The untold stories and hidden gems of Turkana

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What to include and what to leave out? This is certainly the question that tugs at my mind as I write this article. I would say travelling to Turkana was like entering a different world where time stands still and the essence of Africa is revealed in an array of fascinating encounters. As the world-over exchanged gifts under twinkling lights, I unwrapped a different kind of present—the untold stories and hidden gems of Turkana. Christmas in this remote corner of Kenya was a revelation, a gift that kept on giving in the form of breathtaking scenery, warm hospitality, belly laughs and age-old traditions. 

My trip to Turkana was nothing short of a miracle. In July, my friend had mentioned about his life-changing experience in a project dubbed Another Kind of Christmas and I certainly wanted to partake in it. The project, held annually, seeks to spread the Christmas cheer with the vulnerable people of Turkana. When I initially expressed my interest in being part of the team taking part in the project, I was met with a big NO; the slots were all full. While I was disappointed, I did not give up. A month later, I got notified that some people had dropped off and I now had a slot. To say I was excited is certainly an understatement. The project not only engaged local volunteers but also international participants from Germany, Spain and the USA, marking a pioneering collaboration of this kind.

After what seemed like an eternity, it was finally December. On 14th December, we attended a seminar at SBS where we were taken through a masterclass on female leadership in the African continent. With laudable examples of Wangari Maathai and Winnie Mandela, I felt as though I could take on the world. Later that evening, a few of my friends and I commenced our journey. What a ride! I slept through the night and in the morning, I was refreshed and ready to see the beauty that characterises our country. Six hours later, the total time it takes from Kitale to Lodwar, we finally arrived.  It was hot! Hot! Hot! I come from the Coast, but the heat in Lodwar was unmatched. Even then, the mesmerising scenery of Turkana is a testament to the earth’s artistry.

The highlight of the evening was an interesting encounter I had with a young local lady who asked me to take a video of her that she would later post on TikTok. It was clear that she knew how people make money on the platform. After dinner, we had a cheerful introduction and a briefing on the activities that awaited us.

Early the next morning, after ‘hiking’ to see the sculpture of Christ the Redeemer, one of the landmarks in Lodwar, we started our journey to Kokuselei, a remote village three hours away. Being a car fanatic, I was intrigued by the convoy of four-wheel drives we had and later on learned that it was the only vehicle that could manage to tackle the Turkana roads. About an hour into the journey, one of the cars experienced a mechanical breakdown and what better way to pass time than to dance and make merry? We had so much fun, teaching each other dance styles from our varied cultures. These moments remain some of the most memorable from the entire camp. Eventually, we made it to our destination in time for lunch, with a special delicacy of fried fish from Lake Turkana.

Our stay in Kokuselei was marked by a hive of activity. We were in working groups for the different initiatives that we had lined up: English Club, Computer training classes, Leadership seminars, career mentoring, agricultural projects, sports tournaments and the Chess Club. Given the fact that we had a priest, Fr. Martin Mundia, in our company, some spiritual activities including baptisms and spiritual talks were also lined up for the residents of Kokuselei and its neighbouring villages.

One of the highlights of the trip stemmed from a curious adventure. On Sunday, I decided to join the other volunteers for  Mass. Being a Muslim, I was in awe! Fr. Martin presided over the Mass and I was amazed that he had managed to learn some words in the local Turkana dialect which he incorporated at Mass. The church was vibrant. I was fascinated by their rich traditions; from the rhythmic beats of traditional dances to the intricate beadwork adorned by the locals and the prayers chanted in local dialect. I appreciated how deeply Turkana culture celebrates its heritage and identity.

On one of the days that followed, I was engaged in agricultural projects. We were shown around the farms which I learnt were the source of the tasty butternuts and watermelons that I had been enjoying during  meal times. In addition, I participated in a tree-planting exercise that left me physically exhausted. While it was not easy to dig out the holes in which the trees would be planted, I kept going because I knew the good that would come from this exercise would outweigh the tiredness, plus I love farming too. 

I was also engaged in a leadership seminar. My! Oh my! This was a very fulfilling experience. The girls we were mentoring are so bright. Some were my agemates and in those moments I was in their presence, I felt as one amongst friends. We encouraged them to dream boldly, to not give in to life’s hardships and above all, to realise that they had each other and could thus lean on each other for friendship, accountability and support in their quest for a better life.

I also got to visit a Nutrition Unit, yet another initiative of the Missionary Community of St. Paul the Apostle (MCSPA). The Nutrition Units not only provide breakfast and lunch for children under the age of 5 every day but also provide facilities for both the children and their mothers to take a bath, thanks to the countless boreholes they have drilled across this region. This experience helped me to appreciate all I had and I resolved to not waste food any more. 

To mark the end of our stay in Kokuselei, we had a Christmas party under the stars. Adorned in gifts that each of us had received from their ‘Secret Santa’, we settled down for dinner marked with carols in English, Spanish and German. As is the Kenyan spirit, we soon got on our feet and danced till our legs could no longer bear it. We had so much fun! As we told stories and laughed the night away, I discovered that my friends and I seem to have some loose bolts in our heads but I guess that is what keeps us together—the innate ability to have fun at no one’s expense.

As we travelled back, I couldn’t help but reminisce on the transformative experience I had. To date, I remain very moved to have experienced the joy in the people of Turkana. As the sun set over the vast horizons, casting hues of orange and pink across the desert, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of awe and gratitude. 

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