A Week in a Turkana Village
// February 27th, 2013 // Kenya
I landed in Kenya at the end of November, but just two weeks later I already had a vacation planned. An American friend of mine Hannah was coming to visit her boyfriend Amana for the holidays, and the boys and I decided to tag along the first week and get a taste of Turkana. The five of us all know each other from my former volunteer project here, so we were super excited to catch up, laugh much, and relax together. I always think living among locals is perhaps the highlight of an African experience, but I have spent most of my time in a Kikuyu village. Since Amana is Turkana, this was truly a rare opportunity to get a glimpse into a new tribe. Before I went, I only associated Turkanas with Masaiis, as they both have nomadic roots and drink cow’s blood. Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you much more. Turkanas are mainly in northern Kenya, however Amana’s village is in Samburuland near Rumuruti. This is quite possibly the most interesting place to people watch in Kenya, as tribes from the north inhabit villages in the area and also come here to do business. So on market day, you will watch as Turkana, Masaii, Samburu, Pokhat, Kikuyu, and other tribes go about their business. They are wearing head-dresses and traditional garb and it truly feels straight out of a movie.
On a sunny Sunday morning, we boarded the shuttle to Nyahururu (yes it’s a mouthful to say, but with practice it rolls off the tongue) en route to Amana’s village. We drove past the vast and beautiful Rift Valley and it was quite the sight. We cruised by large pieces of grazing land that had zebras and some small antelopes. Both Onesmus and John’s first time of seeing a zebra in the wild, we feasted on the landscapes as we drove. Of course good things seem to be momentary in Kenya, and soon we were on a horrible, pothole-ridden road that was under repair. Suddenly, I looked forward to this bus ride coming to an end. Once in Nyahururu, we stopped at a busy hotel for lunch, and then it was time for a huge shopping trip. We needed food for the next week, drinking water for the next few days (there are no wells in the village and the people get their drinking water from the brown river), and I needed to buy three thin mattresses so that everyone would have a space to sleep. You should have seen our stockpile of stuff once we all congregated outside of the little supermarket. While four of us had a backpack each of personal belongings, Hannah had a backpack for a month, Christmas gifts, and two full duffel bags of donations she carried on behalf of an NGO. Add to that three mattresses, six gallons of water, and three bags of food, and I can easily say that there was no shortage of stares. Everyone loaded up like mules, and we headed for the next bus that would take us to a little town just 5 km from the village. They threw all of our crap on top of the bus , I used the sketchy bathroom at the petrol station, and off we went.
After a short ride and unloading our things, we made an even bigger scene in the small, roadside town. Kids gathered round to see the mzungus and people looked at our pile o’stuff. The boys organized four motorbikes for us: one with John and I, our backpacks, and groceries, one with Hannah and Amana and backpacks and groceries, one with Onesmus, water, a mattress and a bag, and one with mattresses and other bags. We took off in a motorcade and the warm breeze and laughter from friends was exhilarating.
Taking the long way to the village to avoid the river crossing (which we did later in the week by motorbike), we started down a gravel road that followed the river. Kids shouted greetings as we passed, and I waved at every one of them. I was really happy.
We turned off the gravel road and were driving through the bush. I didn’t expect this. Even the most rural of villages I have been to, there has been some sort of large footpath at the very least to welcome my arrival. I was happy that I was in long pants as to minimize the brush scratching my legs. Eventually, we were driving alongside a dried up maize field and kids were shouting and running. The thatched huts appeared one by one, and I realized we had arrived. This tiny Turkana village would become my home for the next five days and I had an inkling I was really going to enjoy myself.
After dropping our bags, we wasted no time and went down to the river. A woman was washing clothes, children were collecting water and goofing around, and it was a great spot for people watching. We ended up spending most of our days at this very spot on the river. Whether it was washing our clothes, reading a book, or watching the kids go swimming in the frigid waters, it was truly the best kept secret of the village. The very first day I made friends with two little boys. One was so stern and every time Onesmus tried to speak to him he would scowl. I made it a point to try to make this kid smile by hiding behind the rocks and peeping at him. Once I saw his huge grin and excited eyes, my heart practically melted. This boy could quite possibly be the cutest kid I’ve ever seen…after my nephew of course ;) His older brother, though small, said he was 11 years old and in Class One. Obviously, a very similar schooling situation to John’s.
Each morning the older boy Ndegwa would come greet me at Amana’s home. We would spend our afternoons with them down at the river and by the last day, even little Lohje had warmed up to Onesmus. In case you hadn’t noticed, Onesmus is very dark, hence why his nickname is Blackie. One evening we were walking back from the river together and some little kid thought Blackie was his older brother. He walked up behind him and called out a name, but when Onesmus turned around the kid started wailing. Seriously, wailing. Onesmus told the boy’s older brother, who was ahead of us, to go back for his little brother. After we got back to the village a good five minutes later, we could still hear the kid crying from afar. We couldn’t stop laughing about it over dinner that evening, as the irony that a Kenyan, not a mzungu, is what scared this kid was too funny.
