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ETHNONYM: Ngiturkan


Identification. "Turkana" is the name given to the pastoral and formerly pastoral people living in the arid and semiarid range lands of northwestern Kenya. The Turkana refer to themselves as "Ngiturkan" and their land as "Eturkan." The Turkana ethnic group as a whole is composed of two major divisions, and each division composed of territorial sections. The major divisions are the Ngimonia and the Ngichoro; Ngimonia are divided into Ngissir and non-Ngissir sections. The sections of the Ngichuro division are: Ngilukumong, Ngiwoyakwara, Ngigamatak, Ngibelai, and Ngibotok. The sections of the Ngimonia division are Ngikwatela, Ngiyapakuno, Ngissiger, Ngijie, Ngissir, Ngibocheros, Ngiseto, Ngisonyoka, Ngimazuk, Ngatunyo, Nganyagatauk, Ngikuniye, Ngikajik, and Ngimamong. Each section is identified with an area in Eturkan, but the extent to which the sectional territory is occupied exclusively by members of the section varies according to the rules governing natural-resource use of that particular section.

Location. The area occupied by the Turkana people corresponds closely with the current boundaries of Turkana District in Kenya. It lies between l°30 and 5°00 N and encompasses approximately 67,000 square kilometers. Eturkan lies entirely within the Gregory Rift Valley and is bordered to the west by the Rift Valley wall, to the north by the mountains and plains occupied by the Taposa of southern Sudan, to the east by the western shoreline of Lake Turkana, and to the south by the plains inhabited by the pastoral Pokot.

Eturkan is a broad low-lying plain, broken by lava hills and mountains. The plains are arid and lie at an elevation of 300 to 800 meters, whereas the mountain receive more precipitation and rise to an elevation of 2,200 meters. The climate of Eturkan is hot, dry, and highly variable. Precipitation is most likely during the months of April through June and, to a lesser extent, during the month of November. The mean annual rainfall at Lodwar, the district capital (elevation 506 meters), is 16.5 centimeters, with a high of 49.8 centimeters and a low of 1.9 centimeters.

The vegetation of the area is characterized by annual grasses and shrubs in the plains, and perennial grasses and large tress in the highlands. The lowlands are crosscut with many temporary stream and river courses. The larger of the river courses, the Kerio and the Turkwell, support a dense gallery forest, and acacia trees grow along the banks of most smaller stream and river beds.

The Turkana people have adapted to the aridity and the spatial and temporal variability in climate by herding five different species of livestock and by moving frequently. Although arid, Eturkan is blessed with numerous springs and areas where water can be obtained by digging wells. Early travelers' accounts report an abundance of wild animals in Turkanaland, but today most wildlife is restricted to the forested areas and the unoccupied areas that serve as a buffer between the Turkana and the tribal groups on their borders.

Demography. Gulliver estimated the Turkana population as approximately 80,000 in 1950, based on government tax roles. More recent census information suggests that the Turkana population has increased to about 200,000. Demographic information among pastoral people has always been difficult to collect, and the harshness and vast expanses of Turkana District, combined with the high degree of mobility of the people, has added to the problems associated with collecting census data; demographic information, therefore, has to be weighed with caution.

Population densities are low and settlements few and scattered. Following the introduction of a famine-relief program in the 1980s, the settlement areas experienced rapid growth.

Linguistic Affiliation. According to Lamphere (1992), the Turkana belong to the Ateker Group of the Eastern Nilotic Language Family. The Ateker Group, referred to in the past as the "Karamojong Cluster," "Central Paranilotes," or the "Iteso-Turkana Group," consists of the Iteso, Karamojong, Dodoth, Ngijie, Taposa, Jiye, and Donyiro or Ngiyengatom languages, as well as that of the Turkana. Their speech is mutually intelligible, and all are pastoral or agro-pastoral peoples. Although all the groups are linguistically related and live in close proximity to one another, their relations with the Turkana have generally been based on conflict, characterized by raids and counterraids.

History and Cultural Relations

The Turkana people emerged as a distinct ethnic group sometime during the early to middle decades of the nineteenth century. Oral history and archaeological evidence suggest that, prior to a.d. 1500, the ancestors of the Ateker Language Group lived somewhere in the southern Sudan and most likely subsisted as hunting and gathering peoples. After beginning their southern migration, these ancestral peoples incorporated both agricultural and pastoral pursuits, and eventually split into groups that emphasized one subsistence strategy or the other.

The period from 1500 to 1800 appears to have been characterized by frequent splitting and fusing of ethnic groups, and shifting alliances among the groups. During this time, the Karamojong established a distinct identity with a subsistence system based on the raising of livestock, principally cattle, combined with small-scale agriculture.

Oral histories suggest that the Jie seceded from the Karamojong, and that a group split off from the Jie and established themselves in the region near the headwaters of the Tarach River, in what is now Turkana District, sometime during the early part of the eighteenth century. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Turkana cattle camps began to push down the Tarach in search of new pastures upon which to graze their animals. As they moved westward, the Turkana encountered other pastoral groups, some of which herded camels (most likely the Rendille and Borana). As the Turkana expanded eastward, they began both to assimilate and disperse other groups. They first pushed to the north and east to Lake Turkana, and then to the south, crossing the Turkwell River. It appears that by 1850 the Turkana occupied much of the territory they use today.

