By Wanjala Wafula
The emaciated, malnourished and openly scared women still in their early twenties gently whisper to each other as if scared of being heard. Before them, is a little hip of firewood and some charcoal which my hosts confirm are the only sources of income to families sometimes as large as ten. They clutch on their foreheads seemingly overwhelmed by the burdens they started carrying when they were only ten. They are known to walk for days and nights looking for firewood and charcoal which they in turn have to sale to the refugees in the expansive Kakuma refugee camp. According to Akiru Emaeti, a sixteen year old widow who is also a mother of three, Turkana girls and women are beasts of burden born destined for inhailation and socialized to subservience.
Social commentators continue to point to the destructive customs and traditions that are solidified through patriarchy and enforced through a set of rules and practices including child marriage, beading and outright purchase. To the Turkana, a girl‘s and woman’s destiny is firmly in the hands of the men and boys who they claim were destined to control and use the female gender. Reso Akilana, a fourteen year old and sixth wife to Elikana Akwamu describes her life as a living hell. According to her, Turkana girls are denied an education, bought like goats and forced to take care of the real goats. I was bought off only when I was six and brought here to be taken care of by his elder wife who in turn taught me the chores of a wife. She taught me how to take care of the goats and sheep. At ten she started teaching me about sex before having my first sexual encounter at twelve. I now have two children who he hardly supports. I have to fend for myself as well as for him. He spents his day playing games with other elders at the public park and returns home at night asking for food. He rarely sells any of the goats, sheep or cows to support us. I have severally considered killing myself“, she weils loudly as I struggle to hold my tears back.
A recent statistic confirmd that over 85% of Turkana girls are iliterate. A random Coexist Initiative survey confirmed that over 96% of women and girls interviewed were survivors of several forms of violence with the most common being domestic and sexual violence. A group of Turkana women told me that sexual violence was the norm rather than a practice.“Which rights do we have when we are bought and used like sheep. They attack us when we go looking for firewood or while taking care of animals in the wild. While young, they prepare us for the adversity. They even teach us about the things to do when we get sexually violated. We were taught that a woman‘s body belongs to the clan of his husband and therefore available for all and sundry. We have no one to compain to when beaten and tortured by our husbands and their relatives. I have never heard of a woman who has walked out of marriage because here we are married to be tortured and used till death.‘‘ laments Atianga Akisa, a mother of eight and a seventh wife to the 85 year old Charaka Monding.
According to Peninah Akiru a community mobilizer at the Kenya Education Equity Project in Kakuma refugee camp and a development studies student at Mount Kenya University in Lodwar, the fate of a Turkana woman and girl lies in the hands of barbaric customs and traditions. ”They married me off when I was only twelve but I managed to run away from the marriage and walked for several days to Lodwar town where a good samaritan took me and enabled me to go back to school. I could not stand that nonsesense around those customs that turn Turkana women and girls into objects available for use and not as human beings whose rights and entitlements are respected“. The emphatic Akiru insists that the world must turn its focus on women from merginalised communities less they risk perpetuating a vicious circle of hopelessness, dispair, agony and death. Which country is this where a massive population of women and girls continue to wallow in illitracy, ill health, poverty, torture and death? How long will Turkana women and their babies continue to be eaten by hyenas as they collect firewood to sale to the refugees so as to provide for their useless husbands? How can members of the host community serve as house helps for refugees? She asks as she becomes hysterical.
At the Kakuma stadium, I come across a group of over fourty Turkana elders playing the famous peiarei game. Its played using a set of stones thrown in holes dug on a piece of wood. This remains the most reveered pass time activity for the elders and its also here that they undertake negotiations in regard to child marriages and cattle raids. According Epael Okwang, a self proclaimed spokesman of Turkana elders in Kakuma, elders meet dailly to plot what he calls progress. When they meet, they play the game, then take some alcohol and plan the way forward for the community. The drunk Okiri interjects insisting that the elders come to the studium to relax because they have their properties taking care of each other. On seeking more clarification from him, he directly tells me that Turkana men do three things in their lives. “We go get cows that we in turn use to marry women who in turn take care of the cows from which we marry more wives. So women, cows, donkeys, sheep and all else are the same“, he shouts as the rest of the elders node in approval.
During the course of the conversation, a few elders start plaiting each others hair as they sing and dance to edonga, the reveered tune of the Turkana. A few invited women arrive to join the party. I am told they spent the entire day getting high on a local brew called Kaada. At the meeting, I am told that polygamy is the norm and that women request for it as a way of lessening the burden of being a Turkana woman.
I dedicate this piece to my friends Nakwamekwa, Balaba and Naiyenaiemen. Its for them that I recalled this sad adventure.