ORIGIN OF TOBACCO

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Image: dried tobacco

The use of tobacco is very common by the Turkana from time immemorial. It is commonly chewed and sniffed by the Turkana across all the ages and genders while others smoked especially the young men. Its use has become so prominent rendering the plant very precious such that it is used to accompany giveaways in any ceremonial or ritual activities in the traditional and the modern turkana society. However, the question lingering in the mind of any curious individual is, where did the plant come from and how did it come to be known and used by the turkana despite the fact that they are lead a pastoral life?

Since its origin is not written or recorded in any historical articles or books, our explanation will be based on a myth of a young man and the encounter with a stalking hyena. According to the narrative, there lived a handsome young Turkana warrior who left his village to a far land for courtship to a girl. Due to the distance between his village and the nature of livestock herding especially in the dry seasons, he couldn’t visit the girl frequently and therefore visits were only possible during the rainy seasons when herding demanded less attention due to the surplus. It was during that graceful rainy season when he spent several days and nights on the way to the distant village just to meet with love of his heart and ask for the father’s blessings.

When he finally arrived, the family received him warm heartedly and had chats with the father in-law to catch up after a long journey. As tradition demanded, he had to look after the livestock for the family during his period of stay during the day and catch up with the father in-law late in the evening when the animals were being milked. After some days the old man had to bid bye to the family as he embarked on a family errand to the land unknown after consulting with him. The father in-law’s spear was handed over to him as a show of allegiance to his family and livestock in his absence till he was back.

One night after the father in-law’s departure, he felt something uncommon happening near the goats’ pen at the wee hours of the night. He picked the spear and crawled towards the pen and on noticing the stalking hyena he held the spear to his grip and directed all his energy to the hyena through the spear. Fortunately, the spear hit the hyena but it did not die on the spot instead it jumped over the fence and scampered through the darkness. His attempt to pursue the kill bore no fruit after it was consumed by the darkness of the night forcing him to wait till the following morning to retrieve the spear. 

Early in the morning, he had to inform the family members of his encounter and was to follow the blood trails in order to get the spear. After a long trail deep into the bush, he realized that he was getting lost but alas! He couldn’t give up since the spear was so dear to him. Deep into the dark forest it led him to a tunnel-like cave that was dark and distant since it was the only light at the end and could not be stymied by his fears but soldiered on.

While still walking blindly through the tunnel, he could see some light from a far which rejuvenated his hopes perhaps he could find the spear. As he reached the end of the tunnel where the light emanated from, he suddenly lost his sight and overwhelmed by the brightness of the light after spending hours through the dark tunnel. After sometimes he regained his sight and became whole, back to his senses and it dawned that he was in a different environment so weird that everything seemed so different. The land was endowed with green grass, green trees, all plants were generally as green as he never witnessed from his nomadic world even on the graceful rainy seasons.

As he stood perplexed by the scenic view of the new found wonderland he saw elderly men and women with grey hair but with their youthful energy still intact, they all seemed exuberant and youthful despite their age probably due to the abundance the land offered. The livestock looked very healthy as they grazed freely all over the green pastures unrestrained.

Behind him was an elderly man approaching at a distance and stood right Infront of him. He greeted him and wanted to know where he came from and where he was heading to. He was still overwhelmed by fear of having trespassed the enemy territory but was cut short from his mumble jumble by the old man who calmly held him by the hand and signaled to follow him to the nearby hut. He was offered a seat and the old man instructed his wife to serve him with some milk. As he continued sipping the milk from the calabash, he started explaining what transpired and why he ended up there. After explaining, the old man showed him a man lying beside him and explained that the “hyena” he was trailing was the man lying over there and the spear he was after was also there. That was when it dawned on him that he had speared a man not the hyena he strongly believed and the same man he almost killed was lying half-dead and poor him was at the mercies of his victim’s kinsmen.

He became so scared and started shaking as the old man continued talking. He felt the earth had stopped spinning and hell had broken loose on him. He wished the ground could break asunder and swallow him from the face of the earth than to face the wrath of his host. The old man noticed that the young man wasn’t himself any more but shackled by the guilt of his doing and surprisingly, calmed him down and assured him a safe return to his village. Surely no harm befell him and he would return to his people safe and sound with the spear and a gift to take to his father in-law. When that time came, he was given the spear and a bag of shag tobacco with instructions on how to use the plant and finally led towards the exiting cave where he came from and left for his village happily with the spear and the tobacco on the other hand.

Upon his arrival home, he found his father in-law had arrived prior to him, just a few hours. The father in-law was marveled by what happened but then was filled with joy seeing his future son in-law arrive safely with the spear. He headed towards the father in-law and handed him the spear then the gift from the foreign land and joined him under the ekalale tree. Since they were all tired from the lonesome journeys and hours of catching up stories and the encounters, he gave the father in-law instructions for taking the tobacco. The father in-law chewed the tobacco just as instructed and to his surprise he felt renewed as he felt the exhaustion not any more, was relieved and the plants’ effect was magical that made the old man feel the urge to chew more and more of it.

After some days, the father in-law finally decided to hand over his daughter to the warrior for marriage upon which the young man on hearing the good news could not hesitate but set to meet his parents for marriage ceremony arrangements and set his foot back to the land to fetch more of the tobacco to give to the father in-law as a token of appreciation in addition to the dowry. The preparations were made and marriage succeeded after which the warrior and the beautiful girl got married and lived happily thereafter with blessings from their parents and the community.

The use of the magical plant spread like bushfire across the turkana land and it became widely consumed leading to addiction to its consumers paving way for intercommunity trade between the Turkana and the neighboring communities like the Pokot, Toposa and the Marakwet. Tobacco is now used in every aspect of the day to day in the turkana cultural activities right from dowry, giftings, appeasing the ancestral spirits, child naming among other ceremonies and rituals performed in the Turkana Community.

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