan Ambassador to Thailand, H.E. Dr. Richard Titus Ekai; Minister of Labour, Hon. John Kiyonga Munyes - MP; and Hon. Ekwee Ethuro - MP.
Turkana people speak Turkana /tɜrˈkɑːnə/). It is one of the Eastern Nilotic languages, and is closely related to Karamojong, Jie and Teso of Uganda, to Toposa spoken in the extreme southeast of Sudan, and to Nyangatom in the Sudan/Ethiopia Omo valley borderland; these languages together form the cluster of Teso–Turkana languages.
The collective group name for these related group is Ateker.
The actual name "Turkana" is something of a mystery, with the most commonly ascribed meaning being a corruption of 'turkwen', which means 'cave people', or 'aturkan' which means 'cave land'.
Turkana man with secret weapon, finger-blade
As there are no caves in present-day Turkana-land (at least east of the Ugandan border), they must have migrated from elsewhere. This much is certain, as each of the nineteen sections of the Turkana agree that their recent origins lie to the west of their current homeland. The story, which has been carried down from mouth to mouth for many centuries, goes something like this:
"A long time ago, the common ancestors of the Turkana, the Jie and all the other 'Karamajong' tribes, lived in a place called Apuli, which was in southern Sudan or Ethiopia. Some 300 to 500 years ago, they began to migrate southwards to their present homeland in the far northeast of Uganda.
After a while, a group of young men from the Jie section of the Karamajong were sent eastwards into the Tarach Valley (west/northwest of Lodwar in Kenya) in search of a wayward ox, whose tracks they were following. They wandered far from their people, and finally met a solitary old Jie woman called Nayece who was gathering fruit. She led the young warriors into a lush and and verdant valley, unoccupied by people, which was rich in the wild berries which still form an important part of the Turkana diet.
Nayece also gave the men fire, and taught them how to cook. Impressed with the area, the men talked other young people into joining them, and together they moved in with their livestock. Nayece divided the men into territorial sections (the basis of Turkana society today), and became the mother-heroine of the Turkana. Ever since, the Turkana and Jie have been allies."
Turkana tribe old man with ostrich feathers headwear - Kenya
The Turkana entered Turkana basin from the north as one unit of the Ateker confederation. The Ateker cluster split as a result of internal differences leading to emergence of distinct independent groups. Turkana people emerged as a victorious group. The victory of the Turkana people in the initial Ateker conflict led to enmity between Turkana people and other Ateker cluster groups. Ateker cluster groups formed military alliances against The Turkana. The Turkana emerged victorious again by co-opting young people from conquered groups. The military power and wealth of the Turkana increased in what is now the northern plains of Turkana.
Turkana tribe boy on mountain Kulal III
The establishment of the Turkana people developed as a distinct group which expanded southwards conquering ethnic nations south of its borders. The Turkana people easily conquered groups it came in contact with by employing superior tactics of war, better weapons and military organization. By 1600s, the Turkana basin had been fully occupied by Turkana people and allied friendly groups.
There was a relative long period of peace among indigenous ethnic communities around Turkana until the onset of European colonization of Africa. Sporadic conflicts involved Turkana fights against Arab, swahili and Abyssinian slave raiders and ivory traders. European colonization brought a new dimension to conflict with Turkana putting up a lasting resistance to a complex enemy, the British. The Turkana put up and maintained active resistance to British colonial advances leading to a passive presence of colonial administration. By the outbreak of World War I, few parts of Turkana had been put under colonial
supermodel Ajuma Nasenyana
From World War I through to end of World War II, Turkana actively participated in the wars as allies of Britain against invading Italy. Turkana was used as the launching pad for the war against invading Italian forces leading to the liberation of Abyssinia.
After World War II, the British led disarmament and pacification campaigns in Turkana, leading to massive disruptions and dispossession of Turkana pastoralists. The colonial administration practiced a policy of deliberate segregation of Turkana people by categorizing Turkana Province as a closed district. This led to marginalization and underdevelopment in the lead up to Kenya's independence.
Houses are constructed over a wooden framework of domed saplings on which fronds of the Doum Palm tree Hyphaene thebaica, hides or skins, are thatched and lashed on. The house is large enough to house a family of six. Usually during the wet season they are elongated and covered with cowdung. Animals are kept in a brush wood pen. Due to changes in the climatic conditions most Turkana have started changing from the traditional method of herding cattle to agro-pastoralism.
The Turkana rely on several rivers, such as the Turkwel River and Kerio River. When these rivers flood, new sediment and water extend onto the river plain that is cultivated after heavy rainstorms, which occur infrequently.
When the rivers dry up, open-pit wells are dug in the riverbed which are used for watering livestock and human consumption. There are few, if any, developed wells for community and livestock drinking water, and often families must travel several hours searching for water for their livestock and themselves.
