The Marsabit Lake Turkana Festival is one of those “must attend” festivals in Kenya. The festival has been held annually in Loiyangalani since 2008 and it brings together the 14 communities found within the county who are dominantly pastoral and have preserved their culture. You will interact with communities like the Turkana, Samburu , Borana, Gabbra , Rendile , El Molo , Somali, Burji ,Konso, Sakuye ,Waata, Garee, Wayu, and Dassanatch – the last 5 I learnt of their existence at the festival.
These communities are stereotyped to be enemies due to the many incidences of banditry in the region ,but , here we all were , eating , drinking, singing and dancing together. I got the priviledge to attend it from 19th-21st May 2016 in Loiyangalani. This place is starting to feel like home with my first visit to Loiyangalani having been in 2014 under different circumstances as highlighted in https://wangechigitahi.co.ke/2014/09/16/loiyangalani/. This trip was made even better by having Malabo Resort handling my transport and accommodation thus I didn’t have to hitch-hike a lorry/truck as I did last time.https://wangechigitahi.co.ke/2014/09/16/backpacking-northern-kenya/
The air in Loiyangalani was charged-super charged. The excitement of the people was almost tangible-and equally contagious. The locals were expectant of the “fruits” the festival would bring the town whilst I was expectant of what I would see, experience, learn, adopt and basically integrate into my life and not forgetting the pictures I would get. I will breakdown the festival into the below clusters –trying to make you experience the actual festival through my eyes/words and hopefully entice you to attend the next one in 2017.
The pastoral communities though similar in several ways , differ in the way they make their homes. The constant similarity is that the homes usually referred to as manyattas are built by the women-yes from scratch. They vary in outlook from the shape, size and building elements. The most common building elements are twigs, cow dung , reeds and soil. I will forever be grateful to Malabo Resort for making a long term dream of mine (to sleep in a Manyatta) come true.
I cannot get enough of this. Everytime I see them -young, old, male, female I stare(I’m sorry).Beads are the dominant element used and the colours are bright to appeal to the eye like bright-yellow , red, green ,white, blue etc .The shapes of the beads also vary- round, oval, rectangular-they allow their artistic selves free range. The shoulder pieces, beautiful doesn’t even start to describe them. They are layered from the largest, which lies on /over the shoulders to neck pieces some low others high on the neck. These are worn on a daily basis-no need to wait for a special occasion-every day is a special occasion. Different communities have different colours and being “custom made” each is different.Some have metal in them to make them shiny, others buttons(never thought buttons could look so good) ,others have applied dye on them for the glossy ,shimmery look. It is hypnotic to see how these master pieces sway as they move and when they dance. The same is exhibited in their bracelets, anklets, arm bands, earrings and headpieces (my new fashion fad)
In some of the communities, the women adorn their hair and upper body with red ochre made from the bark of a plant mixed with cooking oil. Let me tell you, you glimmer, you look radiant, you look and feel more beautiful and I couldn’t be left behind. I managed to fulfill another lifelong dream of mine – so ignore the rumors that the red is blood and its mixed with cowdung(who comes up with these things) I almost didn’t want to wash it off but a girl has got to bathe right? Adornment isn’t only for the women as the men also take body art and jewellery on themselves very seriously.
I was awe-struck, I was amazed, I was confused, I wanted all they were wearing. The clothes worn here were the traditional kind -not the modified modern/ traditional version. I spoke to the ladies on how some made their clothes and all I can say is -designers do not only exist in fashion houses in Europe or major towns. The ladies shared how some of their dresses are made from goat/cow skin and you will find varying colours black, brown etc. It takes several months to complete one dress as they are custom made. Also, they have to wait for a long duration to get enough material (goat/cow skin ) .They carefully scrape off the hair from the skin (fabric) , they then apply oil often to it to ensure the skin remains supple and soft , and then start making the dress design. It is a taxing job both physically and mentally but the final look which is beautiful dresses , beautiful pieces of art and the women looking even more beautiful well worth it. When I asked whether it is comfortable-well the unanimous response was -not so much-as it is heavy and it gets hot but hey-a lady has got to do what a lady has got to do to look fabulous-right?
Others had their outfits made of shukas (shawls) in various colours. Others plain white ,others bright orange, blue, green red etc.It was interesting to actually watch a gentleman who makes these shawls with a traditional foot treadle floor loom at work.He would pass a spindle with thread from one end to the other ,use an instrument that looks like a piece of wood to tighten the thread and repeat over and over again as his foot also worked simultaneously.It is a taxing job but the final products are master pieces ,so the next time you try to bargain for the price-know it is a taxing endevour.
