Emergence Magazine

Francis Ekai navigates the landscape around the Lothagam Pillar Site.

A Whale in the Desert

Tracing Paths of Migration in Turkana

by Tristan McConnell

Photos by Sarah Waiswa

Writer

Tristan McConnell is a writer and foreign correspondent whose work has appeared in GQ, Harper’s, The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, The Times of London, The Economist, TIME, and many more. Tristan’s reporting has won awards from the Overseas Press Club of America, the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society for Features Journalism, the Prix Bayeux for War Correspondents, and the Society of Environmental Journalists. His work has also been shortlisted for a National Magazine Award, as well as numerous Kurt Schork and One World Media awards. He is currently working on a book about the African Rift Valley.

Photographer

Sarah Waiswa is a documentary and portrait photographer born in Uganda and based in Nairobi, Kenya. Her work explores identity on the African continent, particularly that of younger generations of Africans. She won the 2016 Rencontres d’Arles Discovery Award for “Stranger in a Familiar Land,” a series exploring the persecution of albinos in sub-Saharan Africa. She was also recognized by the 2015 Uganda Press Photo Awards and was named one of Uganda’s best emerging artists by OkayAfrica.

Tristan McConnell journeys across Turkana in Kenya’s Rift Valley, a place whose long story is still being written by a shape-shifting landscape and changing patterns of human and nonhuman migration.

Moru Sipo Hill

N 02°41´16.7´´, E 36°02´06.3´´

Loura Ekaale’s homestead, or awi.

At the foot of a ridge of successive hills, sparsely wooded with thorny acacias, lies a plain of shrubs, sand, and gravel. The sun overhead is relentless, the sky cloudless, as it has been for months now. It is June, the depths of the dry season, the land arid as an abandoned well, the hot wind an empty promise. Cast in relief against the austere beauty of the land is a dark, volcanic outcropping to the distant north that is visible for many miles in every direction, while to the east shimmers the haze of Lake Turkana, a body of water that sprawls across northern Kenya like a sluggish crocodile. In this part of the country, there are no paved roads, no piped water, no electricity poles, no brick buildings, no school, no shops, and no crops. The landscape is coursed with dry riverbeds, prone to long droughts and occasional floods; there is hot sand underfoot, and thorns on every branch and stem.

Yet for Loura Ekaale, a rangy, shorn-skulled herder of the Turkana tribe, it is home, and a place he seems made for: a Giacometti sculpture of a man, he is all taut muscles and leanness, his feet cracked from walking, his face etched with lines, his eyes slits of obsidian permanently narrowed against the harsh light. He lives with his two wives and six children in an isolated collection of five thatched reed huts, like upturned baskets, clustered around a thorn-fenced goat enclosure. Ekaale and his family are pastoralists, livestock herders, whose existence is contingent upon water and pasture. The freedom to migrate, to move in search of both, is pastoralism’s fundamental strategy. Ever since he was a boy, Ekaale says, “I was led by green pastures.”

Turkana is a place and a people, and for both, migration has always been the path to survival, stretching back through generations and far beyond, deep into prehistory, and further still into our evolutionary past, back millions of years to when our first human ancestors emerged in Africa’s Great Rift Valley and then dispersed in waves, out of the continent to the rest of the world.

The Rift Valley had fascinated me for decades. As a young student of anthropology, I had learned about human evolution, about our first bipedal hominin steps, about the apelike australopithecines and the variety of Homo species of which we today are the lone survivors. I learned how the remains of all of these were found in East Africa and how each fossil was a phrase, a sentence, or sometimes a whole chapter in the story of where we came from, and who we are. I learned how Homo erectus had left Africa to reach Asia and Europe, how early Homo sapiens had followed in colonizing waves, developing agriculture, social stratification, monumental architecture, and, eventually, all the things we call civilization: the industry, technology, consumption, inequality, pollution, and destruction of the Anthropocene. Later, as a foreign correspondent in Africa, I lived for years in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, four hundred miles to the south of Turkana, traveling widely to cover the daily news of power and politics, conflict, and crisis, but only rarely did I visit the northern wilds, where those sorts of stories were harder to discern, and even harder to sell. Still, I wanted to learn something of the place where our human journey began, and where it continues today in a landscape that has held us, propelled us out, and compels us back.

Holding a spear, Loura Ekaale looks out from his homestead at the foot of the Moru Sipo Hills.

That dispersal, that movement in pursuit of opportunity, continues. Yet in a denial of this most fundamental adaptive human behavior—our original survival strategy—modern migrants are more often feared than welcomed, more often met with violence than kindness, more often left to perish than offered help.

Turkana today is no biblical Eden. Rather, it is an unforgiving place where calamity is always a failed rainy season away, and survival is contingent on knowledge and mobility. It is a place of geologic, climatic, and human dynamism that demands and rewards movement. In so doing, Turkana remakes migration, reconfiguring it as a fundamental human trait, challenging contemporary notions of the threats posed by freedom of movement, between nations, through geographies, and across the borders and barriers erected to stop the flow. Turkana reveals migration to be not just a right but an existential necessity.

For Ekaale, on the contrary, the threat is from anything that might limit movement: roads, fences, private property, political boundaries, government policies, prejudice, injustice. Throughout his life, Ekaale has engaged in multiple, overlapping forms of mobility, using movement, fluidity, pragmatism, and opportunism to adapt to the changes around him.

Dry seasons are times of dearth, paucity of pasture, empty stomachs, parched mouths, high mobility, and big distances, walking for days at a time without returning home. Wet seasons—scarcer nowadays as the climate tips towards aridity and drought cycles contract—are times of plenty, of pasture and proximity to home, of diets replete with milk and blood.

