Mombasa Lenapir briefly strokes the waters of Kenya’s Lake Turkana with his hand as he boards the rickety canoe. A piece of hippo teeth or KalateHis right earlobe is covered in a dangle that hangs from his left ear, which is evidence that he once killed an hippo in his youth, a rite for passage.
Lenapir, a member of the El Molo community who has lived along the shores of Lake Turkana since millennia, is now 70. Two years ago, rising waters forced him to flee his village of Komote, making it an island. Fearing that they would be swept away by the growing lake, Lenapir and his family built new homes on the mainland. Some chose to stay on the island and use canoes for transportation between the two settlements.
“Can you believe we are riding on what was once dry land?” says Lenapir. “I have never seen the water rise to this level. A few years ago, children used to walk to school and then play in the field. These homes could have been reached by car in the past. Today, parents must pay boat owners to allow their children to go to school. It is difficult for the sick to get medical assistance, especially at night,” says Lenapir.
Another huge loss for the community was the loss of a water pumping station. It used to supply freshwater, but is now under the surface of Lake Superior. The El Molo people have to rely on the one that remains. Most saline lakes of AfricaYou can use their water instead. High levels of fluoride cause discoloration of teeth and weaken bones. Children are particularly susceptible to water-borne illnesses like diarrhoea cholera, typhoid, and cholera.
Lake Turkana is surrounded by barren terrain and dotted with volcanic rocks. Unesco World Heritage SiteThe number of people who have a disability has increased.Greater than 10% in the same areaOver the past decade, it has submerged nearly 800 km of land. It has obliterated El Molo’s fishing sites, destroyed freshwater infrastructure, engulfed burial grounds and brought the community in Nearby are the ferocious Nile Crocodiles, hippos and serpents.
A government-sanctioned report, published in 2021, says the rise in water levels in Lake Turkana and other Rift valley lakes is due to increased rainfall in the lakes’ catchment areas over the last few years, unsustainable land-use practices leading to soil in runoff water and geological activities within the Rift valley system.
A report from the UN Environment Programme for 2021 stated that the Climate crisis will result in heavier rains over the lake’s key river inflows creating a further rise in the water levels over the next 20 years, with more social, cultural and economic impacts for nearby communities such as the El Molo.
“Such a possible increase in inflow will result in an increasing water level in Lake Turkana. The flooding that occurred in 2020, previously considered rare, is likely to become more frequent in the future, without any adaptation measures. The new evidence of continuing rising lake water levels is partially based on climate change scenarios and a predicted change in rainfall patterns,” says the report.
With An estimated population is 1,000The El Molo lived on the edge. Their language is listed as extinct by Unesco’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in DangerIt is not possible to speak fluently the dialect as there are no native El Molos. El Molos belong to the Cushite ethnic group, but intermarriages between the tribe and nearby Nilotic communities, such as the Turkana and Samburu, have contributed to the language’s disappearance. Its future is now in the hands of schoolchildren who learn to speak a rudimentary version through a grammar and folklore.
The El Molo are believed to have come from Ethiopia and settled in about 1,000BC at the shores Lake Turkana, Kenya. Their diet consists mainly of fish caught with traditional spears, nets, and harpoons. Their primary source of income has been impacted by the growth of the lake.
“Rising waters mean more fish are now found deeper into the lake. Our boats can easily capsize if it is too windy offshore. We have lost some of our members due to such incidents. Without a good daily supply of fish, our lives are in danger since we cannot farm as the whole place is rocky,” says Julius Loyok, a local tour guide.
After 20 minutes, Loyok helped anchor the canoe along the shoreline of Komote Island, before helping Lenapir disembark. They travel bypassing their homesteads to reach traditional shrines called gantesLenapir, an older man, offers sacrifices to the community after a tragedy. He also prays for rain and protection against snake bites. There are fears that if the lake continues to expand, the revered shrines, lying close to the water’s edge, will become inaccessible.
“Our language is dead, our culture is going and our homes are being swallowed by the water,” says Lenapir.
Layeni village is also affected by the rising water level. Half of the community burial grounds are submerged. It is only a matter time before the remaining half, located just a few meters from the lake, will be submerged. The sight of graves in the water is particularly distressing in a community that reveres the dead.
“This is painful. Sometimes you need moments of solitude. To reach the submerged graves, I now have to ride a canoe together with others. We buried the dead and now the graves are buried too,” says Lenapir.
A few miles away from El Molo villages, the Desert Museum houses many artifacts of the community, including food and tobacco containers as well as tortoise shells used for plates.
Ntalan Ogom, the museum’s caretaker and a member of the El Molo community, says this is perhaps the only place where future generations will learn of a lost tribe, an extinct language and a dying culture. “We relied on the lake to live. Now it’s killing our people.”