The El Molo are a little-known people who number about 4,000 – pure El Molos are far fewer. Some think none are left. Either way, it makes them the smallest tribe in Kenya.
These mysterious people are believed to have originally migrated from Ethiopia in the more northerly region down into the Great Lakes area around 1000 BC. Living in a largely arid environment, it is thought they may have abandoned agricultural activities in favor of lakeside fishing which they are now known for.
Like ancient Ethiopians, the El Molo erected tomb structures in which they placed their dead. A 1962 archaeological survey in the Northern Frontier District led by S. Brodribb Pughe observed hieroglyphics on a number of these constructions which were mainly found near springs or wells of water.
Today the El Molo live in small villages on the southeastern shore of lake Turkana. Their name comes from a Maasai word, ‘elmolo’, which means ‘those who make their living from other than cattle’. The El Molo are also known as Gurapau or ‘people of the lake’. The Samburu like to call them ‘loo molo onsikirri’, ‘the people who eat ﬁsh’.
These people, considered endangered, 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 in the lake. Very few pure El Molo exist today, with majority now a mix of the Samburu and Turkana.
Increased pressure from tribes inhabiting this islands forced the El Molo to move further south to their present day home – in front of the ‘Island of Ghosts’, also known as the ‘Island of No Return’. The main diet of the El Molo is fish from Lake Turkana. They mainly fish the lake for giant Nile perch and occasionally hunt crocodiles and hippos.
The El Molo do not eat a lot of beef like their cousins the Samburu and Turkana, who use their livestock, especially the goats, for food. Unlike the Samburu and Turkana, they are not pastoralists either.
Besides fish, their diet consists of the ‘loka’, the nut or date of the doum palm which is mostly eaten by children. This unbalanced protein-rich diet and the effects of too much fluoride have, over the centuries, made the El Molo increasingly vulnerable to disease and attacks from stronger tribes.
But it is an ancient culture of marrying among themselves that has devastated the El Molo more. Researchers believe this may have contributed to their recessive genes, which expose them to disease and early aging. They have also practiced monogamy long before Christianity advocated for the same.
Many El Molo practice a traditional religion centered on the worship of Waaq (or 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.