, TURKANA, Kenya, Jul 7 – Had it not been for the tyre tracks, I would have sworn that I was the first person to step on that hot dusty terrain.
Then out of the blazing heat emerged a group of lanky, dark skinned, and graceful people; quiet and dusty; my first encounter with the Turkana.
There are just over 340,000 Turkana people in the Kenya, and on Sunday morning about 15 to 20 of them danced for us as we drove into the Daaba Primary School compound. The atmosphere was packed with heat and dust, and the smell of ghee – which they use to oil their heads – was unmistakable in the putrid hot air. Did I say it was hot?
I was sneering unconsciously (because of the smell) as they sang for us… “Welcome dear visitors who put us on the map. With this new visit, we are happy that you will be able to tell others more about us…,” according to the School Principal that was the gist of their welcome chant.
Everyone was smiling. Their joy at seeing us, for whatever reason, was genuine. They huddled around us unbothered by the weather and it made me wonder whether they ever got sun-burnt or got an endless runny nose because of all the dust. Try not to wear white when you go there.
The men – all elderly – sat to our left, while the women and children sat to our right, a little farther. The men who did not get space on the tiny wooden benches arranged there in our honour, sat on tiny little wooden stools locally known as ekicholongs. I later found out that they use the same to rest their heads, away from the hot dust and thorns on the ground.
Members of the Turkana community are usually regarded as very backward, but that is not the picture I got when I visited. We (the media) had gone with members of the 15s national rugby team to paint classrooms in the tiny school which goes up to class five – courtesy of the Sarova Shaba Game Lodge.
The lodge has taken the school under their CSR wing and apart from often giving them food and water, the hotel has helped the school set up a borehole and usually chips in to assist the school structure, which is responsible for educating more than 180 Turkana children.
Charles Lokosio, the School Principal, started educating Turkana children single-handedly about four years ago under one of the many acacia trees in the area. Soon, with help from the government and several private donors, he managed to set up a few wooden classrooms and just recently built toilets with the CDF fund.
“We are lucky to get help also through the school feeding programme. If there is no food, no one comes to school. But if there is, all the parents send their children here,” he told me.
Mr Lokosio says the children are fed ugali and lentils or wheat-meal and peas at lunch time, and for many it is their only meal of the day.
As we sat and he read his gratitude to us for being there, children were called to sing and dance for us. It was beautiful. Their songs are high-pitched and consist of a solo chant before a chorus joins in. I had no idea what they were saying but it was captivating to watch their dance moves. This is the first time I saw children dancing in unison! There was no odd child who forgot the words or dance step.
Sarova had brought gifts for the top students in each class, and it was impressive to see that three of them were girls!
“This area has Samburu, Borana and Turkana people. But the Turkana are most willing to let their girls get an education,” Sarova Shaba Lodge Manager Jayne Nguatah stated to me.
“It was not easy,” says Mr Lokosio. “But after some time the elders came round to the idea. And at least now it is not that often for girls to get married at the age of 12. They (girls) do well here in school.”
Mr Lokosio says that at least with an education, the children will be able to enrich their lives and look forward to a better future. He has three teachers, two from the Teachers’ Service Commission, and between them and the children, Daaba Primary School looks destined for greater heights.