A s with many of my trips, it all began with a book. One day in a Nairobi bookstore a few months ago a particularly intriguing and mysterious title caught my eye, standing out from the detritus that made up most of the rest of that particular store. The title read ‘Turkana: The Nomads of the Jade Sea’. An hour later, with the book under my arm, I left the store having formulated a potentially fairly hair-brained plan.
Most had cloth covering their faces and AK-47’s on their laps. As we passed, one of them saw me, stood up, raised his AK in the air with one hand and waved enthusiastically at me with the other.
“You are mad!” Ken, my Kenyan housemate, concurred. “Why do you want to go there? Turkana is nothing but desert and bandits. Nobody goes there!” But having recently finished a 4 month spell as a volunteer in the city of Nakuru, 2 hours west of Nairobi, I was yearning for something wilder and more adventurous. Traipsing off in search of desert nomads certainly had a romantic appeal about it regardless of Ken’s negativity. So I tactfully declined to follow his advice and prepared myself to embark on the road less traveled.
Ken’s concerns about my trip were not ill-founded. About 20 hours north of Nakuru by bus, the Turkana region was Kenya’s equivalent of the ‘wild west’. The roads were said to be bad at best and for the most part controlled by bandits. General tension along with cattle rustling and inter-tribal fighting were becoming ever more severe in the area due to persistent droughts and an increasing flow of automatic weapons from neighboring war-torn Sudan and Somalia as well as Ethiopia. Rebels and refugees also poured across these porous borders in relatively large numbers.
But I remained irrepressibly drawn by the Turkana people’s seemingly rich, fascinating and ancient culture and the unrivaled hospitality that was said to survive in abundance as were vast expanses of relatively unexplored terrain. There was also the wonder of the beautiful saltwater Lake Turkana, known to the locals, hence the book title, as The Jade Sea. A vast oasis in the middle of the desert, it was home to numerous species of fish as well as hippos and crocodiles. Much of the fish found anywhere in Kenya came from Lake Turkana. When the sunset over the lake it was said that its crystal clear waters appeared in rainbow-like colors. The striking terrain surrounding the lake was used in the film ‘The Constant Gardener’.
So after an angst-filled embrace from Ken I boarded a bus from Nakuru to Kitale and then a second bus to Turkana. As predicted, I was the only tourist boarding the bus. We rose out of the of the Rift Valley and had soon left the rich, thick vegetation behind as we entered a new world of sparse open space and scorched earth with only the occasional solitary tree defying the environment as it stood proud and gave evidence of some possibility to stay alive in such a place. The rumors about the road surface quality were by no means exaggerated. The passengers swayed vigorously from side to side in unison as at times the bus seemed to defy physics leaning precariously to the side, the ground suddenly almost within touching distance of the window.
Some hours later, as I stared out of the window I noticed a group of young men slouching about nonchalantly by the roadside. Most had cloth covering their faces and AK-47’s on their laps. As we passed, one of them saw me, stood up, raised his AK in the air with one hand and waved enthusiastically at me with the other.
Dusk then began to set in quickly. The horizon was on fire with reddish-pink as the sun melted away below the immaculate, steely blue of the sky above it then the darkness swallowed us and there was nothing. Only occasionally we would see the soft glow of a fire burning, briefly punctuating the darkness before we plunged back in to its heart.
We arrived at our destination, Lodwar, at close to 11pm; 3 hours late; Not bad by Kenyan standards. Lodwar was Turkana’s capital but in reality was little more than a small, sleepy town of simple wooden huts with corrugated iron roofs bisected by sandy dirt roads. But the town instantly seemed to have a warmth about it that was mirrored by the balmy night-time heat. A helpful bus attendant pointed me in the direction of a reasonable, charming hotel with rooms surrounding a pretty, open central courtyard and a popular bar at the front with tables and colored lights presiding over the quiet street. I drained a quick beer at the bar and set out in search of food. I was barely 20 meters from the hotel when suddenly from the darkness a figure came charging towards me with apparent intent. He blocked my path and I froze. But as I strained to see his face in the darkness I saw that it was lit up by a huge, beaming smile. “Hello!” he shouted as if he had just found a long lost friend. “My name is Chenge. To this day I have always wanted a white man friend and God has not answered me. But maybe now you will be my friend?” Unsure of what to do, I accepted in fear of the potential repercussions of a declination and was quickly marched off to eat some ‘real Turkana food’.
Chenge and I ate wonderful fried plantains together at the café of a friend of his and talked about our respective homes. They were certainly far removed from each other and Chenge was soon joined by 5 or 6 fiends in the café who all had unending questions about England. They all sat attentively and wide eyed as I talked about the Queen, David Beckham and the cold, rainy winters. One of the joys of traveling to such places is that you can give some of your own culture to the locals as well as experiencing theirs. It is a pleasant way to share with people. But equally I left the café feeling a little guilty: all of Chenges’ friends that I had just met all slept together on the floor of the café each night. None had ever left Turkana and, although all were well-spoken and clever, their opportunities seemed slim. And they were totally cut off even from the rest of Kenya. Their were virtually no tv’s in the area and even the national newspapers were a day behind there. Chenge and his friends would probably never know the world that I talked of where as I could walk in and out of their world more or less on a whim.
