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Story Publication logo September 7, 2023

In Pictures: Making a Living on the World’s Largest Desert Lake


A person walks their animals through a rural street at sunset

How do former pastoralists still perceive the wealth and social hierarchy that animals signify for...


Paulina Asurut from Nangitony has been fishing since she was a child. Though not a traditional Turkana livelihood, fishing has replaced herding in communities all along the lake in recent decades. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng. Kenya.

Colin Pili is up early. At dawn, he pushes his boat onto the misty surface of Lake Turkana to try his hand out on the water. He learned to fish from his father, he says, and moved to these shores 30 years ago after his cattle died from poor pasture conditions. 

These arid parts of Kenya are unforgiving. Five rainy seasons have failed since 2020. And yet, several ethnicities of traditional pastoralists still build their livelihoods here around the world’s largest desert lake. Many, like Mr. Pili, have had to adapt.

Livestock are the traditional backbone of pastoral culture – those without animals are called ngikebotok, meaning “those who have nothing.” But that share of the population is growing. 

Fish are now the main source of protein. And weekly markets where vendors hawk everything from cellphone chargers to acacia pods for goat fodder are fueling a population rise along the Turkwel River, which flows into the lake.

Pastoralists have the capacity to adapt to alternate livelihoods, and boom and bust cycles have long dictated the pace of life. But encroaching human development also challenges these communities: A dam built in neighboring Ethiopia on Lake Turkana’s main tributary altered the seasonal pulses that signal breeding and migration season to the fish. 

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Mr. Pili does not expect all his children to follow in his footsteps. Some of them go to school, he says. A few may attend university, turning away from the unpredictability of a fisher’s life.

In Nangitony, a remote outcrop on the lake’s western shore, Paulina Asurut guts Nile perch on a sandbar. She’s an orphan and a single mother, she says, and has no one to give her livestock. 

But in a small village like hers, resources are shared. She’ll be supported by her neighbors – yet another reflection of the way of life endemic to this unique arid ecosystem, one born of survival.

Turkana herders in Lodwar, the county’s largest hub, persist in the time-honored livelihood of grazing livestock and adapting to harsh conditions. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng. Kenya.

A sheep gnaws at an "akai akamatei," a traditional hut. The huts are meant to be used temporarily, but as Kenya faces another failed rainy season, fishers have settled along Lake Turkana for longer than expected. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng. Kenya.

A child eyes a fresh catch in Nangitony, a village on the western shore of Lake Turkana. The region is a major fish supplier, but the future remains shaky for subsistence fishers living in remote pockets along the lake. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng. Kenya.

Nile perch, carefully salted and sun-dried in a village by Daraja Beach, are ready for market in a nearby town. Buyers come from as far as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda for the fish. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng. Kenya.

Sheep cross the sandbars on Kanamukuny Beach. Livestock are the foundation of Turkana pastoral livelihoods. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng. Kenya.

A donkey carcass lies on the road to northwestern Turkana. Kenya has experienced five consecutive failed rainy seasons since September 2020. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng. Kenya.

A man wades to shore with his catch. This style of drift netting, known as "lorikejen," employs a vertically hung net to catch fish. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng. Kenya.


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