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Farah Mihlar is the media officer for Minority Rights Group and travelled to Kenya recently to train local media activists.
The villagers were awaiting the arrival of a new bride. There did not seem to be any festivities, no one was dressed up and the groom was not around. The elderly leaders in this Maasai family compound, in a village in south-east Kenya, were seated, waiting, at the gate by the village boundary.
The 400,000 or so Maasai, traditional cattle-herding pastoralists, are the faces of Kenyan tourism. Their colourful robes and beaded neck, ear and hair ornaments adorn posters and magazines advertising the country’s attractions. Reality, however, for some Maasai communities is much less glamorous.
Entara is a poor village 26 km north of the town of Narok, and lost some 200 cows in the drought last year. They only have 10 now and are struggling to make ends meet. Cows are integral to Maasai lifestyle, providing them food and a livelihood, and are even part of their culture, with marriage customs revolving around the animal.
Cows are the bride price men pay for their wives, with the average around 10. According to community traditions, when the bride arrives, she does not enter the village, she stands at the gate until the man offers her a cow. She takes a step. He offers another, she takes a second step, until she is able to negotiate an acceptable number. But the woman does not own the cows; she can feed her family or gain an income from their milk, but she cannot sell them.
Women in Maasai culture own nothing, they inherit nothing and live their lives clamped under the authority of men.
We walk away from the compound to sit under a tree. All the women gather there, some nestling their infants on their breasts. Little children sit quietly hanging onto their mothers.
Around us lies a vast, beautiful terrain of dusty land stretching for miles until it reaches the mountains. The sky is clear blue, dotted with a few cotton clouds. The wind rushes over our faces. Kisieku Nkurumwa, the first wife of the village leader, explains the cultural practices associated with marriage. When the father finds a husband for the girl, he first informs the mother, and the family then prepare her for the ‘passage of age ceremony’, which mainly involves the circumcising of female genitalia. It doesn’t matter what age she is, she could be as young as 12. On the eve of the ceremony, an animal is sacrificed, and the entire village celebrates by drinking locally brewed beer mixed with honey, dancing and socialising.
The next morning the ritual takes place. The cutting is done by an elderly woman, who specialises in it, for a cost of about 1000 Kenyan shillings ($12). Female genital mutilation is now banned in Kenya and carries criminal charges but is still practised in some villages. In the Maasai villages we visited in Narok region and in the Maasai Mara national park, at first the people say quite strongly that the practice does not happen, but when questioned, some women hesitantly admit it is still taking place.
‘It's very, very painful. Three women have to hold the girl down. It takes a long time because the girl keeps refusing so they have to stop and start, stop and start and that makes the pain more. She is given no medicine to help the pain they only rub honey and cream made out of cow’s milk. Sometimes it takes a month to heal,’ says Kimore, the first wife of one of the younger men.
MARRIED AT 12
Once the wound heals, the girl is readied to be sent to the groom’s house. Kimore was 12 when she was given in marriage, she is now about 30 and has around five children. In Maasai culture it is generally frowned upon to count the number of children because of a belief that you lose children when you do so.
‘I cried very much because I was young and I wanted to go to school. I cried all the way from my home to this village. I felt that my family was doing a very bad thing to me, no one listened, no one supported me,’ Kimore says.
Polygamy is also part of Maasai culture. It is not uncommon that a teenage girl will become the second or third wife of an older man. In the early stages of the polygamous relationships, the husband has all his wives in the same home. However, often once the second or third wife becomes pregnant, she moves to her own home and continues to have her children there. In Nkoirero village, in Maasai Mara, the young men say they look forward to taking a second or third wife as soon as they can afford the bride price.
The women in Entara express their anger and frustration about the cultural practices such as genital mutilation, child brides and polygamy. They do not approve of them, but have no say. Kisieku says she was powerless when her daughter was given in marriage last year at the age of 16. Her husband just made the arrangements, challenging him was not an option.
The oppression of women is embedded in Maasai culture, despite the significant social and economic role they play within the community. They have to fetch water and feed the cows, build their houses, cook and maintain the home and look after the children. Looking after the animals is integral to the local economy although women face serious threats to their lives and security in doing this.
‘When we go to fetch water, we can be attacked by animals and men. Last week, a woman was nearly raped when she went to the river to get water. We fear animals and we fear men,’ Kisieku says.
Violence against women is common. The authoritarian position of men and the power dynamics within the family can be emphasised through domestic abuse.
‘I am up from 5 a.m. to cook breakfast to send the children to school on time. When my husband goes to the cattle shed and finds the animals are not fed, he comes and beats me,’ Kimore says.
Pauline Kinyarkoo also faced domestic abuse from her husband. When she was 13, she became the third wife to a very old man, she says. She had two children by him, but the abuse became intolerable. One day he beat her and asked her to go back to her home, which is very unusual in Maasai culture.
Pauline returned to her parents’ village and lived there for some years. She later moved to Narok town where she started grinding maze at a mill owned by a local woman and earning a small income for herself. She slowly began to encourage other women in her village to do the same.
The women began to organise themselves to be able to market their products better. In the 1990’s they formed a community-based organisation called Enaitoti Neretu Olmaa (‘feeding, helping the Maasai community’), which in 2008 became a national non-governmental organisation.
Today Pauline is a councillor and works to promote the rights of Maasai girls. She is a political appointee and has not been elected. Maasai activists say it is nearly impossible to expect a Maasai woman to be elected to political office.
Maasai women face many levels of discrimination, both from within their community and outside. They are sometimes considered, dirty, ignorant and backward by men and women from other communities and tribes. They have limited access to national health services and schools and Maasai villagers complain that the Kenyan government is doing little to support them.
‘Women have so many problems because of the lack of education. We are now trying to empower women, to provide education for them, even for married women,’ Pauline says. In the village we visit, she stands in front of the male elders and addresses them on the importance of educating girls. A woman standing in front of men and speaking up to them is generally unthinkable in Maasai culture.
‘You have to talk to the men, once they know what we are doing they understand. Now being a councillor I am not afraid to tell male leaders to help women,’ she says.
All the children I met, in the villages I visited in Narok and Maasai Mara, were in primary school, which is free in Kenya. The difficulty is finding the money to help children go to secondary school. This is when most parents opt to get their girls married instead. One strategy Pauline now uses is to keep children in primary school, even if they are reaching their teens, to avoid them being given in marriage.
Esther Samoroi, who works with the Centre for Indigenous Women and Children, and Anne Sintoyia Tome, with the Samburu Women for Education & Environment Development Organisation, are amongst a small group of Maasai women who succeeded in getting higher education.
Both champion women’s rights in their community, but they are keen not to condemn all of Maasai culture. They argue that there are several factors unique to the Maasai that have global value. These include their knowledge of traditional medicine, environmental conservation and respect for elders.
‘Even in the way girls are educated within the family there is a lot of good in it, they are prepared to face married life,’ Anne says. Esther says this education does not always lead to submissiveness to men. ‘My mother did not tell me to be submissive. She taught me how to manage my married life. We are taught these lessons from a very young age. I remember when I went to high school, I was much more mature than the other girls,’ she says.
The women in the villages who hadn’t had an education believe it is the only tool to help combat discrimination both from within and outside the community.
The Maasai women in these remote villages remain hopeful .
‘In the future there will be change, but it will take time,’ says Kimore.
Ann Sintoyia Tome of the Samburu Women for Education & Environment Development Organisation and Mariamu Ntausian Lekisemon of the Rural Women Development Network discuss in detail the manner in which women in the indigenous Masaai community are oppressed. They describe cultural practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and polygamy which severely affect women in the Masaai community.