Livestock is an important aspect of Turkana culture. Goats, camels, donkeys and zebu are the primary herd stock utilized by the Turkana people. In this society, livestock functions not only as a milk and meat producer, but as form of currency used for bride-price negotiations and dowries. Often, a young man will be given a single goat with which to start a herd, and he will accumulate more via animal husbandry. In turn, once he has accumulated sufficient livestock, these animals will be used to negotiate for wives. It is not uncommon for Turkana men to lead polygynous lifestyles, since livestock wealth will determine the number of wives each can negotiate for and support.
Turkana mother and baby with a donkey
Turkana rely on their animals for milk, meat and blood. Wild fruits are gathered by women from the bushes and cooked for 12 hours. Slaughtered goats are roasted on a fire and only their entrails and skin removed. Roasting meat is a favorite way of consuming meat.
The Turkana often trade with the Pokots for maize and beans, Marakwet for Tobacco and Maasai for maize and vegetables. The Turkana buy tea from the towns and make milk tea. In the morning people eat maize porridge with milk, while for lunch and dinner they eat plain maize porridge with a stew. Zebu are only eaten during festivals while goat is consumed more frequently.
Fish is taboo for some of the Turkana clans (or brands, "ngimacharin"). Men often go hunting to catch dik dik, wildebeest, wild pig, antelope, marsh deer, hare and many more. After the hunt men go out again to gather honey which is the only sweet thing the Turkana have.
Traditionally, men and women both wear wraps made of rectangular woven materials and animal skins. Today these cloths are normally purchased, having been manufactured in Nairobi or elsewhere in Kenya. Often men wear their wraps similar to tunics, with one end connected with the other end over the right shoulder, and carry wrist knives made of steel and goat hide.
Men also carry stools (known as ekicholong) and will use these for simple chairs rather than sitting on the hot midday sand. These stools also double as headrests, keeping one's head elevated from the sand, and protecting any ceremonial head decorations from being damaged. It is also not uncommon for men to carry several staves; one is used for walking and balance when carrying loads; the other, usually slimmer and longer, is used to prod livestock during herding activities.
Baragoi Turkana apese (girl)
Women will customarily wear necklaces, and will shave their hair completely which often has beads attached to the loose ends of hair. Men wear their hair shaved. Women wear two pieces of cloth, one being wrapped around the waist while the other covers the top. Traditionally leather wraps covered with ostrich egg shell beads were the norm for women's undergarments, though these are now uncommon in many areas.
The Turkana people have elaborate clothing and adornment styles. Clothing is used to distinguish between age groups, development stages, occasions and status of individuals or groups in the Turkana community.
Today, many Turkana have adopted western-style clothing. This is especially prominent among both men and women who live in town centers throughout Turkana.
Little Turkana boy wearing typical tribal hairdressing and bead ornaments, Kenya
Turkana Society and Marriage
The Turkana social structure is looser than that of their neighbours the Maasai, Samburu and Gabra. There are male elders rather than formal political leaders and individuals belong to one of twenty-eight patrilineal clans, each with its own ways of marking the transition from childhood to adulthood.
Beautiful Turkana girl
The Turkana are one of the few groups in this part of the world who do not practise circumcision; as Juxon Barton observed, in this and in many other cultural customs, they have more in common with the Karamojong and Dodoth people of Uganda to the West. For boys, rites of passage generally involve learning how to hunt and for girls the most important transition is marriage, a contract they can enter into as young as fifteen. One anthropologist, Itaru Ohta, who has conducted fieldwork among the Turkana since the 1970s, reported that when he once “gave papers and pencils to Turkana children to draw what they wanted, most of the girls made pictures of the front aprons of married women, which are different from those of unmarried women”.
Marriage is the most important determining factor in Turkana social organisation, as clan members are not allowed to marry others from their own clan or their mother’s birth clan.
Marriage is also important because it reinforces social alliances and creates clan support networks. Polygamy is encouraged so that a Turkana man may create a large working unit. A group of women interviewed on camera by anthropologists Judith and David MacDougall in the 1970s concurred, saying:
“A man should marry as often as possible, to feed and herd his animals…
He should have at least two wives. One wife is a misfortune, like a man with
For a Turkana man, marriage also marks the first step in becoming an independent livestock owner. This is because, as in neighbouring cultures like the Samburu, the groom must supply the family of the bride with ‘bridewealth’ – a payment in cattle (possibly up to
one hundred) or even highly prized camels.
In the Turkana system of livestock ownership, all livestock is allocated to a woman’s ‘hut’, a space where married women set up huts once they have had a child. Prior to marriage, a man’s livestock technically still belongs to his mother’s hut and he will have to share any milk or meat with his siblings. Once married, that livestock transfers to his new family. It can sometimes take a man years to acquire enough livestock to satisfy the bridewealth, which explains why many men do not marry until their thirties and are often much older than their wife. Each wife means another bridewealth payment so it is unusual for a man to be able to afford more than two or three wives.
