The Turkana People

In the far north of Kenya, on the searingly-hot, wind-whipped shores of Lake Turkana, lives a group of people known to their fellow Kenyans as the Turkana. They call themselves The People of the Grey Bull.

The Turkana People of northern Kenya

Tall and elegant with finely etched faces, these people speak a language called Turkan while their name, Turkana, is thought to translate as ‘the people of the caves’. In this lies the clue to the ancient mystery of where the Turkana came from. Nilotic by race, some say they came from Sudan, others from Ethiopia, but all agree that around three hundred years ago the Turkana settled in a mountainous region of northeastern Uganda where caves are plentiful. As to why they left this place, the Turkana, who are lyrical storytellers, have their own explanation. It goes something like this:

The legend of the grey bull

Many moons ago, our people lived in a land of mountains and forests. One day, a group of young warriors were herding their long-horned Zebu cattle across the wide plains when the leading bull, a massive grey beast with horns set so far apart that a man might not touch the tips of both at once, raised his head, cocked his ears and set off at a brisk trot. This was unusual: the plains were hot and the herds tired; but, knowing that the other cattle would follow the grey bull, the warriors set off in his wake. Many days passed as the warriors followed the tracks of the bull; he was moving fast. Finally they arrived in a deep valley bordered by lilac-grey mountains and set about with berry-laden bushes. In the distance sparkled a vast jade green lake. In the foreground grazed the grey bull.

The warriors rushed forward to rope the bull, but a voice stopped them. ‘Leave him in peace,’ it said, ‘he has brought you here according to my will.’ It was an old, cracked voice that whistled like the wind; and it came from an old lady who sat beneath a bush, her lap filled with ripe berries. ‘I am Neyace’, she said, ‘follow me and I will take you to a place of peace and fertility where I will teach you to make fire. Bring your cattle.’ Awed, the warriors followed as, stick in hand, the old lady led them forward. As night fell, they entered a silent valley filled with berry bushes. ‘Live here,’ said Neyace, ‘and send back for your maidens.’ Impressed, the warriors did as they were bid. Henceforth, these people were known as The People of the Grey Bull.

Turkana huts

The Turkana are herders at heart

Today, the Turkana people still herd their cattle, which provide them with meat, milk and blood; they are also very fond of berries. Brave warriors, inspired creators of delicate weaponry, and skilled basket-makers, they work with leather, wood, shells, horns, gourds and plumes to make headdresses so fabulous that each man carries a small stool upon which he might rest his head, resplendent with feathers and blue-dyed mud, at night. Dwellers in a harsh land, these proud and restless nomads are born survivors.

A man with only one wife is a like a man with one leg

Though increasingly diversifying into fishing and agriculture, the Turkana are herders at heart. And a man’s ability to build his herd determines whether or not he will marry. Bride prices are high, sometimes calling for over one hundred beasts. So you will often find a man to be much older than his wife; and to have more than one wife to help him keep his herds. A man with only one wife, says an old Turkana proverb, is like a man with one leg.


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