“The first man who came to live in this island was a fisherman,” says Peter Leweri, my guide for the day as he started the speedboat. “The Njemps men used to bring their wives and children in this island for safety as they fought with the Samburu – because of livestock.”
This was the folklore that Leweri’s grandmother told him everyday when he was a young boy just before he slept. From the moment I set my foot in Olkokwe Island in Baringo, I could not help but be anxious to know more about the amazing Ilchamus people, also known as the Njemps. They are related to the Masai and are said to be one of the smallest tribes in Kenya.
I was having a boat ride around Olkokwe Island with my experienced animal and bird guide, enjoying the breeze of the lake and birds chirping around. We carried some tilapia fish for the African fish eagle, the resident bird in the Island, to eat too. After being shown how to whistle and fling the tilapia into the lake for the bird to eat, I managed to do it by myself and it was such an exciting moment having a glimpse of the bird catching the fish to feed her young ones.
We met Njemps fishermen fishing in their traditional ambath boats. Before motorboats arrived in this place, rafts were employed as a means of transport. There are 3 islands and Ol Kokwe, whose name means ‘meeting place’ in Njemps, is the largest of these.
History indicates that the Njemps were originally a section of the Masai or Samburu clans. They believe to have come from “Entorrorr” which is the skin they believe that God stretched out to them and they utilized it to drop into the Northern part of Ethiopia down the Rift valley all the way to Tanzania. This is the reason why they cling on to being pastoralists and their cows, who supply them with food are a sign of prestige in their community.
Like their cousins, they were once a pastoral group, but they gave up their nomadism due to conflict with the Pokot and Turkana over grazing lands. To flee from the war, the Njemps, including this fisherman that we met, live in this island and practice fishing as an economic activity. The lake offers an invaluable habitat for seven fresh water fish species. As we sail on the lake, we catch the glimpse of a hippo’s shiny furless coat.
When famous Scottish explorer, John Thomson, arrived in Baringo in November 1883, the Njemps community was already here, rearing cattle and practicing fishing, which makes them a unique community. Thompson found it difficult to pronounce the word Ilchamus and called them Njemps. In the Masai language, the Ilchamus means a people who see into the future. He is also responsible for giving Baringo its name as the Njemps called it Emparingo, which means “the lake”.
Amongst the Samburu, Masai, Pokot and Tugen – who live near the lake, eating fish is deemed a taboo. Consequently, these communities have derogatory names for the Njemps because of their love for fish. The Njemps have maintained some of the practices and customs of the Masai and Samburu nomads. For instance, they still comply with the age group system, a practice that has faded in most communities. The age groups tally with circumcision every 11 years and every group has a leader (longchalaiyok) who is chosen from a respected family and respected throughout the community. Though modernization is slowly but surely taking root, their society is patriarchal with women’s role restricted to bearing children and house chores.
As we glide further, we see hot springs discharging along the shoreline with young Njemps fighting to take me for a tour. This too, is one of their livelihoods, though it’s struggling due to the decline of tourists in the area.
We arrived at the “Giraffe Island” in Ruko conservancy and found the game warden, Mike Parkei waiting for us. In the year 2007, 8 Rothschild giraffes were brought by ferry to the island which was then a peninsula with the plan that when the lake dried up even more, they would locate to the mainland. With the unexpected rise in water levels, they are now isolated on the island with other wildlife including ostriches, impala, rock hyraxes and large monitor lizards. However, the good news is that this island activity has created employment and brought peace between the Pokot and the Njemps.
Later on that evening, after having a sundowner on the Rock of Gibraltar called Lesokut by the Njemps, I had a sumptuous dinner with the camp directors; Ms Bonnie Dunbar and Mr. Perrey Hennesey at Island Camp where I spent the night.
The glorious sun rising over the lake and the marvelous sounds of the morning warbler outside my tent woke me up. All of the camp’s 16 rooms have the view of the lake (4 spacious superior rooms with private splash pools, 7 deluxe rooms and 5 classic tents) and are shaded by a roof of Papyrus (local reeds) and separated by green lawns and natural rockeries.