I saw him from across the room and I smiled at him, even though I had only seen him from a far on my last visit to Turkanaland. He seemed to sense my gaze and looked in my direction, a beautiful smile breaking from his lips, revealing white sparkling teeth. He rose and walked towards me, eyes locked on mine as if daring me to turn away. The last time I saw him, I didn’t get adequate time to look at him, learn his features, see him in his element or learn who he really is. No way was I going to let this chance pass me by and so I gawked, unashamedly. When he stood before me, I was impressed by his firm strong handshake, his confident gaze, his pronounced physical features and I noted he had a cute parting between the teeth on his lower gum. He greeted me in his native Turkana language “Ejoka” and I responded without batting an eye “Ejok Noi”. He proceeded to ask me my name to which I responded “Wangechi.’ He smiled and responded, “a pleasure to meet you, but I would prefer to call you “Akiru” which means rain.” “Why”? I asked, and he responded, “both times I have seen you, it rained.” That good people, is how Akiru was borne and I purposed to learn as much as I could about his people and their ways, to make me worthy to be a Turkana lady, worthy of the name.
I thus went in search of a Turkana lady, one that would educate me in the ways of a Turkana lady. I was privileged to meet several Turkana ladies who welcomed me with open arms and held my hands, literally, as they schooled me on all I needed to know in order to become one of them.
First thing I noted when I met them, is their fashion sense, which I believe should be showcased in local and international fashion runways. I love their fashion, everything from their clothes, to the jewellery, to the accessories-this I can adapt instantly. The jewellery will practically call out to you with its bright colours, bold prominent shapes and varying sizes, with the dominant material being beads. These women truly understand the concept of “layering” with several jewellery pieces being worn alongside each other. All are custom made by their owners and as such, I would need to tap into my artistic side to make similar ones for myself, if I wanted to become one of them.
Then there are the accessories, some that had leather combined with the beads and made long neck pieces and belts. When I inquired if all of them were just fashion pieces or whether they were symbolic, they confirmed that most were for fashion. However, all married women wear an iron neck piece that has a piece of wood tied to it to symbolize their marital status.
When I enquired about the “comfort” element of the jewellery and other accessories, there were mixed feelings. They informed me that most ladies start wearing them at a young age, adding up on the layering as time went by. I was informed that long necks are perceived to be beautiful and thus the ladies would keep layering, with the neckpieces rising up the neck as a way to elongate their necks. They dress in them daily, to the extent that some ladies necks eventually become weak and thus would require the jewellery to act as a brace to support their necks. When I asked if they would prefer to do away with them, one lady responded, “Would you leave your house naked?”
In regards to clothes, some opted to incorporate the use of modern cloth materials albeit designed similar to the traditional. There are others however who prefer to keep it all traditional, authentic and thus make their clothes from goat hide. I prefer the all traditional look more, with its unique designs, fabric created by varying hides and the soft feel of it on my skin. I asked how it is made and a new practical class on dress making was started. Lesson one, collect several goat hides and dry them in the sun. Apply animal fat often to prevent the hide from becoming too dry/crispy. The finer details on how to make the outfit will be shared in a follow up article-you do not want to miss it.
When I asked them whether the outfit is heavy, they confirmed that yes the outfit is somewhat heavy and gets really uncomfortable especially during hot weather as it absorbs heat. However, this seemed to be negligible in comparison to the beauty it enhanced on them.
Being a home maker tops the list, as the ladies are the ones who build the whole house, literally. They are also the ones who look for food and provide the animals with water. I was trained on what to look for when choosing building materials which mainly consist of twigs, branches and reeds known as ” Ng’ateteli”. These are intertwined, bent, tied together and arranged neatly to make beautiful homes. The compound is known as a boma and would normally house several families who would then each have their own manyatta/home. Most families would build two houses, each a single room with one being the lounge room and one a kitchen. At night, a dried cow hide would be laid on the floor to act as a bed in both the lounge and the kitchen, converting them into sleeping rooms. The parents would use the lounge while the children would use the kitchen.
Within the main house, the “walls” have minimalist interior decor in the form of items that are key. These include household goods like “Elepit” that is a container used when milking and “Akrum” which is a calabash that the milk is stored in.
When I shared my concerns on how I would survive in my manyatta during the rainy season, they showed me dried hides that are placed atop and around the house to ensure it remains dry-these women are true architects. In cold seasons, I was informed I would need to mould cow dung and soil to make a more permanent cover.
The kitchen which is also made from similar material to the home is mainly used for preparing meals, keeping warm and sleeping in. I was given quick lessons on how to prepare their main delicacies which include “Ng’imomua” better known as millet, meat, milk and blood.
The more I spent time with these ladies, the more their culture endeared to me and the more questions it raised. The more I walked among them, the more I interacted with them, the more I found myself smiling and laughing and feeling right at home. I will forever be grateful to the ladies who taught me what it takes to be a Turkana lady, exposing me in depth to life in Turkana Land and sharing their lives with me. I also highly appreciate the Tobong’uLore Turkana Tourism and Cultural Festival 2018, held from 19th-21st April, that provided me a platform to meet and engage with these ladies and more.
I sampled the ladies day to day lives through their eyes, some content with the traditional lifestyle as is, some with a hunger in their eyes for the modernity that is slowly creeping into their land, to others trying to find a perfect balance between incorporating both culture and modernity into their daily life. I will keep you posted on what Akiru decides, on whether she is up to the task of becoming a Turkana Lady.
For more on my previous experience in Turkanaland, have a look at: