LOYANGALANI, Kenya, May 28 – Lparin Lokuk will never kill a hippo, the event which would have marked his passage into manhood, according to the ancestral traditions of his community in Kenya’s far north.
Lokuk belongs to the El Molo, which is one of the east African country’s smallest tribes, who are today seeing their traditions being eroded and their future under threat.
In the baking sun on the shores of Lake Turkana — the world’s largest lake to lie in a desert — only a few thousand El Molo remain in two settlements of huts made of palm leaf and pieces of plastic.
Several small African tribes are at risk of becoming extinct. The El Molo have fallen prey to a drop in Lake Turkana’s fish stocks, cohabitation with more dominant warrior tribes and ever tougher environmental protection laws.
“I used to go hunting hippos with a panga. I killed four but then the Kenya Wildlife Service banned hunting 15 years ago,” reminisced Charles Luya, an old man in Komote.
Still agile at 70, Luya, who sports a white goatee, explained that he also used to savour the flesh of crocodiles and turtles, two other species that are now protected.
With no money to buy meat or vegetables, the El Molo eat nothing but fish and this has serious consequences for their health.
They have also lost one of the cornerstones of their culture, just like the Maasai warriors a few hundred kilometres (miles) farther south, who are now also banned from the lion hunts that used to mark their passage into manhood.
“The young men often joke about not having killed a hippo, but beyond the joke you can sense that they regret it,” said Lparin Lokuk, a fisherman of 25.
“Killing a hippo meant being part of a team with a lot of solidarity among the hunters. Each man learned how to identify his strengths and weaknesses and that made him a better person,” the father-of-two went on, his chest and belly criss-crossed with traditional scarring.
Only the older men like Luya can show off the pendulous earlobes threaded through with hippo bone earrings that are the mark of the most courageous hunters.
The body paint with which the hunters used to adorn themselves — red and white circles on the chest and the face — is now applied only for traditional dances.
— ‘Globalisation is like a tornado’ —
“The young men still have circumcision rites and wrestling contests in which they can prove their strength,” the old man explained.
Even without wrestling contests, the El Molo have plenty of challenges to face on a daily basis, most of them caused by poverty and exclusion.
Visitors are asked for medicine to help a boy with a swollen knee and a young girl slowly going blind, a veil over the eyes to help protect her from the glare of the sun.
As soon as they smile children and adults alike reveal rotten teeth. Many are bandy-legged.
Komote has no electricity, no running water and no means of transport.
The only concrete sign of progress is a reservoir of drinking water financed by the European Union.
The El Molo have also lost their language, which died out when the last man to speak it fluently passed away a few years back. It gradually gave way to the language of the Samburu, the tribe of hunters and livestock herders who are dominant in the region.
“Globalisation is like a tornado that comes and sweeps and destroys. Most of the communities around the lake are in danger, not just the El Molo. We will do whatever we can to keep them. I don’t think they will disappear but of course they will be eroded,” said the local member of parliament, Joseph Lekuton.
Tradition has it that if the El Molo have to flee fighting or persecution, they take refuge on Lorian, a barren island in the lake. Here the El Molo — regardless of the fact they have converted to Catholicism — have four sacred huts, dedicated to fertility, hunting, rain and wind.
“I want my children to go to school but also to learn a bit about fishing so that they don’t forget their culture or where they come from,” explained Lparin Lokuk.
The younger generation doesn’t seem to see it that way. Luya’s son, 14-year-old Fabion, clad in a shapeless David Beckham vest, has no time for fishing.
“I don’t want to fish. I want to learn.”