“It is goat milk and goat blood mixed together” Jackson said reading the uncertainty in my face. He smiled and the old man nodded encouragingly. Still not entirely reassured but not wanting to be rude, I took the plunge and drunk.
The next morning I took a stroll through Lodwar’s market which was, as was the case all over Africa, the beating heart of the town; it was what kept the blood flowing through the rest of the town’s anatomy. I then returned to the hotel to find Chenge and a dreadlocked friend with small incision like scars decorating his face and arms. “This is Jackson” Chenge said. “He can take you to some of the traditional Turkana villages.”
Jackson and I headed back in to town to buy supplies in preparation for a 30 mile march into the desert in search of a small and untouched cluster of Turkana settlements in an area aptly named Lokoyo or ‘dry bones’. So with a bag full of Khat -a mild amphetamine chewed by locals to maintain energy levels- as well bottles of water and the fatty, oily savory donuts known to locals as mandazi, we set off. Within 10 or 15 minutes we were out of the town and soon after had left behind all traces of it. Desert stretched ahead of us like a great ocean with hills rising in the far distance like giant waves.
We chewed Khat and maintained a decent pace all day, reaching our destination just as the bright sun began to fall away. Ahead of us was a ring of small huts made from sticks with reed roofs. A few children had emerged from the huts but when they saw me they screamed and ran back inside. Sat at the perimeter of the village was an old man, unmoved by our approach.. He wore the distinctive tartan-like red and black robe around his waist and was otherwise naked besides a few trinkets around his neck and a large, metal bracelet on his wrist that Jackson told me had a sharpened edge and doubled as a fearsome hand to hand combat weapon. I noticed that he had similar markings to Jackson on his arms. I asked Jackson the significance of this. “It means he has killed” he told me evenly. The old man regarded me with steady eyes, eyes that seemed to betray a wisdom and calm beyond any man’s lifespan. He spoke to Jackson. I asked him to translate. “He says no white men ever come here. It is too hard for them. They cannot survive. You must be some kind of white God he thinks.” I heard an inquisitive child’s voice from inside one of the huts behind the old man. Jackson laughed and said “they want to know if you are Jesus!”
The old man invited us to sit down, went in to his hut and re-emerged to serve us sweet milky tea. He disappeared again and when he returned this time he was carrying a metal bucket which he put down in front of me and motioned me to drink from it. I looked inside to see a thick, pink liquid. “It is goat milk and goat blood mixed together” Jackson said reading the uncertainty in my face. He smiled and the old man nodded encouragingly. Still not entirely reassured but not wanting to be rude, I took the plunge and drunk.
The metallic taste still in my mouth, Jackson and I talked and the old man listened attentively and calmly. Jackson told me of his dreams to be a lawyer in Nairobi one day. He seemed to be a prime example of an increasing crop of young Africans that are entirely comfortable in both the traditional world of their ancestors and the modern world that is ever advancing around them.We soon grew tired after the day’s walking and fell asleep on the sand enveloped by the desert silence and gazing up at the star-strewn canopy above us.
The next morning we washed in a small well dug deep into the sand near the village and then set about trying to find a way north to the shores of Lake Turkana. We walked another 20 miles or so to the nearest road and, with luck, a lorry soon approached. Jackson flagged down the lorry and we jumped on to its open back amid bags of maize and a few workers who all smiled at us welcomingly. We hurtled along the road without seeing another vehicle for an hour and a half and finally arrived at the shores of the great lake. We jumped off the lorry and took a boat across to a small peninsula that jutted into the heart of the lake like a dagger. The peninsula, known as the Ferguson Gulf was home to about 100,000 Turkana all living on the sand in simple traditional huts with no running water and no electricity, the lake providing them with everything that they had. We boarded a ferry to cross over to the peninsula and disembarked on the other side to a hero’s welcome. Jackson beckoned me towards the lake and began to run. I followed suit and hundreds of naked children, many with distinctive burning red hair from years of only washing in salt water, stampeded after us whooping with delight.
After our swim Jackson and I went fishing. I was amazed by the numbers of fish that Jackson pulled in. It seemed almost too easy. And Jackson himself, like most of the local residents, was like an amphibious creature, seemingly as happy in the water as on land.
We brought our catch back in and cooked it on an open fire with herbs and spices. We were soon joined around the fire by other locals. Jackson shared the fish around and in return we were given seemingly endless cupfuls of cada: local beer made from fermenting yeast, sugar and water in the hot sun. The festivities continued all night around the fire with plentiful drinking, laughing, singing and dancing. Although I understood little of what was said around the fire, I laughed along, content, with all the rest, happy just to be part of such a warm gathering. The Turkana’s reputation for hospitality was certainly not exaggerated. And their culture was everything I had hoped it would be. Yet as the rains continued to fail this culture was becoming ever more threatened and their lives ever more dependant on emergency aid. Particularly isolated villages like that of the old man in Lokoyo may well not survive long. But as long as people like Jackson survived so too would at least some of the spirit of these amazing nomadic people for others to be lucky enough to experience, if they looked hard enough for it. For me it was definitely worth the search.