Turkana apese (girl) wears her elaborately beaded necklace which attests to her beauty and her father's wealth. Since birth her father has given her brightly colored red, green, blue and yellow beads until, at the marriageable age of 20 years, she has accumulated the most she will ever wear. Her necklaces alone may weigh 10 kilograms (18 pounds). Once she marries, she will give her beads to younger sisters and her husband will present her with new ones. As a widow she will again remove her beads and replace them with white ones.
Arranged marriages (akota) are not unknown, but a male suitor will normally approach the girl’s kin to gain consent for their marriage. This might entail several visits and group discussions between the two parties and their parents, siblings and friends. Kinsmen of the woman, especially her parents, may take advantage of this opportunity to ask the suitor for numerous gifts, starting with small items such as tobacco, sugar, tea leaves and gourds, then requesting more substantial gifts such as clothes, blankets, cooking pans, goats or rams. Once it is agreed at these informal meetings that the union will go ahead, a formal, public round of negotiations about the bridewealth begins. This process, known as eloto, can be quite lengthy.
Turkana - Religion and Beliefs Despite their independence, their bravery and their freedom of movement, the Turkana are unable to control the single most vital element for ensuring their continuing prosperity: rain.
Rainfall is erratic, although usually sufficient to provide enough fresh grazing for the animals. But every few years (on average every ten), a natural cycle which may be connected to the El Niño effect causes a devastating drought, and with it the decimation of herds and the deaths of many people. Contrary to what many people believe, these droughts are not a cruel anomaly of nature (or global warming), but a naturally recurring if unpredictable event which the Turkana must survive. Yet the unpredictable nature of these events, as well as the terrible toll they take, have inevitably led them to explain this - and rainfall in general - as the work of a force beyond their control. This force is God, whom the Turkana call Akuj.
Turkana boy Akuj - God The vast majority of the Turkana still follow their traditional religion, which on the surface seems straightforward enough. There's one supreme God - Akuj - who is associated with the sky, and who can be addressed through prayer or through intermediaries such as diviners and living-dead ancestors. Like most people living in dry lands, the Turkana associate God with the provision or non-provision of rain. If God is happy, he will give rain. But if he is angry with the people, he will withhold it.
His plans can be 'read' by "dreamers", and he can be called upon in times of need or during important ritual life-stages such as birth, the confirmation of marriage, and in death. At other times, little concern is given to his existence, as indeed the Turkana believe that God pays little heed to them, and this to such an extent that he sometimes needs to be reminded of their existence.
Akuj resides in the sky, or else is the sky itself. He also lives near the tops of mountains, particularly those responsible for rain. Akuj, however, is neither thunder nor lightning, for the Turkana know that there can be lightning without rain, but there cannot be rain without Akuj. The word Akuj (Akuji, or Kuj) itself derives from the same root as the words for 'up' or 'above' (nakuj means sky or heavens). As the provider of rain, Akuj is thus a benevolent force, although he is both the giver and taker of life. The Turkana have no God-centred creation myth as such, but Akuj's role as rain giver, and thus life-giver, is commonly misconstrued by some ethnologists to mean that he is also the Creator.
Turkana people For the Turkana, the 'above' is a world divided between Akuj (God) or Akuj Nameri (God of the Stars) and Nipen or Ngiapan (spirits). Animal sacrifices are made both to Akuj and the spirits, so as to placate them at times of drought, famine, flooding, animal epidemics or any other disaster beyond human control.
Prophets and Diviners - the Dreamers With such an unpredictable God as Akuj, it pays to be forewarned. This is the work of various diviners and prophets known collectively as emuron, who are able to interpret or predict Akuj's plans through their dreams, or through other means such as the reading of a sacrificed animal's intestines, tobacco, "string", gourds and stones, and most famously through the tossing of sandals, whose configuration when fallen back to earth can be interpreted (akiteyen; "caused to know") as a sign. Most are men (ngimurok), although there are some women, too (ngamurok). The emuron are God's chief representatives, purifiers of age-sets, predictors of the outcome of raids or war, and rainmakers. There role is not only one of prediction, but also to find the causes and cures of disease, and thus they also function as doctors. When people have troubles, they approach the appropriate emuron, who will divine the proper course of action to take. Often, a diviner will have a certain limited area of responsibilities defined by the extent of their powers. In a case where other skills are needed, they will work together towards the common end. In all cases, it is the emuron's role to relate what Akuj wants to communicate with the Turkana.
Old Turkana woman with labret Initiation of a Dreamer The most powerful form of emuron is the ekerujan or "dreamer", who has the closest union with Akuj, for it is in dreams that Akuj speaks most clearly to humans. The role of emuron cannot be learned; neither is it hereditary, although a successful emuron is more likely to have children with the same powers as him- or herself. Instead, the state of prophethood is literally a calling, one chosen by Akuj. Before Akuj begins to communicate, he leads the unwitting candidate away from his home by the means of good spirits (ngipian lu ajokak).
The prophet is taken to a place with much grass and animals, after which he is returned home. The person, probably rather shocked by what has happened, will relate the experience to other people, who then take him to an established emuron, who assures them that the man has been "taken away" by Akuj. The man is then purified (amook), and returns to normal life. It may be that that's the end of it all, and nothing further happens. But more usual is that the man begins to dream in a way different from before: he can "see" his dreams clearly, he begins to "speak out" (alimor) his "dreams" (ngakirujaeta), and they come true. This is because his having been "taken away" took him close to Akuj. He is now an emuron.
Rain and Sacrifice Self-evidently, the dreamers can only be as accurate as Akuj or the extent of their powers allow them to be. In any event, they are powerless to prevent God from acting out his schemes or from forgetting to bring rain. Theirs is only a transmissive role. So, come a disaster such as the failure of the rains, it is commonly believed that God is angry with the people, or that he has simply forgotten them. Indeed, some sources state that Akuj prefers cattle to people, and that people are really no more than a side-show. Whatever, the people now need either to placate Akuj, or remind him of their existence, and this is achieved through the propitiatory sacrifice of animals to influence Akuj, presided over by a special emuron.
The sacrifice itself is relatively uncomplicated. The animal to be sacrificed is presented to Akuj with a simple and direct formula, something like "This is your animal, take it" or "This is your ox, take him." The sacrificers then continue with an equally blunt demand: "Give us life, health, animals, grass, rain and all good things". As Akuj owns all the world's cattle, the sacrifice could be seen as the spirit of the sacrificed animal being recombined with Akuj.
Animal sacrifices are also made at important social events such as birth, initiation, marriage and death, where God is made happy through a sacrifice, and presumably won't make anything bad in relation to the event sanctified. Sacrifices are sometimes also called for to cure a person of a disease. The sacrificial animal for this has to be the same gender as the person who wishes to be cured, although the emuron can decide otherwise if he dreamt about the case.
Awesome Turkana girl
Anthony J. Barrett, in his introduction to Sacrifice and Prophecy in Turkana Cosmology, writes: Sacrifice in Turkana can only be understood within the context of Turkana theology and, specifically, within the ambience of "prophecy" (adwaris) and its sub-elements, viz., utterance, word, vision, ecstasy, bitterness, dream, perspicacity, vocation (to call away), transportation (to be carried away by Akuj), prediction. All these elements are associated with sickness, "enemies" (ngimoe), war, raids, witchcraft, drought, rain and unusual occurrences.
Turkana boy Prophecy, sacrifice, the sacred and Akuj are intricately connected. Without prophecy, there would be no reason for sacrifice; without the sacred, the sacrifice would have no sense; and without God, the sacrifice would be done for nought.
Sacrifices can be seen as attempts by humans to bridge broken relations with Akuj. Through sacrifice, Akuj is "made cool" (akitillimilim) and "happy" (akitalakar) through the sweet-smelling odour of the roasted meat and the live-giving principle (eta) which has been released. Incidentally, the principle of 'coolness' is not surprisingly a sacred one, with many connotations. This is especially evident in the respect which is accorded to trees by cause of the shade that they provide. Shade, as well as rain to which the Turkana word is related, is seen as a blessing. And in the shade of a tree, elders traditionally gather to make decisions, to offer sacrifices, or arrange raids. In this same shade, too, is where meat-feasts eaten, warriors decorated, men initiated, marriages arranged and finalised, judgement made, Akuj implored; spears, wrist-knives and fighting sticks are also made in a tree's shade.
From a musical point of view, the sacrifices are also some of the best times for traditional music. For despite the primary role of the emuron in ceremonies such as rain-making, songs addressed to Akuj can be sung both by individuals and groups to ask for rain. I found one sweet recording of a girl singing to Akuj for rain in Loiyangalani, but unfortunately that got left off the copy I made. Next time, I promise!
Death and the Ancestors Turkana burial moundThe death of a family head is very important because it raises the problem of settling the inheritance. Death of a family head or older person is accompanied by intense mourning. The body is disposed of by burial and often a meat feast will follow.
The cult of the dead is only given to the father and mother and important people such as emuron. These only have a right to be buried in the ground on which their hut is built. The hut will then be pulled down or abandoned. The eldest son inserts a piece of butter in the mouth of the dead person pronouncing this formula: "sleep in the cool earth and do not be angry with us, who remain on this earth." Other people traditionally were not given a burial, but were abandoned to hyenas and vultures. Nowadays, however, the Turkana are obliged to bury all their dead by law, although this is only verifiable in permanent settlements and in places where Christian missionaries have influence.
