El Molo people (also known as Gurapau “people of the lake” according to the auto-ethnonym) are Cushitic, smallest and near extinct ethnic group found in Kenya. With a population of less than 400 people, and decreasing, the El Molo is probably Africa`s smallest ethnic group. They are the most skillful-hardy fishermen amongst the mostly semi- nomadic pastoral tribes around Lake Turkana in Loiyangalani Division of Marsabit District.
Unlike their neighbours, the El Molo are not pastoralists and rarely eat meat. Among the Maasai, El Molo loosely means “those who make a living from other sources other than cattle”. The Samburu identify them with ﬁsh from the phrase loo molo onsikirri, which means “the people who eat ﬁsh.”
There are few places left in Africa untouched by time. In Northern Kenya, the El Molo community struggles to maintain its culture in a fast-paced world. The El Molo, the hunters of the jade sea, with population between 200 and 300 (others believe the pure El Molo are about 40 people) men, women, and children living in a small village on the shores of Lake Turkana.
The present population is largely comprised of mixed blood,combining elements of Samburu, Turkana and El Molo, although many of the customs and the El Molo way of life are maintained by many.Thirty years ago an anthropologist who visited the El Molo wrote, `I felt as if I'd stumbled on a race that had survived simply because time had forgotten to finish them off.'
Demographers estimate that by the turn of the century, most Kenyans will live in the cities. As the El Molo and other ethnic groups leave their villages, their unique cultures will disappear, submerged in the melting pot of greater Africa. It's important that the seriously threatened El Molo tribe- which diminishing population is partly attributed to in-breeding and a single diet of fish- is protected by the Kenyan government and the international community to help avert Africa and the world at large from losing a little of its magic without the hunters of the jade sea.
El Molo is a village in Kenya, situated on the southeast shore of Lake Turkana, just 10 km north of Loiyangalani town. Its population is about 200. The tiny population fishes the lake for giant Nile perch.
Their dwellings resemble igloos, built from what little scrub vegetation there is to be found amongst the volcanic wasteland surrounding the alkaline waters of this inland body of water. The village is located in Loiyangalani Division of Marsabit District.
Known variously as the “Jade Sea” and the “Cradle of Mankind” Lake Turkana offers the intrepid traveler unrivaled opportunities. This remote, arid area of northern Kenya never ceases to enthrall its visitors. The lake never appears at rest, sudden squalls, full blown storms ruffle its heart, this 180 mile long stretch of inland sea is serene one moment, vicious the next, as unpredictable as the huge crocodiles that lie sunning themselves on its banks.
Not far inland from the lake visit an ancient petrified forest, tree trunks standing forlorn testament to the passingof millions of years of world history. The area surrounding the lake is no less interesting, home to numerous arid lands adapted game such as the Grevy’s Zebra, Gerenuk and Oryx, is an explorers paradise untouched by the modern world.
The Chalbi Desert and the people that inhabit it, the Rendille, the Boran, the Merille and Gabra lead ancient lives and guard their traditional existence proudly. The contrasts here are phenomenal, no more so than when it comes to climate soaring temperatures and howling gales can be rudely interrupted by a violent thunderstorm and replaced just as quickly by the most silent evening and clearest of night skies ever.
The El Molo people (or Gurapau “people of the lake” according to the auto-ethnonym) live on the east bank of the Lake Turkana Lake. At the present, they are mainly found in two small villages (Layeni and Komote) located in the neighbourhoods of the location site of Loiyangalani.
The original language of the El Molo was an East Cushitic language of the Omo-Tana group (The last fluent speaker in the community died 10 years ago), and its closest relatives are the Dhaasanac and the Arbore languages of southwest Ethiopia. The El Molo basically abandoned their language in favour of the Nilotic Samburu language during the second half of the 20th century.
Basic data on the language were collected by the German linguist and Africanist Bernd Heine in the early 1970s, and were published as two short grammatical sketches (1975-76, in German; 1980 in English, with few changes) and a basic dictionary (197-73). In the early ‘90s another German Africanist, Matthias Brenzinger, published a study of the language shift among the El Molo and added a few linguistic notes.
During the 70s the El Molo were roughly extinguished (almost 100 individuals), but the number of ethnically deﬁned El Molo is nowadays currently increasing.
Three years ago the El Molo community, which is represented by the cultural association (Community Based Organisation) “Gurapau”, decided to start a revitalisation project intended to recover their ethno-linguistic identity. The project is partially founded by the Christensen Foundation according to which the project is intended “To support partnerships between El Molo ﬁsher people of Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya and local researchers to document and revitalise their language, ethno-ecological knowledge, cultural heritage and sacred sites and restore identity and lost pride as a basis for community development.”)
Therefore, the recovering of the El Molo language goes hand in hand with the rehabilitation of the traditional customs and knowledge.It is important to stress that many members of the community still have some knowledge of the El Molo language in the form of words, songs and proverbs, and that the whole El Molo community is willing to collaborate to the recovering of their language (a small El Molo vocabulary has already been collected).
