The end of the world: the desperation of Lake Turkana

I’ve just come back to Nairobi after two weeks traveling around the western and northern parts of the country: Kakamega Rainforest over New Years Eve, then a stop over in Eldoret before heading to Maralal via Marigat and around Lake Baringo. From Maralal, a small, one-camel, frontier town (but not altogether unpleasant as far as remote African towns go) I’ve started the slow approach to Lake Turkana, A.K.A. the Sea of Jade, the prize at the end of a difficult and dusty road. 

I’ve stayed two days in Loyangalani, a settlement made almost entirely of palm-tree-leaf huts plus a couple of basic shops and restaurants, a handful of run-down guest houses, and a big mission, before catching a lift on a southbound  goods truck.

El Molo village

Only two days were not enough to explore the harsh, terribly dry, yet utterly and dramatically beautiful region around the lake. And neither were they enough to get fully acquainted to the general feel of desperation that pervades every street, every household, every soul, which is the desperation of not being able to feed oneself on a regular basis, the bitterness of going hungry in a country of plenty, the knowledge that if the rains fail again, as they did this last December, the problems will be maybe to big to endure.          

Turkana women and child
The Lake Turkana region has always been a hard one for human beings: a volcanic, soda lake that doesn’t provide fresh water, a landscape covered almost entirely of sand, rocks and pebbles, and only a few, skinny, far-apart trees, soil that is not made for agriculture, major distances to any other major settlement, and no public transport. 

Nonetheless people have been living here for thousands of years, and as part of the Great Rift Valley, it is here that humankind took its first steps, and the lake, even if not the idyllic body of water one can picture, has always provided its shore dwellers with the little they needed. For generations, this region has been home to several different, mainly pastoralist tribes: the Turkana, but also the Samburu, the El Molo (Kenya’s smallest tribe), and the Rendille, who now intermarry and live happily together. Sort of.

El Molo man outside his hut
And together they share this all-pervading desperation I’m talking about, a poverty that touched me like never before so far on my trip: it was everywhere, in people’s faces, in their tired eyes, in their thin and malnourished bodies. 
A desperation that managed at times to make me uncomfortable, as I felt I was constantly being weighed in every interaction I might have to see how much money could be milked from me…every single price I was quoted was inflated, I had to bargain all the time, even more often than usual, and check my change which was short more often than not. 

And yet I’ll remember Lake Turkana with a smile, and I am already longing to go back, once again lay on my back under the dark sky, a little breeze finally cooling down the air, lookat the bright stars and listen to the old but sweet voice of a Rendille grandmother telling stories from her past…and falling asleep feeling as if her words were coming directly from the stars above me.         


Pol | Tuesday, 18 January, 2011

Your experiences are fascinating and your photos are beautiful!

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