When necklaces are a death sentence

Josephine Kulea, 28, escaped from her Samburu community’s hideous culture of beading and early marriage to get an education. Now a nurse, she has dedicated her life to rescuing Samburu girls from the harmful practices, writes Kiundu Waweru

In Samburu, a herd of eight cows is significant. This is a reward to parents for the great work of bringing forth a baby girl. But for the girl child, a herd of eight cows is a life sentence, even death.

Josephine Kulea. [Photo: Maxwell Agwanda/Standard]

It all begins when the girl is about six years old. On ‘noticing’ her, a male relative puts a beaded red necklace on her neck. The tradition of beading allows the male relative to have sex with the girl, and ironically at the same time forbids a baby born out of this arrangement.

Non-relatives also engage in beading, a symbol of “engagement”. The parents need not be informed, but on noticing the necklace, they prepare the minor for marriage. First on the list is the cut; female genital mutilation.

Not many girls in Isiolo, North Eastern Province of the Samburu community escape this hideous custom.

Josephine Kulea considers herself lucky for having escaped, and after the privilege of education, she has returned to the community to rescue the hapless girls.

It goes back many moons. Josephine was in Class Four in Samburu when a friend of hers, in Standard Six was forcibly taken out of school by her parents for an early marriage. A charitable priest in the area got wind of it, and came to this girl’s rescue.

“He said he had room for two more girls,” remembers Josephine, “and asked our teachers to select a bright girl.”

Josephine fit the bill, and she was lucky that her parents were progressive thinkers. She was whisked away to a boarding primary school in Meru.

Two years later, Josephine’s father passed on. The uncles massaged their bellies in glee and approached Josephine’s mother demanding to “sell off’’ their daughter.

“My mother was not having any of it,” says Josephine. “My mother was uprooted in Form Two to marry my father as a second wife and she vowed that her daughters would get a good education.”

Arranged marriage

To be safe, Josephine had to keep off sight and she also attended boarding secondary school. She attained a B- (minus) in Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education.

To her extended family, Josephine had received her wish. It was time to earn them their long time coming dowry. A wedding to a local tycoon was arranged.

“I categorically refused,” she says with a boisterous laugh, “people were shocked. Girls were inspired and many were encouraged to also refuse the arranged marriages.”

Soon after, Josephine got a scholarship to attend the Mathari Consolata Nursing School in Nyeri. After graduating, she chose to work with her community at Kipsing health facility, Samburu.

In 2008, with funding from USAID, Josephine started rescuing girls from Samburu, Laikipia and Isiolo.

Early this year, she registered her own organisation, the Samburu Girls Foundation.

The other day, you could hear a pin drop at Laico Regency Hotel when Josephine ran a power point slide about her work. There were pictures of girls, necks heavy with necklaces, rescued from the loins of male relatives, many times their age.

It was pictures of six teenage girls, each holding a baby that elicited oh! and Nos! at the conference. Josephine explained that the babies would have been killed, as they are ‘outcasts’ had they not been rescued.

“You see,” she said, “when a girl is beaded by a relative, he is allowed to have sex with her, but if the girl conceives, which happens most of the time as no form of contraception is used, the baby is unwanted and is seen as a curse. It brings shame to the family.”

This sort of a double standard tradition puts the girls at a great risk. When their mothers realise that their daughters are pregnant, they use crude abortion means. Sometimes the girls die. Josephine adds that other girls hide the pregnancy. However, on giving birth, if there is no forthcoming rescue, the babies are killed. 

The peace conference, organised by Africa Health and Development International (AHADI) with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, was themed Youth and the Social and Economic Impact of Peaceful and Fair Elections. Speakers like Josephine were carefully drawn to represent the roles of youths in creating and maintaining peace in their communities.

And while Josephine gets celebrated elsewhere, (in 2011 she was recognised by the then US Ambassador Michael Ranneberger as an Unsung Heroine), elders in her community see her as a thorn in the cultural norms.


“I have been threatened, even cursed,” she says. However, this has done little to sway her resolve. Currently, Samburu Girls Foundation has rescued 56 girls and 24 are in secondary schools. The foundation ensure they go through secondary school education, and luckily 14 girls are on full scholarship from Form One through to Foirm Four courtesy of the funding from a well-wisher.

The 13 babies rescued from being killed have been put in children’s homes.

“We rely on well wishers for their upkeep,” she says. Other times, the rescued girls are placed in foster families.

To effect rescues, Josephine says that they are alerted by neighbours who are turning against the culture. Also, some chiefs and sub-chiefs ask for her help. However, Josephine is saddened by the fact that some community leaders, who should know better to protect their subjects, marry the young girls promoting the outdated tradition.

It’s for this reason that SGF has also embarked on an aggressive civil education. She says it seems to pay off, as they have won the hearts of very important partners, the Samburu Morans, who accompany them during the sometimes-risky rescue missions.

“It’s only when the community is mobilised proactively that we will win this war,” says the SGF Patron, Gladys Lesrima.

Gladys, who also champions for the rights of women in Samburu says that she collaborated with Josephine as there are not many courageous enough people in the region to take the bull by the horns.

Lacking facilities

Gladys is the wife of the Samburu West MP, Simeon Lesrima, whom she says also, supports the intiative.

Their greatest challenge is lack of rescue centres in the region. Josephine says that this hinders them from rescuing many more girls who continue to be forced into FGM and early marriages. The County Council of Samburu has given the foundation a 60-acre piece of land, which they hope to construct a rescue centre.

In the meantime, Josephine, who lives in Maralal where SGF is also headquartered, continues to be a beacon of hope to the Samburu girls. Demonstrating that she is not against marriage, as the community elders would like to think. Josephine married a Harvard educated Samburu man whom she grew up with.

“We had a beautiful traditional wedding in 2006.” Pause. “Beautiful because I married the man of my choice, at my own time.” Together they are proud parents of three children; one who is adopted.

Well, let’s end this with Josephine’s favourite quote; “When you educate a man, you educate an individual. When you educate a woman, you educate a nation.”