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.

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.

"We have never seen such a hard time as this," says Martin Takule, a Masai cattle herder. According to the Kajiado district administration, the last time drought was this bad here was 1962.

The camel-ownership project, aimed at ensuring adequate nutrition during future crises - directly aids and is sustained by - women. The project, which began in July, provides five camels each to groups of 20 women on the condition that the first calf from each animal be given to the project for distribution to other women. A camel - which sells for about $250 here - produces five quarts of milk per day in the dry season and up to 2-1/2 gallons when it's raining.

Cows cannot compare to camels, says Mrs. Mataio, who belongs to one of the women's groups. "Their [camels'] milk can be sold at a higher price, and that money can go to pay school fees," she says, surrounded by her fellow camel owners, each adorned with colorful beads on her head, ears, and neck. "The other women's groups, the ones that don't have camels, are crying out for assistance so they also can get camels."

Some Masai men have already returned from migrations without cattle. "They are just sitting at home waiting for the relief food," says Mataio. "They don't have education or any other work."

About two dozen such men stand across the dusty road from the food-distribution site. One of the men, Tumbo ole Matindi, is waiting for one of his two wives to receive her monthly ration from the UN World Food Program: 15 pounds of corn, three pounds of lentils, and about a pint of cooking oil per person. Nearly all of his 100-odd cattle died, he says. "I took them to Tanzania in search of pasture. I came back with three."

Mr. Matindi says that all he had for breakfast today was black coffee, purchased with money earned from selling a goat, which currently earns about $7. "I don't have any food in my home other than relief food," he says.

Masai men will be forced to face further losses, according to Mr. Van der Honing, who predicts the pace of cattle deaths will soon pick up. He expects only 30 percent of the cattle in Kajiado district to survive beyond this year, even if the next rains - due in November - are plentiful, making the animals more susceptible to disease.

More than half of Kajiado district's 400,000 people now receive emergency food rations. Donors, says Mr. Aho, have been slow to pledge aid to Kenya, wary of past misappropriations. In September, the World Food Program was forced to reduce recipients' monthly rations to two-thirds of what they believe is needed because of a lack of food. Last year, battered by corruption charges, the government agreed to hand distribution over to the UN World Food Program.

But, "I think the system's getting better," says Aho. "I honestly believe 100 percent of the food aid is getting through to the people who need it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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