A day in the life of a Turkana woman

Climate Change: A day in the life of a Turkana Woman

What you need to know:

  • Between 1967 and 2012, Turkana County’s minimum and maximum air temperatures rose by between 2°C and 3°C, according to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report.
  • The hotter climates and prolonged drought have resulted in drying of boreholes and water pans, causing death of animals and people.
  • But balancing between culture and tackling climate change is a major challenge here especially for women like Lolio Ekal, a widow.

For centuries, communities in the arid and semi-arid Turkana County have lived under hot climates. The county receives an annual average rainfall of 200mm.

Data show 60 per cent of the population are pastoralists, 20 per cent agro-pastoralists, and 12 per cent have fishing as their livelihood. Those in waged labour account for eight per cent.

Between 1967 and 2012, the county’s minimum and maximum air temperatures rose by between 2°C and 3°C, according to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report. Climate change experts attribute this change to deforestation, urbanisation and overstocking, among other human activities.

The hotter climates and prolonged drought have resulted in drying of boreholes and water pans, causing death of animals and people from dehydration and famine.

A January 2022 review by the National Drought Management Authority lists Turkana among five counties with worsening access to water for households and livestock.

A 2021 Ministry of Agriculture report shows the county has 72.7 per cent of its population suffering food poverty and 79 per cent living in absolute poverty. Of the 926,976 population, 448,868 are women.

Cultural barriers

But balancing between culture and tackling climate change is a major challenge here.

Goats, sheep, cows, bulls, donkey and camel are all a husband’s property. Milking is the only right of access a wife has to the livestock. She only becomes the owner if he dies. Household data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics show Turkana households have more than seven children, with the county leading in terms of the number of households led by women at 52.1 per cent.

So, I travel to Turkana County to establish the gender dynamics in the face of climate change.

I spend 12 straight hours with a woman in Kodekode village, Turkana East. In my interaction with her social chain, I realise problems attributable to climate change here are more than meets the eye.

It's 4am on Tuesday, and it is already hot. It’s 27°C. As we head for the village to meet with Lolio Ekal, we see people sleeping on goat's skins outside dome acacia huts. A mix of tar and leather-like smell fills the air intermittently.

Lolio Ekal, a widow, in Kodekode village, Turkana County, on February 7, 2022.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

It's dark. There are no street lights along Lokichar-Lokori road. We branch off to a deforested plain with some fire burning from a distance. We later find out it is set on a trunk of an about-15-foot-high acacia tree—it's the way the communities here fell trees for burning charcoal and firewood.

For now, we are lost. It’s pin drop silent. A hut near the burning tree is deserted, but we can see some life there in the form of a cooking pan outside.
Ms Ekal does not have a phone, so we can't call her for directions. We opt to wait in the vehicle until daybreak. But 20 minutes later, a man appears from nowhere and takes us to her.

It's 5.30am and she has already woken up, ready for a trek to fetch water. On her neck is a bead striped red, black, green and red with a silver ring over it, meaning she is a widow.

It's a small village of 13 huts and less than 100 people. Our presence excites everyone, especially children. Out of the more than 20 children, seven boys have worn just a T-shirt and nothing below.

At 6.25am, we set off to Kodekode water point. She takes no breakfast and leaves behind her two grandchildren. Like her, none of her eight children is educated. She can only speak Turkana. Her three daughters are married. Three of her sons are grazing the only three goats in her household, some 82 kilometres away. She says they left last November.

Ms Lolio Ekal leads other residents of Kodekode village in the water trek on February 7, 2022.       

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

She puts a yellow 20-litre jerrycan into a drum cart, pulls another hang on the sticks of her hut.

Along the way, she is joined by another woman in sandals and three barefoot girls aged 15, eight and five years in the two-kilometre walk, similarly pulling their drum carts. We brush through the loose sandy soils mixed with thorns from the acacia trees. While I struggled to walk in my leather sandals, the women and girls kept going undisturbed.

“There is no water,” a woman returning with her empty barrels shouts at us in the local language.

At the Kodekode water point, where the community has free access to water, is a tank that stores water pumped from a borehole in Nakukulas, 5.1kilometres away, a fetching area and concrete water troughs for the livestock. Tullow Oil put up all the structures, including drilling the borehole. We find 10 girls and young women here, including one carrying a child on her back. None of them speaks Kiswahili or English.

Kochodin assistant chief Ekiru Alokas, says the county government is supposed to pump the water using an installed diesel generator since Tullow Oil handed over the project in 2019. But it hasn’t been doing so. Therefore, the community has to wait until Tullow Oil pumps its own water plus the community’s.

Costly project

A boy quenches his thirst as a herd of sheep and goats also drink at a water point provided by Tullow Oil Kenya Company in Kodekode village, Turkana County, on February 7, 2022.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

County Climate Change and Environment director Nadio Clement’s response on the issue was imprecise. He blamed Tullow Oil for launching unsustainable water projects that are too costly for the county to manage.