As an elder, Ekaale owns livestock but rarely herds them himself, for tending animals is a young man’s role, one that teaches the skills required to survive, skills such as reading the land, learning the water points, collaborating with allies, and avoiding conflict with enemies. “You have to know the hills and the trees,” he tells me, as landmarks constitute one of the many maps that guide him through Turkana.

His oldest son, Lolamba, is learning these things now. Every morning, after the crested larks usher in the dawn with song and the equatorial sun rises abruptly above the waters of the distant lake, Lolamba releases the family’s fifty or so sheep and goats from their thorn-ringed kraal and, with nothing more than a small wooden stool and walking stick, sets off for the day, returning only in the late afternoon. One morning, I walk with him awhile through the scratchy tussocks of echemee—a hardy, saline soil–loving shrub that is dry-season forage for goats—but his pace is brisk and light, at least twice mine, and I soon fall behind. The last I see of Lolamba, he is paused on a basalt boulder in the saddle of Moru Sipo Hill, watching his livestock. Stick in hand, hand on hip, leg slightly raised, he briefly and incongruously evokes Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Then he hops to the ground and slips from view.

Loura’s eldest son, Lolamba, sets off to herd cattle for the day at the foot of the Moru Sipo Hills.

Loura Ekaale throws a sheep over an open flame to help remove the skin in preparation for the akiriket.

Ekaale is an acute listener and compelling storyteller. As he describes different ways of moving through the landscape, his long limbs are folded like those of a contortionist entering a box. His elbows rest on his thighs, his long fingers steepled in front of his chin. When talking, he leans forward solicitously and rubs his hands, punctuating his answers with a clap or spread palms; when listening, he cocks his head, emitting a murmured Mmmm of agreement and empathy, or an elongated Eh of understanding. When he talks of his livestock, Ekaale smiles broadly, happily. He holds court beneath a thorny ebei, a Swiss Army knife of a tree, a Balanites related to the desert date, whose wood can be used to make tool handles, fences, poles, and stools, or for charcoal and firewood, and whose seeds and fruit can be eaten.

Mobility is an essential strategy, as Ekaale’s first wife, Nakiru, explains to me one morning: “We move with the rains, for if we stay in one place, the animals will die.” Livestock are food, money, and status. To be without livestock is to be ngikebotok, to have failed, to be one of “those who have nothing”; to have livestock is to have everything, or at least enough. “Living is about how you provide for your family,” Nakiru says as she breastfeeds her youngest child, seven-month-old Esukuku. “I can’t tell you if this life is hard, it is just life.” To an outsider, perhaps a foreign visitor from the city, Nakiru’s life does indeed appear hard, but also simple, unconfused, contented. The most common sounds around her homestead when I visit—besides the bleating of sheep, buzzing of flies, and chirping of birds—is an almost constant chatter of conversation, and laughter. The things that matter are all close at hand: family, livestock.

In contemporary Turkana, the word for “ancestors” is ngipen, and Ekaale can also navigate the land by their resting places. He recently returned from a visit to his father’s grave, dug in a venerated position in the center of a former goat enclosure, where Ekaale poured milk on the dirt and prayed for the recovery of his sick daughter, Elepete. His prayer was answered, he says, beckoning to the five-year-old, who comes forward, shy but healthy, the tartan blanket knotted at her shoulder parted to reveal parallel cicatrices on her chest and belly. Besides landmarks and ancestors, Ekaale can also navigate the land by water sources and pastures, memories and stories, social connections and rivalries, but these days he mostly navigates by motorcycle, a 125cc Honda “picky-picky” he uses to ferry goats to market, turning a walking journey of days into hours. The motorcycle has also increased Ekaale’s social status: he is respected as someone who can travel far and fast, conveying information and sharing news.

The scene might appear timeless, but it is the opposite. It bursts with time, the landscape fractures under the pressure of time.

Ekaale does not know the precise year of his birth, but he remembers being a small child in 1974, or, rather, the year of the solar eclipse—Ekaru a Aribokin—in a calendar defined by significant natural and human events such as heavy rains or drought, or even a particularly violent or destructive cattle raid. It was cattle raiding that drove Ekaale and Nakiru here fifteen years ago; they migrated from the Loriu Hills, a two-day walk to the southeast. Although Ekaale is highly mobile both day-to-day and seasonally with his goats and sheep, the move to Moru Sipo was the first time he had relocated to a new living place. Each of these forms of migration has its own name: the seasonal movement known as awosit, the rarer and more dramatic recentering of a life called aramaken. The physical action of walking may be the same, but the distinction between the two is intense, like the difference between commuting and emigrating.

Armed cattle raiding—aremor in Turkana—is a rite of passage for young pastoralist men. As a symbol of masculinity and a way to accrue enough livestock to pay the bride price needed to marry, it serves both social and biological functions. It is also an exercise in cohesion, bringing one group together against another—for example, the Turkana against the neighboring Pokot. It was a Pokot raid on his village that drove Ekaale out. He chose to leave for a place he had seen on his seasonal travels, a place deep in Turkana territory and far from the Pokot raiders, where he could settle his family and live peacefully.

Seminomadic herding societies are found across Africa’s Middle Belt between the Sahara and the farming lands farther south, and although numbers are slippery, the African Union reckoned a decade ago that one in four Africans were pastoralists. This is no arcane livelihood, but one that uses mobility to survive in environments characterized by erratic rainfall and frequent scarcity, where more settled lives are impossible. It is a way of living that has persisted for many thousands of years, but it faces unprecedented pressure from growing populations, expanding cities, privatization of lands, government policies that encourage—sometimes enforce—sedentarism, and a changing climate that makes rain fleeting and pasture ever harder to find.

