Samburu – The forgotten people.
Samburu is situated just a little under 400km north from Nairobi. It is a land of beautiful contrasts of mountains, savannah, dusty roads and thorn trees.
Dotted throughout the landscape are manyattas (small houses built from materials found in the environment) consisting of a small number of houses belonging to family groups who live together.
The road in, is treacherous due to the Moran (warrior) or bandits who may attack and rob you with guns, and the seriously rutted road that requires careful driving, but not too slow in case you become a target. I know only a little about the Morans, so will not comment too much here as I need to become more familiar and do some research to know the facts.
The Moran will use their livestock to block the road so that you have to slow down and then rob you. Our guide and organiser told us that he had been shot at in his car just a few weeks previously.
There are children taking care of the cow herds and goat herds, all day in the hot sun, often with no water. They put out their hands to ask for water as you drive through.
If you are lucky you will see elephants (we weren’t lucky on this trip) but you will see camels along the way.
Our journey into Wamba was not without drama. We had been advised that it is best not to travel at night, but after a series of delaying events, which is typical of Kenyan life, we were traveling late into the night.
We had picked up one of the organisers is Isiolo, the last town before turning onto the dirt road to Wamba. He was our guide into Wamba. As I mentioned, the road is rutted and rough and it is very dark as there is only natural light available from the moon – which was coming into a full moon at that time. And of course the car headlights (which occasionally failed us momentarily). We were traveling at a decent speed which bounced us around a little, but was manageable. Soon after, we noticed the speed increase and the journey became a struggle of staying in your seat up to the point where we bounced so high that I thought I was to be thrust to the front of the vehicle and as I ducked my head to avoid bashing it on the roof, instead my back and spine took the impact. Something had changed in this journey. We were to discover later that 2 men had been sighted walking through the trees with guns.
There had also been a couple of other distractions along the road that had to be sussed out. A truck sitting in the middle of the road – to block our way or due to problems with the vehicle. Fortunately it was the latter and we were able to pass uneventfully.
We arrived in the main town of Wamba which is the centre of this district – East Samburu. It is surrounded by large mountains and nestles in a dust bowl. However, in the wet season it is a different story where the locals experience flooded rivers, plains and villages.
The journey completed, it was quite late, we were a little bruised yet a lot the wiser about traveling at night through Samburu. Everyone exhausted, we climbed into bed, ready to start a new day nice and early.
We were to meet the ladies who had come from surrounding villages and counties to see what we were all about, at the school where a room had been organised for the day.
On entering the room, I felt a little overwhelmed in the presence of these ladies. The colour took my breath away and my heart beat faster as I caste my eyes around the room in greeting to take in the splendour of the traditional dress. I felt truly humbled that these women had taken time and traveled great distances to come and speak with us. They represented their villages and I was aware that I was in the presence of no ordinary women. I began to question myself and whether what I was bringing was what they were looking for.
The meeting proceeded with traditional beginnings of cultural singing and prayer. The singing lifted my soul as the melodic voices naturally harmonise and blend into a magic that seeps into your heart, healing and joining our spirits together.
After some games to bring out the laughter and sense of fun, we settled into the seriousness of the business endemic to women and girls across the world. Today we were to attempt a beginning with this one little corner of Africa.
“Samburu women are slaves.” This powerful statement was delivered into my heart leaving a tear that has scarred me. The stories that followed left me breathless and feeling helpless. These women told their stories with a matter-of-fact manner, but I know deep inside there were more rents and scars than I could even imagine. This is the lives of their girls and daughters and of themselves as the tales related to us told of treatment of females as less than animals. These women who bare children to their men, who are to become the future guides, leaders and protectors of their tribes, are given no consideration of the important roles they play in family and tribal life. These women are the ones who are always there for their children as they grow and are shaped by their mothers. These women are abused beyond imagination for just being women.
