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Dwindling fortunes of El Molo

By - | May 31st 2012

Reaching the El Molo village on the remote north-eastern shores of Lake Turkana is no easy task but when you get there, a whole new world opens up as ALLAN OLINGO found out

Travelling to El Molo on Loyangalani road is not for the faint hearted. It’s a journey that takes a minimum of two days, from Nairobi covering over 500-kilometres of largely rocky surface.

An El Molo man admires his catch from the lake. [Photos: Martin Mukangu /Standard]

When you arrive in the villages, mounds of huge stones welcome you, and you might get confused thinking they have been arranged for pick up by construction workers. But no, they are graves. The cemetery area is what you get to see first, as you drive in to this village.

Welcome to certainly one of the smallest tribes in Kenya. There is a big riddle about the total population of the El Molo community. While some estimate their total population to be a paltry 200, ‘Captain’ Guya, the patriarch of this community informs us that they number around 700, as he welcomes everyone.

Photography is prohibited until  you pay a fee!

numbers nugget

A strange thing about the El Molo  is that they don’t disclose the population of their community. When I pressed Captain Guya, he said disclosing their exact number endangers them more. Many have over the years been assimilated by their neighbours, the Samburu, Rendille and the Turkana from intermarriages.

“The pure El Molo here are few.  With increased access to modern medicine and intermarriages with neighbouring Turkana and Samburu, this tribe that once faced extinction has increased in population, but only out of intermarriages,” Sharon Mwelu of the National Museums of Kenya informs us.

The El Molo people live in small villages on the south-eastern shore of Lake Turkana. They construct their rounded huts with palm fronds supported using thin strips of wood. The huts have the manyattas shape, but the difference is that they do not have the cow dung smeared on them.

Like the Samburu, the El Molo women wear necklaces and bracelets made of coloured beads and most of the time, they sit behind their houses, or close to the ‘open market’ area, where they wait for the tourists to buy their ornaments.

The name El Molo, Guya informed us came from a Maasai phrase meaning “Those who make a living from other sources other than cattle”.

Unlike the Samburus and Turkanas, the El Molo do not  wholly depend on livestock for their livelihood.

Unfortunately, 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 from Lake Turkana.

tough times

Walking around the village, one can see despair on the faces. The area faces many challenges such as the rough terrain of the rocky soils, a scorching sun,?lack of education facilities, waterborne diseases?and other development challenges.

The children, who wear happy faces and fight over water bottles, suffer from a high fluoride intake, which causes discolouring of teeth, and the protein rich diet deforms their bones. This is also evident in the their brown coloured hair.

A group of aged men with wrinkled but smiley faces while away their time playing the ancient board game under the shade, while others nap at the shades the houses provide.

There is also a common meeting area,to solve a domestic dispute between families.

Interestingly, the El Molo men still carry the rudimentary two-legged stools as most pastrolists do.

Our itinerary includes a visit to their sacred island of Lorian, which has the four shrines representing their four clans.

One of the young men, Saitoti, says the El Molo mainly fish for giant Nile perch and occasionally hunt crocodiles and hippos. But he says that in the recent years, the hippos have not been spotted within their side of the lake, probably due to the increased human population.

“We use hand made harpoons from acacia roots and fishing nets made from palm fibre. Our forefathers used fishing rafts made from palm logs to fish but as you can see, we have here two motor boats, that we have bought as a community,” Saitoti explains as we head to board the motor boats en route to the shrines on the other side of the lake.

El Molo’s moranism

Killing a hippo among the El Molo, is akin to killing a lion by a Maasai moran. Anyone who kills a hippo is decorated with a necklace made from the hippo’s teeth and a feast for the whole community is held. Captain Guya has earrings made from a hippo’s teeth, showing how valiant he is.

The El Molo do not suffer from bandit attacks because thy do not have livestock but in 2007, an attacks by the neighbouring pastoralists Gabra tribe sharpened fears the tribe could be wiped out altogether. Guya says that they all swam to the island.

Guya says that that the last fluent El Molo speaking man passed away last year. The remaining members now have the difficult task of sustaining the traditions, customs and beliefs of this tribe.

“I am not even fluent in my language, and even if I was, who do I speak it with? The inter-marriages are finishing us,” says Captain Guya as he takes us around the shrines.

The four shrines, namely: Marie, Orikala, Origaltite and Orisole. These shrines were declared historical sites by the National Museums of Kenya in 2006.

“Clan heads come here from time to time to maintain the shrines and to pray. We believe in one supreme being, Wak,” says Guya.

With the death of the last fluent El Molo, this tribe may have started its final journey to extinction. Interestingly, tourism has kept their hopes alive as they receive lots of visitors weekly.

“We always split the earnings from visitors like you amongst our families.This way everyone benefits from it. We are still a family,” says Guya as he bids us farewell.


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