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close this book Food chain - Number 19 - November 1996
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View the document Greetings
View the document Food processing training - some problems and possible solutions
View the document Booklines
View the document Principles of food dehydration
View the document Simple methods of quality assurance
View the document Research notes
View the document Food preservation by the Turkana people.
View the document Ayib (traditional cheese)

Food preservation by the Turkana people.

This article was written by Jeremiah Etheri who works within the Rural Agriculture and Pastoral Programme of Intermediate Technology, Kenya.

The Turkana district of north western Kenya is situated in arid and semi-arid lands with a very fragile economy and environment. Its population, the Turkana, are by tradition pastoralists, moving with their cattle across large areas. While the total population of the 75,000 km² is only some 400,000 the district has been experiencing a decline in per capita food production due to increasing population pressure on land and water resources. There is also a shift from the predominantly pastoral life to a more settled agro-pastoral economy which puts more pressure on the fragile environment and results in further degradation of resources. Against this deteriorating background there is a need for increased regional self sufficiency on foods and the promotion of efficient use of available resources in order to have sustainable development of the district. IT Kenya is thus studying food preservation methods used by the Turkana to provide base line data on the current situation.

In African societies women are responsible for the handling of foods and other related tasks. This is even more so in pastoral societies where men would be ridiculed if seen to be interfering in so called women's tasks. Amongst the Turkana the women perform all domestic tasks including milking, processing wild fruits, shearing animals, collecting firewood fetching water and cooking. Other tasks, such as long-distance herding, are assigned to men and children. The pastoral society gives women recognition for maintaining food storage and preservation technologies. They are seen as 'custodians and experts of household food technologies, having the required skills, knowledge and strength to perform the tasks involved. While food preservation and preparation takes up a lot of women's time it has to be done alongside other work.

The processing and storage of all surplus food is vital for the survival of the Turkana people during the dry season and droughts. Food stored includes milk, meat, blood, fat, honey, wild fruits, tubers and cereals. The technologies used by the women to do this require study and scientifically recognition so that they can, where possible, he developed to the advantage of both women and the Turkana society.



Milk is a very important staple food for the Turkana, and each adult consumes two to four litres per day during the rainy season when the production is highest, (though this may well be considerably less in poorer families who have fewer animals -in which case the milk production is often reserved for children). Consumption is also less during the dry season. The Turkana have learnt, from hard times and famine, the importance of preserving surplus milk, for future use. A number of preservation methods are used but it is considered that there are opportunities to improve the techniques used. Fresh milk, either straight from the animal or boiled and cooled, and often mixed with the blood from cattle is an important part of the Turkana diet.

The Turkana record that they use 47 plants for food and 62 for medicinal purposes, and the gathering of wild fruits is an important food security strategy.

Commonly the milk is allowed to ferment or sour naturally over a period of four days or more, during which time it clots, the solid matter can then be separated from the watery whey. This is used to make a porridge, mixed with blood as a drink or mixed with tamarind to make a type of 'lemonade'. The Turkana people also churn the fermented milk to make butter. The milk is placed in a gourd suspended by a rope from the door frame of their hut. It is then shaken to and fro until the butter separates. The mixture is then poured into a wooden bowl and the butter is separated using a wooden spoon. Finally the butter may be heated, to remove the traces of water, so producing butter oil which is used for cooking, as a cosmetic and for preserving leather and wood. Butter oil keeps longer than the butter.

The Turkana also make milk powder by sun drying the clotted fermented milk on flat rocks or hides. This only takes two or three days under the 38°C conditions. The resulting milk powder (called edodo), containing cream, will have a high fat content. Alternatively, the skimmed milk remaining after making butter, is allowed to ferment for a further three to five days after which the suspended solids formed are sun dried. The resultant milk powder from this second method results in the production of a skimmed milk powder, without cream, with only traces of fat. Milk powder, which has a longer storage life than liquid milk, is of a high food value per unit weight, weighs less than liquid milk and is therefore ideal for a people who have to travel with their animals.


Meat is one of the most precious food items in the Turkana diet and even the poorest families needs are met by the occasional slaughter of a sheep or goat. In addition, there is communal sharing of the meat with each homestead contributing in turns. No ceremony is complete without meat on the menu.

The pastoral Turkana preserve meat in several ways:

• In long thin strips which are hung up and sun dried in about a week. In some cases salt is added to speed the drying process.

• In tiny one inch ball-shaped pieces which are deep fried to a golden colour; after which they are either sun dried or stored in a wooden container under oil. Any cooking oil left over is also stored.

• As a pounded or minced meat which is sun dried. This product may also be stored under oil (which is stated to increase its life), or mixed with seeds or cereals such as maize or sorghum.


The Turkana record that they use 47 plants for food and 62 for medicinal purposes, and the gathering of wild fruits is an important food security strategy. Though there are many types of fruit trees in Turkana, we will look at two particularly important plants Edapal (Dobera glabra) and Engal (Doum palm). Edapal grows well along streams but is to be found all over the plains. It is one of the few plants that remains green during the dry season. The tree fruits twice a year and the Turkana utilize the seeds or beans of the fruit. After harvesting, the beans are threshed to remove the green outer covering. The resulting white beans are boiled, often with a little wood ash which helps to soften the white seed coat and makes its removal easier. Other seed bearing fruits receive similar treatment but may require prolonged boiling to remove bitter tastes. Edome (Cordia sinensis) for example, requires four hours boiling and Edung (Boscia coriacacea) up to ten hours. It is interesting to note that the Turkana only partially de-bitter these seeds by boiling as they find fully de-bittered seeds suffer greater losses in storage due to insects. After boiling the 'beans' are sun dried on hides and then stored in leather sacks. They can be transported as the Turkana move their stock. Few communities, due to their nomadic life, use grain stores.


The Doum palm is found along streams and around lakes. The fruits are harvested each year and the yellow, fleshy internal part of the seeds is crushed to a powder and dried for storage. It is an important component of the diet and is used mixed with blood or oil, mixed with milk, as a sweetener in cereal gruels or fermented to a wine. It is reported that eating too much engol causes diarrhoea, this is probably why it is always mixed with other foods.

While today many of these traditional preservation methods are still used by the Turkana, their application is in decline because of a reduction of livestock due to droughts, increasing population, and the increasing access to alternative foods. For this reason we feel it is important to study and document Turkana methods before the knowledge is lost.