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A changing World


The Turkana, renowned for their strong sense of tribal identification, stand between tradition and modernity, identity and change. Is their lifestyle still viable for their survival in a rapidly changing Kenya? How could the Church help them to retain their cultural values while moving towards integration and participation in the life of the country?

By John Antonini


Poor and rich Turkana

The “true” Turkana is a man with a herd. Herds of cattle make him rich. The Turkana with no livestock is considered “poor”, regardless of his the abilities, employment, qualifications and financial assets he may show.

The Turkana are pastoralists that roam around the western shores of the Turkana Lake, driving their herds in search of pastures and watering points. They live in symbiosis with their herds which tell the wealth, the standing, and the power of a man in the society. A Turkana with no animals to his name is considered “poor”, regardless of the abilities, employment, qualifications and financial assets he may show. There are several causes for the Turkana to become “poor”: droughts and plagues, debts and livestock raids, and even the flight from home in search of an education and of a different life style.
Deprived of livestock, the young Turkana moves to villages and towns looking for employment, he settles where farming is possible and does not even disdain fishing, usually scorned by herders. Lodwar ten years ago was a small village, today is a town of more than forty thousand people. Along the river banks of Turkwel and Lokichar, the seasonal rivers that go through Lodwar and Lokichar, good cultivations abound. Fr. Elia Ciappetti, of the parish of Nakwamekwi, in Lodwar, is a point of reference to the men and women who intend to start farming. He gladly offer seedlings, seeds, advice and, when possible, water from his well. His kitchen garden, his orchard, and the thousands of trees he planted in the Parish Church compound are there to prove how it is possible to live well from the produce of the land. After the rains it is easy to spot fields in the savannah where millets and sorghum and even maize are grown.
The Turkana are not alien to an agro-pastoralist economic and social system. Those who lose cattle usually turn to farming. But even the ones with cattle, when the rains are abundant, do some agriculture when and where the conditions are good.
Today schools and permanent employment are the main reason prompting the Turkana to quit the nomadic lifestyle and give up herding. The boy and the girl who go to school are induced to turn their back to nomadic life. When in school as boarders, removed from the family and the traditional patterns of life, they lose contact with the harsh reality of nomadic life and the abilities to cope with it. Their mentality and sense of values change. They grow up to reject the traditional tribal customs, values and lifestyle as obsolete, backward, out of date and useless. At school they are deprived of the “informal education” acquired by living together with the elders, grandparents, parents and peers.
At the end of the “Formal Education” they are uprooted from their traditional ways. Most of them do not even go back to their district; they simply do not bother any more about animal husbandry. They are Turkana by birth, but alien by culture. School attendance is high among the boys, not so much among the girls. In the traditional settings, girls are denied school on flimsy reasons: “they become prostitutes”, “once they go to school they do not produce wealth for the family, since they marry out of the traditional ways”. However, with the introduction of free primary education in Kenya, the promotion of girls’ education has being given a strong push forward.
Attempts are made to offer formal education to the boys and girls without taking them away from their environment by organising “mobile nomadic schools”, an alternative approach to formal education. Instead of calling the children to school, the school is moved where the children are and it follows the movements of the students who attend to the herds.
The programme of studies and the way of teaching (ABET: Appropriate Basic Education for Turkana) are adapted to the age, the living conditions and the progress of the students. The aim is to prepare the boys and the girls to join the formal education system later in their youth when the risk of being uprooted from their culture is reduced. The programme is prepared in dialogue with the families of the students, combining the essential elements of formal education with the practical knowledge of traditions, tribal values, animal husbandry and survival skills. Lessons are given in the early mornings and in the evenings, when there is no interfering with herding.
At Likori the Comboni Missionaries built a school for the shepherd boys of the parish with lessons in the evenings from seven to nine. But there are not many boys willing to walk to school after a full day of running after the family herd.
The traditional family is still averse to sending their children to school. When it agrees, it is either because of too many children and too few animals, or because of the boy’s or the girl’s determination to go, regardless the opinion of their elders. When the choice is left to the family, it is the weakest, youngest member to be allowed to abandon the herd for the school. Any promising, healthy, brave young man, with leadership qualities, is kept to grow up in the traditional way and to take up his position and role in the traditional society. But the change is happening and the number of Turkanas who are “poor” by tribal standard and well off by Kenyan standard, is on the increase.
Today it is reckoned that only the 60 per cent of the Turkana remain nomads; the others have opted for the sedentary life.

