A couple of months back I went on a road trip to experience the Marsabit Lake Turkana Cultural Festival with Kenya Tourism Board (KTB). We got to go down to Lake Turkana and meet the El Molo people. The El Molo people are nearly extinct as many of them have married into other tribes and have adopted their cultural customs. According to an article I read, by 1994, there were reportedly only 8 original El Molo remaining. I think by now there are none left. The El Molo are mostly concentrated in Marsabit around the south-east shore of Lake Turkana.
The El Molo people fish for a living and they sell some of their fish in order to get other types of food. They tend to sell their fresh fish, and smoke the fish they will eat so that it will last a long time. One interesting thing I noted about the El Molo is that they have their own version of fish oil that they give all the children so that they can be healthy and not get sick. So we are not so different from our cod liver oil that we take in the city. It is amazing that traditionally they know that fish oil is good to help kids stay healthy and is also good for their growth.
In the past, the El Molo used to battle crocodiles from their tiny canoes and would eat crocodile meat. They also used to eat hippo meat after hunting the dangerous hippo and they used to have a reputation for bravery because of this. Due to anti-poaching laws, they were forced to stop this. Now they survive on fish and what they can trade fish for. In olden times the hippo hunter was celebrated as a hero and they had some special earrings and a necklace to wear.
Because of their harsh environment, inbreeding and the fact that they have been affected by clashes between communities members usually have a life expectancy of 45 years. They also tend to age really fast.
The women wear colourful ornaments around their necks and heads. Even young girls wear them.
During the day you will find the children swimming in Lake Turkana. El Molo have such an affinity for water – when I was in Turkana I was told that the El Molo who live there in the town carry water around they keep splashing on themselves. It could be because of the heat around where they live they got used to dipping themselves in the lake that it somehow feels strange when they do not have water to cool off.
The El Molo catch catfish or smaller tilapia in the lake. What they don’t sell they turn into a salty broth. Because the area is a semi-arid area there is no agricultural activity by the El Molo. Their fishing techniques have not changed in more than 3000 years and they use canoes made from doum palm trucks and handmade harpoons.
One of the reasons that has led to their low life expectancy is that even though their diet is rich in protein (fish) they don’t eat a lot of vegetables, fruits or carbohydrates which has led to health problems. They also take too much fluoride and this means that many of them have discoloured teeth. They have tended to have brown coloured hair because of the deficiency in their diet.
Their houses are made from dried reeds and palm leaves. They tend to make have to make a new house every two years partly because they have been made to move quite a bit due to inter-tribal conflicts in the area and also because the reeds end up rotting.
Some of the fish is roasted. Some are cut into long strips and dried in the sun. This is how they preserve their meat. When they need to eat it the dried fish is soaked in the lake to soften it then it is boiled and eaten. Unlike their neighbours, the El Molo do not keep cattle for food or trade.
The El Molo people are monogamous and this is surprising considering that the communities who live beside them are polygamous.
It was great to meet the El Molo community. They are very friendly and welcoming. Next time you take a trip to the Marsabit Lake Turkana side maybe you can pay them a visit. Take the children some pencils and exercise books if you can as this is what they kept asking for. Hopefully, something can be done to ensure that their culture is preserved and that their culture and language does not die out.
Potentash Founder. A creative writer. The Managing Editor at Potentash. Passionate about telling African stories and stories about the inclusion of minorities. Find me at email@example.com.
“We're all stories, in the end.” ― Steven Moffat