As is a common belief throughout Africa, the Turkana believe that upon death, the souls of the deceased go to the sky or else near to God. This does not, however, cut them off from their human relatives, who continue to hold that the living-dead are near to them and can be approached through prayer, libation and offerings. Thus the living-dead act as intermediaries between men and God, or between men and important, but more distant, forefathers. The "good" ancestors (ngikaram) can influence Akuj on their people's behalf through the medium of an emuron and the elders. However, the "good" ancestors can also be temperamental: diseases are often said to have been caused by them in anger at having been forgotten, much like Akuj 'forgets' the rain if the people have forgotten him. In order to cure a disease, then, the patient can only be cured if the relationship with the ancestors is also cured, through prayers for unity that accompany an animal sacrifice, where pieces of meat are thrown towards the former dwelling places of ancestors, such as mountains, hills and rivers.
Christianity The missionary influenceFrom the traditionalist's standpoint, the lack of success met by the Christian missions among the Turkana is a wholly refreshing change from the usual tale of conversion followed by swift entry into settled life, cash economy and abandonment of many pre-Christian beliefs, customs, rituals and musics. Since 1961, when the Africa Inland Mission established a food-distribution centre and mission at Lokori to offset a famine that had started the year before, Christianity has been met with only limited success. Despite two hundred missionaries in the field today, the swift nomadic lifestyle of the Turkana precludes any long-term attempts at conversion, so that the only established churches are among the minority of settled Turkana in the small towns near the lake, and on the lakeshore itself where fishing is practised.
Church near LoiyangalaniThese missions have managed to infiltrate traditional society through the provision of healthcare and schools as well as feeding centres in times of drought. Of Turkana District's six hospitals, four are run by churches; six of the seven health centres are Christian-run, as are 25 of its 27 dispensaries. Of course, this is by no means a negative thing. If criticism is to be levelled at anyone, it should be squarely aimed at the both the colonial and successive post-independence governments who have consistently shown a monumental indifference to the state of the Turkana.
Nonetheless, evangelical websites talk wistfully of the Turkana: "The Turkana are characteristically non-religious, therefore reaching them is difficult." "The Turkana are receptive to change if they feel it is to their advantage. However, religion is not seen as a vital part of their life so they are indifferent to Christianity." "The Turkana are nomadic people and any effort to assist these people will be difficult. The Turkana church must continue to deal with Turkana traditions. Some of these traditions are whole some and should not be incorporated into the Christian community. Others are contrary to Christian principles and must be transformed before they can be incorporated. Others must be rejected by the Christian community. A truly effective strategy that speaks to the Turkana has yet to be discovered."
The rather more Machiavellian truth is broached in passing on the Caleb Project's website: "The exposure to outside peoples, which has come with the efforts to assist the Turkana, has also exposed them to new lifestyle which is tearing apart traditional social networks. A people undergoing this kind of radical change are usually very open to new things such as Christianity, but unless they hear the Gospel quickly, new values will be patterned after other ideologies."
Turkana girl with a giant necklaces covered with pendants - Kenya
Kenya’s Oil and theTurkana People
Tullow Oil discovered oil in Turkana county in Kenya this March. In early May,Tullow announced that its Kenyan project had so far contained “more than double [the oil] encountered in any of our East African exploration wells to date.” The Kenyan government has greeted the discovery enthusiastically, but a new report from IRIN highlights the complex ramifications of the project for people in Turkana. According to IRIN, many residents barely consider themselves Kenyan. Most are desperately poor, and cycles of drought and conflict have damaged the livelihoods of pastoralists. Reactions to the prospect of an oil boom are mixed:
“We are happy with the oil find,” Lokichar resident Lokapel Katilu told IRIN. “We pray that the find is real. We are just idle, there is no work. We just walk around. Before, we would rely on grazing, but the herds have been stolen.” [...] But according to oil industry analyst Antony Goldman, no major jobs bonanza is on the horizon. “Typically oil is capital- rather than labour-intensive: unlike mining, it does not yield many unskilled or semi-skilled jobs,” he told IRIN. [...] Katilu said that to date he knew of only a few people who had found oil-related work, “to control traffic and to prevent people from accessing the rig site”. Lokichar resident Kamaro said there was a widespread fear that lack of local skills would “lead to people from Kenya coming in” to the area. People here “are afraid of an influx of foreigners, that there will be congestion, that the foreigners will bring diseases, that their culture will be polluted,” said Kamaro.
If an oil boom comes but does not employ many local people, there could be a political backlash that would create problems for Tullow and the Kenyan government.
More hopeful for the Turkana people could be a recent discovery of water:
Turkana county in which oil deposits were recently discovered, has huge amounts of underground water. To tap the resource, the government has launched a Sh131 million water survey in the area. “The survey of the groundwater in the drought affected Turkana county using radar technologies will go a long way in enhancing our understanding of ground water in this area,” said director of waters resources in Kenya John Rao Nyaoro.
