The El Molo Community of Kenya

Stories of strong fishermen, basket weavers, and craftsmen

By National Museums of Kenya

ChokerNational Museums of Kenya

Celebrating our shared past, present, and future

Dating back centuries, the stories and traditions of the peoples of Kenya are some of the most fascinating in the world. They have enriched the country through social, economic, political and cultural activities, each with their own unique stories. Today, 44 communities are officially recognized by the government, and are classified into three linguistic groups: the Bantu, the Nilotic and the Cushitic speakers. The National Museums of Kenya holds objects telling the stories of the communities, which represent the country's ethnic diversity and vibrant cultures. Many of the cultural practices are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. This exhibit celebrates the country’s rich heritage through the El Molo community. 

El Molo Mother and ChildNational Museums of Kenya

A look into the history and culture of the El Molo

The El Molo belong to the Cushitic linguistic group and are today nearly extinct. The El Molo historically spoke the El Molo language, which is regarded as endangered by UNESCO. In 2008, the National Museums of Kenya established the Desert Museum in Loiyangalani, to preserve and promote the unique cultures of the eight communities living around Lake Turkana region, namely: El Molo, Turkana, Pokot, Rendile, Samburu, Gabbra, Watta and Dassanach.

Turkana festivalNational Museums of Kenya

Experience the El Molo culture at The Lake Turkana Festival

One of Kenya's top tourist attractions is the three-day festival, held in June and taking place in Loiyangalani town, Marsabit county.

El Molo VillageNational Museums of Kenya

Migration: calling the Turkana Basin home

The El Molo community are believed to have migrated from Ethiopia to the Turkana Basin around 1000 BC. Today they primarily live around Lake Turkana at El Molo bay.

An unparalleled window into the past

The Turkana Basin is well known for research studies conducted by the National Museum of Kenya. The El Molo have lived around this basin for years and to this day you will find the remains of sacred sites where they worshiped.

The importance and reverence of this sacred place is underscored by the fact that neighboring communities, even in times of conflict, do not desecrate these sites.

There is also a sacred hill, Moite Hill, almost a hundred kilometers away, which is highly significant for their Turkana and Rendille neigbors.

NeckletNational Museums of Kenya

A good luck charm

The El Molo traditionally believed in God (Waaq), and wore charms to protect themselves against diseases and misfortune. This leather beaded necklace (ndimu) was believed to bring good luck when worn.

Turkana WomenNational Museums of Kenya

The family structure: the role of mothers

Traditionally, mothers were not expected to conceive another child until her son was strong enough to fish with a spear, or her daughter was old enough to be able to make a traditional cooking pot.

ArmletNational Museums of Kenya

Circumcision on the day of marriage

A girl’s circumcision took place on the day of her marriage, and the occasion was of great importance to the community. Girls would wear a coiled brass wire armlet (surutei) and other types of jewelry before marriage.

In Kenya today, female circumcision is illegal and the communities are encouraged to adopt alternative initiation rites which do not involve clitoridectomy.

DollsNational Museums of Kenya

Fertility doll made of doum palm seeds

The doll represents the female form and is a fertility symbol. Girls would carry them and hang them in their home to ensure that they would produce many children.

By Fritz GoroLIFE Photo Collection

Stories from the lake

Fishing was the core of the El Molo's livelihood. They used rafts made of doum palm logs to sail into the lake and catch fish with spears, nets and harpoons. 

Fishing BasketNational Museums of Kenya

A fishing basket (ochom)

This fishing basket was made by men, using flexible sticks for its frame and woven with reeds.

Fishermen lowered the trap directly onto a shoal or individual fish to catch them.

Net NeedleNational Museums of Kenya

Making fishing nets

These wooden needles were used to make the fishing nets and baskets with fibres of the Mlala (doum palm) leaves.

Fish KillersNational Museums of Kenya

Mowo for catching fishing

This oryx horn with rope attached was used for killing fish once caught in the net.

Turtle Shell PlateNational Museums of Kenya

A plate made of a turtle shell

The El Molo also hunted hippopotamus, crocodiles and turtles in order to use their skin for bags, bones for objects and meat to eat.

SpoonsNational Museums of Kenya

Spoons made of scapula

These five spoons were made of the scapula of a fish called IJI.

El Molo (1995) by Leonard KateeteNational Museums of Kenya

Beautiful craftsmanship

The El Molo men were known for making iron objects, fishing boats and woodwork, while the women were known for making beautiful baskets, pots and jewelry. 

PaniersNational Museums of Kenya

Sinai for carrying firewood, water, and food

These two panniers (sinai) were made of doum palm leaf fibre string. Attached to a donkey, they were used to carry firewood, water, and food.

Food basketsNational Museums of Kenya

Elal: food baskets

Food baskets were made from strips of mlala leaves. An awl was used for stitching it together.

StoolNational Museums of Kenya

Handcarved headrest

A wooden three-legged headrest and stool. It was used by men to sit on during various ceremonies and to rest their heads.

BagNational Museums of Kenya

Mbene goatskin bag

This goatskin bag (mbene) was used by men to carry personal possessions, money, tobacco and knives.

Ostrich Egg CupNational Museums of Kenya

Ostrich egg ornaments and drinking cups

Besides being used as drinking pots, ostrich eggs were used to create ornaments. The eggshells were placed on a flat stone and gently chipped using a heavy piece of iron. After being chipped to the required size, the rough edges were smoothed on a stone.

NecklaceNational Museums of Kenya

An ostrich eggshell beaded necklace

This necklace (kukuti) was made of ostrich eggshell beads, glass beads and doum palm string.

EarringNational Museums of Kenya

Krawuni earrings worn by women

These earrings were made of wire, two pearl buttons and red, green, yellow and blue beads.

BraceletsNational Museums of Kenya

A colorful bracelet worn by men and women

Different ornaments were worn by people of different ages, genders and status in the community, and on specific occasions and ceremonies.

Wooden CombNational Museums of Kenya

A warrior's comb

Made of wood from the sarai tree, this comb was used by warriors.

Snuff containersNational Museums of Kenya

Snuff containers

These snuff containers are made from small wild gourds which grew on the hills. One has orange and blue beads strung on a nylon fishing line, so that the container could be worn around the neck.

Lake TurkanaNational Museums of Kenya

Experience the El Molo culture

The annual Turkana Lake Tourism and Cultural Festival takes place in the city Loiyangalani. The three-day celebration invites everyone to experience the traditional dances, performances, food, craft and culture of the communites around Lake Turkana. In 2008, the National Museums of Kenya established the Desert Museum in Loiyangalani, to preserve and promote the unique cultures of the eight communities living around Lake Turkana region namely; El Molo, Turkana, Pokot, Rendile, Samburu, Gabbra, Watta and Dassanach.

 

El Molo Mother and ChildNational Museums of Kenya

Celebrating Kenya's communities today

Many of the cultural practices of the El Molo are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. The heritage and culture of the El Molo community, along with the more than 44 communities in Kenya, continues to fascinate and inspire. The National Museums of Kenya invites everyone to celebrate the intangible cultural heritage of all communities which makes up this great nation. 

Credits: Story

Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.

Exhibit Curator: Philemon Nyamanga, Cultural Heritage Department. pnyamanga@museums.or.ke

Bibliography and research
1. Fedders A, Salvadori C. Peoples and cultures of Kenya. Nairobi: Transafrica and London: Rex Collings, 1980.

Photography and Creative Direction: Gibson Maina and Muturi Kanini. Gibs Photography

Exhibit Layout: Barnabas Ngei and Brian Maina Kamau.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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