The problems are so many in this dry and remote area in western Kenya that it could be easy to despair of finding solutions. Over the past few days I have been hearing a few of them:
Lack of clean water – the few good water points are far apart. Most people have to rely on water from earth dams, also used by domestic animals, camels, cows, sheep and goats as well as wildlife. As one man said,
If we were tested for diseases from dirty water, all of us would be shown to be infected.
Then there’s the distance from any kind of healthcare – can you imagine having to walk, sometimes for days, with a sick child on your back in baking heat to reach a very basic clinic that may not have the staff or facilities to deal with the problem? The alternative is to travel on a motorbike taxi – but a long journey can cost more than £2, which many just cannot afford. Children with easily curable diseases die needlessly; pregnant women miscarry or even die in childbirth.
Then there’s food problems - the Pokot people of this area mostly depend on their animals for food and income, but if there’s not enough water or grazing (and the climate is becoming increasingly erratic) then the animals either die or become so malnourished they fetch a very low price in the market when you need to sell one to buy some food.
Women bear the burden of looking after the family – fetching water, firewood, looking after children and elderly, cleaning the house, feeding the small stock and sick animals. Children, especially girls, are expected to help their mothers, but as schools are distant many children board or stay with families closer to the school, and so the mother’s help disappears. This is also a deeply patriarchal society, where roles are strictly defined by gender. Men make decisions and control all the family resources – it would have to be the man who decided to hand over the money, or sell a goat, to pay for a motorbike journey and treatment for one of the family.
One elderly man stated in a community meeting:
I am the household, and the household is mine. I am the lion, if I prosper, everything goes well. What I say is what is done. No wife can challenge me. They cannot say anything. They do what I say and keep quiet.
An extreme (and loudly criticised) expression of a common view. But the extraordinary thing about this community meeting was that it was called by women. Women who had formed an ActionAid supported ‘Reflect Circle’ to discuss and prioritise their issues, with a particular focus on all the unpaid care work they do. The time diaries they were keeping and discussing threw into sharper focus the disparities between men and women’s roles and they decided to talk it out. They spoke about the early morning to late night chores which they could never finish. The worry of not having any money of their own to use in an emergency.
It would be almost impossible for a woman to challenge her husband or father within the home. Domestic violence is common. But collectively they could raise their common issues. Some, like the elderly man, clearly felt challenged by this. Others, however, responded very differently:
I used to wonder each time I passed these women sitting under the trees, but after listening to them talking today, they have opened my mind… In development women are in the front, these women, when they come together, bring change…Us men are now agreeing to work together with you.
Of course, it remains to be seen to what degree action follows words, how far it is sustained and how selective even supportive men will be in what they do to ease women’s work burden. But there is definitely an opening that, collectively, the women will keep pushing at.