The Road Less Travelled (TRLT) is an integrated maternal and child health and community development project working with nomadic pastoralist communities in Kenya and Ethiopia, led by Anglican Overseas Aid, Kenya, partnering with the Mother’s Union of the Anglican Church of Kenya and the Maasai and Samburu nomadic pastoralist communities in Laikipia and Samburu counties.
Focused on improving core maternal and child health outcomes, TRLT’s holistic approach involves methods that address education and literacy as well as improve access to water, food security, and sustainable livelihoods. The desire to achieve health equity through the empowerment of women underpins all activity. Three years since the project’s inception, the results are redefining lives and wellbeing, especially for women.
Where we used to stand
The Maasai ranch of Tiamamut in North Laikipia, Kenya, is accessible only by an indistinguishable dirt road. Here, in this highly patriarchal society, men’s voices have traditionally drowned out those of women. Land and livestock, which are of paramount importance to the Maasai, are owned by the men, whilst women are afforded ownership of only a few products and resources, such as kitchenware, food, milk, chickens, and hides. The only possessions a woman can inherit are her mother’s ritual beads. Customarily, the viewpoint of many traditional elders has been that women have no rights and thus no role in decision-making within the traditional nomadic pastoralist social structures.
For the last few years, TRLT has been nurturing a new generation of young women who are influencing change in their communities. TRLT has provided numerous training programs such as leadership and management, adult literacy and numeracy classes, financial management training, maternal and neonatal health training, nutrition, and sanitation courses. Through their involvement with these activities, young women in Tiamamut are achieving their vision of empowering others into positions of leadership. Through working intimately with communities, TRLT has established the trust of elders, whilst establishing new opportunities for women through such roles as the link persons, community health workers (CHWs) and community volunteers. This process has translated into unprecedented appointments of young women to senior positions within the community.
The story of one woman
Mary is only 27. For the past two and half years, she has been the Tiamamut Link Person providing support to the Laikipia County Project Officer and the Laikipia Community Development Committee (CDC), whilst advocating for women’s and children’s health rights to her peers. Prior to commencing work with TRLT, Mary had enrolled in a secretarial course in Nanyuki, which she never completed due to lack of funds.
“I don’t like being idle,” Mary explains. “I didn’t want to sit at home, so I applied for the position as link person.”
Idle is definitely not a label that community members would ascribe to Mary. Juggling motherhood and her responsibilities as a link person and community health worker (CHW), Mary was supported by TRLT and has just earned a Certificate in Community Development through the Kenya Institute of Professional Counselling. Her energy within, and commitment to, her community has certainly not been overlooked. In April 2014, Mary was elected as one of the 10 Group Ranch Committee members whose role is to manage the ranch’s natural resources, and establish bylaws by which community members must abide.
“It is a very important role,” Tiamamut community members Peter Mischani and Margaret Kukuni report.
“They establish the rights in the community. If community members need to relocate their boma (traditional house), they first need permission from the committee. It is important work. If they weren’t around there would be no one giving us direction, no organised way of doing things that benefits everyone in the community.”
The general demographic of the group ranch committee is typically male and over 40 years of age. So how did a 27 year old woman become the youngest of only three women to be elected?
“It is because she is educated,” Margaret explains – a surprising response considering 73.9% of Maasai and Samburu women across TRLT project sites have received no schooling.
“If you are educated, you cannot be easily tricked to sign things you don’t understand. Especially around community land ownership. [Mary] can read and write so she is in a better positions to understand things,” Peter explains.
Subsequently, the power of educated women residing in these communities is slowly molding and reforming traditional practices of governance and creating a new future for women. While literacy skills are very important, Mary’s confidence and leadership skills have also contributed to improved status.
“This position comes with more power and responsibilities … the project [TRLT] has provided a platform for me to be elected to this position,’’ Mary says.
Mary explains that as recently as two years ago, only men were allowed to stand and speak during community meetings – women were allowed only to sit and listen. Even now, women may stand and speak, but only once the men have finished talking. Still, the women of Tiamamut have found ways to maximise the power of their collective voice.
“This is not a bad thing,” Mary adds. “Men think it’s disempowering to have women speak last, but they don’t realise it gives us more power having the last say.”
Mary confides that it is not common practice to inform community members of the agenda of the meeting prior to holding one. She, however, targets the most outspoken women in her community and tells them personally what the agenda of the meeting will be.
“This gives them time to prepare their argument, so when they have the last say at the meeting, they seem smarter than all the men that have just spoken. Sometimes we have to start the meeting all over again because the women in the community bring up points and issues that were not discussed by the men.”
Leading the way forward
With the aim of spotlighting maternal and child health (MCH) on the group ranch committee agenda, Mary’s peers are convinced that she is better placed to influence the release of group ranch committee funds towards implementing MCH focused activities. Such leverage will enable TRLT to reach its goals and objectives sooner than anticipated.
“We have changed our ways because we follow what Mary does. We now have pit latrines, we keep our compounds clean, we have rubbish pits,” Peter expresses.
Mary’s influence on her peers is a demonstration of the shifting gender dynamics of power within the community; displaying the power of small tangible steps towards achieving gender and health equity in Tiamamut.