Loura Ekaale leaves for an errand on his motorcycle, which he paid for with over twenty goats.

Amung, fifteen, fetches water at a stream using jerry cans.

Recognizing these pressures, Ekaale is seeking a different kind of mobility for his children, not across geography this time but society. “I want to put some children to school because I see life is not like before,” he tells me. “Life has to have these two things: you have animals, and you learn to live the modern way.” It is a tension he wrestles with, torn between ensuring a future for his children and maintaining a connection to the land. “Both are important,” he says slowly, but he worries that if his children are drawn away, “they will forget the customs of the Turkana people, how to herd livestock, and if they forget about this Turkana life, the family will disappear, it will not exist; so the children may go to town and be scattered.”

Yet he knows education is a route to diversification, to options, choices, and alternative ways of living that help to ensure the family’s survival, whether by herding, trading, fishing, farming, or laboring for wages. “Life depends on how you grew up. I grew up in a family that takes care of animals, so I adopted the same,” he says. “Those who are fishing or trading, maybe they have different skills, but even their life is good. And these businesses they do also depend on my livestock: when I go to sell my goat, I buy their food, so we need each other.”

After collecting water from a stream, Amung and a neighbor carry water home.

After talking for some hours about movement, change, and modernity, Ekaale says he would like to honor our visit with an akiriket, a ritual feast. Preparation is a family affair. His teenage daughters, Amung and Eiyapan, go to collect water. There are neither taps nor boreholes nearby, yet despite the heat and the absence of rain, they find water in a knee-deep hole dug in the loose, gravelly bed of an occasional stream a mile or so away, enough to scoop and fill their jerry cans. Lolamba picks out a sheep and drags it by its horns towards his father, who waits, perfectly erect, spear in hand. A firm downward strike to the neck and the sheep buckles, bleeds, dies. The children help gut and clean the carcass, which is placed, whole and unskinned, upon a pyre of burning sticks; then they retire, for only initiated men may partake of the feast. Guests sit behind a crescent of neatly piled stones, separated into their respective generation sets—either Those of the Mountain, ngimor, or Those of the Leopard, ngirisae—and arranged in order of seniority. In front of them, Ekaale places choice chunks of liver, kidney, and meat, all sliced and roasted right on the coals. As an uninitiated male, I may not take a place at the stone crescent, nor may the photographer, who is female, but we are permitted to sit close by and share the feast.

The collision of modernity and tradition in Turkana creates stress, but also opportunity, and pastoralists are nothing if not pragmatic. Behind Ekaale’s homestead, the conical Moru Sipo Hill rears up to the south, a prominence high enough that a mobile phone company chose to build a 4G relay station on its summit. As a result, while there’s neither electricity nor water nor roads, it is possible to livestream soccer matches and watch YouTube videos without glitching. Late at night, Ekaale talks loudly and raucously with his visitors, their faces lit by mobile phone screens and conversations routinely interrupted by jarring, jangling ringtones. Mobile phones have made the sharing of information easier and faster, making them an essential tool of the pastoralist’s trade. Ekaale charges his with a small solar panel and keeps it close at all times, clutched in his hand or wrapped in the waistband of his sarong. Together they discuss the changing price of livestock, the transformative value of a motorcycle, and that one time, many years ago, when Ekaale traveled far south to Kitale, in Kenya’s lush, green farming highlands, just to see what it was like.

The chatter and laughter float through the night’s silence, drifting across the sand, gravel, rock, and thorn of a landscape that still guides the lives of Turkana’s pastoralists, a landscape whose beauty, complexity, and multilayered meanings Ekaale has offered me a glimpse of. But there is still more to be revealed here, beneath the earth where lie the buried understandings of an ancient landscape and the deep history of Ekaale’s—and our—ancestors.

Lothagam

N 02°55´54.6´´, E 36°03´17.0´´

Large standing boulders at the Lothagam Pillar Site, which give the site its name.

Fifteen miles north of Moru Sipo Hill lies the dark ridgeline that is visible from Ekaale’s home. This basalt-and-sandstone promontory, known as Lothagam, is cast adrift some miles to the east of a continuous spine of volcanic highlands that stretches southwards from the Napudet Hills and runs parallel to Lake Turkana’s western shore. It includes Moru Sipo, where the range widens, then tapers, before making a broad eastward turn towards Lake Turkana and the Loriu Hills of Ekaale’s childhood. Lothagam’s striking isolation has drawn people for millennia; it is a place replete with history, a palimpsest of lives lived, if you know where—and how—to look.

Francis Ekai is trying to teach me. It is a little after eight on a Tuesday morning, and a light wind is blowing across Lothagam. Though still early, it is approaching eighty degrees. On the bleached plains of hardy acacias and thorny, ankle-high shrubs that stretch out in every direction around the rocky ridge, homesteads are sparsely scattered, each a fenceless little collection of thatch huts. Here and there across the bone-dry vastness, boys guide their families’ goats and sheep as dust devils twist by.

The scene might appear timeless, but it is the opposite. It bursts with time, the landscape fractures under the pressure of time. Tectonics have lifted and torn the Rift Valley, a process that continues today, pulling the continent inexorably apart, continually reshaping the rift. In this restless terrain, Ekai, who is forty-one, moves across a shifting geography that encompasses a deep history stretching back through eras.

