The emaciated, malnourished, and openly scared women gently whisper to each other as if they are frightened of being heard. Before them is a little hip of firewood and some charcoal which my hosts confirm are the only sources of income for their families, sometimes as large as 10. The women, still in their early twenties, are seemingly overwhelmed by the burdens they started carrying when they were only 10 years old. They are known to walk for days looking for firewood and charcoal which they sell to refugees in the expansive Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. According to Akiru Emaeti, a 16-year-old widow, a mother of three, Turkana girls and women are beasts of burden, destined to a life of subservience.
The 250,000 members of the Turkana tribe live in remote northern Kenya in an area bordered by South Sudan and Ethiopia. Since the area in which they live is arid and dotted with volcanic rocks, they depend on livestock to survive. Since water is strictly for drinking, they are known to use butter or animal fat to wash and using both to stop their necklaces chafing. Boys initiation from child to male warrior is achieved through a ceremony that involves killing an animal. Their elaborate beaded necklaces reflect their social status and men refuse to look at women who don’t wear them.
Social commentators continue to point to the destructive customs and traditions entrenched in a patriarchal system and enforced through a set of rules and practices that includes child marriage, beatings, and being sold outright. To the Turkana, a girl’s and woman’s destiny is firmly in the hands of the men and boys who claim it is their right to control females. Reso Akilana, a 14-year-old, and the sixth wife of Elikana Akwamu, describes her life as a living hell. According to her, Turkana girls are denied an education and bought like goats (not to mention being forced to take care of real goats). “I was bought when I was six and brought here to be taken care of by Elikana’s oldest wife, who taught me the chores of a wife. She taught me how to take care of the goats and sheep. At 10 she started teaching me about sex before having my first sexual encounter at 12. I now have two children who he hardly supports. I have to fend for myself as well as for him. He spends his day playing games with other elders at the public park and returns home at night asking for food. He rarely sells any of the goats, sheep or cows to support us. I have considered killing myself several times,” she wails loudly as I struggle to hold my tears back.
More than 85 percent of Turkana girls are illiterate. A survey by the antiviolence organization I direct, the Coexist Initiative, confirmed that of the women and girls interviewed, 96 percent were survivors of multiple forms of violence, the most common being domestic and sexual. A group of Turkana women told me that sexual violence was the norm. “Which rights do we have when we are bought and used like sheep? They attack us when we go looking for firewood or while taking care of animals in the wild. While young, they prepare us for the adversity. They even teach us the things to do when we get sexually violated. We were taught that a woman’s body belongs to the clan of her husband and therefore is available for all and sundry. We have no one to complain to when beaten and tortured by our husbands and their relatives. I have never heard of a woman who has walked out of marriage because here, we are married to be tortured and used till death,” lamented Atianga Akisa, a mother of eight and a seventh wife of 85-year-old Charaka Monding.
According to Peninah Akiru, a community mobilizer at the Kenya Education Equity Project in Kakuma refugee camp, and a development studies student at Mount Kenya University in Lodwar, the fate of a Turkana woman and girl lies in the hands of barbaric customs and traditions. “They married me off when I was only 12, but I managed to run away from the marriage and walked for several days to Lodwar town where a good Samaritan took me in and enabled me to go back to school. I could not stand that nonsense around those customs that turn Turkana women and girls into objects available for use and not [treated] as human beings whose rights are respected.”
Akiru emphatically insists that the world must focus on women from marginalized communities to prevent perpetuating a vicious cycle of hopelessness, dispair, agony and death. How long, she asks, will Turkana women and their babies continue to be eaten by hyenas as they collect firewood to sell to refugees so they can provide for their useless husbands?
Modern African Men Believe
- All girls have a right to an education
- No girl should live as a slave or a prostitute
- No girl should be married before she is 18 years old
- No girl or woman should be married against her will
- No infant should be killed on account of her sex
- No girl should undergo female genital mutilation
- Girls should have actual legal protections
- No girl or woman should be subjected to sexual/gender-based violence
Founded in 2002, the Coexist Initiative is a nonprofit network for men and boys organizations working to prevent sexual- and gender-based violence and HIV in Kenya.
They believe that unequal relations between women and men are rooted in deeply entrenched beliefs that men and boys have social, economic and political “privilege” at
the expense of girls and women’s vulnerability.
At the Kakuma stadium, I come across a group of more than 40 Turkana elders playing peiarei, a famous game using a set of stones thrown in holes dug out of a piece of wood. This remains the most revered pastime for elders. It is while playing peiarei that the elders negotiate child marriages and cattle raids. According to Epael Okwang, a spokesman (self-proclaimed) of Turkana elders in Kakuma, they meet daily to play, then take some alcohol and plan the way forward for the community. Another elder, the drunk Okiri, interjects, telling me that Turkana men do three things in their lives: “We go get cows that we in turn use to marry women who in turn take care of the cows from which we marry more wives. So women, cows, donkeys, sheep and all else are the same,” he shouts as the rest of the elders nod in approval.
During the course of the conversation, a few elders start plaiting each other’s hair as they sing and dance to edonga, the revered tune of the Turkana. A few invited women arrive to join the party. I am told they spent the entire day getting high on a local brew called Kaada. At the gathering, I am also told that polygamy is the norm and that women support it because it is a way of lessening the burden of being a Turkana woman.
Wanjala Wafula is a founder and CEO of the Coexist Initiative, a not- for- profit synergy of men’s and boys, community-based organizations committed to eliminating all forms of gender-based violence in Kenya. He has authored three books. He dedicated this article to his friends Nakwamekwa, Balaba and Naiyenaiemen. www.coexistkenya.com or Wafula@coexistkenya.com