I reached out to Franklin Juma, the associate general counsel and external affairs manager at Tullow Oil, by email and made follow-up calls. On February 17, he said the managing director would be in the country in the coming week and he preferred having a meeting with me to explain the context of their work.

I made a follow-up and my call on February 23, was answered with a short message: “I’m unable [to] pick your call but will call you back shortly.”
So, while the county and the private investor disagree on a key adaptation measure that determines locals’ survival, women are left on their own.

They have to do the magic to get the water out.

One woman draws the water and covers the tap with her thumb. The other draws it out into the barrel. They do this for more than an hour to fill a 20-litre container.

Ms Ekal stands away from the women with her hands held to the back. Moments later, she makes an about-turn and walks away, followed by the four girls and women.

I ask the about 15-year-old girl why she is not in school.

“I had joined nursery in 2020 at a mobile school near our home, then dropped out because there was no food. The school was later closed,” she says through the translator, adding that neither of her sisters has been to school.

A few minutes past 8am, we arrive at Ms Ekal’s homestead of three huts serving as a kitchen, main house and store.

Charcoal burning and trade

She heads straight to where her goats sleep, a small portion of land enclosed with thorny branches. She collects some dung into a white gunny bag.
With a panga on her right hand and the bag balanced on her head, we embark on another two-kilometre trek, east of her hut, to where she burns charcoal.

“The poop is to regulate combustion of the wood so that it burns to charcoal and not ashes,” she says, as she sprinkles the mix over the acacia log that she had put on fire the previous day, and covers it with the sandy soil.

Lolio Ekal, a widow, produces charcoal in Kodekode village, Turkana County, on February 7, 2022.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

She sells a 90kg bag of charcoal at Sh600 but says it can take months before she makes a sale.

By 11am, we are back from the charcoal burning site. Temperatures are now 37OC.

Ms Ekal has less than two kilogrammes of millet flour, a relief food package she received the previous week.

“This one will last me another week. I only cook porridge for supper. My grandchildren and I have gotten used to hunger,” she says.

She rests behind her store before three other women who share their difficult experiences join her. They call themselves raia who live in another world called ‘nje ya (outside) Kenya’. They see themselves as residents of an undeveloped country outside a “developed country” called Kenya.

Culture has strangled their ability to escape food poverty and inaccessibility to water has stripped them of their right to menstrual dignity.

They say men value their livestock so much that they cannot leave behind even a single one for them to milk or sell. The livestock is only for paying dowry.

None of the three women was left with money or a goat when their husbands left with the livestock to pasture fields near River Turkwel in the Kainuk area, more than 82 kilometres away, in June last year.

“You are not even supposed to suggest that he sell a goat to get money for food,” says Aregae Muya, who is the first of the three wives married here.

“The men know that when they go away, our work is to look out for relief food or burn and sell charcoal to feed the children,” she adds.

Her assertion is reaffirmed by Ataman Ekitela: “Yes, the livestock are for dowry. And even if it’s about selling the goats, you cannot do so every month. Maybe once in a while when the family is in dire need of food.”

Personal hygiene

Ms Ekali Ngipeyok says when women and girls are on their menses, they remove their underwear or soiled clothes to dry out and wear them again. They only wash them and take a bath, without soap, at the water points.

Hours later, Ms Ekal asks us to allow her sleep until 4pm when she takes a second chance on water at Kodekode. Since morning, she has only taken the bottled water I had shared. In the afternoon trip, there is water. I, however, observe that the water point is also a source of conflict between the women and girls, and herdboys and herdsmen.

A tribe of goats trip in. The young man herding them stands at the water fetching area. As Ms Ekal nears, he tells her it is time for the livestock to quench their thirst. The water is being diverted to the concrete water troughs.

Only after finishing watering their animals can the women and girls have their turn. This bites Ms Ekal’s head off. She leaves in anger.

The competition for water further exposes women and girls to gender-based violence. The young herder at the water fetching area slaps hard on the head, a girl who tries to open one of the two taps.

Ms Ekal prepares porridge, which serves as late lunch and supper for her family that eats only one meal a day.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

Outside Ms Ekal’s huts, her grandchildren sit looking frail and hungry. She is saddened by their look and opts to cook porridge for them before embarking on the second trip to the charcoal burning area to check on the progress.

She serves the grandchildren and takes a few scoops of the porridge. She later places the remaining near the fireplace and covers it. She says they will eat it before they go to sleep.

At 5.45pm, she leaves for the charcoal burning area with a 10-kilogramme sack of goat dung and a panga. We part ways.


Miles away in Lokichar town, Turkana South, Doris Ekai has found a way out of absolute poverty. Her husband died, leaving her with five children and no livestock.

“I wanted my children to finish school. My two sons were then in school,” says Ms Ekai, who was married at a young age. At that time, Lokichar was dense with acacia and shrubs.

