It is said among the Samburu people of Kenya that if a woman is not beaten by her husband then she is not loved. Naserian Lyengulai is working to bring that idea to an end.
The 59-year-old has been hit several times by her husband for borrowing money to buy food or medicine for her family, she says. But these days, she has her own source of income – and the beatings have stopped.
The mother of six, a member of the Kibartane Women’s Group in northern Kenya, now works with other village mothers to grow vegetables and fruit such as pawpaws on a one-acre plot of land in the village.
Farming fresh produce is something new for women in this hot, dry region dominated by cattle and goat herding.
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"The place of the Maasai woman is to raise children,” Lyengulai says, adding that taking care of the family wealth is the business of the man.
But the new economic freedom that has come from raising and selling fruit and vegetables is also buying her others freedoms, particularly the ability to spend money, without risk, while her husband is away for weeks at a time herding his animals.
"Sometimes he does not leave money in the house,” Lyengulai said. "I have to feed the children on stored milk. When they fall sick, I treat them with herbs collected from the wild.”
The February edition of the Samburu County Drought Monthly Bulletin says that children under five years old in families that only herd livestock are more likely to suffer nutritional problems during droughts than children from families that mix cattle herding and growing vegetables and legumes.
That reality - and a desire to improve meals for their own children - is one of the things that inspired Lyengulai and other women to form the Kibartane Women Group.
Before the project began, "it was difficult for me to obtain greens because the nearest shopping center is 20 kilometers away,” she said. “All that I need to do now is to join my colleagues at the kitchen garden to get my share of fruits and vegetables.”
The surplus, she adds, is taken to the market for sale, earning her and members of the group extra income.
Need for water
The farming venture, however, requires irrigation water, which is scarce in the drought-prone region, where many families rely on springs fed by sporadic showers.
To find enough water, the women have teamed up with International Medical Corps (IMC), a non-governmental organization, to bring it from the nearby Nkutoto hills to the village.
Water is tapped from the spring through supply pipes and drained into a storage tank. Villagers can then fetch their share for domestic use, while Lyengulai’s group uses the water for their garden as well.
Bringing water to the village has had an added benefit, as women who once fetched it from the Nkutoto spring sometimes faced attack from baboons, leopards, snakes and elephants that were also seeking water there, villagers say.
In many parts of East Africa, governments are pushing for pastoralist communities to give up old lifestyles and switch instead to settled farming. Supporters say such a move will create better food security, curb conflict between herders and farmers, and free up land.
Critics, however, say switching from pastoralism to settled farming could make communities less resilient to climate change impacts such as worsening drought.
Making such a switch to more farming – a measure the women of Kibartane are experimenting with – will also be difficult without rural pastoralist communities, and particularly women, being given clear title to their land, which is often held communally.
Louise Towon, the director of the Girl Child Education Support Programme in Samburu, argues that staple farming will not be a game changer among pastoralist communities because women are yet to win their land rights.
"It will not work because when it comes to ownership of the land, women have no right to property,” she argued, noting that Samburu women are not included in decision making.
"Women are the backbone of families but when it comes to land issues they are not recognised,” she said. “They should first be given the right to contribute or make a decision on land before testing new approaches like fresh produce farming.”