North Kenya – tribes & people

Monday, 27 May 2024

My recent travels in north Kenya, around Lake Turkana, the Rift Valley lake which points north to the meeting point of Kenya with Ethiopia to the east and South Sudan to the west, was a chance to see landscapes and people. The landscapes varied from sand dunes to volcanoes as well as the lake itself. The people and tribes also featured the very beginning of humanity, since the Leakey family’s discoveries mean that the Lake Turkana region is recognised today as being the birthplace of mankind.

▲ I was fortunate during .my recent Lake Turkana travels to visit the Ileret Research Center of the Turkana Basin Institute …

◄ and be shown some of those historic finds by Louise Leakey. She’s not only a paleontologist and anthropologist, she’s also continuing the Leakey family’s activities to a third generation, since her grandparents, Louis and Mary Leakey, led expeditions in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania while her parents, Richard and Meave Leakey, led the research which unearthed fossils in the Turkana Basin.

▲ Women in Pokot attire

From our starting point at Nanyuki we headed north towards Lake Baringo in the Rift Valley and visited the Pokot village of Chemolingot, or perhaps somewhere nearby? When we leave I’m surprised how close this ‘remote’ village is to a road.

▲ More Pokot attire

There’s a dance performance put on for our small group and the attire is fantastic, the women all in cowhide, ie leather, dresses, some of the men – young warriors – sporting leopard skins, lots of beading and necklaces, lots of Masai-like jumping, energetic singing, it’s really rather superb and I like the little stools the men carry around as well, useful if they need a break from the dancing?

◄ Young warriers, the leopard skin indicates how heroic they’ve been, Men and women dance together here, but children are not allowed to watch.

Now the Pokots are reputed to be very independently minded and of late their old reputation for being less than peaceful seems to have been revived. The trouble with the inter-tribal stuff – a lot of it to do with cattle rustling – is that the young warriors are often heavily armed now.

Plus when it moves on from inter-tribal strife to outright banditry, hold ups on the road, raids on towns, government buildings burnt down, the Kenyan government becomes less than tolerant about it and the KDF (Kenya Defence Forces) is likely to come marching in. Or setting up KDF outpost in tribal areas. We continued on to the Silali Crater.

▲ cowrie shells (we’re a long way from the sea) and beading

▲ On the west side of the lake we encountered this site with circular stone-marked graves

▲ While on the east side of lake there were numerous fishing villages and settlements with artistically arranged fish laid out to dry. There’s a lot of fishing activity out on the lake and they get 50 KES per fish (about US 40 cents), more if they’re salted. The catch is conveyed a couple of hours up the lakeside to a place where trucks collect them, much of the catch is sold to Congo DRC. Black tilapia are worth the most, but there doesn’t seem to be many of them drying?

▲ Women from the Gabra tribe dancing at Mt Kulai, east of the lake – the women in the centre is positively levitating! Here the men and women dance quite separately, but children can watch. I’ve got to say the women – for their outfits (goat skin skirts) and dancing and singing – beat the men hands down. What are the three things you’d like in life we ask Gabriel, the guy who speaks English (in his Chelsea shirt): culture, medicine and rain he replies. Other suggestions, the question goes around, include food and education.

Marriage? Well there are five sub-clans and there are only certain ones you can marry in to. Certainly not another tribe – and what’s the bride price, is it set in camels? This tribe doesn’t deal in livestock anymore, although there are goats around, they’re just starting on growing things, watermelons in particular?

▲ This time it’s a Turkana tribal group at a fishing settlement by the east coast of Lake Turkana. Here the male and female participants dance together and children can watch. Unmarried girls are in ochre and there are five women, in their finery and jigging around, who keep well away from the action. Did they not make the cut? They turned up too late we are told? Or are they from a different clan? They don’t want to be photographed, even though everybody else does.

▲ The final dance performance we saw was by the Samburu tribe at Koros Camp where I stayed. Here the attire was very vivid, the young warriors were the main peformers, women were principally onlookers, and many of the young men had mirrors strapped to their arms so they could check their costume was absolutely perfect.

▲ Clearly everything had been sent to the dry-cleaners recently?