Dressed by development: Kenyan nomads attire depict changes after oil find

Oil discovery in the Kenya's impoverished Turkana region in 2012 has sparked hope of development and a better life for inhabitants.

Chok Chok in Kenya's Turkana county
Community members pose for a picture in Chok Chok in Kenya's Turkana county on July 2012. Handout picture courtesy of Marina Shacol.

A new collection of photographs showcasing the changing attire of Kenya’s pastoralists aims to spotlight how the recent discovery of oil in the country’s remote northwest is slowly altering their traditional way of life and culture.

The series “Dressing” by Cypriot photographer Marina Shacola captures the clothing of the people of Kenya’s Turkana region – who have for centuries crisscrossed the arid plains with their families and herds in search of water and grazing pastures.

Oil discovery in the impoverished, neglected region in 2012 has sparked hope of development and a better life for inhabitants, plagued by prolonged droughts and increased conflict over water and cattle linked to climate change.

But Shacola, who has frequently visited Turkana over the last decade, said development was eroding an ancient way of life and culture – something which she wanted to depict through the changes in the clothing of the people.

“‘Dressing’ is not about a few pieces of fabric masterfully matched. Every image for me is a testimony of life in transition against new environmental, economic and socio-political developments,” Shacola told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Focusing on attire, I document the arc of history of an ancient civilisation which is being altered with every day that passes, and is ultimately threatened with extinction.”

Poised in front of makeshift studio sets – created from mats made from dry palm leaves – Shacola’s portraits capture the Turkana people’s mixing and matching of traditional garments with modern dress.

The clothing – such as a buttoned-down collar shirt paired with robes or a branded t-shirt over a woven wrap – showed how development was not only changing people’s way of dressing, but also their lives, she said.

Chok Chok in Kenya's Turkana country
Members of the community pose in Chok Chok in Kenya’s Turkana country on July 2012. Handout picture courtesy of Marina Shacola.

The Turkana – numbering almost 1 million – are one of the smaller of Kenya’s 44 tribes. Trekking vast distances, they move with their homes – tents made of thatched grass – and their livestock, in soaring temperatures across inhospitable terrain.

The region is the poorest of Kenya’s 47 counties – almost 80 percent of the population live on less than $2 a day compared to 36 percent nationally, according to government data.

Illiteracy is high. Only half the school-age children in Turkana are enrolled in primary school, well below the national average of 92 percent, according to the charity Save the Children. The adult literacy rate in the county is 20 percent.

Revenues from Turkana’s vast oil deposits are expected to boost the provision of basic services such as piped water and electricity, increase investments in schools and clinics as well as create jobs and opportunities for the youth.

But Shacola said there was little sign of that yet.

“Huge foreign investments are now vested in the region and global companies are already invading the land with both machinery and workforce,” she said.

“But the dry rivers where the Turkana arduously dig holes to get water are now full of bulldozers, building roads for the oil wells, while people watch in dismay.”

Her compositions, she said, captured the early stages of two worlds colliding, the consequences of which could ultimately result in an identity and culture vanishing.


This article was written by Nita Bhalla and edited by Katy Migiro for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience.

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