The resonant thumping song of the Long-tailed Nightjar (Caprimulgus climacurus) through the dry air is a sound of blessing. The hot undulating desert landscape of sand-coloured sedimentary rocks are bare of greenery, except a few dead-looking bush punctuating the morning sunrays.
The rufous-brown coloured bird, with an exceptionally long tail, makes its distinct call, a fast, mechanical trill; higher-pitched than similar calls of other nightjars. People are listening, watching.
Should the bird land at the door of any of the doum-palm thatched homesteads that pop up every few kilometers in the vast horizon of sand, thorn trees, plains and hills; interspersed with scorched river-beds, sand pans, and volcanic hills, its a sign that rain is near. Animals will be quenched, satisfied.
And for the Turkana people living in the deserts of Northern Kenya, nothing is left to chance. The Long-tailed migrating bird is a messenger of their God, Aakuj.
Aakuj, according to Turkana beliefs, can be both kind and authoritarian. When being generous, Aakuj brings rain to make the grass green, keeps the Turkana free from hunger and want, and protects their homesteads and livestock, the basis of their wealth, from disease and enemies.
On the other hand, if individuals or the tribe in any way break the community’s moral code, Aakuj can punish the people. The results of this can be seen in events such as the appearance of illness, the spread of famine, and the failure of the rains. The Turkana believe that in death they join Aakuj.
But who exactly are the Turkana, and where did they come from?
According to anthropologists, the Turkana, who’re a primarily cattle and camel nomadic tribe, expanded across the dry northern Kenya frontier between the Uganda border and Lake Turkana before 1800.
But according to Turkana myths of origin, one states that the common ancestors of the Turkana, the Jie and of all the other ‘Karamajong’ tribes, lived in a place called Apuli, which was in southern Sudan or Ethiopia
Another myth of origin passed down verbally states that, a group of young Jie men were sent eastwards into the Tarach Valley (west/northwest of Lodwar, 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 verdant valley, unoccupied by a person, 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. Shortly thereafter, they started referring to this land as Turkan. Nayece became the mother-heroine of the sub-tribes, and ever since, the Turkana and Jie have been allies.
The Turkana still keep to their traditional beliefs. Diviners are of greater or lesser standing, but all serve primarily priestly and mediatory roles in the community.
The diviners of God, or imuron Aakuj, are the diviners of the highest standing and are understood to be earthly representatives of Aakuj. The great mystical powers of these diviners are often recalled with powers ranging from making rain and foretelling the future to the more common providing of medicine.
Typically, imuron Aakuj came from a particular clan known for producing such diviners. Their powers, however, were always said to come from Aakuj, and acquiring them often came during a period of ritual isolation when they withdrew to a remote and isolated part of the country.
Warfare is traditionally an essential part of Turkana life and the principal occupation of young men. Weapons are considered a man’s proud possessions and the practical tool for increasing herds by raiding and for expanding their territory. Turkana believe that all livestock on earth, including that owned by other people, is theirs by right, and that there is nothing wrong in going after it and taking it by force.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a few of these diviners used their power of prophecy to establish themselves as military leaders who were consulted before raids both big and small. The reputations of some spread across Turkan, and they developed a position of centralized leadership that led the Turkana to a greater sense of corporate identity. There is also evidence that the Turkana once had women diviners, amuron, but little is yet known about their source of prophecy and its efficacy.
Clan rituals in Turkana that represent the acknowledgement and transitions of life force, such as birth, initiation, marriage, annual blessing sacrifices and death rituals are overseen by the elders of the clan.
Turkana men say of a lovely woman: “It is the things she wears that make her beautiful.” When a young girl is ready for marriage she covers her body with ochre and fat, and wears an elaborate bead pendant necklace and an ostrich feather in her hair. An ostrich eggshell belt holds up her long beaded skirt.
The Turkana have an intimate knowledge of plants and their medicinal properties, both for humans and for livestock. Animal fat is considered to have medicinal qualities, and the fat-tailed sheep is often referred to as “the hospital for the Turkana.”
The Turkana also hold a widespread belief in nature spirits, whose world is that of the mountains, rivers, and other natural places. However, because these spirits are not thought to be able to cause evil, they are not especially feared.
The tribe’s folklore, beliefs and daily struggles tell the story of a country, and of a continent, – the struggle to maintain traditions as the modern world crowds in, a daily fight for survival in some of the harshest environments on earth, the ancient tension between traditions and industrialization.
The culture and customs of the Turkana people are best experienced in events such as the Lake Turkana Cultural Festival. The Festival is an annual event that brings together different communities in the region, with the aim of encouraging peaceful coexistence and appreciation of each community’s culture. It has helped open up the northern frontier to the rest of Kenya and the world.
Drawing near to these cultures, even coming to understand them a little better through your presence among them, could just be a highlight of your visit to Turkana. You can combine your attendance of this cultural event with the exploration of the little known regions surrounding the Lake Turkana.
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