Turkana Tribe: Nomadic Herders in One of the Most Hostile Places on Earth

Turkana tribe, Kenya, Africa
An old woman from the Turkana tribe in Northern Kenya, Africa.

The Turkana tribe, which is the second largest pastoralist community in Kenya after the Maasais, lives in small dwellings made from palm leaves, wood, and animal skins near the shores of Lake Turkana, one of the harshest and most inhospitable places on Earth.

In this area, bordered by South Sudan to the north, Ethiopia to the east and Uganda to the west, daytime temperatures regularly climb to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), and the ground is dotted with black volcanic rocks.

Legend has it that the Turkana people came from the Karamojong region of northeastern Uganda after chasing after an unruly bull. They speak the Turkana language, which is similar to the Maasai language.

Turkana tribe, Kenya, Africa
Turkana people during a cultural festival in Kenya, Africa.

Livestock, especially, cattle, is of crucial importance to the Turkana tribe as it is the primary source of food and an indication of wealth. Because water is scarce in the region, the Turkana people use a mix of butter, ochre, and perfume instead of water to bathe. They, also, use twigs from the esekon tree to clean their teeth.

Turkana men like to dress in woolen blankets and ostrich feathers while they dye their hair with colored soil. They are also tattooed on the upper arms and shoulders each time they kill an enemy.

Women adorn themselves with beaded necklaces and other traditional jewelry to attract male attention. Married women wear a plain metal ring around their neck.

Turkana tribe, Kenya, Africa
Women from the remote Turkana tribe in Northern Kenya, Africa.

The Turkana teenage boy has to go through a special ceremony during which he is encouraged to kill an animal with a spear in one throw. The elders open the animal’s stomach and smear all the dung on the boy’s body to bless him.