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I saw him from across the room and I smiled at him, even though I had only seen him from a far on my last visit to Turkanaland.  He seemed to sense my gaze and looked in my direction, a beautiful smile breaking from his lips, revealing white sparkling teeth.  He rose and walked towards me, eyes locked on mine as if daring me to turn away.  The last time I saw him, I didn’t get adequate time to look at him, learn his features, see him in his element or learn who he really is.  No way was I going to let this chance pass me by and so I gawked, unashamedly. When he stood before me, I was impressed by his firm strong handshake, his confident gaze, his pronounced physical features and I noted he had a cute parting between the teeth on his lower gum.  He greeted me in his native Turkana language “Ejoka” and I responded without batting an eye “Ejok Noi”.  He proceeded to ask me my name to which I responded “Wangechi.’  He smiled and responded, “a pleasure to meet you, but I would prefer to call you “Akiru” which means rain.”  “Why”? I asked, and he responded, “both times I have seen you, it rained.” That good people, is how Akiru was borne and I purposed to learn as much as I could about his people and their ways, to make me worthy to be a Turkana lady, worthy of the name.

Turkana People
When there is a ceremony, the community is joyous and music and dance flow easily

 I thus went in search of a Turkana lady, one that would educate me in the ways of a Turkana lady. I was privileged to meet several Turkana  ladies who  welcomed me with open arms and held my hands, literally, as they schooled me on all I needed to know in order to become one of them.

Fashion sense of Turkana ladies
My teachers on all things Turkana Ladies. They enjoyed training me on what would be required of Akiru.

First thing I noted when I met them, is their fashion sense, which I believe should be showcased in local and international fashion runways.  I love their fashion, everything from their clothes, to the jewellery, to the accessories-this I can adapt instantly. The jewellery will practically call out to you with its bright colours, bold prominent shapes and varying sizes, with the dominant material being beads.  These women truly understand the concept of “layering” with several jewellery pieces being worn alongside each other.  All are custom made by their owners and as such, I would need to tap into my artistic side to make similar ones for myself, if I wanted to become one of them.

traditional turkana woman-wangechi gitahi travels
Look at the beading, the layering and the beautiful workmanship. All ladies in the Turkana community take jewellery and accessories very seriously

Then there are the accessories, some that had leather combined with the beads and made long neck pieces and belts. When I inquired if all of them were just fashion pieces or whether they were symbolic, they confirmed that most were for fashion. However, all married women wear an iron neck piece that has a piece of wood tied to it to symbolize their marital status.

traditional turkana women-wangechi gitahi travels
These ladies are all smiles indicating they know how beautiful and outstanding they look whilst decked in their traditional regalia
Look at the beautiful adornment on these ladies. The beads, the layering, the workmanship-masterpieces. The metal ring around the lady on the left indicated she is a married lady

When I enquired about the “comfort” element of the jewellery and other accessories, there were mixed feelings.  They informed me that most ladies start wearing them at a young age, adding up on the layering as time went by. I was informed that long necks are perceived to be beautiful and thus the ladies would keep layering, with the neckpieces rising up the neck as a way to elongate their necks. They dress in them daily, to the extent that some ladies necks eventually become weak and thus would require the jewellery to act as a brace to support their necks. When I asked if they would prefer to do away with them, one lady responded, “Would you leave your house naked?”

woman dressed in goat hide-wangechi gitahi travels
Final product of a dress made from goat hide–A beauty yes?

In regards to clothes, some opted to incorporate the use of modern cloth materials albeit designed similar to the traditional. There are others however who prefer to keep it all traditional, authentic and thus make their clothes from goat hide. I prefer the all traditional look more, with its unique designs, fabric created by varying hides and the soft feel of it on my skin. I asked how it is made and a new practical class on dress making was started.  Lesson one, collect several goat hides and dry them in the sun.  Apply animal fat often to prevent the hide from becoming too dry/crispy.  The finer details on how to make the outfit will be shared in a follow up article-you do not want to miss it.

turkana woman holding goat hide-wangechi gitahi travels
This is how raw goat hide looks like-soon to make a beautiful outfit
turkana lady holding a goat hide
This is how raw goat hide looks like-soon to make a beautiful outfit

When I asked them whether the outfit is heavy, they confirmed that yes the outfit is somewhat heavy and gets really uncomfortable especially during hot weather as it absorbs heat. However, this seemed to be negligible in comparison to the beauty it enhanced on them.

turkana women standing outside a hut
Turkana ladies are architects and construction crew for their homes. Interesting how they make them all while dressed in their beautiful traditional regalia and adornment

Being a home maker tops the list, as the ladies are the ones who build the whole house, literally. They are also the ones who look for food and provide the animals with water. I was trained on what to look for when choosing building materials which mainly consist of twigs, branches and reeds known as ” Ng’ateteli”. These are intertwined, bent, tied together and arranged neatly to make beautiful homes.  The compound is known as a boma and would normally house several families who would then each have their own manyatta/home.  Most families would build two houses, each a single room with one being the lounge room and one a kitchen. At night, a dried cow hide would be laid on the floor  to act as a bed in both the lounge and the kitchen, converting them into sleeping rooms. The parents would use the lounge while the children would use the kitchen.

dried cow hide-wangechi gitahi travels
A cow hide easily converts to a bed to lay
Akrums and Elepits-wangechi gitahi travels
Akrum and Elepits that are used to collect and store milk hanging on the walls

Within the main house, the “walls” have minimalist interior decor in the form of items that are key.  These include household goods like “Elepit” that is a container used when milking and “Akrum” which is a calabash that the milk is stored in. 

When I shared my concerns on how I would survive in my manyatta during the rainy season,  they showed me dried hides that are  placed atop and around the house to ensure it remains dry-these women are true architects. In cold seasons, I was informed I would need to mould cow dung and soil to make a more permanent cover.

turkana woman standing outside a hut
Cow and goat hide are easily converted to rain covers during the rainy season

The kitchen which is also made from similar material to the home is mainly used for preparing meals, keeping warm and sleeping in.  I was given quick lessons on how to prepare their main delicacies  which include “Ng’imomua” better known as millet, meat, milk and blood.   

turkana lady standing outsie a traditional kitchen
Having lessons on how to cook Turkana delicacies like ng’ïmomua
turkana lady-wangechi gitahi travels
This lady a true reflection of how modernity and traditional can be beautifully blended together

The more I spent time with these ladies, the more their culture endeared to me and the more questions it raised. The more I walked among them, the more I interacted with them, the more I found myself smiling and laughing and feeling right at home. I will forever be grateful to the ladies who taught me what it takes to be a Turkana lady, exposing me in depth to life in Turkana Land and  sharing their lives with me. I also highly appreciate the Tobong’uLore Turkana Tourism and Cultural Festival 2018, held from 19th-21st April, that provided me a platform to meet and engage with these ladies and more.I sampled the ladies day to day lives through their eyes,  some content with the traditional lifestyle as is, some with a hunger in their eyes for the modernity that is slowly creeping into their land,  to others trying to find a perfect balance between incorporating both culture and modernity into their daily life.  I will keep you posted on what Akiru decides, on whether she is up to the task of  becoming a Turkana Lady.

For more on my previous experience in Turkanaland, have a look at:





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    • Wangechi Gitahi Reply

      It was an amazing experience..Happy you like it.

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