Ekai grew up in a place called Nariokotome, a small town over a hundred miles to the north, between the lake and the mountains. In 1984, archaeologists working in Nariokotome’s dry riverbed discovered a skeleton; its undeveloped bones and the milk teeth still embedded in its upper jaw showed it to be a boy of around eleven years, while the volcanic ash from which the skeleton was unearthed dated it to 1.5 million years ago. After the discovery of “Turkana Boy,” the most complete Homo erectus skeleton yet found, Nariokotome became somewhat famous, and archaeological digs began to take place regularly there. Ekai recalls being about nine years old and curious when he climbed a tree to watch the scientists at work with their shovels and brushes, their picks and sieves. One day he was eating fruit and spitting the seeds to the ground when one of the archaeologists saw him and urged him to lend a hand. So he did. He was excited and enthralled by all the history beneath his feet, beneath his home, and after that Ekai would often help out or just hang around, watching and learning. When he finished school, he became a field assistant with the Turkana Basin Institute, formalizing his interest in work that has since taken him far from his father’s homestead, crisscrossing the land and the lake in search of fossils.

Discerning meanings in the shards and fragments of bone and stone that litter the land is a practice, an embodiment of knowledge, as much as it is learned. Sharp-eyed and acutely attuned to variations in the surface, Ekai walks with his thumbs hooked in the shoulder straps of his rucksack, slightly stooped, eyes set upon the ground in front of him. When something attracts his attention, he pauses and strokes his chin. With the nonchalance of a city stroller spotting discarded trash, Ekai points out pieces of fossil tusk and ancient hippo teeth among the gravel and pebbles. Quotidian to him, these are confounding, mind-bending, time-twisting artifacts to the occasional visitor: millions of years in the making, buried in the earth, transformed into rock, and resurfaced by wind and rain. Close by, a layered wall of sedimentary red sandstone disgorges the petrified remains of a Miocene elephant from its rocky belly, the white shards cascading like icefall.

Tectonic rifting and erosion evident in the landscape surrounding the Lothagam Pillar Site.

Field assistant Francis Ekai at Turkwel South, a Pleistocene site on the southern bank of the Turkwel River.

We follow sandy meanders through a cataclysmic landform. Surfaces are tilted and smashed, the dark basalt carapace shattered, weather-eroded gullies and fissures segmenting ochre scarps and maroon cliffs. Only in the pauses between gusts of warm wind is the depth of the silence audible: neither engines nor voices, just birdsong and flies. Ekai takes long, loping, sure-footed strides up inclines scattered with smooth pebbles. I scramble after him, sinking in sand, stumbling over rocks, barely able to keep track of where my feet are falling, let alone join the search for fossils.

Ahead of me, Ekai pauses on a cracked and cratered plateau in a shattered amphitheater, framed to east and west by dark volcanic ridges. There is a circle of football-sized boulders, in the center of which stand four still-larger smooth, oblong rocks, some upright, some listing. The material is nature’s, but the architecture is not. The diameter of the rock circle is 112 paces and there are several smaller circles, similar in design, nearby. Each one, Ekai explains, is a tomb.

Discerning meanings in the shards and fragments of bone and stone that litter the land is a practice, an embodiment of knowledge, as much as it is learned.

Seven thousand years ago, reaching this place would have required a boat, for Lake Turkana was three hundred feet deeper in its shallow basin, its surface far larger, its now-distant waters lapping up to the outcropping. Lothagam was a peninsula, this plateau a beach. But the world then—as now—was changing fast. As the glaciers retreated from Europe and North America, the climate was changing here too. For ten millennia, rainfall had increased across Africa, making the Sahara a fertile grassland. Ancient rock art found deep in the desert, among the towering dunes of Chad and Niger, renders giraffe and cattle where they are no longer found, where now only the hardiest nomads roam with their camel. Lake Turkana was many times its modern size, its waters higher and fresher while, a little to the south, a thousand-foot-deep lake, known as Suguta, had grown in a broad forested valley. It is inhospitable desert now.

Five thousand years ago, the Sahara rangelands were drying and Lake Turkana was receding at the end of what is known as the African Humid Period. The people of Lothagam faced unprecedented change and an uncertain future driven by the inexorable forces of plate tectonics, celestial mechanics, and changing climate.

For generations, people had hunted, gathered, and fished at Lothagam, an equilibrium that mirrored the stable climate, but environmental change brought new threats and opportunities. As the lake retreated, they were forced to move with it to survive. At the same time, driven by the same climatic changes, new migrants were arriving from the north, from the Sahara’s proto-desert, bringing with them livestock and transhumant pastoralism as a way of life. As the climate warmed and dried, migration brought new survival strategies, new ways of living more attuned to the shifting reality. The archaeological record has not yet revealed what happened when the two communities encountered each other. Perhaps the newcomers displaced the original inhabitants—peaceably or with violence?—or maybe they shared knowledge, intermarried, and merged, but it was at this moment that the old ways disappeared, receding with the lake, as herding became the dominant way of life in Turkana. The Lothagam cemetery was a response to this turbulence, an attempt to sink an anchor in a sea of change.

Lothagam’s history and the dawn of pastoralism in the Rift Valley is now being uncovered by scientists. Ekai worked here for years with an international team of archaeologists who excavated the burial chambers of what emerged as a communal cemetery as old as Stonehenge. Inside they found the remains of hundreds of women, children, and men. The bodies were buried with intricate grave goods—ivory rings; perforated hippo tusks; a headdress decorated with gerbil teeth; stone earrings and pendants fashioned from amazonite, zeolite, and hematite; and ceramics. There is no evidence of violence, and no way of telling who was chief, who serf. Lothagam, it seems, was not a memorial to the rich and powerful, like the ziggurats of Mesopotamia or the pyramids of Egypt, but a place to commemorate a community’s ancestors. The rapidly changing climatic conditions brought stress, and the burial site, it is thought, “helped mitigate social and economic uncertainties in a frontier situation,” write archaeologist Elisabeth Hildebrand et al. in a 2018 paper.

