Two bomas (homesteads), in Lendikenya. This is where Naserian international volunteers stay, and part of one of the eight villages that Naserian work in.
As mentioned in our introduction, in many places around the world, widows are one of the most vulnerable segments of society. However Naserian has found that once the widows start meeting and it seems acceptable to be a widow, more emerge and are ready to share their own experience and work to progress their collective rights. In order to understand why Naserian works with these communities, and in the way that it does, we have to first understand the context.
During UK volunteers’ stay in 2016, they travelled to five of the seven villages Naserian works in and listened to women’s stories of their lives, challenges and achievements. They found that there are problems which face the entire community, but also many that affect widows particularly severely, and even in isolation.
Here is an overview of the main challenges women highlighted, in order to share some context useful for those not familiar with the situation, written by one UK volunteer.
The full, individual stories of the women of Naserian can then be read here.
Water collected from the reservoir to drink
What Women Say:
Water – is a 2 1/2 or a 4 1/2 hour daily trip, depending on whether the temporary, closer reservoir has ran out. Women carry out this work, and leave early in the morning at 3 or 4 am in order to be back for the rest of their daily tasks. The water collected is unclean – but it is the only water available.
Female children collecting firewood
Firewood – the next daily task is collecting firewood, which can be another 2 1/2 hour round trip and is done often carrying young children, and the firewood on their backs. We briefly had a go and were laughed at as we struggled to work the head-strap-carrying-thing, but we struggled to visualise carrying the huge stacks any distance, let alone for hours every day.
Cattle – the Maasai are cattle herders, and trade or sell goats and cows for whatever they need. They also grow maize and crops and have begun to sell their jewellery with Naserian’s support.
Volunteers outside a boma; each family’s collection of huts is surrounded by a circle of brambles, and cattle sleep in the centre to be protected
Cattle are taken out to graze in the morning, supervised through the day and brought back into the boma in the evening to sleep in a corral at the centre of the circle of huts. They are extremely important and loved – there were several, joking but firm, reproaches when we teased the coordinator about eating his cow! Cattle herding is also carried out by the women, or any children they have from a very young age. This means a traditional five day week of all day schooling is often at odds with families’ culture and need for income. See more about the new community schools initiative here.
Education – especially for girls, is not a priority, although it is now gaining status amongst the community as parents and children see others going to school and being able to teach their parents to read, write and more.
Having fundraised in 2015 for Negai to start school, volunteers were delighted to see a picture of her in her school uniform.
Primary school is technically free, though costs involved with uniforms, the long distances, and the policy that children must bring lunch (which they sometimes do not have) with them, are barriers to many children going to school.
Leya, (R) is the second girl enabled to go to school by funds donated through Naserian. Funds are currently only enough for each girl’s current year of schooling.
Girls in particular are not sent to school, partly because it’s not traditionally seen as important. Another part is due to the fact schooling involves a cost, and marriage involves an income (in the form of a dowry; cows are paid the bride’s father). And again partly because the long distances often travelled alone mean it is known for men target girls and assault and rape them on their way to school. Though widows say their newfound confidence and rights knowledge means more men face justice now, they also said that men still largely go unpunished in the wider community.
Widowhood in Maasai society
– has until recently meant being considered as bad luck, shunned and having their land and cattle (see above importance of cattle) taken away by male relatives and members of the community.
A meeting in Monduli for Naserian women to share with community leaders, the local MP and UK volunteers
As the, usually multiple, wives were all simultaneously widowed, any property is unlikely to benefit them even if not seized. This meant that women had to rely on charitable male relatives to feed their children and have somewhere to live – sometimes being ‘inherited’ themselves.
This has changed massively with Naserian’s support and educating communities on human rights, with widows regaining their land, cattle and self esteem and supporting their families and communities to change.
The role of men and boys
Lione, practising the traditional morani dance
There are defined age groups and coming of age ceremonies for boys and each group has a different role. The lione – the youngest group, up to around age 14 – cattle herd. The morani (warriors) protect the tribe. After lione take part in the coming of age circumcision ceremony they take part in certain rituals to graduate to morani status, including killing a lion – a previously vital skill for protecting the nomadic tribes on the move, but now of a more ceremonial importance.
Young boys in observing the traditional period after circumcision ceremonies where they wear grey, feathers, and often paint, as pictured.
Then there are the older urbayen who serve as advisers. Men don’t participate in looking after children, getting water or firewood, but some cattle herd or get jobs in the city.
With Naserian’s help many widows said that they now feel more able to prevent their daughters marrying men who beat them, but many talk about this as a common problem in their lives previously and in practice.
It is also common for women and girls without a male figure present – whether figuratively as widows or physically when travelling alone on the way to school – to be sexually assaulted, raped and harassed. Beating children is also common, although we’re told it is mainly a disciplinary practice using a soft branch. Community leaders (all men) however are now very supportive of Naserian, even donating land and bricks, and tell us they are supporting the widows to bring men who rape and steal land and cattle to justice, although there is of course still a lot of work to be done in spreading this change throughout the community.