Turkana: land and people

The land of the Turkana is a 77,000 square kilometres harsh desert country in the Rift Valley Province of Kenya, squeezed between Lake Turkana and Uganda. 
The Climate is hot and dry for most part of the year. Average rainfall is about 300-400 mm, falling to less than 150mm in the arid central parts. Rainfall is erratic and unreliable and famine is a constant threat. Turkana has a very poor agricultural potential and is only suitable for extensive rearing of indigenous livestock.
The People - The Turkana are the second largest group of pastoralists in Kenya, 450,860 people, according to the 1999 census. 70% of them are nomads, with a little social structure to tie them down, frequently on the move in search of water and pasture.
They are a Nilotic people related to the Karamojon of Uganda. Their language is close to the Toposa of Sudan. Many speak Kiswahili and children in school are now learning English. The level of literacy is uncertain. In spite of free primary education, Turkana districts register one of the lowest gross enrolment, retention, and completion rates in the country:
Socio-economic Situation - Traditionally the Turkana economy is based on livestock - such as goats, sheep, cattle, donkeys and camels. Livestock play an important role in the payment for bride wealth, compensation for crimes, fines for fathering illegitimate children, and as a gift on social occasions. The Turkana place such a high value on cattle that they often raid other tribes to acquire more animals. It is not a theft, they say, just an act of repossession, “taking them home”, since cattle are God’s gift to the Turkana. 
Drastic changes are forced on them by the recurrent droughts and famine, banditry, cattle rustling and animal diseases. A growing number of them engage in fishing, agriculture, handicraft production and various forms of wage-employment. Agriculture is practiced only in few places along Turkwel River where irrigation is possible.
Illiteracy, ignorance, diseases, draught and famine, lack of employment opportunities and unavailability of adequate development funds, make Turkana a poor and dreaded place to live and work in. The people have limited access to basic human needs such as food, clean drinking water, health care services, housing, education and security. Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS are on the increase and for their common occurrence are popularly called the “co-wives”.
Religion: The majority of Turkana still follow their traditional religion. They believe in God, known by the name Kuj or Akuj, who is associated with the sky and is the creator of all things. The diviner is God’s chief representative, functioning as a doctor, purifier of age-sets, predicting raids and soliciting rain. Christian religion entered the region in 1960. Today the Catholics are over 110.000.
Which future for the traditional Turkana way of life? It depends on how possible it is to share fairly all available resources, particularly water, among the various communities, and on the ability to settle amicably differences and border disputes between pastoralists and non pastoralist communities. But, is the pastoralist way of life economically viable for the long run?

Better life and tradition

Perhaps the most successful and most practical project to date is one of the simplest, a project in which the Roman Catholic Church has installed about 50 hand-operated water pumps throughout Turkanaland.

During the seventies, NORAID, a Norwegian Aid Organisation, entered Turkanaland with a large development project to reduce the dependency of the Turkana on animal herding, offering them alternative employment and lifestyle. The Norwegians opened good roads, set up a land phone system, built schools, clinics and offices, created irrigation schemes for farming. The show case of the project was a huge fish factory for fish filleting and freezing plant at Kalakol, at Ferguson Bay on the Lake Turkana shores. Near it an Italian NGO built a fish hatchery for breeding tilapia and Nile perch to be released into the lake and prevent the depletion of the fish stocks.
Some 20,000 Turkana were lured into the town looking for an easier livelihood. Many abandoned their herds. Many more drove their animals towards the lake, bringing disaster around Kalokol and Lodwar, the result of over-grazing, firewood gathering and the unpredicted long drought of the eighties.
The factory never really started production and the whole project was doomed from the beginning. The Norwegians had failed to check the fluctuation of the water level of the lake, and to take into account the shortage of water caused by the increasing irrigation schemes along the Oromo River in Ethiopia and by the construction of the Turkwel dam in Turkana South. By the eighties the level of the water dad gone down 20 metres leaving the jetty built for unloading the catch high and dry some two kilometres far from the lake. Now it stands on the sand, covered by thorn bushes of mathenge.
The factory was too big for the place and far removed from the market. The local supply of electricity was not enough for the freezing process. Huge generators had to be brought in. Then the trawler sank.
The last straw was a political quarrel president Daniel arap Moi picked up with Norway. When the government of the Scandinavian Country granted political asylum to Mr. Koigi Wawamwere, a human right activist and opposition politician in Kenya, President Moi became so incensed that ordered all the Norwegians to leave the country.
Noraid had no time for a proper handing over of the various initiatives. At Kalokol the technicians, with nobody paying their salaries, quit the job and went away. Then the looting of the place started and now what is left of the structures is used by the Turkana to “dry” the fish they catch for the local market.
The historian Alex Belida, writing about the rise and fall of the project, concludes with an interesting remark: “Perhaps the most successful and most practical project to date is one of the simplest, a project in which the Roman Catholic Church has installed about 50 hand-operated water pumps throughout Turkanaland”.
The Comboni Missionary Brother Dario Laurencig, responsible of the project, is still at work drilling water boreholes in Turkanaland and in the region of Marsarbit on the eastern shores of the lake. His plan is to dig a well every five kilometres, supplying the Turkana with watering points for their herds.
“I think the Turkana need help to improve their lifestyle, without being forced to abandon their values and traditions” says Mr. Peter Ekunyuk, the Turkana president of the Justice and Peace Commission in Lodwar. “I do not see why people have to change their way of life while the only way of making good use of this desolate land is cattle rearing. The Turkana are very successful at this. If help is to be given to them, it must be in terms of introducing new and better grass cover, of providing water resources, and of improving local livestock by crossbreeding”. This is the line of action chosen by the Diocese of Lodwar to help the Turkana to improve their life, without renouncing their traditions.

