Turkana - Orientation

Identification. "Turkana" is the name given to the pastoral and formerly pastoral people living in the arid and semiarid range lands of northwestern Kenya. The Turkana refer to themselves as "Ngiturkan" and their land as "Eturkan." The Turkana ethnic group as a whole is composed of two major divisions, and each division composed of territorial sections. The major divisions are the Ngimonia and the Ngichoro; Ngimonia are divided into Ngissir and non-Ngissir sections. The sections of the Ngichuro division are: Ngilukumong, Ngiwoyakwara, Ngigamatak, Ngibelai, and Ngibotok. The sections of the Ngimonia division are Ngikwatela, Ngiyapakuno, Ngissiger, Ngijie, Ngissir, Ngibocheros, Ngiseto, Ngisonyoka, Ngimazuk, Ngatunyo, Nganyagatauk, Ngikuniye, Ngikajik, and Ngimamong. Each section is identified with an area in Eturkan, but the extent to which the sectional territory is occupied exclusively by members of the section varies according to the rules governing natural-resource use of that particular section.

Location. The area occupied by the Turkana people corresponds closely with the current boundaries of Turkana District in Kenya. It lies between l°30′ and 5°00′ N and encompasses approximately 67,000 square kilometers. Eturkan lies entirely within the Gregory Rift Valley and is bordered to the west by the Rift Valley wall, to the north by the mountains and plains occupied by the Taposa of southern Sudan, to the east by the western shoreline of Lake Turkana, and to the south by the plains inhabited by the pastoral Pokot.

Eturkan is a broad low-lying plain, broken by lava hills and mountains. The plains are arid and lie at an elevation of 300 to 800 meters, whereas the mountain receive more precipitation and rise to an elevation of 2,200 meters. The climate of Eturkan is hot, dry, and highly variable. Precipitation is most likely during the months of April through June and, to a lesser extent, during the month of November. The mean annual rainfall at Lodwar, the district capital (elevation 506 meters), is 16.5 centimeters, with a high of 49.8 centimeters and a low of 1.9 centimeters.

The vegetation of the area is characterized by annual grasses and shrubs in the plains, and perennial grasses and large tress in the highlands. The lowlands are crosscut with many temporary stream and river courses. The larger of the river courses, the Kerio and the Turkwell, support a dense gallery forest, and acacia trees grow along the banks of most smaller stream and river beds.

The Turkana people have adapted to the aridity and the spatial and temporal variability in climate by herding five different species of livestock and by moving frequently. Although arid, Eturkan is blessed with numerous springs and areas where water can be obtained by digging wells. Early travelers' accounts report an abundance of wild animals in Turkanaland, but today most wildlife is restricted to the forested areas and the unoccupied areas that serve as a buffer between the Turkana and the tribal groups on their borders.

Demography. Gulliver estimated the Turkana population as approximately 80,000 in 1950, based on government tax roles. More recent census information suggests that the Turkana population has increased to about 200,000. Demographic information among pastoral people has always been difficult to collect, and the harshness and vast expanses of Turkana District, combined with the high degree of mobility of the people, has added to the problems associated with collecting census data; demographic information, therefore, has to be weighed with caution.

Population densities are low and settlements few and scattered. Following the introduction of a famine-relief program in the 1980s, the settlement areas experienced rapid growth.

Linguistic Affiliation. According to Lamphere (1992), the Turkana belong to the Ateker Group of the Eastern Nilotic Language Family. The Ateker Group, referred to in the past as the "Karamojong Cluster," "Central Paranilotes," or the "Iteso-Turkana Group," consists of the Iteso, Karamojong, Dodoth, Ngijie, Taposa, Jiye, and Donyiro or Ngiyengatom languages, as well as that of the Turkana. Their speech is mutually intelligible, and all are pastoral or agro-pastoral peoples. Although all the groups are linguistically related and live in close proximity to one another, their relations with the Turkana have generally been based on conflict, characterized by raids and counterraids.

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