Wednesday, July 31, 2013


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.”

                          El Molo tribe men, Rift Valley, Kenya

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.

                        El Molo woman drinking in Lake Turkana, Kenya. By Eric Lafforgue

 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.'
E Molo man fishing on Lake Turkana  Kenya. By Nigel Pavitt

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 tribe man showing his tribal body marks and holding traditional wooden head dress, Lake Turkana, Kenya. By Eric Lafforgue

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.

                             El Molo tribe village in front of Lake Turkana

 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.

                         Fisherman village of El Molo people, El Molo Bay, Lake Turkana, Kenya

Lake Turkana
 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.

                    Tilapia fish haul, Lake Turkana, Kenya

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.

                         Lake Turkana (Jade Sea), Kenya

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

                                          El Molo old man near El Molo settlement

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)
Young girl from El Molo tribe, Kenya

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"
Melisaki: princess loingalani, el molo bay, lake rudolf, kenya, 1987 photo by Peter Beard

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.

                                 El Molo kids
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.

                            El Molo tribe village on Lake Turkana, kenya

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 woman standing in front of her hut

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.

                                       El Molo fisher people at Lake Turkana

 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

                                El Molo hunters kill crocodile, Lake Turkana, Kenya

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.

                               El Molo people kill hippo

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.

Bride`s maids from Kenya`s smallest ethnic group El-molo smile during a wedding ceremony in El-molo bay in Loiyangalani, northeastern Kenya, June 29, 2006. El-molo, who live on the southern shores of Lake Turkana are in very small numbers but the population has increased at about 300-400 people by intermarriages with neighboring Turkana and Samburu tribes. According to their tradition the bride is circumcised on her wedding day. On the right is the bride`s mother. Picture taken June 29, 2006. REUTERS/Boniface Mwangi/Files (KENYA)

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.
El Molo boy, Rift valley, kenya

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.
El Molo Christian devotee.

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.
Dancers at El Molo village, Lake Turkana, Kenya

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.
El Molo girl removing dust from her elder by blowing air from her mouth

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 women wearing straw skirt

                                 EL MOLO PEOPLE
The El Molo are probably the only Kenyan tribe that exclusively survives on fish.  They are expert fishermen
                                   BY NYAMBEGA GISESA

He tugs the boat to the shore of the greenish waters of Lake Turkana, undresses and dives into the waters believed to have the largest population of crocodiles in the world “Crocodiles have never eaten our people,” says Charles Luya also known as Captain Luya.
At 79, Mr Luya looks frail even to survive a chicken fight but the victorious grin across his wrinkled face shows that he can take on Lake Turkana and its dangers. His earrings and other ornaments made from crocodile teeth show how valiant he is. They are trophies, an honour from his El Molo tribesmen for heroes who successfully hunt down hippos.

In this part of the world, it’s practically impossible to find someone as old as Mr Luya, especially in a tribe where the life expectancy is short – 30 to 45 years.
Lack of medical facilities and poor diet are to blame for the low life expectancy among the El Molo, a small community of about 700 people.

                     El Molo children in village local school, El Molo bay of Lake Turkana, Kenya

The number of El Molo is largely unknown even by the government. The 2009 census results did not list their numbers as they fell in the negligible category. Village elders estimate their numbers to be 600 to 700, with “pure” El Molo in their dozens.In 2009, there was an outbreak of cholera in their villages. By the time the Médecins Sans Frontières medical team got there, seven had died from the disease. At that time, the organisation working with the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation told the Nation that they had treated 47 people in El Molo and 157 in Loiyangalani.
About 10 years ago, the last person alive to know the native El Molo language died, leaving Mr Luya as the patriarch. He was also left with the difficult task of continuing the traditions, customs and beliefs of this tribe. But with the death of that man, Kaayo Lepolote, the El Molo language began its journey to extinction. Not even the current patriarch is fluent in it But, even threatened with extinction, Kenya’s little known and smallest tribe living in two villages in the southeastern shore of Lake Turkana is fighting to keep its customs and traditions.

