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
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!).
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
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.
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
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