I first went to Turkana in August 2011. I had just began my internship and was immediately thrown into the deep waters…well, yeah. “Deep waters.” It was the hottest time of the year up there and the dehydration was real…but once I got over the heat and the initial culture shock, I realized I was right in the midst of beauty…in place and culture. Long before the oil discovery and the lunar eclipse attractions, Turkana was already amazing.
I got another chance to visit this year, though in a totally different context. Turkana County is big, so I am not doing it any justice by not mentioning the specific places. I know I have them written somewhere…sigh! I am not completely hopeless though. I do know that where I am about to speak of is named Attan. There is an Attan Primary School there where I have had a chance to talk to the children about elephants and why we must save them. Now Attan is so dusty, that I was told(by more than one person, so its credible) that when kids come home from school, the mothers have to wash them to ensure that they don’t have the wrong child. I feel them. After that particular school trip, I needed some identity wash myself.
The Turkana wedding ceremony continued…
A few days ago, I wrote Inside the Kraal-Part 1. A colleague was getting married. I spoke about all the things that baffled me about the Turkana wedding culture and some of it was quite bloody. Today, today we speak happy things. I think being born a lady in Turkana lady is a feat. Really. You are the family’s chief source of wealth. Apparently, you can’t be officially married unless your suitor pays a dowry of at least 50 cows/bulls. At least. It could be more. You can do the ‘come we stay’ thing and even have kids, but you’ll never really be fully married until you are done paying up. Mind you, the cattle dowry cant be brought in form of cash. So imagine a man has 5 daughters. I’ll leave you to do the math. Where is Julie Gichuru when we need ‘Who owns Kenya?’ The Turkanas are almost always at loggerheads with their neighbours over cattle rustling, so you can understand the value they attach to owning a huge number of cattle.
So my colleague had finally finished paying up and this was the day his wife would be handed over to him officially. The ceremony takes place inside the father-in-law’s compound. This man must be real wealthy. He has 4 wives. I am sure he has paid for all of them in full. There are things an outsider’s heart would miss a beat for, like people smiling, posing, next to a bull that has just been speared right in the heart. Outsiders never understand that this,for them, especially the bride and groom is a sign of ownership, freedom…relief.
Soon after the meat is cut and young men carry it to the bride’s mother’s kitchen in bits. All this time accompanied by songs of praise, joy and sometimes mockery. There was an instance where I almost took to my heels, only to be stopped by an ‘apaiya'(elder)who had accompanied us on this trip. The young men and women from the groom’s side were fighting with the women manning the kitchen on the bride’s side. I could have sworn it wasn’t a mock fight. They were roughing each other up for real. After the assurance that everything was under control, I dropped my city girl-ness and sat down, on the dust, with some women who kept asking me for money in return for taking their pictures. I guess that’s the price you pay for travelling with white friends.
Oh my! These people can sing and jump for hours. I was already seeing double, this heat again! And there was this man who couldn’t leave me in peace. He wanted me to photograph every little detail and at one time I tried hiding behind one of the huts to catch my breath but he still found me. I forgot he knew these corners more. Anyway, I am told they’ll do it, the dancing, till dusk, till dawn. After the dung ritual explained in part one, the groom is let out of the kraal and led to another corner where he’s to sit with his peers. He is not allowed to leave this spot till the following morning, where his bride, also in a separate location with her peers will be brought to him. the elders will then bless the marriage and they will be allowed to enter their home as newly weds. They must wear their wedding outfits for another four days, because…drat. I don’t remember. I guess to remove any doubt just incase one wasn’t present to witness?
Bride and Groom: The men, in my opinion, end up standing out more than the women. Bummer. They have on colourful lesos and on their heads a headgear made of ostrich feathers and mane. The women on the other hand wear skin. Sigh. They of course have the choice of the colourful beaded jewellery which the bride here used to cinch her waist and define her long neck. I think the men should wear the skins though…lol!
The rest: Whatever story you’ve heard on the origin of the mohawk, throw it out the window. Here, deep in Turkana land is where it all started. I insist. The women, just like their urban counterparts take time to get ready for such ceremonies. On their hair, they apply some oily mixture and the result is either a red or very black look. Their jewellery is phenomenon. Earrings, necklaces. Look at them. They look quite heavy but I love them. I would have asked for a pair of earrings, but I am quite sure I am not ready for a hole that size on my ear.
On their feet, well, akalas(shoes made of of tyres). I guess they gave up on this dust a long time ago, because their feet are so cracked, it reminds me of my childhood nanny who used to say she could fit a ‘bob’ through hers.
The men are less traditional. They bring out their Sunday best shirts and pair them with lesos and akalas, of course accesorized with the beautiful shangas and earrings.
After a great meal punctuated by lots of nyama choma, we took our leave, knowing very well that we were going to miss the main bash. The one that would take place when the sun had set, people dancing to beautiful acapella voices that we’d already sampled and young men ‘tuning’ young girls in some corner, convincing them that their wedding would be much bigger and finally, the bride and groom counting the hours and smiling when the sun’s rays peek at dawn.
Congratulations Wilson and family!!
Photos by Yiwei Wang and Trezer Oguda