Memories of life in Turkana in the 1940s

Contributed by Mervyn Maciel

Memories of life in Turkana in the 1940s
My Government Quarters
I doubt if there are many who would have volunteered for service in the arid and inhospitable region of Kenya’s N.F.D. (Northern Frontier district) in the 1940s – but this is precisely what I did when, as a fairly young and still a new entrant to the Civil Service, I asked for a posting to the remote N.F.D.

I knew of an Uncle (John) who had previously served in Lodwar in the 1930s and who had never forgotten the bouts of malaria he had contracted in this God-forsaken district called Turkana. The very mention of the word “Lodwar” conjured images of a punishing region, and who in their right mind would ever want to serve there? Well, this is the very district I received my posting for in 1949. However, looking back on the time I spent in this inferno, I have nothing but happy memories of my days among the Turkana. One has to remember that when one is young, one is all out for adventure, regardless of any discomforts or dangers. The road journey from Kitale (in the Kenya Highlands) to Lodwar was an adventure in itself! No comfortable cars to transport me there; instead, a bulky Army-type truck laden with supplies for the officials and traders in the area.

Memories of life in Turkana in the 1940s
A Turkana Belle
To call it a bumpy ride would be putting it mildly; but there was worse to come when I actually arrived at Lodwar boma. For one thing, the oppressive heat and the incessant buzzing of flies all around hit me immediately on arrival; then, there was the sight of naked tribesmen strolling unashamedly through the township. Whatever had I let myself in for, I wondered? But, all was not doom and gloom.

I was thrilled when I was shown the impressive-looking Government quarter I’d been allocated. What intrigued me was the fact that there was no inside loo, but a temporary long drop structure a few yards from the house with no door and in full view of the public! Half-naked women walking by, were quite unconcerned at the sight of us, civilised individuals, staring at them curiously.

Memories of life in Turkana in the 1940s
Turkana Tribesmen
The Turkana are amongst the most primitive people in East Africa who inhabit a mostly barren and remote region of Kenya and survive on the bare minimum of possessions. Their worldly wealth can be measured by the few items they possess, e.g.spears, a wrist knife, and their prize “echikolo” (a wooden stool which serves both as a pillow (head rest) and as a seat), a few goats, a cooking pot and, if lucky, a blanket. While we in the West may regard them as poor, nay, even destitute, the Turkana, with the little they possess, regard themselves as rich, and rich indeed they are! They have none of the selfish traits that are so common in our so-called “civilised” society; they are content with their lot and not greedy or avaricious. Their attitude towards life has left a lasting impression on me. Their pride, especially among the women, lies in displaying the colourful beads, necklaces and bracelets that adorn their bodies, while the men show off their ostrich-plume headdress as they enjoy their daily Ngomas (dances).

A ‘hell on earth’ it may well have been in the words of the late President Jomo Kenyatta (who spent part of his internment here during the colonial era) – but for me, I still treasure happy memories of the simple folk I met during my time in the pitiless heat of Lodwar (Turkana).

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1963 Map of NW Kenya
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From Mtoto to Mzee
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