The first European to enter into the land of the Turkana was Count Samuel Teleki von Szek, whose expedition reached Turkana in June of 1888. He was preceded by Swahili caravans in search of ivory, which first arrived in 1884. About the same time that the Swahili arrived in the south of Turkanaland, Ethiopian ivory hunters began arriving in the north. Within a few years, there ensued a period of conflict and contestation between the British and the Ethiopians over the colonial domination of the Turkana, which lasted until 1918.

The Turkana resisted British domination of their homeland throughout the early part of the twentieth century. Turkana raiding on their pastoral neighbors, especially against the Pokot to the south, caused large-scale social disruption and influenced the British decision to launch one of the largest military expeditions they ever mounted against an indigenous people. In 1918 a combined force of over 5,000 well-armed men, consisting of Sudanese troops, troops of the Kings African Rifles, and levies composed of warriors from groups antagonistic to the Turkana, launched what came to be known as the Labur Patrol.

The Labur Patrol broke the military might of the Turkana; in 1926 civil administration was reintroduced, and in 1928 taxes were reinstated. The period from 1929 until World War II appears to have been peaceful. Beginning in the 1950s, the Turkana again began to resist British domination, and the British launched a series of military expeditions against the Turkana. The use of occasional military forays against the Turkana was continued by the Kenyan government following independence in 1963.

Development in Turkana District was slow. Only two primary schools operated in the district at the time of independence. During the 1970s major efforts were made to help the Turkana integrate into the larger Kenyan economy; however, antagonistic relations among the Turkana and their neighbors continued, and by the early 1980s the entire district was considered highly insecure. Insecurity combined with two severe droughts in the early 1980s to inhibit development efforts. Despite the growth of settlements, the area remains remote, insecure, and relatively underdeveloped.


The Turkana are one of the most mobile populations in the world. Traditionally, there were no permanent settlements occupied by them. Small settlements were built during the colonial period, but very few Turkana were attracted to them. Following the droughts of the 1980s, approximately one-half of the Turkana population settled in, or adjacent to, large famine-relief camps. Today it is estimated that about one-third to one-half of the Turkana population remains settled. The fastest-growing settlements are the district capital, Lodwar, and the villages located along the Turkwell River that depend upon irrigated agriculture.


Subsistence. The Turkana are primarily a pastoral people; they depend on five species of livestock for their subsistence. Camels, cattle, sheep, and goats provide most of their subsistence needs; donkeys are used to transport household goods during migrations. The Turkana who live along the major water courses also engage in small-scale agriculture, and one section of the Turkana, the Ngibocheros, live along the shore of Lake Turkana and depend on fishing and aquatic hunting, as well as herding for subsistence.

Trade. The Turkana remain one of the more isolated ethnic groups in Kenya, and trade is still small in scale. The Turkana sell livestock to buy grains and household needs. The Turkana traditionally traded livestock for iron with ethnic groups in the highlands of Uganda.

Division of Labor. Most aspects of the Turkana economy are strongly influenced by the needs of the livestock and by the migratory pattern. During the rainy season, when all people and animals are together, men are responsible for the daily herding operation, and women are responsible for watering and milking the livestock, feeding the family, and other domestic chores. During the dry season, the livestock are often separated into milking and nonmilking herds. The nonmilking herds are usually herded by young men, who may be separated from the rest of the family for six months or more. During this time, all work related to the livestock is performed by the men.

Land Tenure. The land-tenure system is similar to that of many pastoral peoples. Grazing resources are open to all members of a territorial section; water resources, however, may be open to all or owned. In general, water in rivers and streams when they are flowing, open pools, and shallow wells are not owned. Deep wells dug through sand, clay, or rock are owned by the individual who dug them, and can be used by close male relatives and friends. In northern Turkana, the rules governing access to grazing do not appear to be as strict as those found among the sections living in the south.


Kin Groups and Descent. One of the fundamental units in Turkana social organization is the exogamous patrilineal clan (ateker or amachar ). There are twenty-eight clans among the Turkana, and, in general, they crosscut the sectional boundaries; some of the smaller clans, however, are quite localized. Each clan is associated with a particular brand for its livestock, and an individual can identify a relative in a new location in this way. Clan members call upon each other for help in times of need, but clan membership implies more of an opportunity for an individual to seek assistance than an obligation on the part of the person from whom it is requested.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is classificatory, but does not form a uniform system with respect to clan members. Terms such as those for "mother," "father," "brother," and "sister" are sometimes extended to clan members, but, to a large extent, this usage is based on the strength of individual relationships.

Marriage and Family

Turkana marriage is polygynous and often patrilocal. Bride-wealth is unusually high among the Turkana; a typical bride-wealth payment might include 30 to 50 cattle, 30 to 50 camels, and 100 to 200 small stock. This high bride-wealth often means that a man cannot marry until his father has died and he has inherited livestock. The high bride-wealth also requires that the prospective groom collect livestock from all his relatives and friends, thus reinforcing social ties through the transfer of livestock.

