LOYINGALANI: The Lake Turkana Festival

It took us two days of driving to get to Lake Turkana. We got there Thursday evening. I remember feeling excited when I first saw the lake. The sun was just setting and the green hue, that gets the lake its famous name the jaded lake, was very clear to see.

The camp site where we stayed was far from the activities of the lake Turkana festival. At first it seemed like such a bother, having to walk for about ten minutes to get there but now I think of it, it was better. It was easier to sleep and experience the beauty of Loyingalani town far from the noise the festival created.

The camp site never had any electricity. This was another good thing. The lack of bright electric lamps made it possible to clearly see stars. They were really bright in the sky and it was wonderful to see the two arms of the milky way. I made sure to star gaze every night.

To attend the festival in Turkana, I had made a quick decision to come along with a neighbor, Hardy, who was taking a trip there. Hardy was annoyed because he needed to charge his laptop and start working. Unlike me, he had come for the festival as a working trip.

Hardy is a photographer from Germany who has been visiting and photographing Kenya since the late 80’s. He got the idea to contribute towards 50 years of Kenya by creating the 50 treasures trust. A resource center for information about known and unknown tourist sites in Kenya.

He was attending the festival as part of documenting and talking to various village elders who would be interested with the work he was doing with the 50 treasures trust.

Seeing the trouble Hardy and his team had to go through made me thankful I did not have to work.

When we got to the camp, we decided to shower first. We were very dusty from the drive North from Maralal. You could see Ali, one of the members of the 50 treasures team, running around trying to make sure everybody was comfortable. The camp was supposed to have solar lighting but it had not yet been set up.

The following day was not very pleasant. I had yet to acclimatize to the heat in Loyingalani when I had a ladies accident on my way to the El Molo village. I remember being stuck in the loo trying to decide what I should do. I decided to continue with the voyage. It was a bad idea due to the hot weather. I was dizzy and uncomfortable the whole time we made the visit to the village.

Apart from the bodily discomfort I was experiencing from the heat, I found the visit to the village disturbing.

I felt as if the visit was more of a lorry full of tourists invading a village. The El Molo are the smallest community living in Kenya. There are about 140 of them alive and their language and culture will disappear soon. We were visiting the village to experience the culture before it dies and as a way to preserve it. However I got a strong feeling during our visit that what we were doing was no better than visiting animals in the zoo.

The tour guide was hardly communicative about the community and our role in the visit. He hardly shared any information about the culture and the people we were meeting and neither did we interact much with the villagers apart from buying their jewelry.

The El Molo village is quite small. As soon as we disembarked from the tour track, I and a few other visitors walked to the lake where a few villagers seemed to be waiting for us. Many of the visitors were journalists. Some started scribbling on their note pads as soon as we got there.

Other people choose not to follow the tour guide. Some photographers went to the lake for the best shots of the village and the lake while the “real tourists” headed to the market and bought jewelery at what I felt were exorbitant prices.

The tour guide told us about difficulties the people living there had to endure. The villagers have to drink water from the lake Turkana. The lake has minerals that make bones in the body weak and that is why many of the El Molo we met had brown teeth and bow legs. They needed for a bore hole to access healthier drinking water.

He said many other things about their difficulties such as lack education and the need for schools and hospitals. To be honest I stopped listening. I found it embarrassing and unnecessary that we should start with a list of negatives about the village.

Many of the people doing the visit were foreigners and I felt we always talk about our problems when we see foreigners as a way of gathering their pity and getting aid money.

There was an American lady in the group who kept asking the guide pointed questions. He seemed not to understand her or he did not have the answers for her questions. He would revert back to the story he had by listing the problems the community was going through.

As far as I could tell, tour guide never knew much about the village. You could see some people sensing this and asking him hard questions. The chief of the area stood right behind the guide and kept to tell him what to say. The guide was getting annoyed and embarrassed with how things we turning out.

I noticed this and started feeling embarrassed as a Kenyan. It was even worse when I realized the chief was slightly drunk.

After a while I decided to move away from the group to see if I could find a way to enjoy being in the village. I also wanted to discover why there was much concern about the tribe going extinct and what we had to lose as a country.

I walked away from the group and stood by the lake for a while. I was trying to understand what my contribution to all this was. I would have loved to make friends with someone and learn more about this village. Or to meet a man who had gone hippo hunting and listen his story.

I decided to visit the local school and hang out with children since kids tend to be honest. I sat there and watched the children. They seemed excited we were visiting. Some ladies took photos of them. I asked a girl to sing me a song and before I knew it, all the little children around were singing and playing. This was a pleasant surprise.

Finally everybody started converging at the school attracted by the singing children. I liked the classroom. It was a round thatched shade with a few seats. I liked it because it helped me escape the heat. I also felt it is more enjoyable to learn under a structure that did not completely close one within it.

More people came and started asking the kids their names. One little girl said she is called Njeri. The tour guide was there and he nervously explained about inter-marriage in the area. This seemed to contradict the stories of a dying tribe that he had been telling by the lake.

After we left the village and got back to camp, I rushed back to shower and hang out with Karin, another 50 treasures team member, who was sick. She had had stomach problems the whole night and morning. I think the climate and other changes one is forced to endure in Turkana had affected her.

Turkana has some harsh aspects. I discovered this for myself when I went to the loo and flies invaded my nether regions.

