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Modern knives killing abarait trade among the Turkana

By Mike Ekutan | June 22nd 2021
Joseph Apangipen displaying his wrist knife at Nawoitorong village, Turkana County. [Mike Ekutan, Standard]

Revered among men, the traditional wrist knife known as abarait has its significance among the Turkana community.

It is made from a circular iron blade inserted in a protective leather sheath and its outer edge is very sharp.

Abarait is a special knife that even those adorning it have to follow the tradition of leaving it outside their house so as not to attract bad omen into the family.

Men in the Turkana community occasionally use it to cut meat whenever there is a feast and nobody is allowed to lend the knife during such occasion.

But blacksmiths in Lodwar town say the introduction of modern knives and lack of materials to make an abarait is slowly killing their profession.

Peter Etelej, 42, a local artisan in California market, Lodwar town, says even though he never went to school, he learned the art of making abarait and other knives to make ends meet.

Etelej, who has been an artisan for 17 years, says through the profession, he has been able to educate his children and feed his family.

However, he says with people embracing the western culture, the demand for abarait and other traditional artefacts has dropped to an all-time low, almost rendering him jobless.

“The sales have gone down just because the youth from the interior parts of Turkana are no longer interested in using abarait after living in towns for some time,” Etelej says.

He says in the past, abarait used to cost between Sh1,500 and Sh2,000, but currently one can get it at Sh300.

David Lokol, a resident, says abarait is also used in carving the traditional stool used by Turkana men, especially during meetings.

“Anyone without abarait on his wrist is considered a non-member of the Turkana community, or he’s a Turkana man who doesn’t know much about our traditions,” says Lokol.

Forbidden to kill

According to Turkana customs, it is forbidden to kill using the wrist knife and anyone who commits such a crime risks being considered an outcast.

Kichikio Ekaal, a resident of Loima, says in case of a fight, the locals are only allowed to use sticks locally known as aburi.

“We are not allowed to fight with abarait on our wrist. Whenever a fight breaks out, the men are first ordered to remove the abarait,” says Ekaal.

And at the end of the fight, the parties collect their knives and go on with their business.

Ekaran Abok, 75, an elder in Nawoitorong, says culprits who kill using the knife are usually taken before the elders to face the consequences of their crime.

“It is our role as elders to take action when one commits such a crime. Using our local customs, we take action against the offender,” says Abok.

In some instances, abarait is used to fight off or subdue enemies who launch surprise attacks, but even on this occasion, one is not allowed to maim the victim unless provoked.

“When enemies are about to attack, we always defend ourselves using abarait, but we are not allowed to kill anyone no matter the circumstances,” says William Emuria, a resident of Nakwamekwi village.

During the colonial period, the British banned the making and wearing of abarait as it was considered lethal in close-combat fights.

Emuria says the government should allow Turkana men to carry freely their abarait within Lodwar, Kakuma, Lokichoggio, without being harassed or arrested.

An abarait, is commonly worn by Pokot, Turkana and Karamojong men. Abok says he is dismayed by media reports of couples reportedly killing each other with knives after marital differences.

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