The Turkana Community of Kenya

Experience their culture, craftsmanship, and annual festival

TobaccoNational Museums of Kenya

Celebrating our shared past, present, and future

Dating back centuries, the stories and traditions of the peoples of Kenya are some of the most fascinating in the world. They have enriched the country through social, economic, political and cultural activities, each with their own unique stories. Today, 44 communities are officially recognized by the government, and are classified into three linguistic groups: the Bantu, the Nilotic and the Cushitic speakers. The National Museums of Kenya holds objects telling the stories of the communities, which represent the country's ethnic diversity and vibrant cultures. Many of the cultural practices are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. This exhibit celebrates the country’s rich heritage through the Turkana community. 

Lobwin Turkana chiefNational Museums of Kenya

A look into the history and culture of the Turkana

The Turkana are a Nilotic ethnic community connected to Turkana County, in particular Lake Turkana. One of the largest nomadic communities in Kenya, they are known for their basket weaving and annual Turkana Festival. The Turkana are mostly located in Turkana and Marsabit counties. Notable personalities include Olympic champion Paul Ereng and supermodel Ajuma Nasenyana. 

Lake TurkanaNational Museums of Kenya

The breathtaking Lake Turkana

The Turkana are believed to have migrated from southern Sudan and settled around Lake Turkana, where they mainly kept their livestock. Those close to lake Turkana and river Turkwel carried out fishing and farming in addition to pastoralism.

Turkana Chief's Headdress by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Social structure and clans

The family was the basic social unit of the Turkana community. A group of families made up the clan. Traditionally the Turkana had a very unique alternating division, where the father was in the ngersai (leopard) division of the clan, the son would belong to the ngimor (stone) division, and the son's children would belong to the leopard division. The girls would take their father's division until they were married, then joining their husband's division. 

NecklaceNational Museums of Kenya

Due to their nomadic way of life, the Turkana traditionally had no centralised governance system. However, certain social positions were granted to individuals based on their wealth, war skills, divination, as well as positive personal qualities.

Turkana WomenNational Museums of Kenya

Turkana women

Turkana women traditionally took care of the children and household duties. They excelled in making beaded ornaments and building new semi-permanent houses each time the homestead shifted as a result of their nomadic lifestyle.

Turkana VillageNational Museums of Kenya

Typical Turkana homestead

This photograph depicts a traditional Turkana village.

Turkana WomenNational Museums of Kenya

Turkana girls

Young Turkana girls adorned in their traditional attire and characteristic hairdo.

DollNational Museums of Kenya

Fertility doll

The doll is made of doum palm fruit and beads, and was carried by young girls until they married.

Turkana WomenNational Museums of Kenya

Joyous Turkana women wearing traditional ceremonial costumes

The women have adorned themselves with traditional beaded head ornaments and necklaces some of which are made from elephant's tail. A woman wearing the necklace made from an elephant's tail signifies that she is married.

EarringNational Museums of Kenya

Earrings of old aluminium cooking pots

This is a pair of leaf shaped aluminium earrings, which were worn by older women and hung from the helix of the ear.

ApronNational Museums of Kenya

Abwor apron

An intricate beaded apron in red, blue and white, worn by women.

Turkana Ceremonial Attire by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Pastoralism, hunting, fishing, and camels

The Turkana are known for pastoralism, hunting and fishing. They kept cattle, goats, camels, sheep and poultry, especially ducks. Their animals provided them with milk, meat and skins which were used to make bags and clothing items. Camels were seen as a source of wealth, and slaughtered at major ceremonies in exchange for brides or to affirm friendship.

Stick FightingNational Museums of Kenya

Two men engaging in a recreational stick fight

Turkana men made weapons, such as spears, which they used to protect their cattle, and hunt birds and small animals.

Throwing stickNational Museums of Kenya

Hunting for food

This stick was cut from wood of the edome (cordia ghara) tree and used by men and boys for throwing at animals and birds. Angles were cut on head to make sharp spikes for killing. It was thrown sideways so that it has a flat irregular rotary motion.

Wrist knifeNational Museums of Kenya

Wrist knife

This wrist knife was made from scrap iron by a Turkana blacksmith. It was used by men for cutting meat and as a weapon for fighting when necessary.

Finger knifeNational Museums of Kenya

Finger knife

Made from a nail three inches long, this type of knife was used for cutting meat or thread, and was commonly found among the Pokot and Turkana.

Turkana festivalNational Museums of Kenya

The annual Lake Turkana Cultural Festival

One of Kenya's top tourist attractions is the three-day festival held in June and takes place at Loiyangalani, Marsabit County. This festival features all nomadic communities in Northern Kenya. In addition, Tobong'ulore festival is held in Turkana county.

Turkana DanceNational Museums of Kenya

Traditional dance

The women and men are wearing ceremonial costumes made from animal skin and fitted with decorative beads. They are also wearing traditional beaded necklaces and coiled aluminium armbands.

Turkana FestivalNational Museums of Kenya

Male dancers

Depicted in the photo is a group of men preparing to perform a cultural dance.

Turkana DanceNational Museums of Kenya

High-jumping and dancing

A group of Turkana men performing a traditional dance, which includes high-jumping.

LegbellsNational Museums of Kenya

Sets of leg bells sewn on khaki cloth

The bells were made by a blacksmith from scrap iron, and used for dancing by both men and women. Worn below the knee, they were used especially at wedding ceremonies.

Head OrnamentNational Museums of Kenya

Head ornament

This is an ornament used to stick into a mud pack coiffure to hold ostrich feathers. It has a number of deep holes formed of string topped with woven fine copper wire. It was made and used only by men.

Turkana RitualNational Museums of Kenya

Turkana rituals

During such ceremonies, men usually sit on a headrest or stool in a semi-circular formation preparing to perform a ritual.

Ostrich HeaddressNational Museums of Kenya

Experience the Turkana culture

The Desert Museum in Loiyangalani is devoted to telling the unique stories of the Turkana and seven other communities: El Molo, Pokot, Rendile, Samburu, Gabbra, Watta and Dassanach.  

Turkana womanNational Museums of Kenya

Celebrating Kenya's communities today

Many of the cultural practices of the Turkana are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. The heritage and culture of the Turkana community, along with the more than 44 communities in Kenya, continues to fascinate and inspire. The National Museums of Kenya invites everyone to celebrate the intangible cultural heritage of all communities which makes up this great nation. 

Credits: Story

Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.

Exhibit Curator: Philemon Nyamanga, Cultural Heritage Department.

Bibliography and research
1. Fedders A, Salvadori C. Peoples and cultures of Kenya. Nairobi: Transafrica and London: Rex Collings, 1980.

Photography and Creative Direction: Gibson Maina and Muturi Kanini. Gibs Photography

Exhibit Layout: Agnes Mbaika Kisyanga and Barnabas Ngei.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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