From being property to owning one: A Maasai woman’s struggle for land | Features

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Kona Baridi, Kenya – Ipato “Peris” Kateki knows only one female Maasai landowner – herself. And the 57-year-old, with her small plot in Kajiado county, southern Kenya, is a rarity among her people. Until 17 years ago, she was not even on the road to owning anything.

Back then, Peris had just given birth to her fifth child, and had been very sick during the pregnancy. The doctors at Kenyatta National Hospital confirmed she had HIV/AIDS and health workers sent Peris back to Kona Baridi in Kajiado, her ancestral home – 20 years after she had been cast out for the second time.

When her father found out she had the disease, he went around shouting: “She has brought the taboo to our community.”

Her journey from being seen as property to owning property had begun when Peris was a 12-year-old child bride. Her father had married her off to a man who was 60 and whom she remembers as “one who could swallow me alive,” while she walked behind him in tears to their matrimonial home.

A big Maasai ceremony was planned to celebrate their union. A week later, when the singing and dancing stopped, she told her husband, “I’m going back home.”

“Why are you going back home?” her husband asked, shocked. “I just married you.”

Women as property

In Maasai culture, girls are considered their father’s property, with their worth measured by their dowry, usually a cow or two. In Kajiado county, 28 percent of Maasai girls are married before they turn 18, and more than half of them have undergone female genital mutilation, according to UNICEF.

Researchers studying gender imbalance in Maasai schools found that only a fifth of students are female; in Kajiado county, 48 percent of the people are illiterate, according to the education ministry. For girls there, possessing skills to survive outside of matrimony is seen as unnecessary, and to own land is extremely rare.

In Kenya, 60 percent of the land is administered by customary tenure, which governs inheritance and title ownership. These rules are often discriminatory towards women, guaranteeing access to land for married women, but not ownership, says Margaret Rugadya, the Africa Region Director for Landesa, a global non-profit that helps people gain land rights.

Across the country, women run three-quarters of its farms, yet only two percent of land titles are held solely by women, according to the World Bank. And while Kenya has implemented legislation to allow girls to own land, in reality, if women decide to leave their marriages, the outcomes are grim, as cultural attitudes still view women as their husband’s property.

“When a marriage breaks, if there is a separation or a divorce, women lose their rights to the land,” Rugadya said. Most women are forced to leave the property unless they agree to marry another relative or their children grant them the right. Women who choose to leave often lose their home.

United Nations research has shown an increase not only in food yields for the community but also in the economic safety and security of women when they own land. But limited access to land rights can be linked to a rise in gender-based violence, labour and sex trafficking, and prostitution due to a dearth of economic alternatives, says Rugadya.

Peris ran away from her marital home and walked for more than a day to her village of Kona Baridi.

On arrival, she ran excitedly to her father who was sitting in their homestead. Upon seeing his daughter, he said, “Why did you come back here? I had already given you away. Go back to your husband’s land or another place but you can’t stay here.”

Again, Peris fled. This time, she walked 19 kilometres to Ngong, a small city in Kajiado county. With nowhere else to go nor the ability to read or write, she followed a young boy who took her to his home.

“That is how I survived,” she said, looking down at her clasped hands while she spoke through an interpreter. “I slept in his home, but at least they accepted me.”

Occasionally she was made available to be hired to wash clothes or cook.

Living Positive

Peris hopped from one man’s home to another, eventually becoming pregnant. Within 20 years, she had five children – three girls and two boys – all in the streets with different fathers, until she was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

That was when her father broadcast the news to the community.

Peris tried to return home, but one morning when she woke up to milk her goats, she was jumped by attackers who she said were her own brothers. “They hit my wounds until I was covered in blood,” she said. “I laid still waiting to die but my children found me.”

Her youngest daughter, Loice Naishorua, who was just a child at the time, ran to the road and flagged down a truck. “We put her in one of the vehicles that were passing and told the driver to take her to the hospital,” Loice, now 24, said.

After healing, Peris took four of her children (one stayed behind) and went to live in Ngong’s garbage dump, once again back on the streets. There, Peris heard about Living Positive, a rescue centre helping women and children living with HIV/AIDS.

Mary Wanderi, a 55-year-old social worker who grew up in the Mathare slums in Nairobi, as one of eight children raised by a single mother, founded the organisation in 2006 to empower struggling mothers.

Participants go through an 18-month programme in which they learn how to accept they are living with HIV/AIDS, then learn skills to support themselves and their families, and receive assistance to launch a business. The programme helps about 30 participants each year – a total of 550 women since it started.

Wanderi said Peris was very motivated to build her life after years of sickness and despair. “As a Maasai girl, Peris realised she was good at beadwork,” says Wanderi. “She learned how to build her business and how to sell her goods.”

Peris attended an adult education course to learn how to save and spend her money. She continued making beads, and travelled into Nairobi where she sold her goods at markets. After a few years, she was able to save 300,000 Kenyan shillings ($2,600).

‘A place to call home’

Still, she wanted to return to her ancestral home. Peris told her father, “I want a piece of land, I am going to buy it.” Her father was so surprised by her request that he asked, “Where are you going to get the money from?”

Peris pulled the money from her bag and gave it to him, watching as he counted every single shilling. Then he got up, motioned for his daughter to follow him, walked down the hill and waved to a modest piece of land. “This is what you can buy with your money,” he said.

After she got the title deed, she had a large celebration and called religious leaders to pray over her land. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “The land came from God and I wanted to thank the heavens.”

Life still has its challenges, even for a landowner. Peris’s father and brothers still won’t acknowledge that she and her children have returned. He will not let her connect to the main water source so she has to collect water from miles away.

But she has her own goats and cattle, and on her land sit the mud-splattered walls of a traditional Maasai manyatta and the outline of a newly constructed concrete house. Inside its cool, grey interior are the marked outlines of a future kitchen to be fitted with running water and a flushing toilet for the bathroom, for when her grandchildren come to visit.

Ipato “Peris” Kateki outside a building under construction on her land
Ipato “Peris” Kateki outside a building under construction on her land. [File: Cara Tabachnick / Al Jazeera]

Peris continues to sell her beadwork and tells other Maasai women with HIV/AIDS that a good life is still possible. When she saves a little, she buys something; first the glass windows, then a sink that waits propped by a wall in her future kitchen. She has patience with her purchases and installations, knowing she does not have to leave and can take her time.

“My main joy is that my children have a place to call home,” she said. “No one can tell my children to leave. It is my land.”

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