After the announcement on Monday that promising quantities of oil had been found in Turkana, Kenya, the next day our correspondent in Lagos on Tuesday wrote to tell me that the find had “caused a buzz in Nigeria”.
He forwarded and email by a Nigerian, Ugochukwu Ejikeonye, posted to a long list of individuals and organisations in which he said; “ I hope they [Kenya] can avoid Nigeria’s great mistake, so that the oil they have discovered will not soon become a curse instead of blessing, as we now lament in Nigeria.
“Before oil was discovered in Nigeria, the country had a vibrant agro-based economy and the quality of life an infrastructure was highly commendable. But when the oil arrived, all that was abandoned, and left to die.”
All that is well and good. However, we should never forget that the important thing about Turkana will always be its people—the living, and the dead.
The attention that the oil has brought, therefore, is a wonderful opportunity to tell that story.
I took a look, and discovered things I would never have learned in ordinary circumstances. For example, an article on http://www.bluegecko.org reports that the Turkana and the Luo are the “only Kenyan tribes” that do not practice circumcision. I don’t know if that is true, but I had never figured that circumcision is so widespread in Kenya, you would stand out for not practicing it.
I also found a blog by Elizabeth Arikosi, described as a “young dynamic Turkana woman and writer”.
She writes: “Turkana people are known for their weird way of marrying women. When a man is interested in a woman that he feels that he won’t be allowed to marry if he goes to negotiate for, he arranges to kidnap her together with his friends”.
It is not just the Turkana, or in Africa, where that happens, so it was not particularly surprising. What followed next though, was.
“A family can ask as many as 200 heads of cattle for their daughter! If a man is wealthy, he pays for the negotiated [bride price] and marriage ceremony commences”, Arikosi writes. “If the man is poor his relatives and friends contribute some cattle for him. He will pay that in small installments…the marriage ceremony takes place only after the man has completed his full settlement but keeps the woman.
This can take as many as 20 years. If he doesn’t pay for the remaining [bride price], his children belong to the in-laws and the in-laws can take them anytime they want. If he dies before completing the [bride price], his sons will complete it and marry their mother officially”. Pinch me.
In short, the Turkanas are among the world’s most unforgiving debt collectors.
But there is something else. Because the Turkana Lake basin is so rich in fossils, some scientists have described it as the “cradle of mankind”.Those of us who are not interested in paleontology and the strange ancient bones that the Leakey family have spent over two generations collecting in that area, will have forgotten or might not know the story of the “Turkana boy”.
“Turkana boy” is the most complete early human skeleton ever found. The great man who found it was a member of the Leakey team called Kamoya Kimeu, in 1984. In some dedicated paleontology communities all over the world, there are annual toasts to Kamoya Kimeu’s find.
Turkana boy is estimated to have been anything between 8 and 15 years old when he died – about 1.5 million years ago.
In that same neighbourhood, we know about Lake Turkana as a tourist site. However, more intriguing is that Lake Turkana (it was still called Lake Rudolf when I was in primary school) is the largest “desert lake” in the world. Some say it is also the world’s largest alkaline (salt) lake. Others dispute this, and say it is the third largest. Strange, you would think that these things are easy to measure these days.
I guess this means the biggest challenge is not whether or not Kenya will be visited by the “oil curse”. Rather, it is whether it can have oil, and not lose one of the most important histories and heritages of man, that Turkana is. I suspect Turkana oil was nothing more than “Turkana boy” wine.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the Executive Editor of the Nation Media Group’s Africa and Digital Media Division