The Turkana are the largest of the seven ethnic groups that make up the so-called ‘Karamajong Cluster’. This cluster includes the Karamajong, Jie, Teso, Dodos and Donyiro in Uganda and the Toposa of Sudan.
The actual name ‘Turkana’ is something of a mystery. The most commonly ascribed meaning being a corruption of ‘turkwen’, which means ‘cave people’, or ‘aturkan’ which means ‘cave land’.
As there are no caves in present-day Turkana-land (at least east of the Ugandan border), the Turkana must have migrated from elsewhere. This much is certain, as each of the 19 sections of the Turkana agrees that their recent origins lie to the west of their current homeland.
The story, carried down from mouth to mouth for many centuries, goes something like this:
A long time ago, the common ancestors of the Turkana, the Jie and all the other ‘Karamajong’ tribes lived in a place called Apuli, in southern Sudan or Ethiopia. Some 300 to 500 years ago, they began to migrate southwards to their present homeland in the far northeast of Uganda.
After a while, a group of young men from the Jie section of the Karamajong moved eastwards into the Tarach Valley (west/northwest of Lodwar in Kenya) in search of a wayward ox. They wandered far from their people and finally met a solitary old Jie woman called Nayece gathering fruit. Nayece led the young warriors into a lush and verdant valley, unoccupied by people, which was rich in wild berries which still form an important part of the Turkana diet.
Nayece also gave the men fire and taught them how to cook. Impressed with the area, the men talked other young people into joining them. Together they moved in with their livestock. Nayece divided the men into territorial sections (the basis of Turkana society today), and became the mother-heroine of the Turkana. Ever since the Turkana and Jie have been allies.
Historically, this story is not disputed. The Turkana, and most historians, accept that they broke with the Jie around the middle of the 18th century. Probably during extreme drought. They then migrated eastwards over the Dodoth Escarpment in northeastern Uganda and into Kenya following the Tarach (or Tarac) river.
Their ‘cave land’ (aturkan) may well have been a hill called Moru a Nayece. Successive migrations from the north may also have triggered livestock overcrowding. Judging by the present climate, this would have led to protracted feuding and fighting between the various Karamajong groups. Once in Kenya, the seasonal Turkwel and Kagwalasi (or Nakwehe) river valleys would have aided rapid dispersal into present-day Turkana county.
It is generally accepted that at least two separate migrations into Kenya took place. Most probably in the form of successive sweeps. An oral history backs this up. Some 200 to 300 years ago, the Turkana started to move southward towards the Kagwalassi and Turkwel. The two rivers flow into Lake Turkana, where the episode with the wayward ox in the Tarach Valley occurred.
The Turkana themselves make a distinction between two sections. An agriculturalist section named Ngicuro, who live in the western highlands on the Ugandan border. This section came from the Teso people. The remaining 18 pastoralist sections called Ngimonia came from the Jie.
What is important to note is that the Turkana are indisputably related to the Karamajong tribes. They keep a number of their traditions to the present day, such as not circumcising. It is also true that they originally came from the north in what is now Southern Sudan or Ethiopia.
This southward-moving pattern is familiar throughout Kenya among Nilotic and Cushitic tribes. It also is among the Bantu of central Kenya and the Mijikenda of the coast. This would seem to reflect the increasing aridity of the northern tropics, which is the same mechanism by which the Sahara expanded and still continues to expand, pushing its original inhabitants outwards like foam on the edge of a wave.