After we had begun the meeting, we had suggested to our male counterparts that they leave us to be with the women. One of the area leaders had joined us for a short time then also left. We had one young man left with us who was documenting the event. The women were very vocal in asking where the men were? They wanted them to stay so they could bear witness to the stories. They particularly wanted the area leader to stay. This totally surprised us and showed just how strongly they feel about their situation. “It is time these men hear the stories because it is not our problem alone.”
We went to Samburu to take materials and information that we hoped would help the women and girls to manage their monthly cycle with dignity. We were to show them how to make recyclable sanitary towels.
To begin, we asked how this was currently managed. What followed was an education that I did not expect to get.
These women were ready to talk. It is not every day that someone comes to ask them about such personal things. The can of worms not only opened, it burst, gorging forth relating situations and tales all connected to what we women in Western cultures have come to accept as a regular and natural routine in our lives and everything generally just continues with a small blimp on the radar.
To these Sumburu women the cycle truly is the “curse.” Firstly, mothers do not discuss any of this with their daughters and so when the first signs appear it is accompanied with great fear – many fears in fact and fears that grow rather than abate as this is a great change in their lives and affects them from here on, in ways we western women just don’t think about.
How do you tell your mother that this thing has happened and you now have an “alien” mess coming from between your legs. There is no celebration of becoming a woman. When I mentioned this as a milestone in our culture, the women laughed at me (not in an unkind way) as they now knew how their daughters would suffer and be inconvenienced.
I learned that the Samburu women in their traditional dress of beautiful coloured beads and bright happy fabrics, have beads around their waists that serves a purpose of tying a long cloth to catch the menstrual discharge. They wear no undies to hold a pad and to make them feel secure and comfortable at this time. So, when they become “sick” their movements and activities are curtailed completely. That includes girls missing school. A girl will miss on average 36 days a year from her studies at school due to her menstrual cycle.
The women will wait in the mornings for everyone to be out of the village before she arises to wash herself, organise to wash her sanitary cloths or rags and hang them out. These cloths are old fabrics from various sources and are sometimes not 100 p.c. cotton. This can also be a source of infections, cause chaffing as many women walk long distances during the day, collecting water and firewood.
The government sometimes provides disposable sanitary towels. But as the women do not have underwear, these pads are useless. Also the use of disposable towels presents a problem for disposal. They don’t burn and if they are buried, the animals can dig them up again.
Husbands are not told that their wives are menstruating and the wife just tells him she is unwell. At this time they do not share a bed. If the menstruation goes on too long he will just take her anyway (in his mind it is his right to have sex at any time he feels). Should the woman fall pregnant at this time, the husband will not believe it is his child and he will accuse his wife of having an affair which leads to domestic violence.
The myriad of bright colours and beautiful jewellery hide a multitude of issues. A practice that has been seen by many in the past as simply a cultural practice is now. in the light of education and awareness of gender equity, a practice that is now questioned and at greater lengths requests made to make it stop. I am referring to the practice of beading.
When a girl reaches her teenage years,boy will indicate an interest in her and will offer beautiful beads for the right to have a relationship with her. This relationship will never lead to marriage as her parents will already have a husband chosen for her.
A house will be constructed beside the parents house for the use of the young couple. On the wearing of the beads, other young men know that she is not available. The girl will continue with the relationship with the young man until it is time for her to marry. Whilst this seems uneventful and consensual, the inevitable event will occur – pregnancy. As the girl is to be married, she is not allowed to have a baby with her boyfriend. In the case of pregnancy occurring, an abortion is carried out through means of a knee or an elbow to the stomach. Sometimes these abortions occur as late as 5 months into the pregnancy. The results can, at times, be fatal for the mother.
We met women this day who were stoic and powerful, selfless and giving of what little they has to those who need so much, and ask nothing in return. I will introduce you to these women as I get to know them more intimately.
The first woman I would like to introduce to you is Rebecca, who you will meet in my next post after we return from the next visit to Wamba in April.