Our stay in December also coincided with the homecoming of the first group of boys to go out for circumcision. After being circumcised they stay together in the bush for a month, while older males in the village essentially teach them about their tribe and becoming a man. There was a huge celebration one day and all of the village elders were there. We had watched the women collect huge jugs of water at the river that they used to make local brew. Now at the party, we watched traditional dancing as the women tried to protect the hut that contained the local brew, while the men tried to get past them and steal it. You never know how you might be perceived as an outsider attending a local ceremony, but it was overwhelming. A woman grabbed my hand and I jumped alongside them. These old women were the jam! When we were to leave, the men did a dance to escort us out, and Hannah and I had to jump with them. We created a dust bowl and were hacking between laughs. It was fantastic.
Hannah has a love for flowers. Like seriously, a love I’ve never seen before. And it just so happens that a huge flower farm that employs a couple thousand employees was only a 30-minute walk from the village. We took an afternoon to go visit them. After talking to the guards, we were sent to the head office, where we had to speak to multiple people until we were finally standing in front of the GM. The conversation went basically like this:
“Hey we like flowers. We just wanted to have a look around.”
“Where are you from?”
“Oh we stay in ***** village just up the road.”
“No that’s the name of this area.”
“Yes but it’s also the name of our village. Which was here before you.”
“Where is the village?”
“You just go down the road about a kilometer and then turn off into the bush. It’s not far. You have employees that come from there.”
A very confused look on his face.
The white Kenyan GM I think was more baffled that mzungus would dare stay in a village out this way. He thought we must have come from Rumuruti, so when we explained that we had walked to get there, he was a bit surprised to say the least. He did send us though to see a super nice manager Juma who, along with a guard and another employee, took us around. It was now after hours but he stayed to show us all of the roses. It was really fun, I learned a lot about roses (90% of these were being sent to the Netherlands), and I can now tell you when is the right time to pick a rose for shipping abroad. We left before sunset and stopped at the football field so the boys could play soccer as the last rays of light were cast over the ridge. Such a beautiful day.
On my last day in the village, Amana had an older woman come over so that I could try on her jewelry. Turkana women wear stacks of big, beautiful beaded necklaces as part of their traditional garb. Some only put it on for ceremonies, while others wear it daily. This woman not only lent me her jewelry for photos, but told me I could wear it the rest of the day and return it that evening. Amana told me to take a stroll through the village, and at first I was unsure. Of course I wanted to parade through the village in traditional Turkana jewelry, but I also didn’t want to come off as an outsider who was offending the community. I was told that it was fine, so Hannah and I started to walk. Before long, we were being followed by children and being greeted heartily by other women. Once we were almost home, a very old woman in traditional dress was walking by. I stopped to greet her in the traditional manner: by jumping and then throwing my head forward so that my hair flipped her way. I’ve never seen a happier old lady in my life, and she was truly tickled by the notion. After much laughter and smiles, my afternoon as a Turkana lady came to an end.
One by one, I removed the necklaces. When I got to one of the last ones, I could not get it over my head. I remembered one that I put on was kind of snug but not this tight. I started to panic. The guys were trying to help. We could only get it up to my forehead but then it was seriously stuck. I thought of how this kind woman would come to collect her jewelry and then realize that I couldn’t get one off and that it might be ruined if she had to cut it. My head hurt. Finally, John spotted a clasp on it. Then we all felt like idiots. I had an indentation on my forehead from the beads and a bruise the next day. It was one of those moments that you can only shake your head about.
Our last morning in the village, Onesmus and I wanted to go see Ndegwa and Lohje. I knew kind of where they lived because I helped them carry water home from the river one time. We got to the only house that could be theirs, and called out for them. Ndegwa had the biggest grin, and his brother followed, as his shy little sister stayed back. We took pictures with them and told them to be good boys and work hard in school. Ndegwa asked that if we come again, if we could please bring him shoes. We knew he didn’t have any, as they had both gone barefoot the whole week we were there and had worn the same outfit the entire time. Hannah gave them a few pieces of clothing for Christmas (of which they were ecstatic), but only a week after we left the village, we found out that their father passed away. I imagine that life will only get harder. It doesn’t damper my beautiful stay in this village, but it does bring one back down to reality. While I had a great time in this Turkana village, life is still very tough for the people that live there. Many work in the flower farm that we visited and earn $2 per day. It’s difficult to even comprehend. They drink the muddy river water which leaves stains on their teeth from the minerals. To go to the market day in Rumuruti, you need to walk about 10km round trip and pay $1.15. Having this kind of perspective is what keeps me motivated in my work and eager to learn more. It also shows the necessity of education as a way out of this hand-to-mouth way of life. All in all though, I am so grateful for a wonderful experience and great friends to share it with.
Here are a few more photos from our visit: