Lake Turkana is often referred to as a living museum of human culture. It is true to say that the sheer remoteness of this inland sea has sheltered its people from outside influence, and that cultures here are more pure and unadulterated than in other parts of Kenya.
The dominant culture here is undoubtedly the people for whom the lake is named, the Turkana. The Turkana are a fascinating culture, whose roots lie not in Kenya, but among the Karamajong of Northern Uganda and South Sudan.They migrated to the lake around 250 years ago, for reasons unknown. According to Turkana mythology, the tribe were chasing a wayward bull.
To most visitors to the Lake this looks like the most inhospitable country on earth, with baking fields of lava surrounding crocodile infested waters. But the Turkana are supreme survivors, known throughout Kenya for their survival skills, physical strength and aggressive opportunism.
The Turkana have spread throughout this region and proved to be able to thrive under the most adverse conditions. they keep cattle and have some basic forms of architecture, but have also long depended on hunting and gathering. Fish, crocodiles, and other wildlife including lizards and snakes are the traditional diet.
The Turkana do not have as many complex customs as some of Kenya's other nomadic cultures. The central principle of their culture is a generational clan system, with two clans - Leopard and Stone. If a man is born a Leopard, then his son will be a Stone, and his son a Leopard, and so on.
This clan system has a traditional base in the formation of cattle raiding parties.
Despite the difficult conditions in which they live, the Turkana have a highly developed sense of the aesthetic. They produce a great deal of jewelry and articles of physical adornment. Turkana women traditionally wear their hair in a mohawk, while the men grow their high and pile it on top of their heads in an individual style passed on from father to son. They then decorate it with blue clay and feathers.
Turkana men also traditionally took pride in skills of combat, and produced a wide range of inventive weaponry, including spiked clubs, wrist and finger knives. The Turkana are generally excellent craftsmen, skilled in metalwork, leathermaking, beading and carving of wood, stone, bone and horn.
The Turkana share this region with small populations of Samburu, Rendille, and Gabbra (see the Desert section)
On the southern shores of the lake live Kenya's smallest tribe, the El Molo.
The El Molo are some of Kenya's last remaining true hunter gatherers. They survive almost entirely on fishing, using nets made from a local doum palm fibre and simple log canoes. El Molo villages consist of small rounded huts made from dried lake weed and anchored with stones. The El Molo are locally regarded as gifted weavers of basketry and nets.
Modern medicine has recently caused growth in El Molo population, although intermarriage has meant that the tribe is increasingly becoming absorbed by the Turkana, and the Samburu, whose language they have adopted.
This remarkable area was first explored in 1888 by Teleki and Von Honel, who made the epic crossing of the deserts and laval plains, naming the great lake "Rudolf" after their Archduke and the patron of their expedition. The name Turkana was adopted during the 1970's.
Turkana has remained an enigmatic destination for adventurers and modern day explorers, one of the planet's last great remote wilderness areas.
Most visitors to the lake will encounter both Turkana and Samburu people, and at the South West shore El Molo. Exploring on foot is a good way to meet local people. Visiting a village requires a good measure of respect for local traditions, and a knowledgeable guide is reccommended.