A young Turkana man looks out over Lake Turkana (Image: Richard Trillo)
Article Words : Richard Trillo | 23 January

Tribal gatherings: Lake Turkana Festival, Kenya

The remote Lake Turkana Festival is a vibrant, flirtatious, raucous, befeathered celebration of Kenyan tribal life. We join the party

The Lake Turkana Festival is held on the shores of the world’s largest desert lake. It’s 
the meeting point for ten northern Kenyan tribes who gather in all their finery to flirt, brag, tease, dance, sing and sit in circles under the palm trees.

Sounds good, but, and this is a big but: this is the country’s old ‘Northern Frontier District’, renowned for warring tribes and roving bandits. To read the local papers, you’d think nobody would dare travel here; it’s a journey even few Kenyans would contemplate. Starting a festival in a region where the government’s writ barely extends seems the height of folly.

But I was going anyway – though I still had a long way to travel. Passing Maralal, I was only at the half-way point; the tarmac from central Kenya doesn’t even extend that far – let alone beyond.

Further on, I got an insight into local feeling. At the junction for the spectacular Desert Rose Lodge, a hand-painted sign declared ‘Tuum Parish – Land of Peace’, over a picture of an AK47 with a red cross through it. Old enmities run deep here, particularly between the Samburu, who’ve tended to take up the opportunities offered by education and employment, and the Turkana, who are considered particularly bellicose.

In the event, as we rolled down the hairpins onto the notorious Elbarta Plains, we were pursued only by a cloud of dust. Driving through the verdant oasis of South Horr, a Samburu town wedged between steep mountain flanks, we saw the first festival-goers in their traditional finery heading towards the lake, a two-day walk further north. They were wearing red kilts over what seemed to be white petticoats, with knee-length green socks. They paraded with lean, bare chests, green blankets draped over their shoulders, topped off with ostrich-feather headdresses.

The country was now bone-dry, the landscape a rock-desert of red and grey gravel and volcanic grit. Turkana huts – benders of reeds, sack cloth and plastic sheets – started to appear as we neared their homeland.

The first time I came here, in 1985, my initial glimpse of the lake provoked a sharp exhalation: an immense sheet of water reflecting against the hot sky like beaten steel. This time we had an iPhone with Google Maps to anticipate our arrival. But that first sight remained intoxicating, and the final stretch down to the shore, where fishermen paddle their tiny, half-submerged plant-fibre canoes felt like landing on another planet.

Meeting the tribes

Now, as we drove into the gritty, wind-blown lanes of Loiyangalani, there was a quite different atmosphere from the average small Kenyan town. There was a mix of dandyish Samburu, tassled-haired Turkana, Konso in riotously coloured pyjamas and regal Rendille with shoulder-length red braids and blue tunics. Locals snapping photos of tourists (who took photos of locals in turn) was refreshingly different from the usual hand-out ‘how-much-you-pay?’ response to cultural photography.

Although we were close to the shore of Lake Turkana, it was the Samburu who seemed to have the upper hand in Loiyangalani. On the main street (dubbed ‘Festival Avenue’ for the event) young warriors were resplendent in their outfits and elaborate headdresses, clearly making the most of the opportunity to appraise the local talent.

Like nearly all the northern peoples, the Samburu are livestock herders. Their culture revolves around a polygamous gerontocracy – rule by elders who control access to women by maintaining an ‘age set’ system. This involves a whole generation of boys and young men – whose ages may vary by up to 15 years – being initiated into warriorhood at the same time, and then a generation later into elderhood, when they’ll be allowed to marry. Women, on the other hand, are usually married in their teens. 
While traditions are breaking down in some areas, here in the far north, they’re still common. Rebellion is common too, with many warriors having illicit affairs with the young wives of elders.

The Turkana, the heart of whose homeland is on the west shores of the lake, were here in numbers too, but less involved in the local economy – though older Turkana ladies, 
with their near-shaved heads, crowns of tight braids and high stacks of colourful neck beads, offered some of the best deals in the impromptu souvenir market near Oasis Lodge. I bought a wonderfully fossilised fish vertebra, as heavy as a wheel nut, and two lethal aberait – wrist knives worn on the arms and used to slash an enemy.