Ms Ekai, who has no formal education, ventured into brewing illegal alcohol. But the frequent police raids scared her off. She shifted to groceries, using capital from the brew business.

Kakali Women Group chairperson Doris Ekai (L) with, Milimani Women Group treasurer Agnes Neges in Lokichar, Turkana County, on February 9, 2022.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

She joined a table banking group called Kakali Women Group, saving Sh50 daily. With her savings, she took loans to expand her business, diversifying from vegetables and tomatoes to dry maize and beans business.

“Before Covid-19, I would make Sh10,000 in profit,” she says of each stock, noting that the business currently draws little profits.

With her business, she has educated her three girls up to Form Four. Her two sons also completed a driving course and both are employed. She is also educating her two grandchildren, both currently in high school.

She has built a block of three semi-permanent shops, which draw her Sh22,000 in monthly income. She recently took a Sh100,000 loan from the group to make concrete blocks to retrofit the shops.

While Ms Ekai and her children may have freed themselves from absolute and food poverty, the girls I met in Kodekode village who are not in school because of hunger, may never break free from the chains unless they get help. A painful reality of sustaining a ‘raia’ generation.

Boys beg on the roads

In the Kasuroi area along Lokichar-Lodwar road are half naked boys and girls as little as five years, begging for money, food and water. We stop when the first boy in a line of about 20 children flash an empty bottle as we drive nearer to him.

We hand the boy, aged about eight years, a bottle of water, but he insists on money. He speaks Turkana and we can only hear him ask for "shilingi twenti". We give him some money.

When hunger bites: A boy begs from motorists between Karoge and Kasuroi on the Lodwar-Lokichar road on February 9, 2022.           

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

Teachers, gender and climate change specialists all agree on one thing: Without addressing the water and food insecurity problems, children will remain out of school, and with the cycle of illiteracy, communities will lag behind in building their resilience to the effects of climate change.

Unfortunately, they will suffer the most as the climate falls into extreme conditions.

Mr Joseph Losiru, a teacher at Kaaroge Primary School in Turkana South, says until 2019 when World Food Programme supplied food to schools in the area, there were close to 600 pupils enrolled in his school. When the supply stopped, the number dropped by more than 66 per cent.

He says when schools resumed in September 2020, about 400 pupils reported back, but there was no food for two terms. A third of them dropped out.

It is until early last month when they received 21 bags of rice, three bags of beans and 40 litres of cooking oil from the Ministry of Education that at least 150 who had stopped learning returned.

“Sixty per cent of the pupils who drop out are boys. They go grazing livestock. While girls are married off in exchange for food or dowry, which is later sold to educate others,” he says.

He notes that the Turkana have a culture of not sending all their children to school. If, for instance, they are seven, the father selects two or three and boys are often favoured.

“Here food is an incentive to attending school. If there is no food, the children will be out looking for food elsewhere or begging along the road,” says Senior County Gender Officer Hellen Emojo.

She says the county is making efforts in sensitising the community to the bad effects of cultural practices that deny women the right to property.
She identifies insufficient resources as a major obstacle limiting the reach of locals such as Ms Ekal in Kodekode.

County efforts

Turkana County Senior Gender Officer Hellen Emojo at her office in Lodwar town.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

And the county’s intervention measures target women in groups. For women like Ms Ekal, who are far away, they will, regrettably, forever remain in darkness and absolute poverty.

“In the 2020/21 financial year, the county gave out a total of Sh133 million in interest-free loans to 669 women and youth groups,” explains Ms Emojo, to cushion its people against the climatic shocks.

In 2019, the county launched Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan (2019-22), which envisions a resilient community through interventions such as increased tree cover, construction of water pans and drilling of more boreholes, and adoption of drought-tolerant crops.

Turkana County Climate Change Act, 2021, provides for ward climate change planning committees with adherence to two-third gender rule in their composition. It also establishes a climate change fund to be allocated at least two per cent of the county annual development fund.

County Climate Change and Environment director Nadio Clement says the frameworks provide a roadmap for enhanced mitigation and adaptation programmes.

“Coordination has been one of the major challenges we have faced [in tackling climate change]. The Action Plan and the Act now enable us to work in harmony,” he says.

He adds that the county would need Sh8 billion annually to invest in mitigation and adaptation programmes. In effecting the climate fund, the county has earmarked Sh77 million in the 2022/23 financial year, a phenomenal deficit against its budget target.

As the county administration looks forward to implementing its interventions, they need to consider best practice as put forth by Hausner Wendo, a technical expert in climate change and disaster risk reduction at World Vision Kenya.

These include involving women at all levels of climate change-related decisions, investing in the education of pastoralist children, planting trees and enabling the pastoralists to start cooperatives to market their livestock.

“We have done these in Laikipia and Marsabit counties, and we have witnessed impressive outcomes,” he says.