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People Profile
The Turkana

Population:      597,575 ( 2003)
      Some sources report lower figures of from 250,000 to 350,000
      Blue Gecko reports a similar range:  250,000 to 340,000
      Ethnologue reports Turkana 340,000 speakers of the language in 1994

Religion:        Local Traditional; 15% Christian
Registry of Peoples code(s):  Turkana:  110303
Registry of Language code(s) (Ethnologue):  Turkana:  tuv


The Turkana are the second largest group of pastoralists in Kenya.  These nomadic people roam the dry northwest corner of Kenya, primarily Turkana District.

Characteristic of most of Kenya's pastoralists, there is little social structure to tie them down.  They have learned to survive by taking advantage of every opportunity that comes their way, including expansion into non-Turkana areas.

They are a hardy and determined people.  They are a Nilotic people closely related to the Karamojong of Uganda and more distantly to the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania.  They have lived in harsh conditions that grew even harsher in the extended droughts of the late 1970s.

Although it appears to outsiders that they resist change, it may well be because their traditional system of nomadic pastoralism takes fullest advantage of the limited environment in which they live.  Neighbouring peoples include both herders and agriculturalists:  El Molo, Samburu, Pokoot, Rendille, Borana, Endo-Marakwet.

The Turkana have shown their openness to change by adapting to life in fishing communities, agricultural schemes, and towns when they believed it was to their advantage.  Like Maasai, Turkana are known as fierce and vigilant guards in the cities.

The Turkana language is close to the Toposa language, and somewhat more distantly related to the Karamojong and Maasai groups.  Many speak Swahili, and children with access to schools are now learning English.  The level of literacy is uncertain.  Litereacy programs have been underway in portions of the Turkana people but total numbers are uncertain.

Livestock are central to the Turkana culture and all aspects of their social, political, and economic life revolve around the livestock.  Cattle, camels, sheep, and goats are vital to the their lives and are the primary source of food.  Livestock also play an important role in payment for bride wealth, compensation for crimes, fines for fathering illegitimate children, and as gifts on social occasions.

The majority of the Turkana still follow their traditional religion.  Sources on the Turkana commonly report that the Turkana believe in a God known by the name Kuj or Akuj, who is associated with the sky and is the creator of all things.  God is called upon in times of need but little concern is given to whether he answers or how.  One Kenyan source reports:

The Turkana believe that the diviner is God's chief representative, functioning as a doctor, purifier of age-sets, predicting raids and soliciting rain.

The pragmatic Turkana are aware of the limitations and difficulties imposed by a harsh environment and they follow appropriate social and pastoral  techniques to deal with them.  They resort very little to the supernatural but depend primarily on known religion, including Christianity.

Evangelism has been taking place among the Turkana since the 1970s or before.  Various churches have had work for some decades and church buildings have been built.  Estimates are that about 15% of the Turkana are Christian [Bible Translation and Literacy, 1995]. reports less than 2% are Evangelical Christians (2003).  A full Bible was released in the Turkana language in 2002.

There was strong response among Turkana driven south in the drought of 1979-80, when feeding projects were started by the Baptist Mission in the Rumuruti area.  Churches associated with the Baptist Convention of Kenya have grown on this southern fringe of the Turkana territory.  Literacy courses and other services have been provided by Baptist workers.

The Africa Inland Church has enjoyed some response deeper in the Turkanas' desert homeland.  The Christian Missionary Fellowship has work in several places, with slow response.  Many churches in Turkana District consist primarily of people of other tribes.

In the late 1990s, a representative of the church reported 50 AIC churches, as well as about 50 churches of other denomination among the Turkana.  AIC workers indicated the town churches and rural each average 100 people.  But the rural churches drop off to 40-50 when the nomads move with their cattle. More recently work with the Turkana has been started in the Kitale area by East-West Ministries.

For more on the Turkana People

Turkana Language — Ethnologue
Turkana, Kenya — Geological Description of the The Turkana Depression
Turkana — A Short Cultural Profile
Turkana — Brief Cultural Information with Links to Related Kenyan Peoples
Turkana Bible
Turkana Mission in the Kitale area
Turkana People — Wikipedia

Fedders, A. and C. Salvadori.  Peoples and Cultures of Kenya.  Nairobi, Kenya:  Transafrica Book Distributors, 1979.

Amin, M.  The Beautiful People of Kenya.  Nairobi, Kenya:  1989.

Unreached People of Kenya Project, Turkana Report.  Nairobi, Kenya:  Daystar Communications, 1982.

Originally written by personnel of Bible Translation and Literacy, Nairobi, Kenya
Narrative profile and summary first published in A Call to Share (Daystar University, Nairobi), January 1995
Edited by Orville Boyd Jenkins August 1996
Updated and Posted on SLRK 18 April 2006
Last edited 22 September 2008

Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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