The Lothagam promontory, then as now, was a landmark visible for scores of miles around, a cresting wave of volcanic ridges bursting from the surrounding plains, a location as fixed and precise as a modern-day GPS. For Turkana’s ancient hunter-gatherers, it was a symbol of stasis and fixity; for the pastoralists who followed, and those like Ekaale who still move across the land, it is a compass point, a lodestar. But it has a deeper history, too, for the burial site is dug into the layers of lake sediment and volcanic ash that have preserved our fossil past and are slowly revealing our origins.

Boulders placed in circles around the tombs at the Lothagam Pillar Site.

Francis Ekai holds a pot fragment believed to have come from the Lothagam burial chambers.

The story of Turkana and the story of us are entangled, our deep history unspooling like a film reel projected upon the land’s dynamic screen. It is a tale of relentless movement, adaptation, and migration, of a shifting landscape, changing climate, and restless populations. In the 1960s, the discovery of plate tectonics revealed that the Earth’s surface was made up of islands of crust afloat on a sea of magma; that continents are cast adrift and violently reunited; that oceans grow and die; that what we see today is not what was there in eras and eons past; that the Earth, like us, is dynamic and restless—only our timescales are out of kilter.

The pulses of hominin migration out of Africa began with Homo erectus (meaning “upright man,” because he walked much as we do). Flat-faced and heavy-browed but otherwise strikingly human, Homo erectus was a remarkably successful species, surviving for close to two million years in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Far East, opportunistically moving to fill ecological niches. Compared with the other hominins, Homo erectus had a larger head and body, legs adapted for long-distance walking and running, and a shoulder joint and muscles made for throwing. Homo erectus may have controlled fire and created new stone technology, the distinctive Acheulean hand axes—sharp-edged, pear-shaped tools useful for meat eating—found in caves and sediments from southern Europe to eastern China.

Our anatomically modern human ancestors—sociable hunter-gatherers from the start—continued those migrations around sixty thousand years ago, meaning we have spent more of our time on Earth in Africa than beyond it. We funneled up the Rift Valley and across the Red Sea, then spread out across the globe. Everywhere we went, we hunted megafauna to extinction and set about altering the environment to suit our needs, strategies that have reached their logical conclusion with the biodiversity, climate, and pollution crises of the Anthropocene.

Our bigger brains and problem-solving ability; our dexterousness and toolmaking; our sociability, cooperation, and communication; our talent for transforming the world around us, were all honed by the geological complexity and climatic variability of Africa’s Rift Valley. This is the geography that made us, shaping us into the kind of adaptable, mobile creatures that could migrate out of Africa and conquer the world, for better or worse. We are everywhere now, but this is the only place we have always been.

Napudet Hills

N 02°57´65.3´´, E 35°51´88.8´´

The Miocene excavation site at Red Hill.

The extent of the Earth’s geological complexity and its staggering changes over time is illustrated by the wonderfully bizarre tale of a whale in the desert. Seventeen million years ago a whale died, was buried in the earth, fossilized, disinterred by erosion, and returned to an altogether different surface, 2,500 feet above sea level, where it was found in the 1970s.

“How do you explain that?” asks Kenyan anthropologist Isaiah Nengo, laughing out loud. “It proved to be a real marker of the dynamism of this place.” Any model of geological change must, as Nengo puts it, “satisfy the whale.”

“The only way [the geophysicists] could get the whale in there was to bring the land closer to the ocean, and lower. What that means is, there’s been a spread with … hundreds of thousands of square kilometers added to East Africa. So, what does that mean for the things that inhabited the surface? We think it might help explain a lot of the migration, why things are coming and going.”

Lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, and elephant—every one of the animals commonly associated with Africa today is an immigrant to the continent, he points out, just as every human on the planet is an emigrant from Africa. “When you talk about inhabitants, there’s a sense of permanence,” says Nengo, “but the lives of organisms are characterized by dynamism, which we call migration.”

For the last seven years, Nengo has led archaeological expeditions for the Turkana Basin Institute to the Napudet Hills, south of the Turkwel River that feeds Lake Turkana, and west of the desolate town of Kerio. The hills form the northern tip of the volcanic range that stretches past Lothagam towards Moru Sipo and are, today, a forbidding moonscape that could scarcely be more different from the lush hills and impossibly fertile soils of western Kenya, from which Nengo’s family comes; or the helter-skelter city of Nairobi, where he lives part of the year; or New York’s Stony Brook University, where he is a research professor; or California, where his children, all in their twenties, are at college.

Turkana Basin Institute team members begin work at a Miocene excavation site where a hippo was found.

Nengo studies and teaches in Kenya and the US, sharpening his sense of the importance of migration, even as politicians outcompete one another to turn their nations into fortresses. Both his lived experience and his scientific research show that migration and mobility are fundamental human characteristics, a fluidity forged in the crucible of Turkana. Nengo’s ambition is to understand how the landscape, ecology, and species have changed over the millions of years of the Miocene, the roles of geology and climate in those changes, and how they set the stage for our subsequent evolution. He believes the answers can be found here, in the Turkana basin, and nowhere else on Earth. He compares the world to a book containing the human story, but says it is only in the Rift Valley that the book has fallen open, allowing us to read it: it is the only place where the geological conditions that create, preserve, and reveal fossils allow us to learn our deep past. “It’s partly tectonic accidents,” says Nengo, “but also because the story is where the story is.”

