By Samuel Derbyshire | 27 September 2019
Asapan, the initiation ceremony of the pastoral-nomadic Turkana of northern Kenya, is a ceremony that draws together an extraordinary array of skills, knowledges, material histories and embodied performances. It is a social institution that reverberates through the entire population of the remote Turkana region, its ramifications emerging in ritual and domestic contexts alike. It is central to marriage, the management of territories (ngitela) and a wide range of other important practices, but it also compels the construction and implementation of a diminishingly rare array ritually-significant objects. Spears (ngakwara), wooden bowls (ngatubwae), clay pots (agulu), circular wrist knifes (ngabara), head ornaments (ngapukoto) and bundles of neck beads (ngakoroumwa) all take part in asapan, materialising the critical transition into adulthood. In their performances, these objects reach across diverse spatial and temporal scales, articulating complex histories, value systems and a landscape of other social institutions; they serve to make and re-make Turkana identities in the face of unprecedented socio-economic and environmental uncertainty.
In light of the extraction of vast oil reserves, the catastrophic effects of the Gibe III hydro-electric dam and largescale environmental degradation, the fact that asapan has neither been extensively researched nor recorded is particularly significant. Building on unique historical collections from the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, this project will meticulously document Turkana initiation for the first time, over a period of two years. Through extensive ethnographic research, the project will explore the material histories that converge in its present-day performance, preserving them, and the ceremony itself, for generations to come.
PI: Samuel Derbyshire, St John’s College at the University of Oxford in the UK
Collaborators: Lucas Lowasa, Gregory Akall and Abdikadir Kurewa
Research Assistant: Joseph Ekidor Nami