                                 El Molo kids making fire

Fish is their staple, something which has been blamed for their poor nutrition and low population growth rate. The El Molo are probably the only Kenyan tribe that exclusively survives on fish. And they are expert fishermen.

“We take two meals a day; fish in the morning and for supper,” says Ekai Akinyanya, a fisherman whom Lifestyle found by the lakeside repairing his fishing net.
“A child is regarded as old enough to leave his mother’s side when he is able to spear a fish in water,” Mr Luya says.

They use spears or harpoons, fishing rods (made from the roots of an acacia with doumpalm fibre and a forged iron point or hook), nets made from doumpalm fibre, and fishing and traditional rafts made of doumpalm logs tied together with rope.

                                   El Molo hunters capture Hippopotamus

Fish, hippopotamus and crocodiles are important animals to the tribe. In this community, killing a hippo is what killing a lion is to 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.

These days, the El Molo receive as many visitors as half their population. But to get there, visitors have to conquer one of Kenya’s most difficult terrains and harshest climates.
The El Molo are now finding tourism an excellent source of income. 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.
“If you walk around the bay, you will find members who are disabled,” Mr Lotorobo says adding that it’s because the people have a close blood relationship. The other reason, he says, is that they drink salty water from the lake.
Count Samuel Teleki and Lt L. von Hohnel, the first Europeans who first came across the community in 1888, described them as a group of people “living entirely on fish, crocodiles and hippopotamus meat”. Their population was estimated to be 200-300.

In the research paper, The Elmolo by W. S. Dyson and V. E. Fuchs published in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, it is indicated that in 1934 when the Lake Rudolf Expedition visited them, there were only 84 of them left. The book says when discovered, the El Molowere the poor of the three surrounding tribes – Rendille, Dasenech and Samburu – and their mode of life was modified by extreme poverty as they depended on whatever they caught from the lake for food.
In 1976, an El Molo chief in Loiyangalani presented 369 as the number of his tribesmen, an increase from 233 in the 1973 census results. The members are spread across seven clans, out of which four have shrines known as gantes.
The shrines are Marle, where prayers for cursing enemy tribes, rain and protection from snake bites are conducted; Orikala for sacrifices to enhance good luck when hunting the hippopotamus; Origaltite for blessing barren women to conceive; and Orisole, which the clan uses to request for protection against calamities such as diseases and curses of troublemakers within the community.“Different clans have their own powers as illustrated by the various shrines,” says an elder, William Lengotok.

The shrines are located on an island called the “Island of Ghosts” or “Island of no Return” which the community considers as sacred places. When attacked by enemies, as legend goes, they used to retreat to this island, catch lots of catfish and spread them across the entrance to the island. As the raiders approached, they would get pricked by the catfish bones and never reach them.
“We stay away from this island because it’s a breeding area for fish,” Mr Lengotok adds.
For several years the tribe maintained their practice of endogamy but started to intermarry with neighbouring tribes around 1973. They continue changing some of their traditions and customs and adopting ways of life of the Samburu, Turkana and Christians.

                      El Molo woman showing a beaded Christian cross

Mr Luya has three wives; an El Molo, a Samburu and a Turkana. The people dress traditionally and in Western clothes. Some wear the traditional selah and beads and goat or fish skins. One of Mr Luya’s children, Fabian Luya, goes to school and has a Christian name.
“We are intermarrying with other tribes and we hope that this will save us from being termed a dying people,” Mr Luya says. But their interaction with other communities is not without challenges because of their history, economic activities and regard by neighbours as a “lesser people”.

El Molo elders say the Pokots do not like them for their fish eating. “They chase away our women married among them accusing them of being ‘worthless fish eaters’,” says Mr Luya.
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.”
Unlike their neighbours, the El Molo are not pastoralists and rarely eat meat. When they receive cows, goats and donkeys as dowry, they do not keep them for long. But the donkeys are important.
“We use them to carry our fish,” says Mzee Edidio Njokulo.

Their small huts on the shores of Lake Turkana are made of doum palm fronds supported with wood from acacia trees.
Although they live a 30-minute drive from Loiyangalani, an oasis, the water is not directly available to El Molo Bay.