The Catholic diocese of Lodwar

The Diocese: the Turkana region, prior to 1968, had been part of Eldoret Diocese. Erected Prefecture Apostolic in 1968, it was made as the diocese of Lodwar in 1978, with Very Rev. John Christopher Mahon, SPS, as its first bishop. In March 2000 Monsignor Mahon was succeeded by the present Bishop Patrick J. Harrington.
The founding fathers and mothers: the presence of the Catholic Church in Turkana can be traced back to the coming of two priests of the St. Patrick’s Missionary Society, in December 1961. They came to assist in the distribution of food and to oversee the running of a new camp (famine) which was being established three miles away from Lodwar.
Later they were joined by the Medical Missionary Sisters of Mary, and then by other missionaries of 8 Institutes of Fathers and Brothers and 11 Congregations of Sisters. In 1975 the Comboni Missionaries were invited to open new parishes and a Catechetical Centre, and to take care of some development projects. Most of the priests and religious are either foreign missionaries or non-Turkana pastoral agents obtained from other dioceses.
Today the diocese of Lodwar has:
Parishes 22; Outstations 136; priests 47; religious brothers 7; religious Sisters 49; Catholic Lay Missionary 1; VMM 3, Volunteer workers 6, Commissioned Catechists 51; Catholic Church Assistants (Prayer leaders)120. In the diocese the Catholics are 106.018 out of the total population of 395.967 (37.3%).
During the past years the diocese of Lodwar has endeavored to reach out to people in every corner of Turkana - dialoguing and working with them and embracing every dimension of their life. The diocese provides a wide-range of services in the field of spiritual and human development, with emphasis on sustainability, self-awareness, human dignity, and liberation from all kinds of deprivation.
Under the leadership of the Bishop, all pastoral services and developmental projects of the diocese are organized into departments- each of which is specialized in a certain field. Among these are: Health, Water, Famine Relief, Development, Education, Justice and Peace, Youth, Social Ministry, Nomadic Life, Finance, Women Development, Communications, and Pastoral and Lay Apostolate. (w355)

Justice and peace

The Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in Turkanaland plays a vital role. The Turkana are victims of injustice and marginalisation, their very existence threatened by raids, droughts and basic needs. The Commission assists them to claim their rights, to demand fair and just treatments and, above all, encourages them to abandon the old ways of raids and conflicts in search for peace. There is no peace without justice. 