Women from both the Samburu and Turkana communities always cover their chests in town, usually with simple T-shirts. At home in the villages, they customarily go bare-chested, like the men. It’s the women in town who have been most associated with getting the festival launched. And, in a spirit of reconciliation, it’s they who are largely responsible for coining the term Elmosaretu to describe the increasingly intermarried four tribes of Loiyangalani – the Elmolo, Samburu, Rendille and Turkana.

The Elmolo, who have the best claim to be the original inhabitants of the area, live in two villages a few kilometres north of the town. Kenya’s smallest tribe, numbering only a few hundred, they are fishing people and traditionally also hunted crocodiles and hippos, both activities now banned by the Kenya Wildlife Service. The last speaker of their own language died a few years ago (they now all speak Samburu), and the Samburu like to joke that the Elmolo, whose traditional dress includes palm-leaf skirts, are actually Samburu whose cattle wandered into the lake, and then followed them in and never got it out of their system.

Let’s get the party started

After two days of development workshops at mud-hut hotels interspersed with impromptu song and dance rehearsals, the festival’s big finale took place on Sunday. Early in the afternoon, we were in the bar at Oasis Lodge on its little hilltop, fending off the heat with cold Tuskers and watching the airstrip through the palm trees, as four light aircraft landed in swift succession. We jumped in the Land Rover and followed the crowds to what turned out to be the main arena, where rows of plastic chairs were being offloaded from pickup trucks. Two 4WDs from the airstrip deposited the visitors who took the seats at the front, marked VIP.

But the fizzing sense of expectation rapidly evaporated as the first of a succession of speakers addressed the crowd. One by one, they thanked each other and the entire adult population of Loiyangalani. The speech of the German ambassador (Germany is 
a major aid donor) was mercifully short, and a presidential contender, brightly attired in true down-with-the-people ethnic shirt, seemed pleased with his applause. The sun was still high; another speaker shuffled to the microphone…

An hour and a half of this, under the broiling marquee, and we all needed a cold shower. Then heralded by blasts from a whistle and whoops from the women, the performances actually began. This is what we had come for – this was a festival. The MC announced “Let’s hear it for… the Burji!” A troupe of smiling dancers in purple-striped pyjamas, waving sticks, sauntered in time across the arena, then performed a rapid, foot-stamping dance while beating their canes together. They went down a storm.

They were immediately followed by the Rendille troupe – lithe, upright men wearing scarlet wraps tied tightly under their chests, and women in stiff tunics of thin rust-coloured leather, decorated with brilliant beads. Both wore stacks of beaded neck and head jewellery, silver chains, cowrie-studded belts, pewter bracelets, plastic bangles and even more beads. Round and round they swirled, lunging, holding hands, whooping, kicking up the dust.

The day was transformed

The shows were fast, funny, unpredictable and shriekingly colourful. Nobody was falling asleep now. The Elmolo arrived – a palm-leaf kilted  posse of petite ladies with dramatically personalised flat-beaded necklaces. They formed a shuffling phalanx around their bare-chested, body- and face-painted male peers, each man individually turned out in a nifty cloth sarong.

The Samburu turn was a bit of a scene-stealer. The men wore red-tasselled blue or yellow wraps, white plastic sandals over striped socks, and splendid forward-facing feather headdresses, the young warriors sporting fabulous red-ochred braids. The younger girls had red and white artificial roses wired into baskets on their heads and rows of silver discs trailing across their ochred skin; the heavy multi-layered 
shelves of beads made them stoop and sway with the weight. Throwing their heads back they closed their almond eyes and jumped in unison, chests pumping out their throaty songs.

Tartan-skirted Dassanech warriors from the north of the lake pounded into the arena in a cloud of dust, their legs and torsos smeared with yellow paint. Their female colleagues jumped alongside them in black tunics, skirts of thin, darkened leather and glossy, red-mud hairdos, each braid ending in a heavy knob of clay, causing the hair to swing like ripened fruit with every pounce and gasp.

