Behold, the “cradle of mankind”, or more formally known as Turkana Land. It is only upon descent that I soon discovered this “cradle of mankind” to be one of the most hostile environments existing on this earth. Laden with molten volcanic rocks and sandy plains that emit heat of up to 45 degrees, this land is not home to frequent, nor consistent, rainfall. As a result, its fiery intensity is only amplified.
The Turkana are semi-nomadic shepherds in nature, assuming a caretaking role over whatever area of land they roam to at the time. This community engages in a symbiotic relationship with their environment, something I believe we can all learn from. Being of Nilotic origin, they are a tribe of fierce warriors, proud of their achievements and acutely aware of their status within the region. I could sense this much as soon as I entered into the community. Originating from Sudan, the Turkana name of this tribe stems from their native word ‘turkwen’, meaning “people of the cave”. Interestingly, their current territory offers no caves, which only highlights their nomadic patterns. I deduced that during their migratory movements, caves were relied upon as shelter for the tribe, with the routine somehow weaving itself into the name of the community.
I was astounded by the explosion of colours that existed in stark contrast with the volatile surroundings. Vibrancy against the bleak. Beauty amidst the unrefined. Life surrounded by desolation. From afar, I see the women sporting layers of beaded necklaces laced with all the hues of the colour spectrum. A spectacle for the eyes. You wouldn’t guess by just observing but these necklaces can weigh up to 10 kilograms, heavy with the richness of their culture. My camera gear simply did not compare. Such intricate ornaments are what render the Turkana one of the most distinctive and recognisable tribes in the area. To prevent excessive chaffing on the neck, and as a representation of their innate connection to the flora and fauna, it was described to be that the women use a fusion of animal fat and dog excrement as a lubricant for the beads. The use of such raw, organic materials surprised me, but was conventional for the Turkana.
The women within the tribe explained how the necklaces worn in the past were constructed with an assortment of seeds and shells, in recognition to the place they inhabit at the time. However, tapping into their resourceful nature, the tribe has now resorted to using glass and plastic beads instead. Despite the shift in material, the symbolism behind the necklaces remains unchanged. The elaborate ornaments are materialised representations of the wearer’s social status. It is an unspoken hierarchy that is understood only by the tribe themselves. I felt honoured to be privy to such an indrawn custom. For women, the jewelry possesses such an important value that they are only ever removed in the case of illness or the bereavement of a relative. It was a commitment I couldn’t relate to but was in awe of nonetheless. I noticed that the men contributed to this ritual by making conscious efforts to increase the number of necklaces their wives owned. Again, this a depiction of status that was shared by both, but exhibited only by the women. The Turkana are an exceptionally proud tribe, and it was fascinating to see the polarity that exists between their complex customs, and the rudimental conditions in which they live amongst.
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