El Molo people

El Molo


El Molo / Gurapau / Dehes / Fura-Pawa / Ldes

The El Molo, also known as Elmolo, Dehes, Fura-Pawa and Ldes, are an ethnic group mainly inhabiting the northern Eastern Province of Kenya. They historically spoke the El Molo language as a mother tongue, an Afro-Asiatic language of the Cushitic branch, and now most El Molo speak Samburu.

El Molo people is also known as Gurapau “people of the lake” according to the auto-ethnonym. They are a smallest and near extinct 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 People


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.



The El Molo today primarily inhabit the northern Eastern Province of Kenya. They are concentrated in Marsabit District on the southeast shore of Lake Turkana, between El Molo bay and Mount Kulal. In the past, they also dwelled in other parts of the Northern Frontier District.

According to the 2019 Kenya census, there were 1,104 El Molo residents. However, historians have noted that there are few "pure" El Molo left. Most group members are today admixed with adjacent Nilotic populations, primarily Samburu, with only a handful of unmixed El Molo believed to exist. Many El Molo speakers have also adopted cultural customs from these communities. In 1994, only eight people reportedly could still speak El Molo.

El Molo People


Many El Molo practice a traditional religion centered on the worship of Waaq/Wakh. In the related Oromo culture, Waaq denotes the single God of the early pre-Abrahamic, monotheistic faith believed to have been adhered to by Cushitic groups.

Some El Molo have also adopted Christianity.


The language of El Molo

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).

According to Ethnologue, among other sources, the El Molo language is nearly extinct and there may already be no remaining speakers of the idiom. Most group members have now adopted the Nilo-Saharan languages of their neighbours.

The El Molo language has no known dialects. It is most similar to Daasanach.



The El Molo are believed to have originally migrated down into the Turkana Basin around 1000 BC from Ethiopia in the more northerly Horn region (others say Somalia). Owing to the arid environment in which they entered, they are held to have then abandoned agricultural activities in favor of lakeside fishing.

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.

Historically, the El Molo erected tomb structures in which they placed their dead. A 1962 archaeological survey in the Northern Frontier District led by Susan Brodribb Pughe observed hieroglyphics on a number of these constructions. They were mainly found near springs or wells of water.

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.

El Molo People


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.
El Molo People