A Turkana homestead (awi ) is composed of a man, his wives and their children, and often his mother and other dependent women. Each wife and her children build a daytime sitting hut (ekol ) and, in the rainy season, a nighttime sleeping hut (aki ). When a new wife comes into the homestead, she stays in the ekol of the mother or first wife of the household head until she has borne her first child.

Wives are often inherited by a brother or the son of a co-wife upon the death of a husband. A woman has the right to refuse to be inherited and can live with one of her sons, if she chooses. As each wife comes into the household, the head of the family allocates milking livestock to her. Although she has no ownership rights to these livestock, they will form the basis of the herds that will be inherited by her sons. Most of a woman's livestock will be inherited by her firstborn son.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Turkana, like many pastoral populations in East Africa, have no formal political hierarchy based on chiefs and subchiefs. Political influence is gained through age, wealth, wisdom, and oratorical skill. Turkana social organization can be seen as two systems of social relationships operating simultaneously. One system is based on territory and rights in pasture and water; the other is based on kinship, relationships among individuals, and rights in livestock and labor.

The basic unit of Turkana social organization is the awi. Most herd owners live and travel with two to five other herd owners and their families, forming what is referred to as an awi apolon, or large awi. The composition of this unit changes frequently, as individuals and families leave to join other homesteads, or others come to join the awi apolon. During the wet season, many homesteads congregate into temporary associations (sing, adakar ); these associations break up as resources become scarce with the progression of the dry season.

Above the awi, the next level of territorial organization is the section; above that, the tribe. Sectional membership confers upon the individual rights to grazing. It appears that in the past there were a number of ceremonial occasions in which tribal identity was reinforced. Today tribal identity is reified by rules of appropriate behavior concerning raiding and banditry among the sections.

Nonterritorial aspects of social organization are primarily related to clan and kinship relations. A critical feature of Turkana social organization, however, is the network of personal relationships, based on the exchange of livestock, which is built up by each herd owner over the course of his lifetime. It is to individuals in this network that a herd owner turns in times of need. From the perspective of an individual herd owner, most members of this association will be agnatic or affinal kinsmen, but there may also be many people in this network who are simply his friends.

Finally, each man is a member of alternating generation sets. If a man is a Leopard, his son will be a Stone; thus there are approximately equal numbers of Stones and Leopards at any one time. These groups will be formed when there is a need to organize large groups quickly. Some authors refer to a functioning age-set system, but almost all of the Turkana with whom McCabe worked had never heard of such a system, and a few others had only a vague recollection that an age-set system existed at some time in the past.

Conflict is usually resolved by the men living in proximity to one another. Men discuss such issues at "the tree of the men," and special attention is paid to men of influence. The decisions of the men will be enforced by the younger men of the area.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practitioners. The Turkana believe in a single God, Akuj, who is thought to be omnipotent but who rarely intervenes in the lives of people. Contact between Akuj and the people is channeled though a diviner, or emeron. All diviners come from a particular clan and are thought to have the power to interpret dreams, predict the future, heal the sick, and make rain. There are a number of gradations in the power of divinersfrom those who predict the future by throwing sandals or reading intestines, to those who can make rain. Although the Turkana believe in the power of the emeron, they are also skeptical of those from the Emeron clan who say they have mystical powers, but fail to demonstrate that power in everyday life.

Ceremonies. The ceremonial life of the Turkana is less important than that of many neighboring tribes. There are no large corporate ceremonies and no physical initiations. The asapan ceremony signifies the transition from youth to adulthood, and every man is supposed to perform this ceremony before marriage.

Arts. The Turkana produce finely crafted carved wooden implements used in daily life. Another striking aspect of Turkana culture is the beautiful and intricate singing that is heard on moonlit nights during the rainy season. Men and women sing in groups; those with particularly good voices take the lead. Songs are often about cattle or the land, but the subject can also be improvised and pertain to immediate events. Turkana now weave baskets that are sold in all the tourist shops in Nairobi.

Medicine. 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."

Death and Afterlife. Although witchcraft and sorcery are found among the Turkana, it is important to note that the Turkana do not dwell on the magical or religious aspects of life. The corpse of a woman who has raised many children and a that of a man who has been successful will be buried; others are left in the bush. Some people feel that after death a person will join Akuj, and others say that they do not know what happens after death.


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Dyson-Hudson, R., and J. Terrence McCabe (1985). South Turkana Nomadism: Coping with an Unpredictably Varying Environment. Ethnography Series, FLl7-001. New Haven: HRAFlex Books.

Ellis James, and David Swift (1988). "Stability of African Pastoral Ecosystems: Alternate Paradigms and Implications for Development. Journal of Range Management 41:450-459.

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Sobania, Neal (1991). "Feasts, Famines, and Friends: Nineteenth Century Exchange and Ethnicity in Eastern Lake Turkana Region." In Herders, Warriors, and Traders: Pastoralism in Africa, edited by John Galaty and Piere Bonte. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

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