TURKANA PEOPLE AND RELIGION

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Introduction

Despite their independence, their bravery and their freedom of movement, the Turkana are unable to control the single most vital element for ensuring their continuing prosperity: rain.
Rainfall is erratic, although usually sufficient to provide enough fresh grazing for the animals. But every few years (on average every ten), a natural cycle which may be connected to the El Niño effect causes a devastating drought, and with it the decimation of herds and the deaths of many people. Contrary to what many people believe, these droughts are not a cruel anomaly of nature (or global warming), but a naturally recurring if unpredictable event which the Turkana must survive. Yet the unpredictable nature of these events, as well as the terrible toll they take, have inevitably led them to explain this – and rainfall in general – as the work of a force beyond their control. This force is God, whom the Turkana call Akuj.

Akuj – God

The vast majority of the Turkana still follow their traditional religion, which on the surface seems straightforward enough. There’s one supreme God – Akuj – who is associated with the sky, and who can be addressed through prayers or intermediaries such as diviners and living-dead ancestors. Like most people living in dry lands, the Turkana associate God with the provision or non-provision of rains. They believe that if He is happy, he provides rain and if He is angry with the people, he withholds so that the people can feel His wrath and seek His intervention.

His plans can be ‘read’ by “dreamers” or the diviners, and He can be called upon in times of need or during important rituals like rites of passage such as birth, the confirmation of marriage, and in death. At other times, little concern is given to his existence, as indeed the Turkana believe that God pays little attention to them to the extent that he should be reminded of their existence.

Akuj resides in the sky, or else is the sky itself. He also lives near the tops of mountains, particularly those responsible for rains. Akuj, however, is neither thunder nor lightning, for the Turkana know that there can be lightning without rain, but there cannot be rain without Akuj.
The word Akuj (Akuji, or Kuj) itself derives from the same root as the words for ‘up’ or ‘above’ (nakuj means sky or heavens). As the provider of rain, Akuj is thus a benevolent force, although he is both the giver and taker of life. The Turkana have no God-centered creation myths as such, but Akuj’s role as rain giver, and thus life-giver, is commonly misconstrued by some ethnologists to mean that he is also the Creator.

For the Turkana, the ‘above’ is a world divided between Akuj (God) or Akuj Nameri (God of the Stars) and Ng’ipen or Ng’iapan (spirits). Animal sacrifices are made both to Akuj and the spirits, so as to placate them in times of drought, famine, flooding, animal epidemics or any other disaster beyond human control.

Prophets and Diviners – the Dreamers

With such an unpredictable Akuj, it is of great importance to be forewarned which is the work of various diviners and prophets known collectively as ngimurok. They are able to interpret the visions/dreams or predict Akuj’s plans from the dreams. Apart from the dreams they can as well read from the sacrificed animal’s excrements, tobacco, “string”, gourds and stones, and most famously through the tossing of sandals, whose configuration when fallen back to earth can be interpreted as akiteyen; meaning “caused to know”. Most of the diviners are men (ngimurok) and the female ones are called ngamurok. The ngimurok play vital roles in the society as purifiers of age-sets, predictors of the outcome from raids or war and rainmakers. Other roles are finding causes and cures for diseases thus play the roles of doctors.

When people have any trouble, the appropriate emuron is approached who devices a proper course of action to be taken. The diviners are gifted in different ways and certain limits of responsibilities defined by the extent of their powers. These ngimurok have respect on the hierarchy of realms of power, where incase a diviner is unable to resolve an issue, he/she refers to another diviner or they work together towards achieving a common goal.

In all cases, it is the emuron’s role to relate what Akuj intends to communicate to the people and devices the simplest and understandable way to relay the message. The role of emuron is neither learnt nor inherited except for a very successful emuron who is likely to sire children with the same capabilities as him/her. On the contrary, prophethood is literally a calling where one is chosen by Akuj.

The turkana people believe that before Akuj begins to communicate to his chosen one, he leads the unwitting candidate away from his home through good spirits (ngipian lu ajokak). The candidate is taken to a place with much grass and wild animals, after which he returns home with the new abilities. The person, shocked by the experience narrates the encounter to the people and is taken to an established emuron. He confirms whether the person was taken by akuj and if it turns out to be true, purification process(amook) and the candidate assumes the new role. After amok one begins to see his dreams or visions with clarity. He/she can “see” his dreams clearly, begins to “speak out” (alimor) his “dreams” (ngakirujaeta) which turn out to be true in the real life. It is believed that once one is taken away from the people through akuj’s spirits he/she is taken closer to akuj and ceases to see things in the human perspective instead he/she sees things as in the spiritual world and able to relay in the human perspective. One havng undergone the process, he becomes an emuron.

Rain and Sacrifice

Self-evidently, the dreamers can only be as accurate as Akuj or the extent of their powers allow them to be in any event, they are powerless to prevent God from acting out his schemes or from forgetting to bring rain. Theirs is only a transmissive role.

