British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Mervyn Maciel
(Provincial Administration and Ministry of Agriculture, Kenya 1947-1966)
Wanderings among the Nomads
I have always been a nomad at heart, and even though I began my working life in Nairobi, the place of my birth, I never really felt this 'belonging' to major cities/towns like Nairobi or Mombasa. The Provincial Administration had far more attractive places for a 19-year old bachelor like me.

After brief stints in both those Kenya towns and a few smaller stations, I felt the "pull" of the wilderness, and lost no time in offering myself for service in some of the more remote and far flung regions of Kenya. To my good fortune (though not many of my Goan colleagues would regard it as such), I was posted to Lodwar in the remote north-west, one of the most inhospitable districts in Kenya's Northern Frontier Province, described by Jomo Kenyatta as a "hell on earth". This is harsh volcanic country where the sun is at his fiercest and the tribesmen, pure warriors.

The district, like all other districts in the Province, was a CLOSED DISTRICT, which meant that no one except government officials and resident traders could enter it without the written permission of the District Commissioner - a sort of passport to secure entry. Women were most certainly not allowed. Civilisation had yet to catch up with this part of the world where the tribes were still primitive and warlike.

Wanderings among the Nomads
It was my first encounter with the colourful and simple Turkana tribe, sometimes referred to as the most primitive in Africa. The men wore little or no clothing and it was not uncommon to see them stroll into the office completely naked - a sight that caused me some embarrassment initially. As for the women, all they had to conceal their nakedness was a smelly goatskin skirt wrapped around their skinny waists, their bare breasts shining from the goats fat they'd daubed all about their bodies. More especially at Christmas time they would flip their shiny goat-fat covered breasts while singing, ululating and dancing - a colourful sight to behold! I nervously resisted all invitations to join in their ngoma (dance).

Unlike other humans, the Turkana can survive with very few material possessions. All they need is a long spear, a fighting stick and an "echikolo" which serves as a stool and pillow. Other few necessities to be added to their list of possessions include two wives and a few goats and sheep. With these (seemingly valueless possessions by Western standards) they regard themselves as fairly well off and content. Their simple lifestyle was to teach me a lot and leave a lasting impression. (I still have one of their "echikolos" but can't relax on it as they did!).

Wanderings among the Nomads
Turkana Chief
The Turkana adorn themselves with beads of varied hue, necklaces, bracelets (some men wear wrist knives to deal with the enemy, the neighbouring Donyiro or Merille tribes) - and ostrich plumes as headdress. The ostrich feathers are planted in small clay cups plastered into their hair; ivory lip-studs and some ear ornaments complete their makeup. They love their "ngomas" and the men jump high up in the air - the higher they can jump, the greater their chances of attracting a young woman! My colleagues and I often witnessed their dances during our daily stroll through the township.

As they are regularly on the move in search of fresh pastures for their goats, their huts consist of little more than a few sticks which barely shelter them from the scorching sun or torrential rain whenever it comes. Still, they survive on a little milk, berries and, if they are lucky, some meat. They never seem to complain or appear down-hearted.

To compensate for the harsh conditions under which we worked, we, the Goan staff, were often provided with government transport and encouraged to escape to Ferguson's Gulf on the shores of Lake Rudolf (now Lake Turkana). This was an oasis in the midst of a lava desert, and these not infrequent outings provided welcome breaks in an otherwise lonely existence. Here the government also ran a 'famine relief camp' for the many paupers (mostly Turkana) who lived around the area. Apart from these handouts, the only luxury the Turkana from this area could look fonward to was the fairly large supply of tilapia and Nile perch which abounded in this lake.

We always did full justice to the fish and returned to the boma with a plentiful supply of the fleshy tilapia. A retired District Commissioner (Commander McKay), who with his wife had settled on Ferguson's Gulf, often brought us supplies of fish whenever he passed through Lodwar on his way to Kitale. Further north, was the neighbouring sub-station of Lokitaung, a shade cooler than Lodwar. There was a District Office there headed by a District Officer assisted by a Goan clerk. An Asst Superintendent of Police and two Inspectors were also stationed there while a Police Post with a contingent of askaris was maintained at Namuraputh on the Ethiopian border. I was posted to Lokitaung for a while and it was here that I met Makhan Singh, the Trade Union leader who had been restricted here during the Mau Mau Emergency.

Wanderings among the Nomads
Makhan Singh
During my service among these tough people, regarded as the have-nots of Africa, I learnt a great deal; how to survive with the minimum of possessions or food. Water is a luxury in this part of Africa and you could often see even children scratching the ground hoping to strike some water. Those with large herds of goats or donkeys have to drive their animals to the nearest water points which, through sheer instinct, the Turkana know where to find. Whereas other tribes bleed only cows or camels, the Turkana draw blood from sheep and goats as well. I was offered a bowl of hot blood on many occasions. They also have a unique way of increasing the yield of fat from their fat-tailed sheep by making an incision in the tail of the live animals. Fat to the Turkana is very precious, not only as a food item, but also serves as a decoration for their skin when mixed with ochre. They are great improvisers - call the men "show-offs" if you like! Cholesterol was a word unheard of then!

Throughout my time in Lodwar, I never once encountered a sulky or "tired of life" face. They seemed so content on the little they possessed; always smiling and greeting the stranger with shouts of "Ejok, Ejok" meaning literally, "OK? Are you alright?" It is said that a visitor either likes or hates the Turkana. I fall in the former category. One former District Commissioner had remarked, "I had already met the Turkana at barazas (open air meetings) and had liked the tall naked warriors with their nodding ostrich plumes and nine-foot spears".

Because of the harsh climate and environment, officials were not expected to do more than a year in an 'unhealthy' station like Lodwar, but I was quite happy to remain in the company of these simple pastoralists for a few more months. Officialdom decided otherwise though, and I was later posted to a more salubrious area, again in the frontier - Marsabit.

Conclusion - I should mention that these reminiscences refer to the late 1940's. Things have changed considerably since, and many educated Turkana can be found not only in the Kenya capital but in other parts of the world too. For many years now I have been corresponding with a Turkana who was ordained a Catholic priest some years ago and is now in charge of a fairly large mission in the remote north.

With the discovery of oil in the Turkana region, let us hope that the benefits will go towards uplifting these people and their district and not end up in other people's pockets.

Kenya Map
1963 Map of NW Kenya
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 107: April 2014
Additional Articles
Memoirs of a Frontier Man
With The Pastoralists Of Kenya's Northern Desert Once More
To Lodwar I'm posted
The Life And Times Of An Indomitable Goan Lady Mrs. Mascarenhas Of Kisii
"Uncle" Gerald Reece of Kenya's N.F.D.
The Unforgettable Dubas of Kenya's Northern Frontier


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