On the way from Lokichar to Lokori, two mission stations among the Turkana in the diocese of Lodwar, we drove on a 30 kilometres stretch of empty, semiarid savannah with no man or beast on sight. Yet there were some good grazing grounds. Why aren’t they used? “No Turkana would dare live and graze in this plateau”, was the answer, “for fear of the Pokot. See these mountains on the western side of the plain? They are used as observation posts by the Pokot raiders. Any spotted herd is fair game. They come, attack, even kill, and run away with the animals”. The Turkana have conflicts with all their neighbours, with the Karimojon of Uganda, the Topossa of Sudan, the Mandile of Ethiopia and the Pokot of Kenya, all conflicts over herds, pastures and water.
I was at Lodwar, the main administrative centre of Turkanaland, in the aftermath of the parliamentary and presidential elections of December 27th, 2007. Kenya was on fire, with riots, looting, arsons, killings, forced evictions and flights from places long considered home. It seemed that large sections of the population of Kenya were possessed by the demon of self destruction, of “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide”. The Turkana remained unaffected by the madness. When on January 3rd, the news reached Lodwar that a Turkana policeman had been killed at Kisumu, consternation and commotion spread in the town. But the only external sign was a long and moving prayer offered in Church during Mass.
Lodwar is a city of over 40 thousand people, a mixture of Turkana and many other ethnic groups, including a good number of Somali merchants. The evening of Friday, January 4th, two men tried, and failed, to set fire to the timber depot of a Kikuyu merchant, well known and respected in town. Some passers by stopped them and chased them away. When the news went around, many feared for the worst. Representatives of the diocesan “Justice and Peace Commission” contacted the police demanding protection for people who might be at risk. No other sign of violence marred the life of the city.
The Turkana are ready and willing to live and work side by side with other peoples of different origin and provenance. There is only one thing that makes them stand and fight, their herds and everything related to the survival and wellbeing of their flocks. Cattle rustling, control of grazing grounds and of watering points are the main causes of clashes. Pastoralists are reputed to be born rustlers and to see nothing wrong in it. Rustling is a value and measures the strength, the courage and the leadership of young men. They do not call it “stealing”, but “taking the cattle home”: all the herds belong to them, a God given gift. “Conflicts are always about pastures, water, and envy for the size of the herds of the others”, says a Turkana working for the Justice and Peace commission. “It is a never ending feud with no winners and all the losers, with an aftermath of pain, waste of human energy, resources, even lives, and a permanent status of insecurity”.
The diocesan Justice and Peace Commission of Lodwar set up the department of “Conflict Reduction and Peace Building” to tackle the problem. Mr. Peter Ekunyuk, the coordinator, explains how the department works at the levels of the seers/diviners and of the Elders. 
“There is no raid without the approval, the blessing and the advice of the seers/diviners” (wise men with some religious power and leadership). In 2007 the Commission organised a three day meeting of the seers/diviners of the tribe at the catechetical centre of Katilu, to study the root of the conflicts and to see that losses far outweigh the benefits. The aim was to convince the diviners/seers to withdraw their blanket approval of cattle raiding. A further session is scheduled for February 2008.
Another major cause of conflicts is the question of cattle movements at the times of drought, the constant and unpredictable threat to the survival of the nomads and their herds.
When a region is in the grip of a drought, there is only one option for survival, moving to regions where grazing and water are available. But how to do this without entering into conflict with the pastoralists who are already there?
The “Justice and Peace Commissions” of the dioceses of Lodwar and Kitale work in close connection with the Elders of the tribe, to revitalise the almost extinct “Parliament of the Elders”, the supreme ruling body of any pastoralist people. It allots areas of pasture and gives directives on how to take care and to protect livestock. It has the power to stop conflicts, to make peace agreements and to outlaw any activity that could damage the group. In times of drought it may enter into contact with the Elders of the neighbours and bargain permission to move and graze in their region. “A first attempt seemed to work”, Peter says. “It was made by the Elders of a Turkana group that entered into an agreement with their neighbours in Uganda. Unfortunately there was a raid and the blame was put on the Turkana who had to run with heavy losses. Yet we have not abandoned the project and keep on working towards a viable solution to the endemic problems of conflicts, especially at times of despair for the droughts that destroy men and beast”.

Turkana marriage

In Mt. 19, 3-12 we read that some Pharisees asked Jesus tricky questions about Marriage and Jesus replied: “That is what you are doing now, but from the beginning it was not so.” We could give the same answer if we were asked about Marriage in Turkana today: “This is what you are doing now, but in our Turkana traditional culture it was not so.”

