By Joe Ombuor and Peter Orengo
In the sweltering heat of Kenya’s northwestern county of Turkana, a lone dark figure strides slowly along the busy streets of Lodwar town, occasionally peeping at the open shops. He has this dark wrinkled unforgettable face, with an almost bald head with sparse brown hair. In his hand is a plastic container with water, which he occasionally sprinkles on his head.
His name is Lomurodo Akorilem and is a well-known figure in Lodwar town, although few know his real name. He is also from the smallest community in the country, the El Molo, and has been lured to Loyangalani by the promise of shade and supply of water. Sometimes the temperatures can soar to a punishing 45 degrees centigrade. Akorilem says the scorching heat of the Lake Turkana region dehydrates his body so fast, so he has to walk with a can of water to drink and splash on his head.
“The water is for my head, so that I don’t faint” Lomurodo tries explaining in stuttering Swahili. His teeth are almost gone except for a few molars. He appears to be in his 70s but he insists that he turned 40 years this month.
People in this region identify these distinctive features with the El Molo, a tiny tribal group with strong links with the Rendile, also their close neighbours on the shore of Lake Turkana. The El Molo rely on the lake for their existence, living on a diet mainly of fish and occasionally crocodile, turtle and other wildlife.
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An unbalanced protein-rich diet and the effects of too much fluoride have taken their toll on the tribe, which over the centuries has become increasingly vulnerable to disease and attacks from stronger tribes.
Fish is usually either roasted or cut into long strips and dried in the sun on the roofs of the huts, or on fibre mats laid on the ground. The dried fish is then soaked in the lake for softening before it is boiled and eaten. Otherwise, the El Molo eat very little meat, unlike their neighbours, the Samburu and Turkana who keep cattle for food. Their second mainstay of diet is the ‘loka’ , the nut or date of the doumpalm, eaten mostly by the children.
History has it that at one stage, there were just over 300 of the “pure” El-Molo living in two small villages on an islands on Lake Turkana.
“Intermarriage with other tribes and abandonment of the nomadic lifestyle has helped to raise their numbers to about 800, who now live on the mainland near Loyangalani,” says Wycliffe Oloo, an anthropologist with the National Museums of Kenya.
Otherwise, the tribe has always married among themselves, an act researchers believe may have contributed to their recessive genes, which expose them to disease and early aging.
There is one theory advanced by people in Marsabit on why there are very few El Molos. They believe the El Molo die early because of drinking the alkaline waters of the lake. Today, it is difficult to find an El Molo man older than 60 years.
They also suffer from a high fluoride intake, which causes discolouring of teeth, and the protein-rich diet deforms their bones. This is evident in the their brown-coloured hair.
“The El Molo community suffers from water-borne diseases, bone and teeth deformation and general ill health caused by the consumption of the highly saline water of Lake Turkana,” explains Oloo.
Anthropologists say the El Molo have Negroid looks similar to the Mursi of Ethiopia’s Omo River basin. Researchers say that by 1974, only two or three very old elders were still able to speak fluent El Molo.
According to Basili, who has managed to glean about 600 El Molo words in an effort to resuscitate the language, it has been on a free fall since the 1930s when the community chose to use the Maa language of their dominant invaders, the Samburu.
El Molo is but one of the endangered languages of the world that according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) will disappear by the end of the century if nothing is done. Like the Suba language once alive on the Kenyan shores of lake Victoria, it is in the intensive care unit, but can still be salvaged.
El Molo according to UNESCO, falls below the category of critically endangered languages spoken only by a few members of the oldest generation. According to linguist Michael E. Krauss, El Molo and Suba are moribund languages because children are not speaking them today.
It is estimated that, if nothing is done, half of 6000 plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century.
Some of the endangered languages being recued by Unesco include: Tsao and Sarwa languages of Botswana, Chin, Asho Koda Kurux of Asia, Abaza and Andi from Rissia, UK’s Cornish, France Corsica and Italy’s Cimbrian.