When it comes to animals sacrifices, the practice itself is relatively uncomplicated. The animal to be sacrificed is presented to Akuj with a simple and direct chanting, such as, “This is your animal, take it” or “This is your ox, take him.” The one offering the sacrifice then continues with an equally blunt demands like “Give us life, health, animals, grass, rain and all good things”. As Akuj owns all the world’s cattle and the sacrifice could be seen as the spirit of the sacrificed animal being recombined with Akuj.

The art of animal Sacrifices in Turkana can only be understood within the context of Turkana theology and, specifically, within the ambience of “prophecy” (adwaris) and its sub-elements, viz., utterance, word, vision, ecstasy, bitterness, dream, perspicacity, vocation (to call away), transportation (to be carried away by Akuj), prediction. All these elements are associated with sickness, “enemies” (ngimoe), war, raids, witchcraft, drought, rain and unusual occurrences.

Prophecy, sacrifice, the sacred and Akuj are intricately connected. Without prophecy, there would be no reason for sacrifice; without the sacred, the sacrifice would have no sense; and without God, the sacrifice would be done for naught. Sacrifices can be seen as attempts by humans to bridge broken relations with Akuj. Through sacrifice, Akuj is “at peace”(literally made cool) which the turkana people say “akitillimilim” and “happy” (akitalakar) through the sweet-smelling odor of the roasted meat and the live-giving principle (eta) which has been released. Incidentally, the principle of ‘coolness’ is not surprisingly a sacred one, with many connotations. This is especially evident in the respect which is accorded to trees by cause of the shade that they provide. Shade, as well as rain to which the Turkana word is related, is seen as a blessing. And in the shade of a tree, elders traditionally gather to make decisions, to offer sacrifices, or arrange raids. In this same shade, too, is where meat-feasts are arranged eaten, warriors decorated, men initiated, marriages arranged and finalized, judgement made, Akuj implored; spears, wrist-knives and fighting sticks are also made under a tree’s shade.

From a musical point of view, the sacrifices are also some of the best times for traditional music. Despite the primary role of the emuron in ceremonies such as rain-making, songs addressed to Akuj can be sung both by individuals and groups to ask for rain.

Death and the Ancestors

The death of a family head is very important because it raises the problem of settling the inheritance. Death of a family head or older person is accompanied by intense mourning. The body is disposed of by burial and often a meat feast will follow.

The cult of the dead is only given to the father and mother and important people such as emuron. These only have a right to be buried within their huts. The hut will then be demolished and abandoned. The eldest son inserts a piece of butter in the mouth of the dead person accompanied by a chant; “sleep in the cool earth and do not be angry with us, who remain on this earth.” Traditionally other people were not given such a burial, but were abandoned to hyenas and vultures. However, nowadays the Turkana are obliged to bury all their dead by law, although this is only verifiable in permanent settlements and in places under the influence of Christianity and other religions.

As is a common belief throughout Africa, the Turkana believe that upon death, the souls of the deceased go to the sky or else near to God. This does not, however, cut them off from their human relatives, who continue to hold that the living-dead are near to them and can be approached through prayers, pouring libation and offerings. Thus, the living-dead act as intermediaries between men and forefathers. The “good” ancestors (ngikaram) can influence Akuj on their people’s behalf through the medium of an emuron and the elders. However, the “good” ancestors can also be temperamental: diseases are often said to have been caused by them in anger for having been forgotten, much like Akuj ‘forgets’ the rain if the people have forgotten him.

In order to cure a disease, then, the patient can only be cured if the relationship with the ancestors is also cured, through prayers for unity that accompany an animal sacrifice, where pieces of meat are thrown towards the former dwelling places of ancestors, such as mountains, hills and rivers.

Christianity

From the traditionalist’s standpoint, the lack of success met by the Christian missions among the Turkana is a wholly refreshing change from the usual tale of conversion followed by swift entry into settled life, cash economy and abandonment of many pre-Christian beliefs, customs, rituals and music.

Since 1961, when the Africa Inland Mission established a food-distribution centre and mission at Lokori to offset a famine that had started the year before, Christianity has been met with only limited success. Despite two hundred missionaries in the field today, the swift nomadic lifestyle of the Turkana precludes any long-term attempts at conversion, so that the only established churches are among the minority of settled Turkana in the small towns near the lake, and on the lakeshore itself where fishing was practiced. These missions have managed to infiltrate traditional society through the provision of healthcare and schools as well as feeding centres in times of drought. Of Turkana District’s six hospitals, four are run by churches; six of the seven health centres are run by christians, as are 25 of its 27 dispensaries. Of course, this is by no means a negative thing. If criticism is to be levelled at anyone, it should be squarely aimed at the both the colonial and successive post-independence governments who have consistently shown a monumental indifference to the state of the Turkana.

“The Turkana are receptive to change if they feel it is to their advantage. However, religion is not seen as a vital part of their life so they are indifferent to Christianity.”

“The Turkana are nomadic people and any effort to assist these people will be difficult. The Turkana churches must continue to deal with Turkana traditions. Some of these traditions are wholesome and should not be incorporated into the Christian community. Others are contrary to Christian principles and must be transformed before they can be incorporated. Others must be rejected by the Christian community. A truly effective strategy that speaks to the Turkana has yet to be discovered.”

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