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El Molo, a forgotten Kenyan community facing extinction

 El Molo family (From right) Emmanuel Lopii, 5, father Erot Lopii with an orange T-shirt, Ekal Lopii ,4,Eking'ol Lopii ,3, and the their mother Mary Etelej who is carrying a young baby, pose at their traditional hut. The rare tribe live in Long' ech Island in Lake Turkana. [Lucas Ngasike/Standard]

It is noon and unforgiving temperatures soar to about 40 degrees in the isolated Long’ech island in Lake Turkana.

But four-year-old Ekal Lopii and his two younger brothers Emanuel and Eking’ol play with other neighbours’ children next to their hut.

Next to their sandy playing ground hangs some plastic water containers, with one assigned to each child.

Ekal suddenly splashes water on his head to cool his skin. His two brothers do the same. Within seconds, all the children soak their clothes in water.

Shortly after, their mother Mary Etelej emerges from the hut and sits next to them to monitor their activities.

The children seem to be overpowered by intense heat. At some point, their mother helps the youngest sibling to pour water on his himself.

The children come from the country’s tinniest, rare El Molo community known as ‘Ilimanyang’ family. Their existence depends on water, which they frequently splash on their skin every 15 to 20 minutes to keep them cool and alive. “These are my children. The boys look alike and their body temperatures keep rising. They have to pour water on themselves to cool the body, otherwise they will faint. But the girls do not have such characteristics and are just normal,” Etelej says.

To reach Long’ech, you have to hire a boat to take you to ‘Ilima’ village on the island located on the shores of Lake Turkana gulf. An estimated 6,000 fishermen live on the sandy island, which is also home to the El Molo family.

Residents here occupy themselves with fishing and one can easily spot a group of fishermen casting their gear across the gulf, with their boats dotting every corner of the crocodile-manifested lake that stretches about 300km wide.

Close supervision

The young Ekal is the only child in the family who has enrolled in baby class at Long’ech Primary School, a few kilometres away from the village.

“These children need close supervision because they are fragile. I take extra caution when he leaves for school and ensure he carries water on a container for cooling his skinand drinking,” Etelej says.

“Even when he plays with other children I ensure the water is within his reach,”

She says her children are very adaptive to the lake environment and they can play for longer hours in water than on the island.

Lopii Erot, their father, says he did not know he had married a woman with El Molo genes.

Erot says he lost his first two children because he had not known their condition. They just collapsed and died. He says they were not like any other children he had seen.

The boys have a dark skin, only two front incisors teeth, bald head with sparse brown hair and cracking skin.

“I met my wife in 2007 in Kapua remote village. We had our two children but both died of dehydration. I later learnt that the children had succumbed to a very rare condition. A family member advised me to migrate to the lake shore, since my wife was giving birth to El Molo children who cannot survive on mainland,” Erot recalls.

He says it is difficult to notice if these children are sick until you see them faint.

This almost extinct El Molo tribe relies on the lake for their survival. They mainly eat fish and occasionally crocodile, turtle and squirrel meat.

But Erot says his children feed mainly on fish and occasionally eat ugali and rice that is rich in starch, which he can hardly afford daily.

“Since I cannot fend for these children, I have registered a group of the El Molo community living along the lake and on the inland places in Kalokol and Lodwar town so that well-wishers can help us,” he says.

“Some of the group members have abandoned fishing and adopted nomadism. The county government has recognised this group.”

The rare community has now become a tourist attraction. Whenever non-governmental organisations (NGOs) visit the island, they give community members skin ointment to protect them from direct sunlight and heat.

Empty promises

Erot says some people have been taking their photos and giving them empty promises. They suspect the people are exploiting their condition for their personal gain.

“We are now very cautious with any visitors coming to see us. Some are brokers who want to take advantage of us for their own benefits. Any visitor who wants to meet us must pass through our local organisation,” he says.

Other than the condition, the tiny community also suffers the effects of fluoride that causes discolouration of teeth. They also have curved legs because of the saline lake water they drink.

History has it that originally the population of the pure El Molo community living in two villages on Lake Turkana island was only 99.

However, the trend changed when the community started to intermarry with other tribes like Rendile, Turkana and Samburu. They also abandoned the nomadic lifestyle. Today, they are estimated to be 800 in number.

Past studies by anthropologists from the National Museums of Kenya in Loyangalani say the tribe has always married among themselves, and may have contributed to their recessive gene that has rendered them vulnerable to diseases and early aging.

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