The silent tears of women in Oloitoktok District of Kajiado County cannot go unnoticed and more importantly, cannot remain silent. For a long time, these women have suffered at the hands of their very own men. Women in Maasai culture own nothing, they inherit nothing and live their lives clamped under the authority of men. Maasai activists say it is nearly impossible to expect a Maasai woman to be elected to political office. But not any more as women are daring to walk the men’s path.
Here, patriarchy dominates and has gone unquestioned for decades until recently when women realized that they too, need a sense of belonging. And fast!
Oloitoktok is predominantly inhabited by the Maasai, a people with a strong sense of culture. This tribe is famously known for pastrolism, which is their major social and economic mainstay.
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.
The town stretches right to the border of Tanzania and bustles with activities as international toursists enjoy the wildlife of Amboseli National Park, which lies a few kilometers from Oloitoktok.
Maasai culture propels men to positions of leadership in the community. Here male patriarchy dominates while the female gender is completely disregarded. Women are viewed as novices where leadership is concerned and are hardly given any opportunity to show their might. To a Maasai man, a woman is just like a child. She is there to listen and obey the rules and failure to adhere to that norm is risky. A woman is not supposed to go to school; that is the preserve of the male gender. She is there to procreate, cook and ensure that cows return home safely after grazing.
With the new constitution, opportunities for women are numerous and present a chance for women to excel in all areas and in all spheres. The document allows women to vie for elective seats as their male counterparts. Sadly, Oloitoktok women, save for a few ‘who have seen the light’ are not even aware of the gains in the constitution. Majority do not even know that Kenya has a new constitution as they are not even allowed by their men, to see the document. Those who have come across it are brainwashed by men, not to believe certain clauses that call for women emancipation. Non governmental organizations, civil society organizations, churches and other stakeholders have held rigorous education campaigns on the new constitution, particularly targeting women and this does not auger well with the male patriarchs. Men believe that if women get too knowledgeable about their gains in the constitution, they will outsmart them. Thus they continue to bury their heads in the sand and deny women of their basic rights. But the women will not be deterred by such suppression as they have woken up and are ready to battle it out with men, in leadership.
Retrogressive cultures barring women from advancing
In a recent trip to Oloitoktok, I came face to face with this thing called culture. It is true that the Maasai culture is beautiful if one looks at it from the dress code angle. Their colorful robes and beaded neck, ear and hair ornaments bring out the beauty in them.
They remove two down teeth and pull their ears as a sign of beauty. They are also known for their trademark long jumps which have over the decades yielded a lot of revenue from tourists. But with all the good accolades of their beautiful culture, comes the ugly side.
Early marriages; In Maasai land, the girl child is robbed of her youth and her education. Traditionally, when a girl attains the age of 8, she is sold by her father to older men, for marriage. Their suitors pay a few cows to the girl’s father and the deal is sealed. The price is often negotiated between the men; girls and their mothers have no say in the matter, hence no choice than to succumb.
Mothers are not even allowed to give any marital advice to their daughters, let alone prepare them for puberty. In this case, girls discover things on their own. The same culture views it a taboo for mothers to talk to their daughters on sexual matters.
At a tender age, the young girl, now forced into womanhood, starts giving birth. This is a major setback in as far as her education is concerned. She ends up being illiterate and hence cannot be considered in any leadership. This is a vicious cycle as the generations of girls continue to succumb to such acts.
Notably, 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.
According to Ines Laufer, an online blogger, despite this procedure being often euphemistically referred to as “marriage”, it would be more appropriate to call it “slave trade”.
She adds, ”If we have a look under the surface of the Maasai’s exotic folklore, it becomes obvious that this “culture” consists first of all of scrupulously cultivated violence, and oppression against children and the female members of the society.”
Lilian Mogiti Nyandoro heads the governance project of a local NGO, Abantu for Development. Her project targets Oloitoktok women, with an aim to empower them to take positions of leadership. In a recent workshop for community leaders in the area, which I had the opportunity to attend, she questioned participants on the issue of culture.
“The reason why Maasai people continue to lag behind in many fronts is because they peg everything to culture,” she said adding that, there is nothing like culture but a ‘ghost’ thing portrayed as culture.
“Can you show me which book defines culture. Where is it quoted? It is not like law which is quoted and applied,” she challenged the participants. According to Lillian, “culture” contains a perfectly organized, ritualized and perfidy justified excess of women’s enslavement and sadistic male violence.
Despite many women organizations efforts to stop the vice, many girls are ending up in this trap. Women leaders in the area are up in arms and continue to challenge their men to stop the vice. Luckily the new constitution calls for an end to all forms of gender discrimination including early marriages and the women are using this clause to petition for their rights.
Esther S. Apale, Director of Ewang’an Women Unity Advocacy Program in Oloitoktok, says her organization has rescued several girls from marriage.
“We want our girls to go to school and become meaningful in the society,” she says adding that with the new constitution, her organization will ensure that women in the area venture into leadership.
