From the capital Nairobi, more than ten driving hours on 250 km dirt road lead us across the landscape of another planet inhabited by last descendants of the legendary and now dying “Craddle of Humankind”. It’s sunset when we arrive on the Kenyan banks of Lake Turkana, the greatest desert lake in the word. A field of sapphire surrounded by highland characterized by its scorching martian tints, dotted with volcanic spikes, acacia trees, grapes of fairy-tale ngaji o akai, “igloo” of dead wood where many incredible African indigenous tribes live.
It’s exciting to hear the tires of the truck creek on the ground where according to paleontologists, the first man stood upright and walked along the way of future glory.
The area is recognized UNESCO Mankind Heritage for its exceptional ecological and cultural richness. The lake ecosystem is one of a kind and makes it possible to engage fishing and pastoralism which much of is credited to the eternal cycle of high and low tides.
This ecosystem allowed ancestral tribes like Turkana, Samburu, Rendi and El Molo have lived for centuries in the arid suburbs of the lake’s shores that have been considered some of the harshest living conditions on earth. It’s difficult to imagine that in times past in place of this rocky desert there was a thriving vegetation with zebras and elephants, all slain by climate change and hunting.
The same tribes are now facing extinction, they are among the most vulnerable victims of famine which is destroying the Horn of Africa. Italian Red Cross technicians are preparing to evacuate the areas to prepare for the rescue mission that will be deployed.
“The whole of villages where we’re are going to act counts eighty thousand people and a birth rate of 25-30 children per week” explains Francesco Rocca, Italian Red Cross Commissary “we will use mobile stations, namely Iveco vehicles, equipped as clinics that go around village to carry out nutritional and paediatric activities”. Italian doctors job will be made easier by the same local rituals whereby it is customary to pool the central inferior tooth of children with an adult for the purpose of facilitating administration of treatment.
The increasingly frequent droughts, combined with deforestation is reducing the rare shrubs’ pasture, decimating the cattle which remains the subsistence economy of local communities. Most of them constantly move away searching water and grass, walking even 300-400km during the dry season.
The Turkana have historically been nomadic, moving with mules which are useful even as food. This differs from other tribes that live sedentary lifestyles and eat mainly camels and goats.
As we pass through we see their small caravans; the mules have dead wood’s huts folded as sleeping tents. The majority of people are heading towards Mount Kulal, ancient and inactive volcano overlooking Lake Turkana.
“It’s there, in the lake village of Santuru, the majority of farmed animals stationed” explains our Sami our guide, a young native of Loyangalani which is the only area that has been designed and equipped for tourism. “Those who live in the pastures which are most distant from the lake have to walk 40 km every day, there and back, to stock up on water” Sami adds. We then realized that it wasn’t petrol that teenagers a few hours earlier were trying asking us while waving plastics jerry-cans.
We finally turn off the engine on the lake bank, where the Ajeni village arises. This the last of the smallest tribe of El Molo which translates to “those who never stray far from the lake”.This community has been marked by humanitarian welfarism and mass tourism which has made them economically dependent and has diverted them from their traditional activities.
“When I was born, the culture of my people was already endangered, my parents didn’t speak our native language already at that time, our customs have been progressively replaced with the ones of other and bigger population” says Number Two, village-chief.
Historically El Molo husbands had to give crocodiles, turtles and hippopotamus’s teeth as a dowry. But with these animals no longer present they have been replaced with grazing animals in line with the Turkana and the Samburu custom.
The marital customs are among the many endangered customs brought on by drought and animal reduction. El Molo work on the basis of a polygamous system where men are granted as many wives as they can have relative to how many animals he can exchange. It’s the wife’s father to decide the number of animals to ask as a dowry. This works almost as a bartering system: when a family has few animals one of the daughters is married to receive more. Similarly when a family has many animals they marry off a son to create alliance-ship and secure young arms for their livelihood.
Death rites are just as interesting and we were lucky enough to observe some of them. A group is cooking goat’s meat with tobacco and milk putting it on circular mounds of stones. These stones are the ancestors graves and this ritual is done to appease to them and remedy any anger they may have; which is believed to be experienced by locals through misfortune or prophetic nightmares. However, the burial was introduced by Christian missionaries. Before, the hernia was left to devour the bodies so that the spirit could be free from the corruption of the flesh.
We conclude our ethnological exploration by entering the capital Loyangalani (translating to “the place of trees”). While we approach the city we can see in the distance the rudimentary governing council’s site of the village. Here we see a big acacia tree under whose shadow seniors sit discussing issues of common interest. Some of them hold an apelpel a stained wooden stick to signify that they are married.
Women sport earrings rather then rings to signify their marital status and placement of the earring is dependent on the superior or inferior lobe depending on whether they are Samburu or Turkana. The latter are also use to shave their head apart from a lock in the middle. All women dress themselves with flashy multicolor collars that in the past were made of precious stones, today replaced by little plastic balls bought in Nairobi. The wives of the Rendille tribe sport the flashiest collars named mporro; a high wooden circle inlaid with ruby pieces.
Wood of acacia tree is basically needed for everything: beside making collars and portable small-seats , the tribes use the tiniest twigs as tooth-brushes, instead the oblong big fruits, known as calabash, once emptied and hardened become canteens to maintain water and milk.
Before beginning our long journey back to Nairobi, we meet a certain Julius Dabalen, student at the mechanical means driving school in the capital. When we ask him why he is wearing a t-shirt with Bob Marley’s picture that it is booming in the local shops, he answers that the government forbid him to wear traditional clothes. Before man and drought destroy what is left of this unique culture, it is worth to rattle an entire day on a 4×4 to discover it in person.