Monday, April 19, 2004


It appears that when something is considered good, everyone wants to get in on the action. This is not more so true than in the case of Alexander ‘the Great.’ Regular readers of this paper would have explored over the years, various people’s implausible but not utterly impossible links with Alexander, from the Kalash tribes of Afghanistan to the Persians whose national epic, the Shahname has Alexander as a descendant of the Achaemenid Shahs of Iran. While their claims are tenuous, they cannot be dismissed. Alexander’s army did pass by those people’s lands and the Epigonoi, their descendants, remained a noticeable presence in Central Asia for hundreds of years. Surprisingly enough however, the desire of peoples to associate themselves with possibly the greatest general of all time, extends to regions that not only were never conquered by Alexander, but which have supposedly remained cut off from his world and cultural influence until quite recently. Thus, in Kenya there exists a tribe of warriors who claim proudly that they are descendants of Alexander the Great. This tribe, known as the “Turkana,” live around Lake Turkana, previously known as Lake Rudolph. One of the few tribes in Kenya to tenaciously cling to their ancestral customs, relatively untouched by modern civilisation, the Turkana live primitively by hunting and rearing livestock. Tall and slim, dressed in colourful, usually red cloaks, their throats adorned with beautiful necklaces, they carry hunting bows in their hands and stand proudly, almost reminiscent of ancient Greek warriors.
The Turkana believe that a white man, a European once visited their region. It was Alexander, or as they say in their language, “Emousoukout Lokingaren.” At that time the local tribes, especially those who applied themselves to animal husbandry, were fighting among themselves, the Turkana wanting to seize the livestock of the rival Saburu tribe. Suddenly, Alexander, a tall, fair-haired man appeared before them. He gave them courage and told them to stop fighting amongst themselves. The Turkana welcomed him as a god sent by the angels. According to their custom, they bathed him in milk, saying that God Himself had visited them. Alexander traveled around the region and was glad to be amongst the local people. Natives came from all around to see him. They worshipped him as their god, paid him great honours and eventually gave him various symbolic names. In one area he was called “Longor Kelae”, which means “the one with the black teeth,” (dental floss had not yet been invented.” In another area he was called “Ekengarakinan,” or “he one who helps.” After he had been with them for quite some time, they gave him the name “eroukouyiok”, meaning “ours.” When Alexander saw the extent of their veneration, he had to tell the people that he was not the god they believed him to be, but a mortal like them; someone who wanted to teach them and help them.
The elders of the tribe claim today that when Alexander first arrived, he carried a long bow, which was large and impressive. He wore ornaments around his neck and ankles — the kind of ornaments which the Turkana still wear today and which they say are reminiscent of the greaves and breastplate worn by Alexander. He taught them how to make a small weapon, a javelin, which came to be called an “amalitei,” the spears of Alexander and he brought flour with him, hitherto unknown in those parts. He also left behind him something of his creed. He taught them of God and showed them ways of worshipping. Indeed, the Turkana believe that much of what they have and many of their customs come from the time when Alexander the Great was with them. The Turkana still mourn the time came for Alexander, the man who had taught them so many useful things, the man of goodness and hope, had to leave. They deeply believe he helps them even now, and look to the day when he will return and live among them again.
Several other versions of the Alexander myth exist. According to another tradition, a local Turkana woman was actually married to Alexander and gave birth to twins — one white, the other black. The black child brought the Turkana tribe into the world, whereas the white child returned to Europe.
Alexander “Lodekelaei,” which means the one with the white face, or the smiling face. is a potent and significant element in the lives of the Turkana. When things are not going well, they turn to the teachings of their elders, which are concerned with Alexander the Great, to find a solution. They have a distinctive pride in their origins as being so noble. Whenever they meet a Greek, they seize the opportunity to tell of Alexander's great successes. They love to show off the jewellery that decorates their bodies, their arrows and other things that they cherish and which go back to the time when Alexander the Great passed through their land.
How the myth was actually sprung is unknown. It is quite plausible that Coptic or Ethiopian missionaries and traders, whose cultures also are steeped in the traditions of Alexander, may have brought the story to the Turkana, which was then adapted to other purposes. The story could be a later creation, much like the Judaising hill tribes of Bengal have recently ‘re-invented’ themselves as Jews, or by English explorers and missionaries, intent on providing a European origin to those tribes they saw as more ‘noble’ ‘and civilised’ or even more romantically (and implausibly,) perhaps Alexander’s lost army of the Siwa Oasis managed to escape their sandy grave and penetrate into deepest darkest Africa. We shall never know.
Nevertheless, it says much for the need of humankind to lionise and deify outstanding individuals that the myth of Alexander, either as conqueror, civiliser or destroyer (the Iranians in a variant tradition call him the horned king or son of Satan) though quaint to some, persists today. Who knows? Had Alexander, who in his quest for superhuman status not only tried to conquer the world but seeking deification, grasped the horns of Marduk in Babylonia, had himself proclaimed the son of Ammon in Egypt and the son of Zeus in Greece, known of the Turkana tribe, a tribe beyond his reach and interest, he probably would have smiled, a typically benign, Olympian smile for them and all of his present day adherents.

First published in NKEE on 19 April 2004