Marsabit communities took entertainment to new heights. The local men and the ladies were dressed to a tee while we tourists/travelers seemed like lost people (I have started my small pastoralist wardrobe collection).I previously perceived these communities to be closed and conservative-but my stereotype was shattered. I watched Borana /Gabra /Somali and other communities women decked in brightly coloured clothes/shukas/deiras that are free flowing. Their dances mainly involve clapping hands, stomping feet and some very serious shoulder movement I have to learn some more.
Moving onto the Samburu/Dashnash /Turkana /there is lots of jumping involved for the men where it seems like they are competing who can reach the skies. The women mainly dance with their shoulders and necks allowing the neck/shoulder pieces to sway .I tried it as it seemed easy but I assure you, it is an art you develop. Then I watched other men groups I think they were Gabbra or Somali others dressed in white , others colored shukas (shawls) seriously dancing-clapping of hands, stomping of feet, forming semi-circles where the men all flowed in unison to the beat of the drum, to the women singing ,they moved forward then backward-on and on and I was transfixed. Met Maina Kageni and the MKRTT team on ground perhaps they should include me on their trips-I could teach them a thing or two.
In the evening, we had serious after party and lets say I learnt even more local music and dances. In one, we would sway on one spot, while holding to the ends of my (imagined long dress ) and when the music was at fever pitch ,we would form a circle and sway/sashay going round and round. This was done only by the women as the men cheered us on from the sidelines.
Then music would change and soon we would all be jumping up and down , others holding hands ,others holding each other’s shoulders and we would get lost in the music. Most of the music was live performances by the locals like Lemarte among others and that super charged the crowds.
And to top it off-we had “Fashion show” in the wild/dark. Now, this tops any fashion show I have watched on Television whether from Kenyan runways or the larger runways in Milan, NewYork, and Paris etc-Priceless. Local and international designers, welcome to Kenya , you can learn lots in regard to fashion, culture and diversity.
We drove and used the route from Nanyuki-Isolo-Laisamis-Loiyangalani. Up until Laisamis ,the road is superb, newly done tarmac road. There after one diverts onto a graded road that is actually in very good condition albeit you will be decked in dust.You can however also take a bus from Nairobi Eastleigh to Marsabit and then Marsabit to Loiyangalani.
The other alternative is to take a bus from Eistleigh in Nairobi to Marasbit. From Marsabit take a bus to Loiyangalani.
The adventurous journey is well worth the more than 6 hours it takes from Nanyuki town which is a cosmopolitan city that is also home to the British Army Training Unit. Along the way you will see herds of camel , cattle, several manyattas(homesteads)of the communities in the area and the ongoing Lake Turkana Wind Power Project that covers 40,000 acres ,will have 365 wind turbines and seeks to produce 310 MW of reliable ,low cost wind power
Loiyangalani has an array of accomodation available from amazing large Resorts like Malabo Resort to lodgings and even homestays. I had the privilege of being hosted by Malabo Resort which is like an oasis in the desert.First, their service is amazing and the owners Steve and Maria are great.They are friendly and make you feel right at home. Two,the rooms available are beautiful ranging from cottages, bandas, manyattas to the option of camping.Thirdly,they have running water through out and I actually enjoyed showering in the open shower (ok, its covered on the sides) but you get to look to the sky as you shower. I felt a form of freedom while enjoying my out door bath . Fourth-their food is amazing. Fifth-It is green. Ok I could go on and on but experience is the best teacher -you need to stay here to get the full cultural integration.Make sure you book with them if you want to enjoy Loiyangalani, Lake Turkana area. You can reach them on http://www.malaboresort.co.ke/.
I had first wanted to attend the festival in 2015 when I first heard about it. I thus wrote several e-mails and several calls to the team, all to no avail-no one ever responded. I was thus unable to attend as there was no guidance on how to get there or where to stay among other queries and I wasnt planning on hitch hicking a lory again)
The Marsabit Lake Turkana Festival organizing team-kindly respond to email queries as well provide diverse information to enable more people to attend. As I planned for 2016, again the same happened and I am forever greatful to Malabo resort for their immediate response and facilitating the success of my trip.
I would summarize this festival as a Cultural Expose-Cultural Overload of Northern Kenya communities. Thank You Marsabit County, Marsabit Lake Turkana Festival Organizers, Communities of Marsabit County and the people I met for making this festival such an amazing, life changing experience. A special Thanks to Malabo Resort Team for hosting me and ensuring I got to Loiyangalani , making my dream of sleeping in a Manyatta come true and making my experience amazing. Thanks Kevin of www.kevingitongaphotography.com for allowing me to use some of your fabulous pictures. Thanks to my family for packing my travel backpack in my absentia and ensuring it was delivered to me enroute-I was traveling from Nyeri to Nanyuki via public means. Everyone should en-devour to attend/participate next year.