By Joyce Saiko, Kenya
Neighbours Initiative Alliance (NIA)
Established in 1996, Neighbours Initiative Alliance is a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) working with the pastoralist communities in Kenya. NIA envisions “A just, liberated and Progressive Society” and seeks to address the needs of poor and vulnerable groups. NIA’s mission is to support the socio-economic well-being of marginalized and vulnerable pastoralist in Kenya. Our main mandate and core business is facilitating community empowerment, mainly through capacity strengthening/ knowledge transfer, influencing and brokering useful linkages. NIA also strives to contribute locally to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through eradication of extreme poverty and zero hunger as well as Good Health and well being and Clean Water and Sanitation. We organise vulnerable groups, empower them through trainings, creating comfortable spaces for groups to discuss their issues and linking them to policy and decision makers with an aim of increasing their involvement in the decisions that concern their well being.
Through NIA I have worked with the Maasai community for 14 years and I have seen women, men, boys and girls transit from one level of development to another. I completed the TFT Diploma (2007-2008) and the topic that changed my life was that of self- introspection. This topic helped me to understand and accept myself better. Coming from Maasai pastoral community where girls and women are regarded as less human or sometimes as assets/property, I learnt that I am much more worthy and precious. My self-esteem was raised to the sky; I became assertive and believed that I do not need to depend on someone to succeed. Because of this I am not oppressed in my marriage life like many of the women in this community. I have control of my finances, assets and decisions concerning the whole family. In my place of work, everybody knows that Joyce does not just accept to be put down or overlooked when major decisions are being made. I question the leadership when things are not right. At County level I am among the leaders organising other civil society groups and organisations for action and taking the lead in keeping the County government on its toes and accountable, for example, with one of its goals to promote citizen participation in all projects that are implemented.
As a civil society leader I have been involved in creating awareness at the community level that their voice counts and their decisions are valid. The major challenge we are facing as we champion for change is that men are not yet accepting that women can make viable decisions or govern any group of people. The Maasai Community is highly patriarchal, women and children follow what men plan and are not required to question it. Due to this, women sit back and not participate in decision making hence cannot speak against injustices against them.
Myself I suffered from this when I was a child, I could not question when my father refused to take me to school, even when I knew it was my right. I went through a rough childhood due to retrogressive cultural practices which I as a child or my mother as a woman could not correct then due to the low level of empowerment we had. However, today there are signs of hope, illustrated in the story of Susan.
In 2011, during a severe drought that hit the region of Kajiado South sub-County, NIA conducted onsite training in nutrition education for three months. The women who attended had children who had been affected by malnutrition due to food limitations and lack of a balanced diet. In this group, there was a young woman called Susan Sunte from Rombo ward of Kajiado South sub-County and a member of Merian Women group. Susan’s story stood out from the rest and with her permission, I would like to share it.
Susan, like any other Maasai girl, grew up in the Maasai cultural setup and went through harmful traditional cultural practices like Female Genital Mutilation and early marriage. I met Susan during this training and learnt a lot from her and became her mentor. After the death of her father, Susan’s relatives married her off early, to a disabled man twice her age. When she arrived at her matrimonial home she was settled away from other family members and was left without support to look for money to buy food, purchase clothes and meet other family needs on behalf of her crippled husband. Susan immediately started to give birth and by the time she came for training, she had five children (3 girls and 2 boys). One of the boys was severely malnourished.
During the initial stages of training, she sat behind other women as she felt ashamed of her child’s condition. However, she took the training seriously and did not miss any sessions. She was able to ask questions on how to become self reliant, liberated and how to access justice when oppressed. After the training, her group did not disintegrate, but formed a self-help group that could assist members in improving income at household level. She organised her group members and started contributing Kshs. 50 - which is far less than a dollar - and gave one member per time (‘go-around’ system).
Susan received her share of Kshs. 1,500 (equivalent to 15 dollars) and this became her turning point. As I journeyed with her through sharing stories of other successful people, Susan opened up and started seeing life positively and developed a positive attitude towards development. She took the money she received from her group and bought maize flour from a nearby town and started hawking in smaller quantities from home to other homes in her neighbourhood. She made a profit, increased her purchase and reached more homes with the flour. Susan continued with this business for a while then added cooking oil and vegetables to her sales which expanded her income as well as increased her business skills.
After expanding her business Susan was able to feed her family well, take her children to school, and build a modern house for her family. She continued organising more women’s groups for development. Five other groups (of 28-30 members each) were formed in Rombo and the six groups then formed an umbrella group of which Susan is the chairperson. The umbrella group gave them a strong voice when lobbying for change within their ward. These women were able to influence policy makers and project implementers at the County level and managed to build additional classrooms in rural schools and a market in Rombo town. Importantly, they also championed the nomination of women in County Government departments.
Susan and a few other women in Rombo are liberated financially and are not entirely dependent on their husbands for financial help. This gave them a voice both at household and community level. In 2016, Susan and her group members were able to hire 6 acres of land and cultivated tomatoes and onions with an irrigation system. These products are for commercial purposes and have tremendously raised the women’s financial base.
Neighbours Initiative Alliance (NIA) continues to support these groups by linking them to financial institutions for loans, Agri-business companies for seeds and other farming techniques, Government departments for grants and technical backstopping and other civil societies for training.
Early in 2016, another vibrant member of the Merian women’s group – Sein, from Rombo – made this statement in a meeting: “Siku moja nitakuwa mheshimiwa”, meaning: “One day, I will be called ‘Honorable’”. During the 2017 election Sein stood for the County Assemble seat, but did not make it. Apart from Sein, many women have been elected as members of Parliament (10), Senators (3) and Governors (3) in the just-ended election. This is due to major campaigns done both in rural and urban setups by civil societies and women groups themselves. This is a positive sign that rural women also have the capacity to lead if they are given the chance.
I have learned that strengthening the inner voice helps in rebuilding people’s dignity and respect. Women need to claim their space because men who are decision makers may control that space forever.Local problems have local solutions. The community is able to solve their own problems as long as they understand the root causes of the problems.
The most important thing for me as a development worker is to strengthen that faint or weak voice of a vulnerable person. This, for me, means that this person will be able to talk for her/himself. Once a person has a voice she/he can question oppression around her/him. A person with a voice has control over his/her thoughts meaning she/he is able to make decisions concerning her/his individual life. People who are able to control their decision-making processes have the capacity to acquire productive assets hence pulling themselves out of poverty. Once they acquire assets they are also able to sustain their income and can influence their followers towards economic prosperity. I envision a transformed Maasai community where women and childrens’ decisions
are valued and their voices heard.
I envision a Maasai household where a woman’s decision is valued and her contribution taken into account in the development of that household. Every member of the household has his/her capacity in a specific field and needs to be given an opportunity to exercise what she/he knows. By mentoring women, girls and boys towards self realization and by linking these groups to possibilities of financial sustainability, I am working towards my vision.