Lake Turkana Cultural Festival 2016

The Samburu warriors rise up, proudly sporting colourful headdresses with ostrich feathers fluttering majestically in the wind, and stride forward in a line. The drumbeats start and the shrill background song of the women begins. The men begin their dance, replete with the jumps and head movements unique to their traditions. The other communities look on from the audience, awaiting their turn to show off their moves.

The Lake Turkana Cultural Festival started in 2008 in Loiyangalani to bring together the various northern Kenyan tribes that live on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana. The annual event aims to foster peace through cross-cultural interaction and appreciation. There were 14 ethnic communities represented this year: El Molo, Rendille, Samburu, Turkana, Dassanatch, Gabra, Borana, Konso, Sakuye, Garee, Waata, Burji and Somali. Travellers from far and wide, local and foreign, make their way to Loiyangalani for this special event. From 19-21 May 2016, the festival ran a lively program complete with boat races, running races, football, fashion show, cultural dances, exhibition of cultural food and medicine, stalls, musical performances, and of course, speeches by politicians.

The rough terrain of northern Kenya
The rough terrain of northern Kenya
Narissa Allibhai

Marsabit County lies in the stark and magnificent Chalbi desert. The harsh brown terrain expands for miles, sprinkled with acacia trees and other thorny vegetation equipped to survive the heat and dryness. The dry landscape with the occasional elephant or camel herd seems endless, when suddenly a bright blue glimmer emerges in the horizon. It grows bigger and bigger until there’s no question about its existence and you are faced with the raw beauty of the “Jade Sea,” the largest desert lake in the world.

Beautiful Lake Turkana
Beautiful Lake Turkana
Narissa Allibhai

The bright blue colour is as a result of algae particles, so the lake wears different robes depending on time, place and wind. Lake Turkana contains three World Heritage Sites: Sibiloi National Park, one of the world’s most important archaeological sites with fossil remains that have contributed greatly to understanding human evolution; South Island, a haven and migration spot for many bird species; and Central Island with its three crater lakes – Crocodile Lake, Flamingo Lake and Tilapia Lake.

El Molo shrines. In order from left to right, people pray at a particular shrine for 1) Fish, 2) Rain, 3) Strength to kill a hippo,, and 4) Fertility
El Molo shrines. In order from left to right, people pray at a particular shrine for 1) Fish, 2) Rain, 3) Strength to kill a hippo, and 4) Fertility
Narissa Allibhai

The festival was a great coming together of people with bright and diverse cultures. In one session, the audience learned about the significance of various articles of clothing, jewellery and adornments. We visited an El Molo village, where we chatted to members of Kenya’s smallest ethnic group, and visited the island with their shrines.

The dance performances and night party were especially fun, as we all let our hair loose to the range of music styles. My two most special experiences: 1) The Nile perch fish stew from Lake Turkana is the best fish I have ever tasted, and 2) Nothing beats dipping into the azure waters of the magical sea in the middle of the desert.

The Dark Secrets of the Festival

The marginalized communities living around Lake Turkana face many severe difficulties that do not get resolved despite the bright spotlight on their cultures once every year. Unfulfilled promises are no stranger to isolated communities. “They built a hospital here, see? But there are no doctors! We have to pay 1000/- to take a boda [motorbike] to the Missionary Hospital in Loiyangalani, and pay again there,” explained one young man from the El Molo village. These amounts of money are not easy to raise when you live here. 

Hydrological projections showing a drastically shrinking Lake Turkana under different irrigation scenarios
Hydrological projections showing a drastically shrinking Lake Turkana under different irrigation scenarios
Avery, S.T, 2010, p. 2-37, based on hydrographic survey data from Hopson et al., 1982

Most ominous perhaps is the looming Gibe 3 mega-dam that is numbering the days of Lake Turkana and the communities that depend on it for survival. Lake Turkana gets 90% of its water from Ethiopia's Omo River. Construction of the Gibe 3 hydropower dam was completed last year and the reservoir started filling, significantly reducing the flow of the Omo River.

The most dire impacts will come from the huge tracts of irrigated plantations planned in the Omo Valley that will be irrigated by Gibe 3, 4 and 5. These include foreign-owned cotton plantations and an immense sugar scheme by the Ethiopian government whose area will approximately equal all of Kenya’s currently irrigated land! Draining the Omo River to feed thousands of hectares of water-thirsty crops will destroy the world’s largest desert lake along with much of the life depending on it.

Bandera Longotok, a resident of the El Molo village, described how fish catch has been reducing over the years. “We used to catch 100 fish a day but now we get two or three,” he says. (There is ongoing research into the causes of reduced fish catch.) He asked the government to “stop the dams because if you don’t, we are the ones to suffer.”

It was interesting to hear seemingly contradictory comments from both Bandera and Mamo Isaac, the Marsabit County Executive. Bandera said “if the dams go through, the water will reduce, the fish catch will reduce, and we will have to keep moving and following the lake up to Ethiopia  - and we will go eat the food they are producing on those farms!” Whereas Mamo explained that “as the river delta recedes permanently into the Kenya side, Ethiopian settlements will move south.” Their statements taken together basically mean that as the lake shrinks, the various communities dependent on the lake will follow their diminishing source of life, until they end up fighting over the same waters.

Resource conflict is common in northwestern Kenya, a harsh environment with one lifeline. The Lake Turkana Cultural Festival is an annual event geared towards peace and reconciliation. But if the lifeline is taken away, there will be no festival, no peace and, to quote another local resident of Turkana, “no life.” As Mamo pleaded, “This is an international matter that the government needs to address urgently!”

If you would like to join or support the #SaveLakeTurkana Movement, find them on Facebook, Twitter (@OurLakeTurkana) or email (savelaketurkana@gmail.com).

Date: 
Tuesday, June 28, 2016