The project, launched in Nairobi yesterday, is supported by Unesco and financed by the Japanese government. Nyaoro said past satellite surveys have shown that Kenya has 60 billion cubic metres of renewable underground water compared to 20 billion cubic metres of surface water. This is the first time the government has embarked on large-scale mining of ground water. Nyaoro said a satellite technology called Watex System will map water wells in Turkana to help drillers reduce cost.
Turkana apese (girl)
The project will benefit thousands of drought-hit pastoralists, who currently walk for many kilometres looking for water. Somalia and Ethiopia are also involved in the project because most ground water straddles between different countries. Director of Unesco in Nairobi Joseph Massaquoi said the water will be exploited in a sustainable way. “Nine months following the onset of the 2011 drought and famine crisis in the region, some nine million people still face food and water shortages in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia,” he said.
For more on the Turkana people and the problems pastoralists face, see here.
Nancy Ajuma Nasenyana is one of a very small club of Kenyan models who have made it to superstardom. She clears up misconceptions about her upbringing, and explains why Kenya will always be home.
By Wayua Muli
Ajuma Nasenyana, 26, is stunning to look at, especially when she is at work. It’s an otherwise quiet Wednesday morning at the photo shoot for her cover, and a small crowd of admirers has gathered to watch her pout, flounce and flirt with the camera.
“She’s a complete natural,” says stylist and shoot director Grace Makosewe. “I don’t need to tell her what to do to get the right pose. She just puts on the dress and does it.” Indeed, given the natural grace with which she takes to high fashion, it is difficult to believe that once upon a time, Ajuma’s greatest ambition was to be an Olympic medal-winning runner. Or that she grew up in Turkana. Or that she is, in fact, quite the tomboy.
Ajuma Nasenyana, Turkana native
“Yes, I am a tomboy,” she laughs later on, during our interview. For this, she has abandoned the high-glam wardrobe and come dressed in a simple black vest, skinny jeans and strappy flat sandals. Apart from a slick of lip balm and a cap, there is nothing there that says more than it should about her supermodel day job.
“I don’t shape my eyebrows or shave my legs …” she laughs, likely thinking about all the misconceptions people have about models being creatures of vanity. “In the morning, the soap I use for my face is the soap that I use for my legs. But I like Vaseline. I always use that. That and Cocoa Butter Lotion. So I am naturally like this.”
Ajuma Nasenyana, Turkana native
“Naturally like this” translates as a 5ft, 10in dark-skinned, flawless beauty with almond-shaped eyes and pillow lips that make bright colours pop against her skin tone. Her hair is short and natural – more Alek Wek than Naomi Campbell – and tellingly, not needing a comb to look coiffed. And her perfect teeth are either the result of lots of dental care, or great genetics.
She has been on runways for Victoria’s Secret, Alexis Mabille and Martin Grant. She has opened for Vivienne Westwood - twice – and been the “wedding dress” (the lead model) for her once. Ajuma has even had a non-speaking cameo spot in the first Sex and the City movie, where she is prominently featured strutting her stuff in front of Carrie and the girls. It is rather difficult to imagine that the sensual femininity she displays on stage is an act; it seems an essential part of her entire persona.
But perhaps this should not be surprising: everything about Ajuma is a contradiction of sorts.
We’ll start with her childhood, which has become a bit of a mythical tale of poverty, goat-herding and bare-foot running to and from school. Nothing could be further from the truth, and Ajuma is well aware of the misconceptions about her upbringing. “I spent my first nine years in Lodwar,” she says of her childhood. Her early years were spent with her mother and grandmother, and she started school there. Then her mother met a Swedish family who were interested in helping Ajuma’s mother run an NGO for women, and Ajuma’s fortunes changed.
Her mother had set up the NGO – a women’s community project that only employs women in an effort to make them financially independent – with nothing but a few mud ovens that the women built, and would bake bread in. “They used to walk around the area selling bread in the village. Now the NGO has grown, and they own a really nice tourist lodge called the Nawoitorong’ Women’s Centre. It is very nice,” Ajuma says proudly.
The Swedish family not only helped Ajuma’s mother finance the NGO, but they also took over Ajuma’s education and whisked her off to Greenacres, a fancy GCE-system school in Limuru, for her early years of education.
Ajuma remembers being a precocious child while there. “I didn’t speak English but I caught up quick,” she says. “I was a good sports person, and I think that’s why a lot of people liked me. I was good in any game. I was also very outgoing and very loud.” She eventually settled for running, which was to later play a big, important role in her life – but mor on that later. Because in the meantime, Ajuma had graduated and moved on to the even fancier Greensteds School in Nakuru, where she continued her noisy, sporty life.
It was while she was here that she met celebrated runner Paul Ereng’, who was running a training camp – the High Performance Training Centre – for young athletes. Attracted to her potential in the middle-distance races, he took her on, grooming her to take her place on the national team at the upcoming 2004 Olympics. She joined after leaving school in 2002. “I was in the training camp alongside Ezekiel Kemboi and Janeth Jepkosgei – we’re friends. We talk,” she says of the 800m Olympic silver medallist.