Watching from so close, without barriers, the impression was deeply physical and sensuous, almost too much to take in. Everyone was taking photos of everyone else – with mobile phones and pocket cameras – and a TV news crew prowled the arena, vacuuming Kenya’s magnificent cultural heritage for the folks in towns and villages down south.

A fine finale

Dusk descended, meaning it was T-time. Turkana men and women in their dozens poured into the arena’s centre. Women in black skins and yellow and red bead stacks, with their distinctive part-shaved scalps and Mohicans of braids, joined hands and bounced in unison. Men arrived in kilts and wraps, with fluffy black headdresses topped with white ostrich plumes. Some of the girls oiled their skin and smeared ochre on top. Turkana in modern dress joined in too – men in pork pie hats and collar shirts, ladies with salon hairstyles and recently acquired beads. From every direction there was the flash of cameras, roll of laughter, hand clapping and the pounding of feet. The lack of coordination was compensated for by sheer numbers and energy. Even the German ambassador was in there, shaking her best as the whistles blasted…

As impossibly bright stars appeared, floodlights beamed into life and the Turkana dispersed. Short plays were then acted out – in Swahili – illustrating the everyday conflicts of life in the north: cattle raiding, murder, correct attack postures (with a plank representing an AK47). Under a hail of imaginary bullets an actor dropped dead and there was a gale of laughter as the microphone was passed to the victim’s 
stage mother.

We abandoned the marquee for mingling and to watch a series of catwalk-style fashion shows – selected members of the tribal troupes mincing, pausing, twirling and returning to their ethnic coteries; each model seemed just as at ease with the couture gait as with the correct way to wear skins and kilos of beaded necklaces.

The evening ended in similar cross-cultural style as one undetected visitor suddenly appeared on the little stage: Eric Wainaina, a protest singer-songwriter with a wry line in satire, and a huge star of Kenya’s music industry. When he broke into his signature hit song, the infectious ‘Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo’ (‘Land of Bribes’ – about the corrosive cancer of corruption that accounts for so much poverty), the newly harmonised audience went delirious with recognition and approval; everyone roared. And the unified chorus lifted up towards the twinkling fairylight stars of the desert.

Lake lowdown

At 250km long, Lake Turkana is the biggest desert lake in the world. It was formerly called Lake Rudolf, the name bestowed by  Hungarian explorer Count Sámuel Teleki , the first outsider to discover it in 1888.

Straddling the Ethiopian border, the lake curves south, like a giant sickle cutting through the stony deserts. While Ethiopia’s Omo River flows in from the north and Kenya’s Turkwel River from the west, the lake has no outlet; it loses up to 3m of water every year to evaporation – nearly a centimetre every day.

Around 10,000 years ago the lake’s level was as much as 150m higher than today. Back then, its South Island was all but submerged, and the lake stretched far to the south and fed the headwaters of the Nile. That link supposedly accounts for Turkana’s huge population of Nile crocodiles, the fat Nile perch they feed on, and the water plants that still thrive on parts of the lakeshore and help support a reasonable population of hippos.

All is not well at Lake Turkana, however. Part of the motivation behind the first Lake Turkana Festival in 2008 was the critical threat posed by the Gilgel Gibe III Dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia. This huge hydroelectric project threatens to lower the water level of the lake – a Unesco World Heritage site – by 10m, increasing salinity, decimating wildlife and fish stocks, and undermining the livelihoods of thousands of people in the region who already live with cycles of drought and famine.

What is a tribe, anyway?

The term has no pejorative connotation in Kenya. Or didn’t,  until recently, when Kenyan commentators began to object  to the perceived implications of divisiveness, rootedness and conservatism suggested by the  term as used in Britain and America. In Kenya, a tribe just means a language group – people sharing  a common mother tongue.

Richard Trillo is author of The Rough Guide To Kenya.