                         Schooling El Molo kids

The El Molo seldom show desperation in their faces but they are fighting for survival. The lake, which they depend on, is greatly being polluted, it is evaporating at a steady rate of about 30cm a year. Lack of sanitary facilities and limited access to fresh drinking water is increasing the pressure on them. The conservationist group, Friends of Lake Turkana, says the blockage of the Omo River and Lake Turkana by the Ethiopian Gibe dam is projected to result in a drop of seven to 10 metres in the lake’s depth in the first five years.
While over the centuries obscure dialects and isolated communities have come and gone, dispersed by conquest or ecological disaster, Mr Luya wishes continuity of his people. And he does this by telling their story to visitors to the area.
Stock Photo #1792-53583, Kenya, Rift Valley, Turkana lake region, El Molo tribe
Kenya, Rift Valley, Turkana lake region, El Molo tribe 

“I just hope that they preserve the memories for our children and future generations,” he told journalists, marketers and researchers from the Kenya Tourist Board and National Museums of Kenya who visited the village recently.

Fear of extinction as the El Molo numbers drop

There is a big riddle about the total population of the El Molo community. While some websites estimate the total population of the El Molo at 200, some observers believe the number could be 300. It is the smallest and certainly one of the smallest tribes in Kenya.
El Molo villagers stand outside their shelters at Loiyangalani village in north-eastern Kenya, some 567km from the capital Nairobi. El Molo is Kenya's smallest tribe. REUTERS
El Molo villagers stand outside their shelters at Loiyangalani village in north-eastern Kenya, some 567km from the capital Nairobi. El Molo is Kenya's smallest tribe. REUTERS 
A strange thing about the El Molo people is that none of them will disclose the population of their community. They believe that disclosing their number endangers them more since they have over the years been assimilated by their neighbours – the Samburu, Rendille and the Turkana from intermarriage.
Whatever the case, El Molo is one of the country’s communities threatened with extinction.
Turkana girl

They have lost their language and most of their culture through assimilation to influential neighbours, mostly the Samburus. They speak Samburu language and most of their culture is borrowed from the same community.
There are no official records to show the population of this dying community.
In the 1979 census, the El Molos were found to be scattered in Coast, Central, North Eastern and Rift Valley provinces.
Their total number then was 289.

Christiana Sairi Louwa, of the El Molo community, at UNPFII, New York April 2008. source:Minority Rights Group...

The El Molo live in what is known as El Molo Bay on the south eastern shores of Lake Turkana.
They live 10 kilometres from Loiyangalani township, which is inhabited by the Turkana, Samburu and Rendille people.

El Molo Bay, which is in Marsabit South District, is a very small area comprising of two villages — Layeni and Komote.
Here, the El Molos, who are hunters and gatherers, survive almost entirely on fishing using nets made from the doum palm fibre.
El Molo woman fitting her hut

It is the same fibre or dried woods that they use to build their round grass-thatch huts.
The El Molo are known to hunt the giant Nile Perch. They also hunt animals like hippos and crocodiles in Lake Turkana.

The name El Molo, according to linguistics experts, is a Samburu name referring to people who do not use livestock as their source of income.
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. It is difficult to find an El Molo man older than 60 years.

At the height of last year’s drought in the country, the Saturday Nation visited El Molo Bay village.
And when we sought an interview with a man the villagers referred to as a local elder we asked him his age.
“I’m 25 years old and a father of three,” the man said.

“Do you then qualify to be an elder?” we asked and the man confidently responded affirmatively.
This is because most of his age mates are in the category of the aged in the community.
And the man only agreed to talk to us on assurance of a local Catholic priest and other church workers that our team had no bad intentions for the El Molo.

According to historians the El Molo’s originated from Somalia or Ethiopia and settled along the shores of Lake Turkana. Source:

El Molo woman smiling. Lake Turkana,Kenya

El; Molo child crouching

El Molo fisherman

El Molo tribe woman and baby. Circa 1979

Hunting crocodile

El Molo tribe, Lake Turkana, Kenya, East Africa, Africa

Turkana woman with a beaded necklace

Lake Turkana

Turkana girl living with El Molo tribe