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Pastoralist Women Find New Economic Freedom

It is said among the Samburu people of Kenya that if a woman is not beaten by her husband then she is not loved. Naserian Lyengulai is working to bring that idea to an end.

The 59-year-old has been hit several times by her husband for borrowing money to buy food or medicine for her family, she says. But these days, she has her own source of income – and the beatings have stopped.

The mother of six, a member of the Kibartane Women’s Group in northern Kenya, now works with other village mothers to grow vegetables and fruit such as pawpaws on a one-acre plot of land in the village.

Farming fresh produce is something new for women in this hot, dry region dominated by cattle and goat herding.

“The place of the Maasai woman is to raise children,” Lyengulai says, adding that taking care of the family wealth is the business of the man.

But the new economic freedom that has come from raising and selling fruit and vegetables is also buying her others freedoms, particularly the ability to spend money, without risk, while her husband is away for weeks at a time herding his animals.

“Sometimes he does not leave money in the house,” Lyengulai said. “I have to feed the children on stored milk. When they fall sick, I treat them with herbs collected from the wild.”

The February edition of the Samburu County Drought Monthly Bulletin says that children under five years old in families that only herd livestock are more likely to suffer nutritional problems during droughts than children from families that mix cattle herding and growing vegetables and legumes.

That reality – and a desire to improve meals for their own children – is one of the things that inspired Lyengulai and other women to form the Kibartane Women Group.

Before the project began, “it was difficult for me to obtain greens because the nearest shopping center is 20 kilometers away,” she said. “All that I need to do now is to join my colleagues at the kitchen garden to get my share of fruits and vegetables.”

The surplus, she adds, is taken to the market for sale, earning her and members of the group extra income.

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