9 December 2011

Kenya: Traditional Practices Suffer in Drought

The prolonged drought afflicting the dryland region of northern Kenya has brought misery to the nomadic communities who rely on rain to water and feed their livestock.

But this year's failure of two rainy seasons, which experts believe is related to climate change, is affecting more than just livelihoods. The extreme weather conditions have disrupted some of the herders' most significant social rituals - some would say for better as well as for worse.

The practice of female genital mutilation (also known as female circumcision), which though banned by Kenyan law is deeply rooted among pastoralist communities, has been interrupted this year as families have fled to urban areas or relief camps. At the same time, the drought has also caused weddings to be cancelled by village elders.

Gudho Guyo, 60, a traditional circumciser, says the upheaval has affected her normally brisk trade in cutting and sewing up girls' genitals.

"The trade is bad this year as everybody has left Bubisa village to Marsabit town area in search of food. I have also left with them as I have no mean of surviving and my work is affected," said Guyo.

In pastoralist communities, female genital mutilation, performed by untrained community members like Guyo, signifies a girl's maturity and readiness for marriage. In Marsabit district, groups of girls in each village undergo the rite during the school holidays in April and August, resting at home for a month afterwards before they return to school or to helping care for cattle on the newly rain-fed pasture.

But this year the rains expected in March and April failed, along with the secondary ones anticipated from September to November, turning villages and grazing areas into parched and dusty terrain.

DISPLACED BY DROUGHT

With water points drying up fast and temperatures soaring, many of Marsabit's inhabitants moved to urban areas in search of food aid and medical assistance. Schools have closed and children have been taken to relief camps. In these temporary environments, families do not have the resources to plan circumcisions and would be likely to face legal penalties if they did so.

Selina Abaroba's two daughters missed being circumcised this year after the family was displaced from Dirib Gombo village by the drought and sought assistance in Marsabit town, which lies 550 km (about 350 miles) northeast of the capital, Nairobi.

"I really wanted them to undergo (circumcision) so that they can be prepared for marriage," said Abaroba. "I have also undergone the cut just like any other woman in my village, and the exercise makes girls clean and ready for marriage."

Abaroba added, "We cannot perform the rite here due to lack of food and proper accommodation that will enable the girls to recuperate. I hope my daughters will undergo the cut next year April if the situation turns good."

But female genital mutilation faces stiff opposition from medics and development workers in the region. Tullu Guyo, programme coordinator of Pastoralist Concern Organisation, describes it as an outdated practice that poses health risks to girls, especially in rural areas lacking proper facilities to deal with any ensuing medical complications.

"We are using chiefs, elders, medics and government officials (in Marsabit) to educate the pastoralist communities on the dangers of this old and dangerous practice," said Guyo.

He added that when the weather situation improves, village elders and local chiefs in remote areas will be asked to monitor every homestead and check that female genital mutilation is not being practised.

WEDDINGS POSTPONED

Meanwhile, the drought has forced elders in some areas of Marsabit district to cancel community-wide wedding rituals for the first time since the 1984 famine. As families relocate and cattle that would contribute to dowries die, hundreds of prospective brides and grooms have been left without a partner until next year.

Traditional marriage rituals are particularly elaborate and drawn-out in the Borana Rendille and Gabra communities. The vibrant ceremonies, which take place between September and November, see hundreds of young men and women tying the knot at the same time.

Each family contributes one head of cattle - preferably a bull - to the ceremony, a gesture to appease the spirits of their ancestors. The family of each groom also pays a dowry of up to five cattle to the family of his prospective bride.

Communities work together to erect special dwellings for the newlyweds. The area around them is decorated with green trees collected from grazing land, signifying an abundance of fresh pasture.

The marriage ceremony at the end of October involves rituals and prayers conducted by the village elders, followed by two days of festivities for the whole community. The newly married couples are taken to their new homes, and celebrations continue for another week or more, after which the couples are given a blessing to start new families.

TOO FEW CATTLE TO CELEBRATE

This year, however, the prolonged drought has killed so many livestock that the communities cannot supply the dowries and contribute food for the celebrations.

Displacement of families by the drought has been exacerbated by floodwaters from the Ethiopian highlands which have caused havoc in lowland areas of Marsabit and other districts in northern Kenya.

Village elders regard this year's drought as a bad omen.

"We decided to cancel the event due to the drought that has affected our region. The conditions this time are so bad that it would be against our cultural belief to continue with the celebrations," said traditional elder Haigere Hibor of Ngurunet village.

"We have postponed it until next September, and we hope by then we will not witness such drought again," Hibor added.

The cancellation has disappointed families in the region as well as government officials who view the ceremonies as a way to create bonds between the many pastoralist communities inhabiting the vast Marsabit district.

"I was preparing for the big day and my parents had paid a dowry for the marriage. I was looking forward to it, but it's off now," said Asli Jaro, one of many brides in Turbi village whose wedding has been postponed.

"Now I have to wait for one more year, as this ceremony is important and blessed," she added.

Abjata Khalif is a freelance journalist, based in Wajir, Kenya, with an interest in climate change issues.

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