But – and this is crucial – her heart was not in a running career. “I used to push myself to do it because I was good at it, but not because I really wanted to do it.” Her biggest fantasy, at the time, was to take part in Africa’s iconic model search, M-Net’s Face of Africa competition. “All my life I had been told that I should model,” she says. It’s not really surprising, given her physique and skin tone. “So I was fascinated by the Face of Africa model search,” she says.
Ajuma had grown up in FOA’s hey-day, when the very first black model search unveiled Oluchi Onweagba, who went on to become a superstar. Watching it on television and reading about it in the papers just like many other girls at the time, she remembers wanting to enter this particular model hunt. But as luck would have it, by the time she was eligible to enter, title sponsors M-Net had inexplicably put the event on hold – there would be no Face of Africa competition for Ajuma.
As it turned out, it did not matter. Her life revolved around her running, and such was her talent in the middle-distance races that she was offered a university scholarship in the US.
And then, when she turned 19, fate staged an intervention, and her life went off on a different tangent. It was in early 2003 when it happened. A Swedish geologist – who she refuses to name – asked her to be his guide while he went prospecting for precious stones in Lodwar. They were driving from Lodwar to Lokichoggio when bandits struck and shot at their car. “I survived with some injuries, but my friend was killed. We had grown up together. We were family friends.” It was his family that was helping her mother set up the NGO.
Unable to train and emotionally battered by the shooting, another friend of hers -Cedric Simonet, who lived in Nairobi – suggested that she come to Nairobi to recuperate. He flew her in for her first-ever extensive stay in the city, and put her up at his house. But it was not long before she was looking for something to do.
Meanwhile, pageant fever was sweeping the country. The Miss World-Kenya competition had been revived and was enjoying a resurgence in popularity; a number of entrepreneurs had emerged to start or franchise other pageant titles – Miss India, Miss Malaika, Miss Universe… and among them was Alice Kamunge, owner of Vera Beauty College, who took on the Miss Tourism franchise.
With nothing else to do, a burning ambition to participate in just one modelling event and no FOA in the picture, Ajuma entered … and won the Miss Nairobi title which, on the scale of things, was neither here nor there.
Turkana tribe girl and international supermodel Nancy Ajuma Nasenyana
But there was one person watching her performance – model scout Lyndsey Mclntyre – who was impressed and signed her on to her agency, Surazuri Models. Later, Ajuma would meet Jan Malan, the South African man responsible for birthing the FOA concept. “When he saw me he said, ‘I wish you had entered the FOA competition!’” Ajuma remembers. “He was like, ‘You would have won!’”
In any case, Lyndsey was scouting for models for the newly-launched Ford Supermodel Search, and thought Ajuma was just the ticket.
Ajuma Nasenyana, Turkana native
Ajuma entered, giving her an opportunity to participate in the Ford Supermodel Search finals the next year. Her chances of winning a modelling contract were very, very high, but to do that, she had to move to Europe to build her portfolio.
So there she was, with two options – one, to take up the sports scholarship in the US, and the other to take up modelling in Europe. Ajuma followed her heart – literally.
When she was 15, Ajuma had travelled to Uganda on holiday where she met the love of her life, Gustav, a Swedish student. He was three years older than her, and the chemistry between them was evident. Their friendship developed into a romance, and in 2003 after the shooting incident, he proposed. “He decided enough was enough, and that life was too short to wait any longer, so he proposed,” she says. And in 2003, when Ajuma met her fork in the road, she took the one that would have her closer to her fiance who lived in Sweden at the time. In 2004, Ajuma packed her bags and headed off to Paris.
Her rise and rise since has been phenomenal. She has modelled for Elle and Dazed and Confused magazines, and designers such as Issey Miyake, Baby Phat and lingerie company Victoria’s Secret. She is currently Vivienne Westwood’s muse. She has modelled around the world, and lists Madrid, Barcelona, Paris and Miami as her favourite places to work and visit.
But it does get lonely on the road, she says. “Sometimes you are there in this really beautiful place, with no one but you and the (photography, hair and make-up) crew. And you wish you were there with someone special to share it with,” she reflects.
That “someone special” is Gustav who is now a computer technician with his own firm, and is currently on paternity leave, taking care of their 10-month-old baby Elliot. He has stood by Ajuma all this time. “We go through our ups and downs,” Ajuma says of their relationship. “But that’s how you learn and grow together, and strengthen your relationship.” She says he is extremely supportive of her career.
Turkana tribe girl, Ajuma Nasenyana
“I fell in love with the fact that he is kind to everybody. That is so attractive. And he is a good father. He changes diapers and everything. When he walks into the room Elliot starts panting like a puppy because he is so happy to see Gustav. And Elliot has a lot of energy and loves to play. He can wear you out. but Gustav can keep up with him.”