Her organization has lobbied for women to be leaders in churches, schools, micro finance institutions and this has yielded positive results as the area now has more women in leadership.
“Illiteracy is a major hindrance here but you do not need a university degree to bring development in your area,” she says. And this is rightly so, as I realized that even those women who cannot read or right have very brilliant aspirations which they are ready to put into practice.
Female Genital Mutilation
After decades of awareness and campaigns, 93 to 99 percent of Maasai girls are still subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM is the practice of cutting a woman’s clitoris and labia minore to inhibit the sexual desire and promiscuity among girls. Men value the act and consider it as a woman’s pride, with little regard to the effects associated with it. In this, they (men) take the right to buy as many female slaves as they can afford - and refuse to buy girls who have not been deprived of their sexuality.
When the government and other non-governmental Anti FGM-crusaders chastised Maasai men for practicing the vice, Maasai elders defended the act and warned the government to 'stop meddling with our culture.’
But what exactly is this culture? In my capacity as an advocate for women emancipation and a journalist, I sought to find out what was in this culture that its custodians will do nothing to let go.
“Men insist on the continuation of FGM as a way of maintaining the culture,” says Mary Kahingo, the only woman assistant chief in Namelok Sublocation of Kinama Location, Oloitoktok District.
As a woman leader, she is overwhelmed by that same culture that robs women of their womanhood and exposes them to excruciating pain and health hazards. On a normal day, she attends to so many FGM cases. She talks to men on the need to abandon the act and she is happy to note that some men are ready to stop it.
“When you bring men together and explain to them vividly without chest-thumping, they listen to you,” she says adding that she calls on men to support their women and not look down upon them.
FGM is banned in Kenya and carries criminal charges but it is still practices in some villages.
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.
‘Women rarely get time to rest and look after themselves, “admits one Sarah Nkuraiya, 24. When we go to fetch water, we can be attacked by animals and men. We face the risks of being raped and no one can hear our pleas.
Nkuraiya was married at 13 years and now has six children.
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,’ says Lankenua, 30.
Women face down when addressing their men and often, hold a strand of grass to apologize in advance, in case they offend men in their words.
Ray of hope
Mary Kahingo is a woman of substance. She is the only woman assistant chief in Namelok sub location, Kimana location of Oloitoktok District. Even as she works for the local government, she never fails to realize the other burden ahead of her - that of women empowerment.
"Women have so many problems because of the lack of education. As a leader, I am now trying to empower women, rescue those in early & abusive marriages, advocate for their education including married women."
Mary is not shy to stand in front of male elders to challenge 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, but I have managed to cross that river,” she admits.
You have to talk to the men; once they know what we are doing they understand. Now being an assistant chief, I am not afraid to tell male leaders to help women,’ she says.
Mary’s leadership is exemplary and her community describes her as the savior for women empowerment. She does not use chest thumping to raise issues but at the same time, is not cowed by men or culture. In her own capacity, she supports women organizations and urges women to form self help groups that would boost them economically. Women can now take charge of their own development; they are able to market their products better.
Maasai women are now educated about the new constitution. They are fully aware of the clause that calls for equal rights of women and men in the areas of owning property including land; rights to inheritance among many.
The bill of rights guarantees social, economic and cultural rights while recognition of the cultural practices that are harmful to women as being unlawful is big gain for women. In Oloitoktok, women can no longer be submissive to men especially where their rights are at stake.
As regards customary laws which usually discriminate against women, it will be a thing of the past in the new constitution. Oloitoktok women are elated with that clause.
Interestingly, men are coming up in large numbers to support women’s emancipation. The few I talked to want their women to be at par with women from other Kenyan region. They have vowed to support them in next year’s elections, right from the grassroots to national levels. They have realized that women are the bedrock of society for without them, no development can take place. This is seen as a radical departure to their hard-line stance of degrading women.
WLW and my dream to advocate for women’s rights
The Global Women’s Leadership Network in the US is organizing the Women’s Leaders for the World Program, slated for December 2011 and June 2012. I have applied for the December program. I believe it is the answer to my prayer. Its mission to ‘ignite a new future for humanity by galvanizing women leaders to bring us all to a world built upon social justice and economic sustainability,’ could not have come at a better time. I hope to fulfill my purpose of helping women become better beings and appreciating themselves. The knowledge I will learn from WLW will be quite resourceful to push my agenda forward. I have seen marginalized women in Oloitoktok grapple with ‘redefining’ themselves. They see themselves as second fiddle and I will teach them to see beyond that. As a leader, focusing on advocacy on women rights, I will go an extra mile to help women decipher the clauses in the new constitution that promotes their gains.
In recent times, I have been craving for leadership. I want to target marginalized women who claim for a sense of belonging. I could have easily chosen my own community but I realized that needy women in Oloitoktok need me more.
I hope to network with likeminded personalities and I invite everyone to assist me in the noble course.
Joyce J. Wangui is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya who also publishes WIP feature stories. Please let us know if would like to support Joyce's vision to participate in this year's Women Leaders for the World Program.