One day, I accompany Nengo as he heads to a small oxide-red mound that is shaping up to be a remarkably rich site: fossiliferous, as paleontologists say. We drive the first few miles from the field camp, where dozens of tents are erected in the shade of a doum palm forest; then, with Nengo in hiking sandals, headscarf, and a broad-rimmed fedora to protect against the sun, we strike out on foot into what he calls “fourteen million years of time.” The wind blows hot and loud across bare black hills covered with smooth basalt rocks, like the aftermath of a colossal hailstorm. The heat is oppressive, the temperature rising with the sun, soaring to over a hundred degrees, and not falling until dusk. During the day, the rocks can become hot enough to melt a rubber sole. The smooth pebbles roll and slide, threatening to twist ankles, while the jagged ones can puncture tires and slice boots. It is arduous walking, but Nengo is in his element, enthusiastic.

We soon pause at the site of his most famous fossil find yet—the almost complete skull of a Miocene ape—discovered in terrain so gnarly, the geologists nicknamed it “dragon’s vomit.” At first, Nengo recalls, it appeared to be just an ancient elephant’s kneecap poking out of the rubble. That is of no interest whatsoever to an anthropologist searching for our distant origins, seeking the lineage that split and led to African apes and the protohuman hominins. But a little scratching in the dragon’s vomit revealed the patella to be a cranium, with the telltale brow ridges of a primate protruding below the forehead. The skull, known as Alesi, is the oldest-known fossil ape cranium (its discovery was described in Nature in 2017). It was found during Nengo’s first season in Napudet, when he had struggled to find scientists and assistants to join the team. After Alesi, however, “more people wanted to come!” he says.

Turkana Basin Institute team member and field assistant Selina Akai at Red Hill.

The Turkana Basin Institute team excavates a Miocene hippo.

Team members work carefully to prepare part of the Miocene hippo for transportation back to the lab.

Walking on, Nengo shows me the calcified trunks of trees protruding like broken Doric columns from layers of ash many feet deep. His colleague, the paleobotanist Rahab Kinyanjui, is working on samples to determine their species, possibly palms. “They’ve been standing there for thirteen million years,” Nengo says, gesturing towards the wood-turned-rock, static pillars in a changed landscape. A round of petrified trunk lies split on the scree, its tree rings visible, aging an ageless tree. Scattered around the trunks are fossilized sticks, and stones imprinted with the ghostly images of ancient windfall leaves, their midribs still clear, their veins still spidering out towards gently curving margins. I pick up a small piece of branch, just five inches long and narrower than my wrist. It looks like wood, but mineralized over millions of years, it has become denser and heavier than I expect. The dissonance is dizzying.

To Nengo, the sedimentary layers and the secrets that erosion draws from them are “nature’s way of writing a story: it lays it down chapter by chapter, page by page, and of course some are missing,” he says, smiling, “but Turkana gives you so many pages!” Tectonics play their part in making that unique book legible, geology providing the cipher through which the deep-buried past is revealed in shards of skull and fragments of tooth. In Turkana, an ancient lake basin with dramatically rising and falling waters created long, continuous sequences of sediments, like bathtub rings; volcanic eruptions and basalt flows layered datable ashes on top; and tectonic uplift fractured the land, exposing the past to the elements and erosion.

We continue up a steep incline and along the exposed brow of a hill. The strong wind, carpet of rocks, scarcity of trees, absence of water, and dry, sandy earth recall the recent startling and stark images beamed from Mars by NASA’s Perseverance rover. Such is his immersion in the Miocene, it can sometimes seem as if Nengo exists in two worlds at once. In the one he pictures, Napudet is a low, lush, swampy forest populated by apes, rodents, pigs, and hippos; in the other is this blackened, denuded, sun-scorched hill across which we stumble.

As we approach a site called Red Hill, Nengo describes how his team has found the broken tooth of a rodent and the jaw of a loris-like primate. He pauses as he talks, slowly lifting his hand and leg, imitating the loris’s lethargic movement. Red Hill lives up to its name, in color if not size: a small ochre mound among the land’s palette of beige, black, and gray. A grid of meter squares, marked out with pink string, covers the excavated portion of the hill. Small orange flags, laid out like a Lilliputian golf course or a crime scene, mark where fossils have been found. There are twelve in total, but only one that Nengo is interested in today: colleagues have told him they found an intact tooth, probably a pig, but maybe, “if we’re lucky,” an ape.

The story of Turkana and the story of us are entangled, our deep history unspooling like a film reel projected upon the land’s dynamic screen.

The field team has strung a tarpaulin across sticks next to the site to provide shade. Beneath it, Selina Akai, a field assistant in traditional Turkana dress—blanket hitched at her shoulder, hair shaved at the sides with a mohawk of short braids on top, neck garlanded in layer upon layer of bright beads—picks through trays of sifted earth looking for fossil fragments among the gravel. Nengo greets them all, then steps carefully into a square in the excavation site and sits down. Next to him, three men scratch at the earth with picks fashioned from sharpened screwdrivers, sweeping the loosened dirt into a dustpan for sieving. Eventually all the sieved and discarded earth will be collected and trucked back to the Turkana Basin Institute for washing and further sifting. It is meticulous, time-devouring work that requires a rare patience and attention to detail.