The question that should be on your mind right about now, is how he copes with being with one of the world’s most beautiful women. “It was hard at first,” Ajuma says. “He came with me for my first shoot, and I was wearing a bikini. He got kicked out,” she laughs. Unable to bear anyone touching her while she was wearing such skimpy clothes, Gustav threw a strop. “He was there, adjusting my clothes … the crew couldn’t take it any more. But it was because he didn’t want anyone to exploit me because I was still innocent and young.”
Gustav still has problems adjusting to some of her work. “Even now, when I show him some pictures, he says, ‘Ajuma that’s not you. You are not like that in real life.’ This is when I take pictures where, for example, I am smoking. But he understands that modelling is like acting. When I put on the clothes and I stand in front of the camera, I am playing a role.”
Ajuma’s pregnancy came at just the right time. “I was feeling broody,” she says. “Every time I talked to my friends in Kenya, I would hear how so-and-so is pregnant or has just given birth.” Among her close friends is Daisy Kiplagat who she went to school with, and who married musician Prezzo and gave birth to their child last year. Now, the only trace of the birth that took place in Sweden is a teeny tiny belly that is snapping into shape remarkably fast. Is this courtesy of some special secret celebrity fitness regime? “I don’t work out,” says Ajuma. “I think I am lucky that my metabolism is still high from all my years of playing sports and running.”
For Elliot, Ajuma is looking at making big changes to her life. “I want to move back to Kenya,” says the New York-based model. “Here, the weather is good, and we can be close to my family. I want him to know his grandmother, and to learn Swahili and Turkana. I can get a nice house with a garden for him to play with, which is too expensive to do in New York.”
But crucially, Ajuma is now at the stage where her work is so well-known on the fashion circuit that she doesn’t need to attend auditions any more. “My agency in New York says that I can live wherever I want to now. When a designer calls me up specifically for a job, I can fly there and fly back,” she says, referencing a time in December when she flew from her holiday in Nairobi to New York for a day’s shoot. “I spent more time on the plane flying to and from (the shoot) than I did at the job,” she laughs.
She makes sure to visit Lodwar at least once a year. “When I am there I am just a regular Turkana girl. When I went there with Elliot last year I was pampered! I like Lodwar because it is so quiet. I can relax and just be free.”
In contrast, life in New York is much more hectic, what with the numerous jobs that she has to attend to.
“Sometimes you have so many shows that you don’t even have time to clean your apartment because you are going from catwalk to location shoot. The only time you spend time in your house is when you are packing.” But there are perks -such as the celebrity parties she gets to attend and the free swag from top notch designers.
“If you wear something on the catwalk and you really like it, you can ask the designer and they will give it to you. Sometimes the clothes you wear were made specifically for your body, so no one else can really wear them. After the show they just send the clothes to your agency.”
Ajuma is also one of those celebrities who can walk into any upmarket restaurant in New York and get a free meal. But she is not enamoured of the celebrity lifestyle at all. “It’s just marketing for the restaurants and celebrities who invite us to their parties. They get to say that so-and-so was there. At the end of the day, it’s like a job – except I am not getting paid for it,” she says.
Among the people who are proud of her achievements are her mother, who keeps every copy of every magazine that she has been in. And, surprisingly, Paul Ereng’. “He called me in New York during the 2004 Olympics,” she remembers. Isabella Ochichi had just won a silver medal in the 1500m race, and former team-mate Kemboi had bagged a gold in his 3000m steeplechase event. “He was so proud,” she says. “He kept saying, ‘Ajuma that should have been you! You would have won if you were here!’ And then he called me back a few minutes later and said. ‘But you’re still doing good as a model’.”
Turkana tribe girl and international supermodel Ajamu Nasenyana
All in all, Ajuma has not forgotten her roots. One of the things she is contemplating doing is studying medicine or taking up the HIV/ Aids cause to support women in Turkana who, she says, still suffer from a lack of education and independence, and are at the mercy of their husbands. And she would love to play field hockey once again.
She would also like to start an all-natural line of cosmetics for women of ethnic origin. “I see all these products with all of this bleach, and it damages people’s skin,” she says. “I want to do a line of products with just natural ingredients.” This, coming from a girl who was once made fun of because of her dark colour.
But for now, Ajuma is content to put her big plans on hold and enjoy what is undoubtedly a blessed life with her fiance and her son.
A young Turkana girl adorned with necklaces of a style the Southern Turkana prefer to wear.
When a Turkana woman gives birth, four goats will be slaughtered in a twenty-four-hour period to celebrate the occasion.
A jovial group of Turkana girls in traditional attire.
A Turkana man takes a nap using his wooden stool as a headres
t to protect his elaborate hairstyle. Turkana District, Kenya
When a Turkana woman gives birth, four goats will be slaughtered in a twenty-four-hour period to celebrate the occasion.