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The lake turns the lives of a tiny Kenyan tribe upside down – Science-Environment News – Report by AFR

At daybreak, children from one of Kenya’s smallest and most isolated tribes don life jackets and board a fishing boat for the trip across the lake to school.

Until recently, they could walk the distance. A road connected El Molo to the world beyond their tiny village, a lifeline for a remote community of fishermen and artisans who lived on the shores of Lake Turkana.

But three years ago the lake began to rise dramatically, lapping the domed huts of El Molo covered in dry fish, then pushing inland and forcing villagers to higher ground.

As the tide reached levels not seen in living memory, the El Molo watched as their only fresh water main slid below the surface, as did the burial mounds of their ancestors.

Eventually the road to the mainland disappeared entirely, trapping the El Molo on an island in a lake so large and imposing it is sometimes called the “Jade Sea”.

“There used to be no water here,” said El Molo fisherman Julius Akolong as he crossed the wide channel that now separates his community from the rest of Kenya’s far north.

“You could drive over there in a jeep.”

Turkana, already the world’s largest desert lake, stretching 250 kilometers (155 miles) from peak to peak, grew 10 percent over the decade to 2020, according to a government study released last year.

This expansion submerged nearly 800 additional square kilometers (about 300 sq mi) of land, including El Molo Bay, where the tribesmen live on Turkana’s east coast.

Extreme rainfall over catchments – a climatic event associated with global warming – greater soil runoff from deforestation and agriculture, and tectonic activity were all cited as contributing causes.

– Blessing and curse –

The phenomenon profoundly affected the El Molo, whose distinct Cushitic culture was already under serious threat.

The El Molo numbered barely 1,100 at the last census and are dwarfed by Kenya’s larger and wealthier ethnic groups, who dominate a country of around 50 million people.

Known by the pastoralist tribes of northern Kenya as “the people who eat fish,” the El Molo are said to have lived around 1,000 BC. Migrated to Turkana from Ethiopia.

But few today speak a word of their native language, and ancient customs have evolved or disappeared through generations of intermarriage with neighboring ethnic groups.

The unexpected rise of the lake shattered the remaining El Molo, who still followed the old ways of life.

Some of those displaced by the disaster made the painful decision to relocate to the mainland and set up a squatter camp on the opposite bank.

The cluster of shacks in a bare and windswept clearing is closer to school and other amenities, but worlds away from their close-knit community and traditions.

“It was very difficult… We had to go and discuss this with the elders so they could allow or bless us to go without curses,” said Akolong, a 39-year-old father of two.

For those who stayed, life on the island has become a struggle.

The El Molo are skilled fishermen, but as Turkana rose higher, her people starved.

The fishing nets and baskets used for millennia, handwoven from reeds and doum palm fiber, proved less effective in deeper water and reduced catches.

Losing access to fresh water, the El Molo had to drink from Turkana, the saline lake in Africa.

Children in the village suffer from chalky teeth and bleached hair, a side effect of the lake’s high fluoride levels.

“We get diarrhea a lot…we don’t have any other clean water. Thats all we have. It’s salty and it attacks our teeth and hair,” said Anjela Lenapir, a 31-year-old mother of three who decided to stay.

– Disappearing culture –

School attendance has plummeted because parents can’t afford the boat ride, said David Lesas, assistant principal at El Molo Bay Primary School.

“Most stay at home,” he regretted.

Local government and World Vision, a relief group, are helping, but resources are scarce and need many in the region experiencing a unique drought.

The school has also suffered: the fence and the toilet block are under water and crocodiles have taken over part of the playground.

But the real damage to El Molo is indelible.

Separated from his people, Akolong has missed initiation rites, naming ceremonies, and funerals—rituals that strengthen tribal identity and community.

“We are divided now,” he said bitterly.

Cairns marking the resting place of El Molo’s dead have been swept away, erasing memories of the past, while the lake threatens revered shrines to tribal deities.

“It’s a place deeply respected in our culture. With the rise of water, we will also lose this tradition,” Lenapir said.

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