A cool wind blows and raises some dust in the afternoon sun in this far flung town of Loiyangalani in one of Kenya’s remotest northern regions. The imposing mountains in the backdrop and the clear blue skies give an illusion of tranquillity.
But tranquillity is just an illusion here, since the surrounding villages suffer occasional of cattle raids and cases of banditry. But as they say here on the southeastern shores of Lake Turkana, life has to go on.
Loiyangalani in the Samburu language means a place where the weak seek refuge. This is why it is not only home for the seven communities living here, but also their sanctuary.
On any given day, the people of Loiyangalani would be going about their business — herding livestock, playing bao or attending to household chores unfazed by the intrusion of visitors who either drive or fly here.
But this afternoon, this small town which has has featured in several Hollywood productions — Ghost and the Darkness, White Maasai, The Air up There, Mogambo and The Constant Gardener — has an air of excitement about it. It is festival time. That is, the annual Loiyangalani Festival.
It is around 4pm but the temperatures have soared to 40 degrees centigrade. People are thronging the venue and some have already surrounded the centre stage.
The dignitaries most of whom have flown in from Nairobi have already taken their seats. Anytime, the festival will start.
Away from the centre stage is a blacksmith banda showing how communities here produce their traditional armoury and on the opposite end under a shed is a group of elders both from the Turkana and Samburu communities playing bao, a popular pastime game among the communities here.
In no time, the Samburu musicians majestically walk onto the centre stage, with a colourful blend of red, yellow and green attire and jewellery.
Tucked in the crowd, 25-year-old Samuel Loperito is trying to catch a glimpse of the Samburu dance troupe. Himself a Samburu, Loperito is full of praise for his culture saying it is one of the richest and has stood the test of time from Western influence.
“You see, that is what our culture is made of. This is a great song by my people. This is our culture and at least we now have the opportunity to show it to the world through this festival,” he says.
Clad in brown hide cloth and colourful head feather gear, ankle bells and a stick in their hand, the Samburu women sway to the rhythm of the song complementing the slight jumping of the of the men.
The dance is filled with some raw emotions, almost seductive, but not like that of the Gabbra that Rebecca Ntoyelai, a Samburu would say is as sexy as the ones seen among most Ethiopian communities.
Ntoleyai says unlike her Samburu community, the Gabbra’s dressing-usually in all white is quite outstanding. It is only at a time like this that young people like Loperito get to see a display of cultural dance from the neighbouring communities. The festival offers a rare coming together of cultures.
Even though intermarriage is common among the communities here, they hardly share songs and dances or even blacksmith’s wisdom.
In the crowd is Daya Yedan, drawn from the Gabbra yet he seems very fond of the Turkana dancers who took to the stage immediately after the Samburu dancers.
Yedan liked the Turkana song and dance so much he was swaying to it, and the mood was electric as two female Turkana dancers reached out for the local member of parliament Joseph Lekuton and Josephat Nanok of Turkana South from the VIP tent.
“They’re singing a song in praise of Lekotun thanking him for making the Turkana be recognised by the Samburu,” says Yedan.
Jane Lesas, 52, in the Turkana troupe says she liked the Rendille dancing particularly because of their circular movement. Though the organisation was somewhat poor and the master of ceremony not quite conversant with the programme, the festival was an eye-opener.
My colleague Mwenda wa Micheni who has been to the festival twice before told me that looking at the programme of the festival and watching it on NTV which broadcasted it live from the location, it was so far the best ever.
The fashion show, for example, was introduced this year and it was meant to celebrate the beautiful traditional attire that these communities have. It is not strikingly distinct in terms of design, but as the organisers would put it, it was meant to “just celebrate our culture.”
Started four years ago, the cultural festival has become a platform for the local communities to showcase their culture to the world. In fact, for most of the visitors it is the first time that they are coming face to face with these communities, most of whom they just know of from history journals.
This barren land in the sun-baked desert surrounding the jade waters of Lake Turkana is inhabited by the Turkana, Samburu, El Molo, Dassanach, Gabbra, Borana and Rendile.
The Turkana stand out for their hairstyle and their blend of colours. Their extremely dark complexion too stands out.
Hartmut Fiebig, an honorary ambassador for Tourism for Kenya, thinks the Turkana stand above the crowd as being the toughest in terms of their warfare tendencies and more typically aggressive lifestyle.
Most visitors I talked to concurred that the Turkana are real warriors and their neighbours fear them for putting up spirited fights in the battlefield.
On the second day of the festival, which is the climax of the festival, at least each of the communities had an opportunity to showcase a song and dance. The festival also involves visits to the El Molo village and shrines at El Molo Bay, a rough strip that extends several kilometres away from the lake.
The journey to the Orikara, Oriarpula, Origaltte and Orisole shrines on the island costs Ksh1,000 ($8) for the boat ride.
The El Molo make for an interesting tribe because as a result of intermarriage with the Samburu and Turkana and these days the Dassanach, their dialect has disappeared and 80-year-old Charles Guya could only construct a phrase.
The El Molo are fishermen, keep chicken and goats, but hardly rear cattle like the other six nomadic pastoralists communities. For breakfast, the El Molo have fish stew.
The distinctions between these communities can be seen in their choice of food, language and dress. This was highlighted by Dr Hassan Wario, the director museums, Sites and Monuments at a presentation at the National Museum of Kenya, at the Loiyangalani Desert Museum.
Interestingly, only the Rendile and El Molo don’t wear feather head gears. Most of the women in these communuties wear long skirt-like wraps, and which are banned for single women.
“Pastoralism is not only a way of life but is part of their development. This country gives you the best of the nilotic and cushitic cultures. Cultures don’t disappear, they change,” says Dr Wario.
The desert museum, is more spectacular in infrastruture than in artifacts. There are only a few artifacts and tripod-supported boards with brief information on the communities living around Lake Turkana.
Silvia Roth, a visitor who had toured the museum earlier and paid Ksh400 ($3) says she was disappointed that the museum had too little to offer.
But the feeling was mixed and visitors like Harmut Fiebig were fascinated and thought the museum was a useful resource in his research on “50 Treasures of Kenya.”
Tabu Osusa, the founding executive producer of Ketebel (which deals with music) was disappointed that the museum had not captured cultural aspects such as music.
Indeed, a vast majority of the artifacts are on weapons esecially spears. Under the auspices of the National Museums of Kenya, the museum was opened on June 15, 2008 during the inaugural Lake Turkana Cultural Festival.
Initiated with the aim of preserving and celebrating the local cultures, the museum exhibits cultural artifacts found among the Lake Turkana communities.
The festival also featured rock art tours, wrestling contests, boat races and swimming competition.
Margit Hellwig-Boette, the German ambassador to Kenya, said 26,000 euros had been pumped in the festival. The German and French embassies were official sponsors of the festival among other corporate sponsors.