I discover that in Turkana, breasts are like Ricky Rozay’s moobs. It’s okay to show them off, no one really cares. I see a woman walking bare-chested once and many others with lose clothing or wraps that leave their breasts sagging or peeping. Traditionally, Turkana people wear wraps made of rectangular woven leather materials made from animal hide. Women wear two pieces of cloth—one wrapped around the waist while the other covers the top. Some actually don’t wear anything on top.
It’s an interesting trip. The flight to Turkana from Nairobi is almost as long as a flight to Dar es Salaam—yes, it’s that far! It will take you two days travelling by road. I am headed to Kenya’s most north-western county—the farthest I’ve been to in Kenya, so far. I am so excited that I miss Wiz Kid’s Nairobi concert just so I don’t miss my flight check in at 4:00 a.m. on the same night/morning. I actually pass on sleep.
As we arrive at Lodwar airstrip, I am amazed at Turkana’s beautiful landscape. I see lovely clear skies and hills above the horizon – just like in the storybook endings. I am lucky this Mashujaa Day morning isn’t as sweltering as usual, my company tells me. I am here for a whole week, during which I will be working as a publicist and communication assistant at a 3-day conference hosted by Friends of Lake Turkana (FoLT). I am using this trip to also discover and learn more about the people of Turkana.
The first thing I notice about Lodwar is that everyone and everything (including tea cups at restaurants) is colourful. I am constantly oooh-ing and aaah-ing at the sight of colourful Turkana women, walking down the dusty brown roads. Because I am new here, somehow I find it hard, at first, to ask our drivers to stop so I can take a picture of River Turkwel or the women. I am also afraid the women might take offence and I wouldn’t find a way of explaining to them, that to me – they are the most beautiful Kenyan creatures I’ve ever seen.
A typical Turkana woman is dark. Her skin as smooth as moulded black clay ready to dry into a pot built to last. Her hair is shaved or very short with different Mohawk styles and sometimes, different hair colour. Some attach beads to the loose ends of hair just near the forehead. She never wears a bra. As her breasts hang loose; her neck stands tall, surrounded by a tower made of multi-coloured beads and necklaces. I later discover that distinct neckpieces on women reflect on different identity and age group. And the more a woman’s neckpiece; the more desirable she is. Side Note – In line with my general love for beads and beaded things, I think I would be a very hot thing if I were from Turkana.
The venue of the conference is at the newly constructed FoLT Lodwar conference centre, with an excellent view of the origin of Turkana County capital’s name—Mount Lodwar, just a few meters away. Locals tell us that Lodwar means “something extremely bitter”. I am astounded by how surreal and close the mountain seems, “Wow! We should go hiking!” My colleagues warn me that we wouldn’t even get to half of the mountain because of the heat and security concerns.
After much observation over a few days, I realize that even more than Turkana people’s culture for disregarding the torso’s covering, it works all ways for them because the heat there is ridiculous. I’ve been to hot cities like Dar es Salaam and Kisumu, recently, but there isn’t a place as hot as Turkana – trust me! The weather goes up from about 35 to more than 40 degrees. The heat and humidity even makes your senses operate slower. By the third day, I find myself tying a shuka across my body back in the hotel contemplating if I should walk bare-chested the next day. I really suffer the heat because I didn’t pack light in fear of looking indecent, little did I research on this culture. But now I know 😉
On my second day, I already feel like I’ve been here long or that days are so long and basic. I can’t figure out what day of the week it is. It hits me that I never felt or saw any sort of commemoration for Kenya’s Heroes’ Day, yesterday. This place doesn’t feel like shagz, it just feels neglected and far from the rest of the Kenyan think tank … But for some like FoLT, this is home.
In continuation of the series: To Turkana and Back read:
BONUS: You might dig my 2010 blog post on my Samburu Safari, where my folks used to live about 34 years ago.