Basili says the transformation that brought the El Molo of today to over 500 individuals (825 according to latest figures) was triggered by the substitution of endogamous practices that dictated marriage only inside the group with exogamy (marrying outside).
“Previously, dogged loyalty to traditional norms contributed significantly to stunting our people’s growth. Monogamy is one such practice. While our neighbours, the Samburu, the Turkana, the Rendille and the Somali practiced polygamy by marrying many wives and proliferated faster, the El Molo stuck to a one-wife regime that obtains to this day,” explains Michael Basili, a retired teacher turned community leader.
He says the El Molo were monogamous long before Christianity came to the African shores and were not influenced by Islam like their Cushitic cousins, the Somali. “We remain largely animist,” he says.
Basili adds that the one man, one wife culture and inordinately long gaps between childbirths to cope with meagre food reserves mitigated the El Molo population growth.
“Our forbears practiced natural family planning by elongated breastfeeding. Once a mother had a baby, she was not expected to conceive again until her child was strong enough to spear fish out of water in the case of a boy or mould a traditional pot if it was a girl,” recounts Basili.
El Molo chief Barini Lenapir says approximately 400 inhabitants occupy the two villages of igloo shaped structures of palm fronds and twigs they call houses. Others are to be found in Loiyangalani and scattered in other settlements along the lake.
Chief Lenapir says the long hiatus between births was possible because men spent most of their time away either hunting for fish that remains the community’s mainstay and staple or hunting hippopotamus that they had to kill single handed to be honoured as heroes.
“With the drop in the number of hippopotamus over the years and strident regulations by the Kenya Wildlife Service, (KWS), hippo hunting is a rare phenomenon these days in spite of the fact that many traditional norms revolve around it.
Chief Lenapir and Basili say other factors that worked against the El Molo population include outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, small pox and malaria that claimed scores of lives at a time when medical facilities were non-existent.
“Not much has changed on that score though; the availability of toilets, eradication of small pox and access to drugs and mosquito nets have checked the epidemics and reduced human loss,” he says. “Previously, people went for calls of nature in the bush or the lake that was the only source of water.
Culture and epidemics aside, Chief Lenapir says a big chunk of his people’s population was lost to vicious raids by surrounding pastoral communities, particularly the Samburu and the Gabbra who wiped out entire populations of women and children as men were away fishing.
Adds Basili: “The Samburu have been our bane through the ages. They swamped our lakeshore colonies to bathe when smallpox struck their desert habitués decades ago. We died in droves from the disease and those who remained could not resist the Samburu’s dominant influence, hence the slow death of El Molo language.
Basili says no living El Molo can make a full sentence in the language today. “Eighty-year-old Lenapir Carlo can speak a few words and hum El Molo songs. But he cannot make full sentences,” he says.
But malnutrition remains a serious health issue with most El Molo eating only fish. “Our fish catches have dropped considerably and we can hardly afford starch-rich grains such as maize to be part of our diet. Vegetables and fruits are virtually non-existent in these areas. Malnutrition hits us hard and hunger is the norm here with ever diminishing fish catches,” says Chief Lenapir.
Education among the El Molo was at low ebb until 1986 when El Molo Primary School was built along the bay. Chief Lenapir says today all school age children are in class. He says the school with a total population of 300 children has 100 El Molo children. Five pupils are in Class Eight and will sit the Kenya Certificate of Primary education (KCPE) this year.
“The community also boasts four university students at Kenyatta University and the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT),” says the chief proudly.
The community’s luminaries, according to the chief, include Alloys Lekulo, the Sergeant at Arms in Kenya’s National Assembly. He says two members of the community, Lawrence Lekulo and Edward Lemotou, are Assistant Education Officers.
Basili says it is high time the community ceased being regarded as a tourist attraction. “Empower us with fish cooling facilities to save us from exploitation by middlemen. Above all, give us security, and we shall flourish” he says.
Note that although the Luo are openly acknowledged as Kenya’s foremost fishing community, the El Molo are the ultimate fish folk to the extent that members of the tiny community use fishing gear and implements such as harpoons, boats, spears and in recent times, fishing nets as dowry to secure their spouses.