Magella Hassan Lenatiyama is part of the El-molo participatory video hub, Gurapau, based in Lake Turkana, Kenya. Gurapau is part of InsightShare Network, a global network of Indigenous-led media hubs. In this report, Magella explores the long history of epidemics in the El-molo community and how this inflects on the current pandemic.
COVID-19 along the shores
My people, the El-molo, are an ethnic group of Cushitic origin found on the south-eastern shores of Lake Turkana. The majority are found in two tiny villages approximately 10 kms north of Loiyangalani town, while a few are scattered in Loiyangalani town itself, and in areas as far as Palo and Soit. It is the smallest tribe in Kenya in terms of population, numbering less than 1000 individuals. The size of our tribe makes the El-molo endangered. Chronic health issues and food insecurity threaten us further: if COVID-19 reached our community, we would be devastated.
We fear that the disease is becoming more terrible within and outside of Kenya. We hear from those with internet access and our chiefs that COVID-19 could kill huge numbers of people, and so as a community we are taking what measures we can to protect ourselves. We discourage crowding, ensure that no visitors can access our village without our notice and wash our hands. We are also sharing information in our local language, Samburu, and working with local artists to perform local songs to educate our community.
Local histories of epidemic cast new light on COVID-19
Both in the past and present times, the El-molo has been ravaged by various illnesses. Preventable blindness particularly amongst the old is increasing at an alarming rate and the El-molo people suffer from malnutrition because of lack of food and a balanced diet. This renders children, women and the elderly highly vulnerable to diseases associated with malnutrition.
A smallpox outbreak early last century brought the Samburu tribe to Lake Turkana, so that they could purify themselves. After that, they settled on El-molo territory. We, the smaller tribe, assimilated to them: since the 1930s our language has been in freefall. There are no fluent speakers alive today. Between epidemics and cultural loss, the El-molo are at risk.
Our tribe also suffers from bone deformity, diarrhoea and dysentery. All of these illnesses are associated with our dependence on water from Lake Turkana: Lake Turkana is a saltwater lake, with high levels of fluoride. It is not safe to drink but it is the only option. Wind projects on Lake Turkana occupy land containing water sources, once a communal resource. Now we have no access to these water sources – nor do we receive energy from the wind farm.
Cholera outbreaks have also afflicted us with devastating effects that remain in our memories. When word of COVID-19 reached our community, many people remembered the cholera outbreaks and the deaths they had caused. Many people didn’t see the coronavirus as different.
The El-molo are not strangers to epidemics. But the response to the coronavirus has been different: all schools have closed in line with social distancing measures, which will affect the already low literacy levels in both the young and old. Similarly, many livelihood practices have stopped, creating more poverty and food insecurity. The El-molo are fully dependent on fishing. However, due to this pandemic adults are no longer going out to fish in an attempt to observe social distancing.
Food insecurity threatens cultural practices and fish populations
Parents are not in a position to provide enough food to their families. Driven by hunger, children are becoming fishermen to survive.
Usually, fishing is done by elders, who know how to manage fish populations and treat the lake. Fishing is done by rotation according to territories, to prevent overfishing. I was overwhelmed to see so many children fishing and forgetting their cultural practices. Catching small fish to attract bigger fish is discouraged, and could cause issues in the future. In normal times when a big fish, like a Nilepitch, is caught, the fish is shared with the community in a special ceremony known as Lagi. But these children are not thinking about their culture or this communal rite: instead they think of food and selling fish, even though the markets are shut and there is nowhere to sell.
We worry for the health of our children – our next generation – spending all day in the sun and drinking the unsafe waters of the lake. We need these opportunistic methods of fishing to stop: it is not guided by culture or the council of elders, who are the eyes of the community. We need to pay heed to our traditional customs and respect the lake and its fish. Parents need to impart this knowledge to their children. Other communities prepare their land for cultivation and food production. In the same way, we want to keep the fingerlings alive to ensure that the lake provides for us in the future.
But food insecurity still looms large: this was a problem even before the pandemic (last time caused by drought), but is worse now because our movement is limited. Even if we prevent overfishing, fish will not sustain our community. When people live hand-to-mouth, a one-size-fits-all lockdown does not work. COVID-19 is one danger amongst many.
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Find out more about how our network of Indigenous hubs are responding to the crisis here: COVID-19: Indigenous Insights.