Women crucial in drought battle
This summer's drought in Kenya has unexpectedly improved equality in male- dominated pastoral tribes.
Kitangwa Mataio has just become the proud owner of a camel. Until now, she has owned nothing but the clothes on her back.Skip to next paragraph
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In the culture of the pastoral Masai people, who straddle the Kenya-Tanzania border around the famous landscapes of the Serengeti, ownership is the realm of men.
But that's beginning to change, and the impetus is the drought that has plagued Masai grazing lands - and much of the Horn of Africa - since 1998.
As the exalted status of Masai men weakens because the drought is killing their cattle, various aid agencies are now trying to empower the tribe's women by helping them raise camels, among other things. It is a move that could transform this highly patriarchal society, as most women are illiterate and lack marketable skills.
"We are trying to use the opportunity of the drought to bring some changes in the community," says Imke van der Honing, manager of the Semi-Arid Rural Development Program (SARDEP) in Kajiado district, an area south of the capital, Nairobi, populated almost entirely by Masai. The moves have a dual purpose: Not only do they help women, but they also help mitigate the effects of the drought.
Shallow wells are being dug and hand pumps installed to shorten women's walking distances for fetching water, a task that can take hours every day. The more water sources tapped now, the higher the odds of surviving a future drought. A camel-ownership project ensures that even though the men have left with their cows in search of pasture, women and children have access to milk, which is integral to the Masai diet. Camels continue producing milk with minimal water - crucial if another drought hits.
Local committees established to monitor relief distribution are being made up of at least 50 percent women and must be chaired by a woman to ensure food gets to children rather than to healthier men.
Although this drought has yet to cause severe malnutrition in this part of Kenya, it's certainly having an impact. Rainfall has been so poor - 10 percent of normal in the past rainy season - that herders have even ventured to posh Nairobi suburbs to let their animals graze on the grassy lawns. According to Andrew Aho of Outpost Centers Inc., an American aid agency working in Kajiado, a major factor in avoiding a calamity was substantial aid from the United States. "The US is pumping tons and tons in, and we haven't gotten one bag from Europe," he says.
Here in Toroko, the water level in the traditional well has dropped so low that Masai men have to form a three-person vertical chain to pass it to the surface. School enrollment is dropping - despite free lunch programs - because young boys are migrating with the cattle or because parents can't afford the fees imposed in government schools. Cattle now fetch one-eighth the market price they attracted before the drought.
The drought has not particularly damaged Kenya's agricultural areas; it's the pastoralist ones that are being devastated. And here in the herding Kajiado district, it is the Masai, the predominant population, who are suffering most. Farther away in northern Kenya, primarily pastoral communities like the Turkana, Samburu, and Somali tribes are also reeling from low rainfall.