I always remember with the best of thoughts and feelings the time, when I first walked on the holy land of Africa in 1977. My meeting with the people and the rich culture of the Turkana tribe was a revealing experience.
This ethnic group consists of nomadic herders that live at Rift Valley Province in Kenya, in the region of Lake Turkana, a long and narrow lake on the border between Ethiopia and Sudan.
They speak the Turkana language, which is a Nilotic language and similar to that of the Masaai. The people of this tribe, like the Samburu and Maasai, still hold on to their own traditions without wishing to change them at all.
Background of this tribe
The Turkana tribe has its origins in the Karamojong region of north-eastern Uganda. Oral tradition has it that they reached Kenya, when hunting an untamed bull. The land they occupied is hard and arid. As a result, in comparison with other tribes, they were less affected by the English colonialism, because the British saw little value in their land.
Culture and way of life
As is the case with all stockbreeding tribes in Kenya, livestock, mainly cattle, comprises the core of their culture. Its people live a nomadic life, always moving from one place to another.
Traditional Turkana dress
This tribe maintains a variety of colors regarding their emblems and clothing. The men dye their hair with a special colored soil, while the women are adorned with traditional jewelry and bead necklaces. The social status of a woman determines the quantity and style of the jewelry she wears. When setting eyes on a woman, a man can immediately discern her social status.
Art and Handicraft
Some of their most beautiful creations are the bangles and necklaces for women. The craftsmen of the tribe also make a large number of other handicrafts, such as spears, clubs and knives. They are characterized by their skillfulness in metal work, wood carving and stone carving.
Faith and Religion
Unfortunately, the majority of the Turkana are committed to their traditional African religion. They believe in a “god of the heavens”, whom they call “Akuj” or “Kuj”.They pray to him either directly or through the spirits of their ancestors. They usually invoke their god in periods of crisis or during natural disasters, like extreme drought. In the 1970’s, the first Orthodox missionary, who visited them, catechized and baptized them, was His Eminence the current Most Reverend Metropolitan Amphilochios Tsoukos of New Zealand.
Cattle still remains the main source of livelihood, especially in rural areas. Livestock provides food and can often be sold for money. Fishing in the lake is another important source of income for those who live nearby. Even though illiteracy rates are still high in the tribe, there are a small number of very well educated Turkana people who have joined other fields of the Kenyan economy.
For women, marriage takes place in the first and main phase of their adulthood. Girls get married between 15 and 20 years old. They usually have a say in the choice of their husband. A wedding can last two days and is probably the most important event in the social life of the Turkana, with big ceremonies, dancing and merriment.
An Orthodox Turkana narrates
One quiet afternoon, I was walking to our church. Suddenly I saw a car moving towards the same direction. I realized it was the Metropolitan of Kenya and his entourage. His first question was to check out whether there was land available for the Orthodox Church to start its missionary work in that region. We showed him the land, and immediately his reaction was positive, saying that one day a beautiful Holy Church would be built there in the heart of that barren area of the Turkana, maybe a school and a medical center as well, in order to help the local people. And he added: I feel that God will open more doors here so that Orthodoxy can be established in this region.
Now we had to find a place for our guests to eat and sleep. This was a traditional local lodging, plain, humble and yet so privileged, for there was at least a bed and clean water for one to rest. His Eminence seemed to be pleased because he had managed to reach the most remote part of our country.
The next day, the Divine Liturgy was conducted in a makeshift place. At least two hundred catechumens came to see and live firsthand the grandeur of our Orthodox worship. In the end, he announced enthusiastically that he would take with him the first catechumen, that is me, so that I would attend the Orthodox Teachers College and next the Patriarchal School. He finished his sermon explaining how important that day was to the whole of Orthodoxy since its message had reached the ends of the world.
Next he distributed food as the region is constantly struck by drought and my people suffers from hunger. He also wanted to perform the first christenings there but that was not possible due to the fact that the rivers and lakes had no water because of the big drought.
It is a great thrill for me that the true Church has arrived in our region, at last. Our bishop saw with his own eyes how our tribe lives, how thirsty it is and also how it sleeps. He became aware of the drought which plagues the area, the epidemics, the rough by dust and sand roads, the illiteracy and so many other problems and sufferings. We pray to God for help and ask Him to grant us the chance to see eventually a new Church rise and flourish through your love, patience, endurance and His miraculous intervention.
From the Holy Metropolis of Kenya