The origin of El Molo people is not certain, some school of thoughts aver that El Molo people came from Ethiopia, others say Somalia. It is asserted that they originally settled on the northern shores of Lake Turkana, where they were mostly wiped out by other tribes and forced to move south to the small islands. Due to further pressure from tribes inhabiting that area, they moved further south to the southeastern shores -where they live today- in front of the "Island of Ghosts"or "Island of No Return"
Here they are gathered into two villages, one called Anderi consisting of about 150 individuals and the other, Illah of about 70 inhabitants. Due to their almost constant historical suffering from other tribes, they have opted to remain cutoff from much of the world, maintaining a very traditional life on the small island and the shore at El Molo Bay.
Oral history:The story of how the El Molo came into being is borrowed from a popular story of their great heroine, Sepenya.“A long time ago, Lake Turkana did not exist,” narrates Makambo Lotorobo, the curator of the Desert Museum where El Molo’s history is being preserved. “A pregnant woman known as Sepenya visited a local spring and forgot to cover it with a lid after fetching water. Water ﬂooded the whole area forming a lake.”
Later on, Sepenya gave birth to a son called Melissa. Without any other human being around, mother and son bore the El Molo community which inhabited the southeastern shores of the lake at El Molo Bay.
Their island refuges are at the mouth of the bay, Loriyam and Koran, (island of goats). Living in doum palm frond huts the El Molo truly eke out an existence in an environment that offers them few resources beyond the doum palm, stones, thorny bushes and the brackish waters of the Lake home to hippo and some of the largest Nile Crocodiles in Africa.
The Nile Perch that manage to avoid the crocodiles are hotly pursued by the El Molo, hunting from boats constructed literally of three doum palm trunks lashed together.
The life of the El Molo is generally based on fishing, using spears or harpoons, fishing rods (made from the roots of an acacia with doumpalm fiber and a forged iron point or hook) and nets( made from doumpalm fiber).
Modern' boats are difficult to maintain and are rarely available due to their expense. Their traditional rafts are made of doumpalm logs and tied with rope. It is quite a feat to ride this into the waves of Lake Turkana and chase after crocodile, hippo and Nile perch—all killed with a hand harpoon! The caught fish is usually either roasted or cut into long strips and dried in the sun on the roofs of the huts, or on fiber mats laid on the ground.
The dried fish is then soaked in the lake for softening before being boiled and eaten. The El Molo eat very little meat, unlike their cousins the Samburu and Turkana who will use their smallstock for food, and unlike these cousins, they are not pastoralist - they do not keep cattle. The second mainstay of diet is the 'loka' , the nut or date of the doumpalm- eaten mostly by the children.
Currently the El Molo suffer greatly from the increased pollution of the Lake, lack of sanitary facilities and no fresh drinking water. WildiZe Foundation is working closely with the El Molo Bay Gurapau community group on creating an environmentally friendly and easily sustainable fresh water still. Every few years cholera outbreaks run rampant through the village causing death to the very old and the very young.
Securing funding for a fresh water drinking source would tremendously improve the lifestyle of the El Molo without damaging their culture or traditional integrity, and allow this small tribe to continue into the future. WildiZe also provided funding for the creation of a new meeting hall- an enclosed doumpalm hut structure creating shade, where the elders meet and discuss community matters, and where the tourists who come through the area are welcome to shop the 'market' and purchase El Molo crafts. This, in turn, helps supply some further economic stability for the community's needs.
El Molo people maintain many of their traditional customs and way of life. Unlike the Turkana the El Molo do practice circumcision, both of boys and girls.
Of the old and largely unrecorded traditions, that of the ngwere is the most revered. As El Molo society requires no chief as such the elders of the tribe convene and supervise the hunting of the hippo, often associated with wacq, the God of the lake.
Dances and songs pay tribute to the ancestors before the elders turn on the young warriors, slashing them across their bodies it whip them to a frenzy of excitement before spending them out to pursue the mammal probably responsible for more deaths in rural Africa than any other, the Hippopotamus.
A chosen hunter must hurl himself, literally, without hesitation at the target beast, whilst his companions slash at it with their razor sharp blades. This chosen warrior will not be allowed to consume any of this delicacy until he returns home, however he will be the hero of the whole tribe at the following feast and will be feted for his whole life, wearing a special animal bone earring to signify his bravery to all.
The El Molo bury their dead under a small cairn of stones on the lake shore, the whole village then moving away from the spot of burial to avoid offending the dead.
The traditional "selah", a triangle of woven string worn as a form of skirt is still worn on significant occasions, although these are becoming fewer as the tribe's numbers dwindle.
Otherwise the El Molo dress exclusively in the materialsmost readily available to them, the red cured hides of
cattle and goats or Nile Perch skins. Great lovers of adornment the women and girls sport necklaces of ostrich shell disks and fish bones whereas the males traditionally wear only a small 'apron'.
They dress their hair much like their Turkana cousins - a skull cap often made from the hide of a cow or ostrich within which they may hide a totemic lock of hair from some brave or talented ancestor. Like most northern nomadic tribes they all carry the wooden headrest that helps them maintain their coiffure when sleeping.