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Christine with two Endorois elders

A closer focus on Endorois women reveals strength and resilience in the face of hardship

25 February 2015

By Rebecca Marlin, Legal Fellow at Minority Rights Group International (MRG)

We pulled up to a small mountain town in Kenya’s Rift Valley, and got out of the car. I could see a few structures made of corrugated tin, some wooden benches, and the occasional goat or chicken wandering past, but few people. I then spotted a man walking towards us, who introduced himself as the local administrative chief of this location, one of sixteen remote Endorois outposts. Our visit had been arranged in advance, and the chief had been informed of our task for the day: to interview thirty Endorois men and women about the losses they had suffered as a result of their forceful eviction from their ancestral land, Lake Bogoria.

Men started to gather on the benches, waiting to be interviewed. But a key component of the task was that half of the interviewees be women, and there were none in sight. “Excuse me, where are the women?” I asked the chief. “What women?” he replied. “The women we’re going to interview. We need about fifteen women.” The chief looked confused. “There are no women here,” he responded. I was stunned. “Of course there are women here,” I said. “Where are your wives, daughters, mothers?” The chief then understood, but to my shock, answered, “Oh, those women. They have too many chores to do, they are farming all day and they are watching the children. We haven’t told them about the interviews, they won’t be coming.”

Frustrated, I impressed upon the chief that women’s voices were key to our research, and the interviews could not proceed without women to interview. For the next several hours, my primary guide and interpreter, Christine, and I searched for women in the fields where they farmed, attempting to explain our project to them. We knocked on doors, interrupting women who were washing clothes, cooking lunch, feeding livestock, shuttling their children back and forth from the schoolhouse that I could see a mile or so in the distance, and repairing the walls of their small homes. Many had a small child bundled onto their back, which they would flip around to breastfeed as we spoke to them. When they realized that they had not been informed about the interviews they were upset; of course they would have liked to participate and hear what news we brought about their case. But now they were so busy, and would only agree to be interviewed if we promised it wouldn’t take more than twenty minutes. They offered us homemade milk tea and ndazi, fried dough, as we spoke with them; I wondered when they had time to prepare these snacks.

A translator, Emily, and her son Larry
A translator, Emily, and her son Larry

The Endorois are an indigenous people who were forcefully evicted from their ancestral land at Lake Bogoria by the Kenyan government in the 1970s. The purpose of my trip was to research the losses suffered by the community as a result of their eviction, with the aim of determining an accurate amount of compensation owed to them for their losses. We interviewed nearly 500 Endorois men and women; we spoke about their feelings of insecurity and pain over the loss of their land, livelihoods and culture, as well as their hopes for successful implementation of the 2010 case against the government that was decided in their favour, Centre for Minority Rights Development (Kenya) and Minority Rights Group International on behalf of Endorois Welfare Council v. Kenya, 276/2003.

The case was launched before the African Commission on Human Peoples’ Rights in 2003, and in 2010 the Commission came back with a decision demanding that the land be returned to the Endorois and that the Endorois be compensated for their losses. The decision was a huge victory for indigenous people, but five years on, there has been no implementation of the decision. The Endorois can no longer afford to wait patiently for action by their government, and are adamantly pushing for meaningful implementation.

The “Christine” mentioned above is Christine Chebii, an Endorois woman who currently serves as the administrator at the Endorois Welfare Council (‘EWC’), the Endorois representative organization which, among other things, works to advocate for the Endorois in their relations with the Kenyan government, and who represented the Endorois in the landmark case. Christine was extremely knowledgeable about Endorois culture, history, and the current challenges the Endorois face, particularly Endorois women. While I frequently expressed frustration at the difficulties we were having in speaking directly with Endorois women, Christine would knowingly nod along, recognizing that in Endorois culture, women are not often visible, and their voices are certainly not heard.

In an effort to hear directly from Endorois women, Christine and I began meeting with small groups of twenty or thirty Endorois women at each location to discuss the issues affecting them. We spoke to the women about their daily lives: what challenges they face, what plans they have for progress, and how they envision just compensation for the loss of Endorois ancestral land at Lake Bogoria.

The first issue which struck me upon speaking with Endorois women was the dire lack of reproductive healthcare for women. In 2014, the country-wide fertility rate predicted that a Kenyan woman would have 3.54 children over her lifetime. Similar statistics do not exist for the Endorois specifically, but derived from the small sample we collected from approximately 200 Endorois women, we found that women between the ages of 20 and 34 had an average of 3.1 children; between ages 35 and 49 had an average of 6.7 children; and 50 and above had an average of 7.6 children. A census of the Endorois community, which is planned to take place in the next year, will help to clarify these statistics.

We questioned many women on the factors that went into their decisions to have a large number of children, and learned that children are indeed highly valued in Endorois culture, seen as a blessing; one young woman told me that she felt that she had been blessed every time she became pregnant, and family planning was not preferred or considered to be an option. Many elder Endorois women chose not to share the number of children they had raised, as to do so was seen as taboo, though they hinted that it was a large number. Those elders who did share often reported that they had twelve or thirteen children.

