Women of Kenyan tribe discover they have rights and power

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The Independent Online

What is a woman worth? In a nomadic village near Marsabit, northern Kenya, I met an smiling, elegant 23-year-old called Torio. We sat at her hut, a dim, smoky, dome-shaped construction walled with newspaper and cardboard and sprigs of sweet-smelling mint. Then, as she spoke, I realised a lot of her smiling seemed involuntary. She was not happy.

Three years ago, Torio was taken away by women known locally as "doctors"; they stepped on her stomach for three days to try to make her miscarry. She was forced to drink two litres of cooking oil. "Of course, the foetus didn't come out. Instead, I had diarrhoea and became more sick. They didn't understand that the stomach and the uterus were different places."

Watching Torio and her three-year-old daughter Ahado together was watching goodness stir. Torio's one-year-old son, Herkena, was curled sleepily on her lap. The arm Torio had around Ahado ended with her hand curled into a protective fist over the little girl's heart.

I had heard of Torio and other women from the nomadic Rendille tribe of northern Kenya on a recent visit with the Catholic development agency, Cafod. They invited me to see how the work of their partner, the Diocese of Marsabit, is empowering women and helping communities to survive after last year's devastating drought that led to the starvation of an estimated 3.3 million Kenyans.

The life of the north Kenyan nomads is tied to rearing and trading in goats and camels, and as more frequent droughts kill off more livestock, their future is precarious.

I sat on the hot sand, a respectful distance from the male elders of the village and their sacred tree, and asked what they thought was the best thing about women. They paused, considered, then said: "Some of our women can tell what disease or illness a goat or camel has just by looking at it. They are good at that."

Traditionally, Rendille women owned nothing of monetary value. Pastoral tradition says sons inherit the livestock, so women's energies have been thrown into "earning their keep", maintaining the security of male property. This is a community in which a woman can very easily become a burden.

Relationships amongst many in the Rendille tribe begin far out in the fora, where groups of young women and men meet while watching over grazing cattle. One Rendille woman may accept a lover from among the Moran, the young cattle-herders who do not take wives until they become village elders (15 years after they are circumcised).

Another Rendille woman might reject the Moran who wants her and be forced into intercourse. But a woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock is a serious problem; her child belongs to nobody, and no one in her village is willing to take financial responsibility for it. She is an outcast unless the child she is carrying dies, in which case she reverts back to being her father's property until a cattleherder comes of age and marries her.

But through the work of the programme, things are changing. Women are organising themselves: teaching each other about their rights, their potential and their abilities. This new education in what a woman is worth is ultimately leading to the disavowal of forced abortion and contributing towards the long-term survival of the Rendille tribe.

The programme's facilitator is Eva Darare. She was raised as a nomad in northern Kenya and understands the intricacies of this traditional way of life; she also understands the impossibility of labelling cultural practices as right or wrong.

Through Eva's workshops, the men and women started to talk to each other. One village elder, Hassan Ubane, said that when a girl is taken away for the forced abortion, "The father feels very bad ... he feels the pain and doesn't know what will happen to the girl, whether she will ever come back. He pretends to be strong but he feels bad."

Ogichoya was 17 and unmarried when she became pregnant to a Moran while tending cattle in the fora three years ago. Her father, Holio, was incredibly rare in his open support of Ogichoya's refusal to submit to a forced abortion. Eva and other women from a local group supported by the programme visited Ogichoya and negotiated some independence for her - materials with which she could have her own hut built; moral and financial support through the remainder of her pregnancy and through her childbirth; and help to set-up a small business selling sugar, batteries and tea to support herself and her son, Hilary after his birth.

Cafod's vision for sustainable development is that at its best, it is instigated by people themselves identifying a problem or a goal and looking for their own solutions. A priority for women in these villages is to generate income outside of trading livestock so that they will not be so vulnerable in future droughts. In order to do this, they get classes from Cafod in managing small businesses and communal savings. The ventures started as a result of these classes are basic but successful.

Not only is Ogichoya now making money from running her business out of her home, but her new status helped her find the nerve to reject a marriage proposal from a man much older than her. She's now married to a younger man she likes, as a second wife. If - when - the drought comes again, Ogichoya will be able to contribute towards providing for her family from her own saved income.

To the men of the Rendille, Eva and her colleagues are sometimes called "the troublemakers". They are; they are making the best kind of trouble there is.