Lake Turkana Melting Pot

Ethnic groups in the spectacular environments at the centre Great Rift Valley

The Great Rift Valley is the largest, longest and most conspicuous fissure in the Earth’s crust. It spans over 5,500km from Ethiopia to Mozambique and includes extraordinary landscapes that range from the saltpans of Dancalia to the Rwenzori Mountains, which reach heights of over 5000 metres. Lake Turkana in northern Kenya is one of the Rift’s most inhospitable yet spectacular environments.

Here, the lives of various nomadic tribes are entwined: the Turkana, the Samburu, the Rendille and the El Molo, an ethnic group of fishermen once considered Africa’s smallest tribe. Its population was so small, in fact, that it could be fit in a single photograph, which was exactly what occurred in 1959 with a group portrait that appeared in The Sunday Times. Since then, the El Molo have grown in number thanks to a series of mixed marriages that have saved the culture from extinction but have been to the detriment of some of its features, including the language, which has almost totally disappeared.

The Turkana, on the other hand, in spite of being the last to arrive on the shores of the lake that gave them their name, have assumed a dominant role. Nomadic herders by necessity, their territory is an expanse of jagged volcanic black rock covered partly by ash and sand where temperatures often exceed 50° and annual rainfall is less than 200mm. In order to survive, they are continuously on the move to seek out grass and water for their livestock with which they live in symbiosis. “In the Turkana language the highest number is 999 yet they have 700 different ways to say cow,” explains anthropologist Alberto Salza who lived amongst them for a long time. The droughts of recent decades have pushed the Turkana ever closer to the shores of the lake, where they come into close contact with populations with whom they traditionally had hostile relations.