Shyamala Thilagaratnam: Child’s Play

This is image is part of a series, ‘The Totos (children) of Turkana’

It was such a privilege to spend a week off the grid in the remote Turkana region of northern Kenya. The children of Turkana exuded an infectious joy whether they were at school, at work or at play. When they weren’t in school, the boys helped their dads with taking care of and herding the family’s livestock. Most impressive were the little boys who did men’s jobs, confidently herding huge caravans of camels. The little girls too started young, expertly balancing water containers on their heads, helping collect water for their village, and taking great pride in imitating their older sisters.

One evening, while walking on the beach by Lake Turkana, we saw the children collecting fish from nets put out by the older boys and men. They expertly rubbed sand on the fish to remove the scales, then rinsed them in the lake before taking them home. All this was done even by the smallest of them, one of whom looked like he was all of four years old. We were told that the children usually went down to the beach with their teachers after school. If they helped to bring the fish in, they got to keep some of the fish – which was then shared amongst the villagers – no payment needed.

The little boy in this image was an expert with an old tyre – he tireless ran back and forth, flawlessly guiding the tire across the dusty plain. Watching him at play also gave me a glimpse of why Kenya has produced so many excellent runners. The ground in Turkana, as in most other dry areas in the country, is speckled with shrubs that boast very impressive needle-like thorns. Even with proper shoes, I circumnavigated these shrubs quite carefully as they easily pierced through socks and trouser legs – and even then I got well and truly scratched. The kids, however, ran barefoot everywhere – in a straight line, thorny shrubs or not – and they ran fast, with perfect running technique. Very impressive!

Another standout memory for me was when one morning at about 9.30, as we drove back to the camp after a morning of photography, we saw a little toto (not much older than the boy in this image) in a clean albeit slightly oversized school uniform, bag on his back, walking quite chirpily along despite the sun beating down. We stopped to give him a lift to school and he happily jumped in (at home, we would’ve told him not to get into strangers’ vehicles…even if ours was the only vehicle we saw for the entire week that we were there!). Our local guide, Peter, chatted with him and found out that school starts at 7.30AM but as he’s “little” he’s “scared to walk in the dark” and so he waits till it’s light before he sets out from the village. He walks 8KM to school everyday – and another 8KM home. He was such a cheerful little boy, with a big smile – he turned to wave when we dropped him off, then walked off quite jauntily to his friends – who were all looking a bit wide-eyed at their classmate’s ride this morning.

During this time of Covid, I’ve found my thoughts turning to the children and people I met in Turkana two years ago – and hope that they have remained isolated and untouched by illness, and that they continue to exude joy.






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