Cultural festival opens up region’s virgin beauty

By Cathy Ochung

For the second time in a row the small, dull and lifeless town of Loiyangalani on the Southeastern coast of Lake Turkana springs back to life. The annual Turkana Cultural Festival injects rare life to the inhabitants of this arid, dry and blistering hot sandy expanse.

While Lake Turkana, one of the largest desert lakes in the world, is a definite tourist attraction and the subject of many a traveller’s dream, Loiyangalani town is the main attraction come the festival.

Turkana is home to Mount Kulal famed for its stones and forested area. Though a remote town, it has an airstrip, post office, fishing station, a secondary school, a luxury lodge, two campsites and a beautiful surrounding of traditional homes of the Turkana people.

Higher and higher the Samburu men danced.

Unlike last year when the festival was in its inception and both visitors and locals approached it with some level of caution, this time the festival was more of a household activity.

The communities around this area, known more for their bloody conflicts than anything else, had started their preparations in anticipation of the festival.

Whether their zeal is so much to entertain or to rip the benefits (often financial) that come with visitors, everyone here has a share of the cake at the Elmorasetu festival.

A market suddenly pops up within the town with splendid display of meticulously done ornaments and artefacts that sell like hot cake. Songs and dances can be heard from afar. The perennial enemies bury their hatred and join hands to welcome the guests in a show that melts the heart.

Peak of business

The festival not only showcases entertainment but also marks the peak of business in the town. The luxury lodge is fully booked while the campsite owners are smiling all the way to wherever they keep their money. Women and men alike brave the heat with their wares spread in front of them.

Though they are not aggressive traders like their counterparts in major towns, their prices are obviously hiked and they make a killing for the weekend.

It is in vain to haggle over prices, because one way or the other the local’s desperation will carry the day. All this is the doing of the festival whose initial concept was to unite the different tribes.

Moseretu Women Group whose members are drawn from the different tribes, have knit together various performances. The ramshackle town of the Samburu, Pokot, Rendille, El Molo Gabbra and Turkana suddenly becomes a busy town.

Even the gods are united on the importance of the festival and the weather brings rain, which adds a splash of green on the otherwise dry and parched area.

Loiyangalani, which literally means a place of many trees in Samburu, depends mainly on fishing and tourism that has dwindled over the years. Turkana in the Northern frontier has many surprises, especially because it is not only a place for the tourist but for the traveller too.

The journey is in itself a memorable experience. Two ways to get there is either by air, where one gets to enjoy the fantastic view of the somewhat jade landscape and the region’s volcanic hills. Or one can use the road in tough ride that takes two days.

The festival always brings an open market where locals sell their wares. [PHOTOS: cathy ochung/Standard]

Journey by road is a tough choice, forget the Paris-Dakar rally, this drains one physically and emotionally. All the self-confessed driving experts ought to give this route a try.

It is the drive, however, that provides a varied and rich scenic experience. This is on top of being sandwiched between hanging hills at South Horr — one of the towns on your way — to rubble and stone that make for roads and vast uninterrupted land.

All the tales you have heard about bandits suddenly seem very possible. At such times prayers are the best recourse as even a flat tyre on your way can be dangerous. But nothing was going to dampen our spirits for the festival. Bandits or no bandits we were on our way to Loiyangalani.

The organisers of the festivals were keen to build on the success of the premier festival, which was a huge success as far as uniting the communities is concerned.

peace initiative

Given the scarcity of grazing lands and cattle pastures, competition with neighbouring tribes is fierce and relations are generally volatile, usually verging on warlike. Yet come the festival weekend, all communities find a common ground to be together.

Amidst curious stares from the locals, one light aircraft after another lands on the airstrip that is near Oasis Lodge — the only one in the area.

Long before the festivals this area was a forgotten story.

The only other time it came to the limelight was when the movie Constant Gardner was shot. It drew international attention to the area and most importantly, it temporarily brought some cash to the pockets of locals who participated in the movie.

Soon after, Loiyangalani became a hot spot for international guests and celebrities keen to show to the world the virgin beauty and innocence of the area.

Oasis Lodge whose proprietor is a German by the name Wolfgang Dechler, still has fond memories of the good times when business boomed.

No administration has been able to control the Turkana’s territorial expansion, whether in colonial or post-independence times and coupled with the town’s inaccessibility, insecurity and negligence by concerned authorities the area was largely ignored.

This, probably, explains the bewildered attitude with which the locals carry on with the festivals, despite their radiant performances.

Turkana is a fascinating destination where the locals in their village setting offer a unique experience. The timely but costly cultural festival provides a reason why the region may not continue lagging behind the rest of the country in terms of development.

The close to a month’s preparation bore fruit as the visitors were treated to an amazing cocktail of Elmoseratu. The dance festival was a competitive show by the different tribes who displayed their traditional attire and huts, all distinguished by building materials and inside decor. Not even the brief downpour disheartened the guests who were determined to enjoy every bit of it after coming all the way.

The locals have come along way going by this year’s performance. Their co-ordinated performance and detailed dance regalia was much better compared to the previous year’s, not to mention a hike in prices of their artefacts at the wayside market.

Tribes that would otherwise not see eye to eye danced and mingled freely, each trying to outdo the other. At the end of the day, a brilliant dance by the Gabbra who covered long distance to get here stole the show with their presentation. Then it was time to put differences aside, as the tribes did a closing song and dance together.

festival of foods

Young and old danced gaily, chanting and ululating as dust and sweat filled the air to the delight of the guests. And when the sun was tucked away, the night ushered in yet another feast, this time directed to mouths.

Traditional foods consisting mainly of meat were on hand as tribes celebrated and sung into the night. To the guests it was an opportunity to sample local dishes. Apart from the festivals, there is more to do and see under the sweltering heat. The festival provides the opportune setting to visit and interact with the locals in their villages and to learn about their culture.

When all is done, a dismal mood engulfs the town as the flights take off, noisily blowing the palm trees in their wake while the land cruisers leave behind a trail of dust. For the locals they will have to wait for another year before they receive such guests and sell their wares.