Turkana people and their culture

The colourful and warlike Turkana people are an important pastoral community living in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province. Their daily lives are shaped by the extreme climate in northern Kenya, and as with other tribes in the country, they are traditionally nomadic.

Turkana people and their culture / © Shalet Mkamzungu

The history

Originally the Turkana tribe came from the Karamojong region of Uganda and legend has it that they arrived in Kenya after chasing after a runaway bull. They speak a Nilotic language similar to the Maasai, and live in harsh and dry desert-like environments. The British saw little value in this land and consequently the Turkana were the least affected of all Kenya’s people during the 20th Century changes in the country

Livestock

Livestock is the main source of food and wealth and thus central to the Turkana culture. Goats, sheep and camels provide meat and milk, as well as being used in bride-price negotiations.

Turkana people and their culture / © Shalet Mkamzungu

Social Culture

The Turkana tribe doesn’t have a strong social structure, and extended families live together self-sufficiently, although sometimes collective animal grazing takes place. Polygamy is part of the Turkana culture, and a man can have as many wives as he can afford. This is another way of displaying his wealth, and the more children he has, the higher his status in society.

Clothing

Turkana clothing is almost as colourful as the Maasai and Samburu, with men wearing bright woollen blankets and women adorning themselves with beaded jewellery. Quantity and quality of this jewellery indicates the social standing of the woman, so people can tell with once glance her status. Women also wear animal skin clothing, whilst men cover their heads with mud, painting it blue and adding ostrich feathers.

Turkana people and their culture / © Shalet Mkamzungu

Crafts

Whilst the men are out protecting the animals the women are at home looking after the children and making necklaces and bracelets. Men also craft weapons such as knives and spears, and are very skilled at metalwork, wood and stone carving. Turkana men carry wooden stools for sitting on in the hot sand, and also for headrests to keep their heads off the ground and protect ceremonial head decorations.

Turkana people and their culture / © Shalet Mkamzungu