By Fr. Raphael Cefalo

Things are changing very fast. In these last two generations great changes and transformations have taken place everywhere in the world and also here in Turkana, mainly due to globalisation. We can easily foresee that in the next two generations, with the disappearance of the two present age groups of NGIMORU and of NGIRISAE, things will have changed even more. The majority of our youth know very little about their NGITALIO (customs, traditions, ceremonies, rites etc..) and the elders are no longer listened to as in the past. There are (but now we can say: “there were”) two stages in the rather long process of Traditional Marriage among the Turkanas.
The first stage is the one which goes from the first approaches to a life together in the paternal village of the girl, prior to the completion of the official conclusion of the marriage process in the second stage. It can last months, years, or even the entire life of the couple, depending on the transfer of the DOWRY (an agreed amount of herds of cattle: camels, cows, goats etc..) from the husband’s family to that of the wife. More than an individual affair and choice (the boy’s and the girl’s), it is mainly a CLAN affair, of the 2 clans, of the extended family: an alliance between the 2 groups. This solidarity is one of the greatest assets for nomads and pastoralists living in such a precarious situation. Solidarity guarantees survival.
During this first stage the girl remains a member of her father’s clan. The children begotten by the couple are accounted as members of her clan. During this stage the union of the couple remains precarious, in the sense that, if better suitors appear (the of rich old polygamous men marrying young girls), the father of the girl can give her to the other man, and send her present husband, the father of her children, away. This possibility is reduced when between the couple there is a deep love, when the relatives of the girl show a sincere appreciation for the qualities of the man she has chosen and, at the same time, when from the man’s side there is a real commitment to reach, in a reasonable amount of time, the second stage of the celebration by paying the whole dowry as agreed.
The second stage can be completed in a short time, if cattle are available, and it materializes in the transfer of the woman to the village of her husband, she becomes a member of the husband’s clan together with her children. Now the union becomes solid, since too many members of the extended families are involved to allow it to break down.
A lot of ngitalio are connected with the traditional Turkana marriage. Some of them are:
1. Asapan. Rites of initiation, entrance into an age group. Unless the man has done this rite, he cannot get married.
2. Ekicul. Payment (up to 31 goats for the first child and 11 for every other) for a child born outside wedlock.
3. The elder brother. He must be the first one to get married. Unless he gets married first, the others have to wait. It is the father who contributes the highest number of cattle if the eldest son has shown respect and obedience to him.
4. Children. This is the greatest treasure for a Turkana (together with cattle). As many children as possible. Family planning and birth control are not in their culture. A barren woman can easily be divorced or abandoned. The fertility of the girl is “a condition sine qua non” for the survival of the marriage.
5. Widow inheritance. With marriage, the woman becomes a member of her husband’s clan, and remains such even after the death of her husband when she will pass to the brother of their late husband.
Nowadays very few people reach the final stage of the traditional Turkana Marriage (Akinyonyo) with the public investiture of the bride in the new clan and (Akuuta) with the killing of the bull. Recently I attended one such ceremony at Nakutan: he a doctor and she a teacher with 3 children. A lot of invited guests. We started with the Celebration of the Holy Mass with the Sacrament of Marriage. After that it took more than 5 hours of heated discussions with the relatives (some of them unknown) of the bride claiming the share of the dowry.
Worth mentioning here is the question of adultery in the traditional Turkana marriage. In the past, a husband was perfectly within his rights to kill a wife caught in the act of adultery along with her partner in crime. More commonly, the injured party would bring his wife and partner before the court of the elders where after a public whipping, the partner would be forced to pay a compensation to the husband equivalent to the bride price that had originally been paid for the woman. The adulterous wife was given the choice of returning to her rightful husband, if he was ready to accept her back or of returning to her father who was obliged to return the whole dowry received. 
All this clearly signifies the importance which the Turkanas attach to this union. It is a pity that some of these ngitalio and values have disappeared or are disappearing. They lost the “past”, but they are also not ready to accept the Christan “new”. How difficult it is nowadays to implement the Christian teaching about the Sacrament of Marriage. So many objections:

Marriage in the Church is too expensive.

I cannot divorce any longer.

I cannot get a second wife.

We are not yet ready.

The wife becomes “uncontrollable” because she cannot be divorced.

I must be sure she is not barren, etc.

Jesus did not come to abolish our traditions but to improve them, condemning the bad ones and perfecting the good ones. Even though divorce was legally tolerated in the Mosaic Law, Jesus made it very clear that God’s plan from the very beginning was for monogamous and permanent marriage. Jesus is fully aware that this is not easy, but.. “What is impossible to man is not impossible for God.” (Mt. 19, 26).
In Nakwamekwi Parish we have celebrated 96 Church Marriages (without any… maridadi) and if several couples have been able to overcome the many ups and downs of their family life is mainly due to the strength coming from the Sacraments.

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