Elder Endorois woman
Elder Endorois woman

Thus, for a variety of reasons, many Endorois women are often in need of safe maternity care, and this was not to be found in the locations we visited. Many women told me that it was not uncommon for a woman, her child, or both, to die during childbirth. I asked Christine why specifically this was the case and she gave several reasons. Firstly, after their forceful eviction from Lake Bogoria, the Endorois settled in remote locations with poor infrastructure, and roads which were barely passable by car, leaving women no safe means of travelling quickly to hospitals. One chief informed me that women in labour are most often carried by donkey for miles over hills to reach the nearest hospital, or in the open backs of trucks carrying charcoal. Christine also described the lack of adequate healthcare facilities and proper maternity care units: she explained to me that most Endorois women rely mainly on midwives for deliveries, who do not have even the most basic medical supplies such as protective gloves. Finally, she noted that many women have underlying health conditions which have gone untreated, creating high-risk pregnancies and deliveries for many women.

Another pressing concern was the difficulties facing Endorois girls, primarily the lack of access to education for girls. Education is a top priority for the Endorois, who are struggling to ensure that their children can attend school: when we asked nearly 500 Endorois men and women to state their primary need, an overwhelming majority of responses related to the cost of school fees. Many Endorois I met with spoke proudly of the successes of some of their children and lamented that school fees are generally too expensive for them to send all of their children to school.

But when speaking privately with women, Christine and I heard over and over again that girls were dropping out of school at a much higher rate than boys, and the reasons for this were numerous and disturbing. One woman told me that the roads to the schools were too dangerous, filled with “men like hyenas,” so she had pulled her daughters out of school for their own safety. Christine informed me that female genital mutilation, though banned, does still occur, making it difficult for girls who undergo FGM to continue with their studies. Similarly, early marriages mean that many girls leave school at a young age and begin having children. Christine also explained to me that a simple lack of sanitary towels meant that many girls stop attending school when they begin menstruating.

Many women described to me how they have an intense workload at home of farming, taking care of livestock, running small businesses, and feeding and caring for numerous children, and so often must keep girls out of school to help them maintain the family. Furthermore, the Endorois are pastoralist, meaning that they move frequently to find new pastures for their livestock. The pastoralist lifestyle requires setting up homes and re-establishing routines on a frequent basis, tasks which fall on women and girls to manage, resulting in school drop-outs.

The challenges facing Endorois women appeared daunting to me, but the women I met were resilient, strong, intelligent and creative. With limited resources, they have found ways to work together to better their lives. As Christine described it, “The idea is to improve their way of living by bartering for their daily needs, and also to eradicate poverty.” Such creative development strategies include farming to sell vegetables and fruit, specifically watermelon, running small teahouses out of their homes, keeping bees to sell honey, raising and selling poultry and fish, and maintaining tree nurseries. They create and sell products such as cultural jewelry, artifacts, and decorative mats, as well as keep a supply of tents and chairs which they hire out for ceremonies, and prepare cultural dances and performances to attract tourists to Lake Bogoria.

Endorois women in cultural jewelry
Endorois women in cultural jewelry

They also have created some group financing mechanisms, such as table banking, which involves each woman in the group contributing some available funds to a collective fund, and then using the group’s money for the most urgent needs of individual women in the group. Similarly, they use a water tank “merry-go-round,” where a group of about twenty will contribute towards a water tank for the neediest family each month, and rotate through the group. The same group financing is used for purchasing utensils and other small household items for each family.

The women also expressed a desire to be represented in their community, and have taken advantage of MRG’s paralegal training program, run through EWC, which selects one man and one woman from each location for paralegal training. Christine hopes that in the future, the voices of more Endorois women will be heard in town meetings to increase the visibility of women within their own communities. And despite their struggles, these women are joyful and fun: at one location, a woman asked if it would be possible to officially form a women’s football team because their girls enjoy playing!

Since the trip, Christine has maintained an active role in working with Endorois women, and has returned to the locations we visited several times. She has spoken on behalf of Endorois women at several key events, such as a peace-keeping meeting between the Endorois and neighbouring communities, a workshop held by World Vision International devoted to issues affecting the girl child, and an Endorois Women’s Forum on Leadership. She has been working to ensure that a portion of compensation is devoted to the needs of Endorois women, but insists that much remains to be done.

According to Christine, there is a need for education and training programs, child care and HIV/AIDS management, prevention of early marriages and abuse of girl children, midwife training and supplies, and women’s empowerment programs. “The problem right now is that we don’t have any programs for women specifically,” she reports, and would like to see trainings aimed exclusively at women and girls which would educate them on their rights and discuss the importance of the girl child in Endorois society. She hopes that the issue of women’s land ownership would be addressed in such programs, as within Endorois society, women cannot hold title to land or property such as cattle. She also recommends exchange visits, where women from each location could visit each other: “We can take them to another county or location and have them see for themselves what other women of that location are doing in terms of projects . . . they gain knowledge and experience from this, and these visit or exchange programs will help them put in more effort.”

The five-year-long push for implementation of the 2010 decision and compensation for the Endorois continues, with some small successes. In September 2014, a government Task Force was created to pursue implementation, and in July 2014, a payment of 2,000,000 Kenyan Shillings (approximately £14,000) was given to the Endorois and used for school fees. The payment was welcome, but not enough to compensate for the loss of their lands and the resulting forty years of hardship.

At the end of each day of interviewing, we would purchase several crates of soft drinks for the whole location and relax with the Endorois. Men would reach for the drinks, pass them to their friends, come back for more. At one location, they reached for the last crate, but Christine and I pulled it under the bench we were seated on and guarded it with our feet. “This one is for the women,” the mama, as they are called in Endorois, we said, and women came over to take some. They sat down and relaxed, and shook our hands, thanking us for the drinks. Endorois women are smart, tough, and hard-working; they deserve attention and respect, and I look forward to seeing them succeed!

This article reflects the opinion of its author only and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.