Toposa and Turkana

Toposa and Turkana live in the Kenya-South Sudan border region.

© Martina Dempf

The aerial view shows how the country is barren and arid. Only where water runs in the rainy season, some sparse vegetation can be found. The Toposa enjoy some more forest.

Origins, similarities and differences

Toposa and Turkana are part of an ethnic cluster which has never given itself a distinctive name and which today is mainly known as the Ateker. Some centuries ago and over a prolonged period their ancestors migrated into the north-eastern part of what now is called Uganda. Two to three centuries ago splinter groups migrated to new grazing and settlement areas, mingled with existing people there and became the forefathers of the present Toposa and Turkana. Both ethnic groups speak the same language, with some idiomatic differences, they share a similar socio-political system, they intermarry, and they co-operate and fight in turn as climate, political situations and other setups change. There is a difference in climate and landscape between both groups, as the Turkana suffer from a substantially harsher environment. Thus, the Toposa can do more systematic field farming, whereas the Turkana are restrained to some opportunistic small-scale farming in dry riverbeds and water-collecting depressions, and because of the higher aridness they have replaced cows by camels. Until the end of last century the Toposa were politically more or less left on their own, as the Khartoum Government was far away. Since South Sudan is independent, this has changed, but without few noticeable impacts up to now. The Turkana, on the other hand, have been confronted since the 80s of last century with a modern world, including churches, development interventions, food aid and other state and NGO driven activities, resulting in the urban and quasi-urban sector being more and more developing. While the Toposa are still for almost 100% pastoralists, the situation among the Turkana has drastically changed. There are no reliable figures, but it can be assumed that only one third of the Turkana are still pastoralists, one third may be townees, and the rest is somewhere in-between.

  

Climate and economy

Dry seasons with temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius and almost no rain, and rainy seasons when the anyway sparse rain pours down in torrents and washes away everything – this is Toposa and Turkana country. Apart from the oil found recently in Turkana, there is no industry or manufacturing sector. Thus, the traditional means of subsistence and income has always been animal husbandry with cattle, camels, sheep and goats, and donkeys for transport. Wherever possible – more likely among the Toposa – some subsistence farming is done, mainly with sorghum. This, however, is a rather arduous enterprise, as rainfall is erratic – is even becoming more and more erratic – and thus yields are small and particularly unpredictable. Animals are the solution to the problem. Being a herder here is a highly qualified profession, as it needs specialised skills and an intricate herding management to get animals and people through dry seasons and even droughts. While the young men then have to move their herds to far-away areas where water and pasture is still available, the core family with older people and children would remain at home, at their ancestral place. Toposa and Turkana are not nomads in the normal sense, but they practice what experts call transhumant pasture management – alpine farmers using high pastures do the same in Europe until today.

© Martina Dempf

Toposa

© Martina Dempf

© Harald Müller-Dempf

Toposa

© Harald Müller- Dempf

Turkana

© Martina Dempf

© Martina Dempf

Turkana

Division of labour

Consequently there is a clear-cut division of labour: The young men are responsible for the animals, and as the area is unsecure with frequent violent animal raids between neighbouring groups, they are also warriors. Their former weapons like spears and swords have nowadays been replaced by automatic guns. Women take care of the houses and the family, and the elders sit under the meeting tree, where they exchange information on good and accessible pasture, on the security situation etc. and they do politics.

  

Networks

Toposa and Turkana are comparatively egalitarian societies, without fixed and inheritable power structures. This does not mean an absence of power and economic inequality, but there are strong regulatory mechanisms. A rich man may own a big herd, but proper herding is a high-risk business. Management decisions how and where to move a herd may have far-reaching consequences, and droughts and animal epidemics may turn a rich man very quickly into a poor man. The only viable strategy to overcome these obstacles is a sophisticated network with relatives and friends, connected with exchange, loan or donation of animals. Toposa and Turkana are veritable network champions. This implies a man’s kind behaviour with due caution and care towards actual and potential network members. This also applies to the relationship to women, who we came to know as proud and self-confident. Yet, as often in this world, the women take care of the house and the family, and they leave politics to the men.

 

Animals

Animals, being traditionally the lifeline of Toposa and Turkana, are not surprisingly also their emotional and social focus. There is no marriage and no friendship without transfer of animals, no ritual without an animal sacrifice, no celebration and festivity without ritual slaughter of animals. When a young herder grows up, he will at a certain point in time get an animal from his mentor, a friend of his father. He treats this animal like his Alter Ego, composes praise songs about it and parades it in front of the girls. A life without animals is not imaginable. And thus it is no surprise that people in town, even when they have left behind the traditional way of life, invest their earned money in animals, which they have tended by their relatives in the countryside.

  

Power and socio-political structure

It has already been mentioned that power cannot be inherited. But as in every society also here social structure and power exists, even though only temporarily for individuals. Toposa and Turkana have a genealogically inspired social organisation of male generation- and age-sets – women are adjusted to the position of their husbands. The basic principle is easy: grandfathers have ritual power, fathers are the rulers, the young men are the herders and warriors, and the children wait for their access to the system by initiation. This sounds simple, is actually, however, quite complicated – see my papers – and cannot be discussed here in detail. What is important, however, is that the power of the “fathers of the country” as they are sometimes termed, is only temporary, as in certain intervals the power is shifted. Children become Warriors, Warriors become Fathers, and Fathers become Grandfathers.

 

There is a considerable spread of ages within each generation-set, and therefore each generation-set is sub-divided into age-sets of similar age. Age-sets come into existence especially in the dry-season cattle camps, their members have a strong shared identity, and they act generally as a group. Especially among the Toposa there are impressive generation-set festivals. On these occasions the generation of Fathers demonstrates that they are still numerous, powerful and strong enough to rule the country. Or the Sons want to show that they are already numerous, powerful and strong enough to take over the power from the Fathers – the moment of transition is not fixed and must be negotiated.

© Martina Dempf

Toposa: Generationsklassenfest

© Martina Dempf

Toposa: Generationsklassenfest

The supernatural

The missionaries who since the 20s of last century have been  trying to impose their world view on the Toposa und Turkana, must have overlooked or ignored that the people here had already since long developed their own original spiritual concept. There is a High God called Nyakuj (in Turkana Akuj) who is less of a personalized God, but rather the idea of a power which is the driving force behind all matters. There is a marked ancestor cult, and the world is populated by friendly and by vicious invisible beings. It is especially the ancestors who have to be comforted with a sacrifice in regular intervals, as otherwise they may feel neglected and cause trouble and calamity. Sacrifices consist of animals whose major part is eaten by the participants of the sacrifice, and as normally animals are rarely killed for consumption, the spiritual and the practical side are equally addressed. The spiritual sphere has only its appropriate space, as there is an overall pragmatism in all areas.

 

Material culture

People in harsh and inhospitable environments tend to compensate this with adornment and colorful clothing. So do the Toposa und Turkana. This shows especially on festive occasions.

© Martina Dempf

Toposa

© Harald Müller-Dempf

Turkana

© Harald Müller-Dempf

Toposa

© Martina Dempf

Turkana

Glass beads play a predominant role in this. The Turkana women have carried the finery to extremes, and their gorgeous and impressivly high bead collars have become somehow the Turkana brand, even and in particular in modern Kenya.

 

Town life

There is little town life in the Toposa area. Kapoeta, the administrative centre of the Toposa, is the only urban-like place and still more a village than a town. Lodwar, on the other hand, the capital of Turkana County, has developed into a veritable small town, with tarmac roads, traffic, banks, supermarkets and everything belonging to a micropolis. For details, please, have a look at my films.