“This is very, very interesting,” Nengo says the moment he has the tooth nestled in his palm. After a minute of careful inspection, a broad smile creases his face. “Oh, my goodness! This is an ape incisor. Jesus H. Christ, hallelujah! You know what this one is? This is an upper incisor!” Nengo declares, triumphant. “After seven years of looking, this is the first ape tooth we’ve found here,” he says, brandishing the tiny artifact between a slender finger and thumb. His knowledge is confirmation, his excitement infectious: the team at Red Hill break into smiles and laughs. Also in the day’s haul: a bat tooth and jaw fragment. The finds are a glimpse of former inhabitants, species that survived or succumbed, stayed or moved on, in response to the changing climate and landscape: forest creatures, savannah grazers, swamp dwellers.

That night, back at camp, there is a celebration to mark the departure of a group of Kenyan graduate students who have been working the site in recent weeks, the jubilation charged by the thrill of the day’s finds. After a shared meal of goat stew and chapatis, the team of Kenyan scientists, students, field assistants, cooks, and cleaners join in a circle of rhythmic clapping and stamping, singing and chanting, swaying and hugging, beneath the moonlight.

Kalokol

N 03°31´00.9´´, E 35°53´44.3´´

Boats float near the shore of the lake at the Kalokol fishing village.

Halfway up the western shore of Lake Turkana, on the edge of a broad, shallow inlet known as Ferguson’s Gulf, lies the low-slung, hardscrabble town of Kalokol, a decrepit and squalid tin-roofed place with the feel of a waning gold rush. On a hill overlooking Kalokol is another ancient communal burial chamber, a pillar site like the one at Lothagam, but few pay it any heed as they tear past on the last stretch of new tarmac before the road limps into town, crumbling and collapsing into the sand just before the outskirts. Seemingly all day, trucks ferry goods into the town’s array of general stores, or clatter out loaded with fish drawn from the lake.

A concrete and sheet metal monument to donor hubris dominates Kalokol. In the 1970s the Norwegian government funded a state-of-the-art fish processing, freezing, and packing facility intended to modernize and expand the regional industry, but erratic and expensive electricity and Turkana’s remoteness from Kenya’s biggest markets meant it soon floundered, and was abandoned. Turkana’s fishermen shrugged off this failed and unwanted intervention; local technology abides.

On the lake shore, among the piles of sticky guts, wind-blown drifts of scales, and racks of split fish laid out to dry like the repeating pattern on a kitenge fabric, Gibson Nakusi repairs his handmade nets. He fishes using a traditional rough raft fashioned from five lengths of unsawed palm trunk lashed together with rope. Lean at forty-six, Nakusi propels himself across the chop of Ferguson’s Gulf sitting straight-legged and bolt upright, gripping a long-handled wooden paddle. He wears a T-shirt which he bought from the local mitumba—one of the secondhand clothes markets where sacks of America’s and Europe’s castoffs are piled up and sold—because it features a man with a swordfish dangling from a long rod. It reads “Bill’s Bait & Beer Shop.”

A lifelong fisherman, Nakusi has seen waves of newcomers migrating to the lake with every drought, as herders who have lost their livestock turn to fishing to make ends meet. The Turkana word for fishing, akichem, also means to be without livestock, or destitute. “Those with no animals come to fish,” he says. It doesn’t matter what the rains do, or whether the pasture is picked bare, he says, “because if you work, you can get money from fishing.”

Ewoi Edukon is among them. His herd dwindled with each successive punishing drought until, with no livestock left and a hungry family to provide for, he decided to make the long northward journey to the lake. In his mid-forties, Edukon had lived his life a proud pastoralist, with a wife, three children, and a herd of goats and donkeys. “It was a good life, but I lost it all. My livestock was swept away by drought,” he says. He fishes yet does not regard himself as a fisherman. “I am only fishing for a short time to get some money. My life is not here, it is on the other side,” Edukon says with a wistful glance to the south.

A man hangs fish to dry on lines in Kalokol.

The lake draws economic migrants from farther afield too. There is Rose Wasika, who arrived from Kitale with her sister Margaret just a few weeks ago. They set up shop, scaling, gutting, slashing, washing, and drying tilapia to sell to traders. The cleaned fish hang from a line, like laundry. Then there is a towering, garrulous man from Nairobi, whom everyone calls “Big Joe” and who worked in city hotels until the pandemic shut them down. He oversees the loading into his Land Cruiser of immense bales of fish, each one rolled by two men and lifted by four. And there is Ali Kitongana, who has come a thousand miles from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who speaks Lingala, Swahili, French, and English and makes a living smoking and selling catfish and mudfish to Congolese refugees in Kakuma camp, a few hours’ drive away.

Others have migrated to the banks of the Turkwel and Kerio Rivers, where flood-recession farming and irrigation-fed agriculture are possible. Farming, or akitare, like fishing, is an alternative livelihood and a way of diversifying survival strategies. Sometimes that diversification occurs within families, with a brother herding, a sister farming, a cousin seeking wage labor in a town or city, while one child tends livestock and another attends school, spread betting against disaster.

Award-winning environmental activist Ikal Angelei in her greenhouse in Lodwar.

“Migration is critical for survival,” Ikal Angelei tells me when we meet one afternoon to share a pot of freshly brewed coffee at her off-the-grid home on the expanding outskirts of Lodwar, the region’s capital. Angelei is a prominent voice in—and from—Turkana. A political and environmental activist and a winner of the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize, she is an iconoclast in northern Kenya’s conservative, pastoral patriarchy: an outspoken, educated, and independent woman with bleach-tipped dreads brushing the nape of her neck and a T-shirt that reads “Pussy Power.” Angelei has seen Kenya and the world yet would not live anywhere but Turkana. She recalls trips with her father when she was a girl, when they would travel across the rock-strewn countryside to find a shady copse of trees beside a meandering seasonal river, a contrast that remains spellbinding. “It’s finding serenity within this harshness that really grabs me,” she says.

