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Drought Threatens Turkana Way of Life in Kenya

  • Joe DeCapua

Kenya's Turkana region shows effects of severe drought affecting Horn of Africa (file photo)

Kenya's Turkana region shows effects of severe drought affecting Horn of Africa (file photo)

The Turkana region of Kenya is one of the areas hit hardest by drought in the Horn of Africa. A relief organization says while indigenous people are receiving emergency supplies to survive, their traditional way of life may be dying.

Livestock are at the heart of the Turkana culture. It’s been that way since ancient times. Pastoralists tend their animals in a region that was already dry and hot even before the severe drought took hold.

But the drought has changed their way of life, according to Don Golden of World relief, a Christian-based aid organization.

“That’s the story of an indigenous people group that has managed to resist dominance from the Brits and now from the Kenyans and to maintain their pastoral, nomadic, sort of, individualistic way of life. But through many factors, that way of life if fading. And so you have really the demise, not only of women and children in the immediate, but the whole culture. And aid is actually accelerating the process of demise for the Turkana,” he said.

No choice

He said it takes something drastic for the Turkana people to give up their pastoralist ways and move into settled communities.

“When their animals are dying and then their people start dying, and they see that one of the major aid agencies or the World Food Program is handing out food somewhere, they can give up - give up their whole way of life and basically just become beggars in these little IDP [internally displaced people] camps. And that’s unfortunately what we saw,” he said.

Young girl in Kenya's Turkana region.

Young girl in Kenya's Turkana region.

Golden said while emergency aid is needed now, action should be taken to find long-term solutions. Solutions that would allow the Turkana to better cope with drought.

“We could begin right away, looking at boreholes. We could begin looking at irrigation projects. There’s a range of things we could do. But absolutely we have to feed hungry mouths today,” he said.

Respecting a culture

World Relief is working with Kenyan churches to provide food assistance and health services. It’s also working to dig more boreholes, which cost about $20,000 apiece.

“To dig a borehole is to create a community. And will that be a community of disempowerment? Will it be a community that’s totally dependent? Or will you have involved the local community in that process? [Will you have] empowered them with solutions about how to integrate their livestock and elements of their nomadic lifestyle into a settled community?” he asked.

Golden said digging a borehole is not simply a matter of drilling for water. It’s also a matter of being sensitive to the culture of the Turkana.

“If you just think people need water and you dig a borehole and you end up creating in effect thousands of people gathering and waiting to be fed, then you’ve got another disaster. Your intervention into one disaster creates a second disaster. Whereas, what needs to happen is a careful conversation with the local leaders, our Kenyan church partners, on solutions that they have. Where would they put a well if they could dig one? How would they manage it? What role would their current livestock play in their community? Those are the kind of questions and it’s just so much more complex,” he said.

The World Relief official said if solutions are not found in Kenya’s Turkana region quickly, it could very well become a famine area like parts of Somalia.