It is Thursday, November 24th. Hundreds throng the Loiyangalani Cultural Center in the small town of Loiyangalani to mark the thirteenth edition of the Marsabit-Lake Turkana Cultural Festival. The last one, the twelfth, had happened just before COVID-19 hit the country hard.
On this day, I find Safina Karoro, herself Rendille, sitting outside a model homestead of her community. She insists I should add the name Loiyangalani, so Rendille Loiyangalani. Her eyes narrow to slits, trailing me in a mix of anticipation and anxiety as I shorten the distance between us, walking in her direction. It should be an exciting day for her and her community. The day, they get the rare opportunity to share their rich cultural diversity with the rest of the world.
It occurs to me that very little of this festival amuses her. “It should be our day, especially because we founded this event, but instead, they have kicked us out and let you in,” she observes, sadness written all over her aged face. She is one of the early founders of the original Loiyangalani called Msaretu, which means togetherness.
In those early days, Msaretu operated like a small self-help group comprising the Borana El-molo, Turkana, Rendille, and Samburu. “We would convene to celebrate our heritage and sell our handicrafts,” she reminisces. Indeed, Makwekwe, an up-and-coming Kenyan Hip-hop artist from the endangered El Molo community, echoes Safina’s sentiments.
“They have pushed us to the peripheries while they shine at our event,” he laments. Makwekwe headlined a short documentary called “Until the Last Drop“, highlighting Lake Turkana’s significance to the indigenous northern people of Kenya. The Green Screen, Europe’s largest annual wildlife film festival, nominated it as the best short film.
Many communities feel the festival’s spirit has departed as consumerism takes centre stage. But many also feel Msaretu, which means togetherness, still lives on in the gathering of the communities at Loiyangalani. That is why they show up every year. Danny B, a young, budding Turkana musician, sees it as the glue that keeps the communities together through music, dance, culture and tradition. “Our local leaders need to go beyond the festival to promote upcoming artistic talent, he says. “That way, the festival makes sense to the next generation of its custodians,” he adds.
However you slice it, the Marsabit-Lake Turkana Cultural Festival remains a big deal in the Kenyan tourism calendar. It attracts local and international tourists worldwide, and President Ruto graced this year’s event. The agenda should now be how the town can build on the event’s popularity to grow a vibrant tourism offering that keeps attracting visitors long after the curtains come down on one of Kenya’s most significant cultural events.