Angelei’s home lies at the foot of Mount Lodwar’s steep, tapering slopes. As I stand in her garden, the hill’s near-perfect pyramidal shape reminds me of Moru Sipo, where I left Ekaale with his family and his livestock. The two do not know each other, but they have much in common: a deep knowledge and love of the landscape, a recognition of the way it compels movement for survival, and an understanding of how to navigate its geography, to exist within its harshness.

Pastoralism, she says, is “very pragmatic … very rational.” Angelei lives in town but keeps livestock in herds around Turkana, as a kind of mobile bank account. She distinguishes between pastoralist migration in search of water and pasture, and contemporary migration in search of economic opportunity, a separation akin to Ekaale’s description of awosit and aramaken in his own life. Both types of migration are about survival, but there is more to this movement than making a living. “The conversation on migration has always focused on the livelihood, but it is linked to social structures that go beyond water and pasture,” she says, networks that are often controlled by women who leave their families when they marry but retain ties to siblings and parents by bending seasonal migration to fit the web of family.

Angelei is forty, and over her lifetime she has seen the undoubtable shifts in climate as rainy seasons have shortened and droughts deepened. But she has a more complex understanding than many people of the role of climate change in northern Kenya, identifying a range of exacerbating short-term factors.

Where sparse plains and silence spread out from Ekaale’s homestead, the fringe of the growing city of Lodwar draws ever closer to Angelei’s. Daily scheduled flights connect Lodwar to Kenya’s south, new tarmac roads cut journey times to a fraction of what they were just a few years ago, colossal pylons carry wind-powered electricity to the capital, and mobile phone masts put almost everyone in touch and online.

If you pass a 4×4 in Turkana, chances are it belongs to either an international aid agency or the government: the county is one of the poorest in Kenya and has long attracted the interest of well-meaning missionaries and charities, and with them, unintended consequences. Angelei argues that continuous years of emergency handouts meant food aid became a reliable source of sustenance, creating a dependency that left people hungrier than before when the NGOs departed or donor funding dried up. “People are hungry, but the sources of support are less,” she says.

At the same time, development projects sank boreholes all over Turkana to provide fresh water, and built irrigation and agricultural schemes that drained rivers and sucked up the groundwater, causing traditional water holes to dry up, shortening downstream access, and upsetting traditional migration. “Migration patterns were based on water, pasture, salt licks, so when you get to a place and there’s no water, you’re stuck, because someone sank a borehole upstream and it has impacted downstream,” she says. This disruption renders traditional knowledge of the landscape useless, stripping away one more essential survival strategy for pastoralists such as Ekaale.

A view of the landscape around the fairly dry Turkwel River.

One of Angelei’s biggest fears, she tells me, is another form of obstruction, of meddling with the flow of water on which life here depends: the ongoing construction of a series of immense hydroelectric dams and commercial irrigation projects by the Ethiopian government on the Omo River, which feeds Lake Turkana from the north. She warns that the lake’s future might be a catastrophic drying out, like that of the disappeared Aral Sea or the diminished Lake Chad. “Those risks are still to come,” she says.

In epochs past, Lake Turkana grew and shrank, like slow-motion breathing—at times it was an immense sea, at other times an arid confluence—as tectonics and climate acted on the land, but in the Anthropocene, we are causing geological changes on human timescales. The velocity may prove too much for us, and the planet. That a region so deeply defined by migration and dynamism should be threatened by anthropogenic obstruction seems a sadly appropriate epitaph for our times.

Without the lake, there is no life in Turkana—not for Ekaale and his family, not for Angelei, not for the residents of Kalokol. Without the lake, there would have been no possibility of survival for the hunter-gatherers of Lothagam, nor the pastoralist immigrants from the north. Without the lake, its sediments and underlying geology, our ancient past would be indecipherable, invisible even to the likes of Ekai and Nengo. This is the modern Turkana, a story that is still being written, even as Nengo and his fellow scientists uncover layer after layer of ancient chronicles.

Today, Africa continues to be a major source of human migration. Roughly one in seven of the world’s 281 million international migrants are African, according to the United Nations. They are driven by conflict, by climate change, by opportunity, by curiosity, but their movement is not often seen for what it is: a complex, contemporary iteration of an ancient strategy, a mirroring of past migrations. Rather, their movement is obstructed by those who choose to forget that we were all migrants once. Turkana reminds us.

  1. Derbyshire, Samuel F. Remembering Turkana: Material Histories and Contemporary Livelihoods in North-Western Kenya. Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2020.

  2. Feibel, Craig. S. “A Geological History of the Turkana Basin,” Evolutionary Anthropology 20, no.6 (2011).

  3. Hildebrand, Elisabeth et al. “A Monumental Cemetery Built by Eastern Africa’s First Herders Near Lake Turkana, Kenya.” PNAS. Washington: National Academy of Sciences, 2018.

  4. Lopez, Barry. “Jackal Camp.” Horizon. New York: Knopf, 2019.

  5. Maslin, Mark. The Cradle of Humanity: How the Changing Landscape of Africa Made Us So Smart. Oxford University Press, 2017.

  6. Nengo, Isaiah et al. “New Infant Cranium from the African Miocene Sheds Light on Ape Evolution.” Nature 548, 169–174 (2017).

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