Culture plays a significant role in various communities, particularly among pastoralist communities like the Samburu, Turkana, and Maasai. It encompasses a set of ideas and behavioural norms acquired within societies and communities. Culture not only enhances the quality of life but also contributes to the overall well-being of both individuals and communities.
The Samburu people, an indigenous pastoral community, have been residing in the arid and semi-arid regions of Northern Kenya for generations. Their livelihoods have traditionally relied on livestock, and they have developed a deep connection with the environment, mastering sustainable practices over the years.
However, the community has been severely affected by a prolonged drought, spanning four seasons without rain. The pastoralists, who heavily depend on livestock, have borne the brunt of this situation. Tragically, the drought has also exposed young girls and women to the grave risks of female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage. Shockingly, in Samburu County, girls as young as six years old are forced into marriage and subjected to FGM.
This harmful practice of early and forced marriage is exacerbated by the belief prevalent in certain communities that girls are a source of wealth. Compounding the issue, poverty-stricken segments of society often fall prey to this pandemic. Nadiru Lesiil, a community member, sadly recounts her own daughter’s experience: “My firstborn daughter was married off when she was just 13 years old. Despite my objections, my husband insisted, claiming she was already ‘ripe’ for marriage. I had no choice but to comply, and she was exchanged for 15 cattle.”
In the Samburu community, child marriage prevalence stands at approximately 17%, according to a UNICEF survey. This deeply entrenched practice not only violates the rights of women and girls but also hampers girls’ education on a global scale.
Despite cultural norms that limit women’s decision-making power, Nadiru made the courageous choice to educate her three sons, despite her husband’s opposition. The mother of seven recognizes the importance of education and seeks to empower her children for a brighter future. “I have seven kids, six boys and one girl, my three boys are in school and the other two are staying home to look for our livestock, I took my three boys to school after I stood firm on my decision of educating them since my husband was against it .” She continues.
In the Samburu community, the husband is the head of the household and has the final say on family matters. Polygamy is also common, with men having the freedom to take many wives. Nadiru elaborates on her situation. “My husband has four wives, and I am the third. Despite our polygamous arrangement, we support, respect, and love one another. We are our cheerleaders, always striving for collective success. The first wife is quite old and despite having the same husband I respect her as my mother since they are of the same age. Our husband’s fourth wife is much younger, aged between 24 and 25.” She added
In the past, the Samburu community witnessed rampant child marriages, with the bride price escalating with younger brides. “We possessed more cows than anyone else in our village. My husband, due to his wealth, commanded immense respect within our community. We lacked nothing, and our abundant milk was shared generously with our neighbours.”
However, everything changed for Nadiru and her family in the year 2021 when the drought commenced. To secure the survival of their livestock, Nadiru’s husband was compelled to search for green pastures, venturing far from home. Unfortunately, the barren conditions left the animals malnourished and weakened, greatly devaluing their market worth.
In an attempt to salvage some assets, they resorted to selling off a portion of their livestock. Regrettably, the distressed state of the animals led to meagre returns and significant financial losses for Nadiru’s husband. They decided to send their sons to care for the remaining livestock, but as time progressed, the drought intensified, resulting in the gradual demise of their animals.
In 2022, many families, including Nadiru’s, experienced substantial losses, with her husband succumbing to the devastating effects. Nadiru tearfully recounts the ordeal: “Each time our sons returned home, their updates brought us to despair. I felt an overwhelming sadness as our sole means of sustenance perished.”
By January 2023, Nadiru was left with a mere 30 cows out of the initial 200. The loss of their animals took a toll on Nadiru’s husband, plunging him into a deep depression and causing him to lose his sanity. Sobbing, Nadiru shares her anguish: “The last time our sons came home, they delivered the devastating news that all our animals had perished, leaving only six behind. My husband lost his grip on reality, running aimlessly through the village. Since that day, he has never recovered.”
The drought has had far-reaching consequences in Samburu County. Numerous children have dropped out of school, teenage pregnancies have surged, and families have been left in distress. Women and girls have borne the brunt of these hardships, unable to pursue education and struggling to fulfil their household responsibilities.
Amidst the despair, there have been glimmers of hope. Organizations such as UNICEF, the Pastoralist Child Foundation, and Men End FGM Organization have stepped in to assist the community. The consortium has provided cash assistance to the Samburu community since last year December to mitigate the impact of the drought. The provision of cash transfers has brought much-needed relief, enabling families to cope with their challenges.
During our recent data collection on households affected by the drought, we had the opportunity to meet Nadiru. She is among the individuals who will benefit from the second phase of the cash transfer project, funded by UNICEF. As one of the twenty-five recipients selected from Kiltamany village, Nadiru expressed her genuine happiness and appreciation for the financial support she will receive. She fully recognizes the significant value that this money will bring to her and her family.
Nadiru smiling during the data collection exercise
“I am happy because I will now have the means to provide three meals a day for my children, ensuring they lack nothing for their studies. I will also prioritize obtaining clean and purified water, a pressing issue in our village. Moreover, I plan to purchase some goats since the area is now green, ensuring that my children will have an adequate supply of milk”. Said smiling Nadiru.
The impact of climate change in Kiltamany village has exposed its inhabitants to poverty. Government intervention and collaboration with partners are crucial to addressing the situation. Furthermore, addressing gender inequality in decision-making processes and resource ownership is paramount. Community interventions should also include comprehensive training programs that address the detrimental effects of FGM and child marriage.