vulnerability and strength
One of the most striking things about Kenya is the resilience of its people. This is no doubt true in most of the developing world, but it is no less remarkable for its ubiquity, especially when one is coming from a country characterized by #firstworldproblems.
Living in Nairobi, especially in the parts of the city that we frequent, it is easy to forget that one out of every two Kenyans subsists on a dollar or two a day and that three quarters of the population ekes out an agriculture-based living from soil that only accounts for about 20 percent of the country’s land area. The other 80 percent are arid and semi-arid lands that are sparsely populated by nomadic tribes. Time in these northern parts of the country seems to have stood still; it is easy to imagine the way life was for Kenya’s pastoralist communities centuries ago because not much has changed in the intervening years.
Life is especially hard for women who belong to these groups. Many of Kenya’s pastoralist communities still practice polygamy and female circumcision. Men typically pay a dowry of cows or goats for their wives and treat women as a form of property as a result. Among the Samburu, for example, forced marriage is still the norm, as girls as young as eleven or twelve are married off to much older men in exchange for livestock. Spousal abuse is rarely reported because it is so widespread that its absence would be an aberration. Betrothed at a young age, women are saddled with so many household responsibilities that they have no time for education.
Against these odds, the success of the Umoja Women’s Group is truly inspiring. Two decades ago, a group of fifteen Samburu women registered as a self-help group with the government and started selling beadwork to increase their income and thereby achieve a modicum of independence. Threatened by male members of their community, the women left their abusive homes and started a women-only village on the shores of the Ewaso Nyiro river. The group, whose name means unity in Swahili, has since expanded to include 48 members who dedicate themselves to educating other Samburu women about their rights and helping them start income generating projects.
One such project is a campsite that is perched on the Ewaso Nyiro riverbank a few kilometers from the entrance to Samburu National Park. As we intended to go for a game drive in the park on our way further north with our visiting friends, we spent a night at Umoja. We’ve stayed at multiple safari camps that engage the local population in conservation by employing local staff and setting aside a substantial part of the proceeds for the local communities. This, however, was the first place we’ve stayed where our tourist dollars went so much more tangibly to support a worthwhile cause.