It was nice hanging out with Karin. I went to sleep in the afternoon. It really helped. I felt better when I got up later and it was not so hot.

Karin also shared her food with me for lunch. It was very nice. Much better than what we had had for breakfast.  When the sun set, we had supper under the stars at our camp site. The sky was ablaze with stars. I looked at the arms of the milky way and thought how they looked like a y chromosome.

Early Saturday morning, Hardy, Ali and I got up to go see the rock art near Loyingalani. I was very excited and kept asking what it looked like. Neither Hardy nor Ali could quite explain. The ride to the place was very beautiful. The festival track left us behind when we got late, so we decided to hike to the hills. As we were walking, a man in a pick up drove by and gave us a ride on the back. It was a very enjoyable trip. I could see the lake in the distance and feel the wind cooling my skin.

I was happy things had turned out so well since it was my lateness that made us get left behind.

On the way to the rock art we saw a huge opening in the middle of the rocks. There were two or three lone trees in the middle. Hardy explained that it is where all tribes in the area- the Samburu, the Galla, the Pokot and the Turkana come to conduct their religious ceremonies. I thought I felt the presence of all the holy rites that had been conducted there.

We found other people who had come with the festival trucks and started climbing up the rocks. It seemed like many people found the rock art disappointing.’ Just a few giraffe paintings here and there,’ someone said.

The guide was far ahead and it was hard to hear what he was saying. On your own the rock art does not look like much, but I am sure with a proper guide, and a smaller group the mundane drawings would come to life with meaning.

I would have loved to know how they made the etchings on the rock. Who they think did the art and what it really represented.

It was a nice walk in the morning and I personally enjoyed looking at the rock art.

After we got back I felt the need to enjoy better food than what I had enjoyed so far. I decided to visit the palm shade hotel, where most guests of the festival were staying.

Everyone in the team was there. Karin had recovered and was in high spirits. The food however took forever to prepare and everyone decided to visit the El Molo village again. Hardy had told Mary, another 50 treasures member, to stick behind and talk to people but she followed them all the same. I did not feel the need to visit the village again.

I made friends with a journalist who was looking for intersting stories about the area. After having brunch we went looking for a fisherman who could show him how to use a harpoon for fishing. The journalist told me that he needed it for his assignment. I decided to join him as it would provide me an opportunity to go swimming in the lake. I swam in the lake twice on that day. The first time we just went to hang out and take photos of the lake. The second time was when my journalist friend was being shown how to use the harpoon.

As the lessons on harpoon fishing were going on, I went with another fisherman into the lake on his rafter. Unfortunately he was more interested in making money more than giving me a good experience. He kept complaining about the money we offered. It was a good thing I got the experience when I did. Later on I heard horrifying stories about man eating crocodiles.

I also collected shells from the beach on the lake and took them back home to decorate my house.

After I got back from the lake, I heard all these wonderful stories about the dances that had happened in the afternoon. I felt sad to have missed them. Karin was very excited. I then made a point to attend the evening party so I would not miss any more dances. Eric Wainaina, a famous Kenyan musician would also be performing.

The afternoon swiftly passed on. There was excitement in the air about the concert. I went back to palm shade and enjoyed a wonderful meal. When it was about 8 pm we got a ride to the concert.Two oher men going the same direction joined us.

They were brothers, Robert and Richard. Richard has written extensively about traveling in Kenya while his brother is a jack of all trades. I found both of them quite humorous and immensely enjoyed their company.

Robert told me he had just recovered from using drugs- marijuana, heroin, cocaine and alcohol. He told me of all those the most destructive is alcohol. He was pleasant and very refreshing to hang out with. Mostly because I never meet people who are so open about their failures with life.

After that, we- Robert, Richard and I walked back together as I listened to their stories. I especially enjoyed listening to Richard tell me about interesting places he had visited. He told me about a wonderful camp site called Desert Rose where you have to drive up a steep rock.

We ended up staying up till 2 am. Hardy joined us and we walked back to camp together. It was a good thing I knew my way around my by now. There are no street lights in Loyingalani and we got lost in the dark a few times.

The following day, on Sunday, we took a truck to go watch the boat racing and the swimming competitions. It was not very enjoyable. Most people had left and there was less excitement. However, I found it fascinating to see Plastic chairs arranged on the shore and people sitting under the extremely hot sun.

After coming back from the race, Hardy told us he wanted to visit the museum. I asked to join in since I had also missed a very nice lecture the previous day. It turns out it was a nyama plan.  I made new friends Grace, Ikal and Makambo who is a curator at the museum.

I got another chance to swim in the lake. I got to drink a bottle of vodka I had brought along as I ate nyama choma. We then planted trees at night on our way back. It was hilarious. And very enjoyable.

Ikal is an environmentalist. She has a foundation known as the Friends of Lake Turkana. She won an award for her work there. She is campaigning to have a dam in the Omo River in Ethiopia stopped because it will drastically reduce the water levels on lake Turkana  She had just won the Goldman environmental prize which Wangari Maathai won in 1991.

Afterwards we all went to palm shade to hang out with more friends. As I was there, I realized that Hardy and the team planned on leaving the following morning.

I was sad because I felt I had only begun to experience Loyingalani without the festival. And I had not yet bought anything to remind me of my visit. I was not yet ready to leave, I started looking for people who were staying one more day. Many people found it hilarious that I wanted to stay a few days more.


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