I recently saw Marina Shacola’s latest series, Dressing, which is a photo essay from Turkana, Kenya. On her most recent visit to the region Marina has focused her lens on the characters that make up this colourful nomadic people. In a contrast to London Fashion Week, Marina’s images are much more thought provoking. They ask us to engage with the changes that are taking place in this region and how they are impacting on Turkana culture. These images are a powerful message about Turkana – a culture on the verge of collapse in Kenya. Read on to see Marina’s images and learn about the issues the region and the people are facing:
Turkana – a culture on the verge of collapse in Kenya
Where is Turkana?
Turkana is a region in Northern Kenya, which borders Lake Turkana. It is one of the hottest and harshest regions in the world. The lake is 150 miles long, fed by the Omo river in Ethiopia and Unesco has listed the lake and surroundings a World Heritage site. As the lake has no outflow, water leaves via evaporation only and with dams being built in Ethiopia, the flow of water is reducing and the lake becoming more saline. The Turkana people are pastoralists and fishermen, however food is scarce and there is a long standing drought effecting the whole region and threatening their way of life.
History of Turkana
The history of the Turkana area dates from c 3,300,000 years with the earliest late Stone Age industries in prehistory found here. Four sites of Stone Age cultures are situated upon tributaries along the West side of Lake Turkana, At the archeological site in Nataruk, archaeologists found the oldest evidence of inter-group conflict, establishing that hunter-gatherer groups fought among themselves.
The region was cut off from the rest of the world until 1885, after which they experienced direct influence from British colonial forces. The Turkana people put up a lasting resistance to the British, but by the start of WW1 a few parts of Turkana had been put under colonial administration.
From WW1 – WW2 Turkana actively participated in the wars as allies of Britain against an invading Italy. Turkana was significant in the liberation of Abyssinia. After WW2 the British led disarmament and pacfication campaigns, leading to massive disruptions and dispossession of Turkana pastoralists. The colonial practice of deliberate segregation by cutting the region off until 1976, led to marginalisation and underdevelopment in the lead up to Kenya’s independence.
The main economic activity for the Turkana for thousands of years has been the rearing of cattle, goats, sheep and camels. No food grows in the region, so there hasn’t been a thriving economy to date.
Soon that will all change. In 2012, oil was discovered in the Turkana desert. Experts believe that by 2021 companies will be exporting upwards of 2,000 barrels of oil a day. How the tribe will benefit from this development is extremely doubtful and already a source of conflict. Over just a few short years, this is already having a profound and arguably detrimental effect to the local community. Small arms are finding their way through porous borders with unstable neighbouring countries like South Sudan. Longer droughts due to climate change result in raids by the neighbouring tribe of Pokot to steal animals. Access to water is more difficult as the new roads to the oil wells have been constructed through the dried up rivers where people dig to get water.
The impact of the Western World on the Turkana culture
In Marina’s pictures the people of Turkana are ‘dressed’ with the history of their land and the photographs depict the changes which overwhelmingly affect their lives. Every garment tells a story because, in a sense, these worn clothes are history itself.
Poised in front of makeshift studio sets – devised from mats made by the women out of dry palm leaves found at the banks of dry river beds – the confidence and inherent style of the tribe comes through.
At first glance the compositions playfully capture the mixing and matching of traditional garments combined with modern dress; a button down shirt is paired with traditional robes, a brand-name t-shirt thrown over a wrap, slippers worn over football socks. But there is also a powerful subtext here about how the Western World is infiltrating the remote, arid far north of Kenya, that has managed to maintain many of their cultural traditions due to decades of isolation.
Marina Shacola’s images ask us to engage with the visual changes that are taking place, and by default ask ourselves some pretty complex moral questions; about whether it is right to industrialize every surface of our planet, and if it is inevitable shouldn’t at least the rightful owners of the land benefit from it?
The compositions capture the early stages of two worlds colliding, the consequences of which will ultimately result in an identity and culture vanishing.
Children are allowed to go to school only if they wear western clothes and shave their heads for example. Nudity that was once the traditional norm is now shamed, and women are sent bras to cover themselves.