Region & People

People


The people of North Kenya

This area of Northern Kenya is populated by the Turkana, Samburu and Rendille. They are large pastoralist tribes who have established themselves in the region over countless years. Their respective territories have expanded and contracted according to the dictates of nature. To this day the government authorities exercise very little control in the region, and attempts to police or administer areas beyond the confines of the larger settlements are invariably met with indifference and sometimes hostility.

These nomadic people have resisted outside interference for centuries. They spurned the introduction of Christianity during colonial times, seen then and now, as merely a tool of control, and in turn they resisted the setting up of missionary schools by non-participation. Following this pattern to the present day they exhibit a disdain for the affectations of European dress so popular in most other regions of Kenya. Their conspicuous presence, wandering proudly across the vast landscape with spear in hand and coloured cloth draped over their bodies, irritates those eager to be ‘westernised’. When they meet a foreigner, their gaze is direct, calm and assured – untroubled by any insecurities. This supreme confidence and assumed superiority gives credance to perceived wisdom that they of all people have preserved their integrity as Africans, surviving as they do in one of the harshest environments in the world.


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The Turkana

The Turkana people inhabit an area bordered to the east by the western shores of Lake Turkana and to the west by the Ugandan escarpment. This escarpment reaches as far south as the Suguta Valley which brings them into close proximity with the Samburu and Pokot. To the north their territory is contained by the Kenyan borders with Sudan and Ethiopia. It is a vast tract of land encompassing mostly thorn scrub and semi desert, representing one of the harshest regions of Africa. As a result it is only sparsely populated by the Turkana (approximately 250,000 strong). They are a fiercely independent pastoralist tribe who have eked a living for centuries by herding their cattle across the expansive plains in search of whatever grazing that may be extracted from the unforgiving terrain. Of all tribes in the region, they are undoubtedly the hardiest and most resourceful. In addition to this, as warriors they are both feared and respected in equal measures by their neighbours. Inevitably, during periods of drought they resort to cattle raiding as a means of survival. The Samburu, their eastern neighbours bear the brunt of this, hence the bad blood that has always existed between them.

The Turkana represent the largest ethnic group of the Ateger speaking people, Nilotic in origin, it is thought they originated in Jieland, a western province of what is now Uganda. Legend has it that young Jie men in search of a stray ox wandered into the Tarash Valley across the Ugandan escarpment and there met an old woman of their tribe gathering wild fruit. Impressed by the rich, empty land and profusion of berries they returned to Jieland with their families to settle. The Jie and Turkana have been traditional allies ever since.


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The Samburu

Samburu land forms a wedge separating Turkana territory to the west and Rendille territory to the east. To the south it is contained by the Lorogi Plateau marking the beginning of the central highlands. Traditional allies with the Rendilli, with whom they share some of their customs, they are, however, sworn enemies of the Turkana engaged in a seemingly constant conflict over grazing rights. Inhabiting a relatively richer area they have a lot to defend. The lofty volcanic mountains of Nyiru and Kulal form their main strongholds in times of strife and drought. A nomadic Maa speaking people, the Samburu, like the Maasai with whom they are related, are thought to have migrated south to their present tribal areas from the north of Lake Turkana several centuries ago. They have long resisted change or intrusions into their age old customs. For several decades, following their move even further south from Marsabit by the British during colonial times, a policy of laissez faire was adopted towards them, as is now the case under the current authorities in Nairobi. The Samburu (approximately 75,000 strong) are cattle owning pastoralists who mainly live off the products of their herds. Milk is the principle food, augmented with the blood from living cattle or from sheep and goats slaughtered for meat in the dry season. The semi desert conditions preclude any form of agriculture apart from in the highland areas of Nyiru, Kulal and Lorogi where maize and vegetables are cultivated on smallholdings (Manyattas). This has afforded the Samburu in these areas the opportunity to settle and lead a more sedentary life, a divergence from their true origins as pastoralists.


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The Rendille

Also pastoralists, the Rendille (approximately 22,000 strong) share a common territorial boundary with the Samburu to the west, marked by the N’doto and Nyiru mountain ranges and the south east shores of Lake Turkana. To the north the land stretches as far as the Chabli desert, and to the south the Losai mountains, encompassing large tracts of the Koroli and Kaisut deserts. It is a land of contrasts similar to that of the Samburu but more arid, distinguished by the aforementioned deserts, scrubland and volcanic mountain outcrops.

By tradition, the Rendille are essentially camel herders. In this they differ from their Samburu neighbours with whom, despite linguistic and cultural divisions, they have ties of kinship and economic cooperation that go back many generations. The camel economy of the Rendille is centred around large semi-permanent settlements of married men, women and children where only a few milk camels may be kept, and the mobile camps where older boys and young men (morran) look after the balance of the herds, moving frequently to ensure adequate browse. The large flocks of sheep and goats are shepherded by the young girls. Rendille camels are not ridden, but used as pack animals. The camel, which need only to be watered every 10 to 14 days, will continue to give adequate supplies of milk, on which these people are dependent, even in the dry season when their cows have dried up.

The composite character of the Rendille is reflected in their folklore which stresses the intertribal links and migrations of the past. Long ago say the Rendille, nine Somali warriors herding camels from a remote camp became lost. After travelling for many days they eventually reached the outskirts of Samburu country. Before they were permitted to marry women from that tribe the strangers were instructed to discard their customs and throw away the Qur’an (the Holy Book of Islam). The Somalis agreed, and from these first unions with Samburu women grew the Rendille tribe.


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North West Kenya

North West Kenya

This region is the Lake Turkana district of North West Kenya. It is a place of wild beauty and bewildering contrasts.

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