It is afternoon deep inside a remote village in Turkana County and a little girl rests against a wheelbarrow loaded with three jerrycans with 60 litres of water. The heat and exhaustion from numerous trips she has made fetching water are taking a toll on her.
For a moment the girl donning a beautiful traditional dress seems absent-minded, blankly gazing into the horizon until I interrupt her with greetings.
And with the innocence of a child, she responded with a warm wide smile. I soon learn she is called Judy Atabo as I helped her push the wheelbarrow home. We had become friends.
For the next three hours, young Atabo was my companion, graciously showing me around the village as I interacted with elders, keen to know more about the community’s unpopular Ishanga cultural practice-commonly known as beading.
According to the beading tradition, adult males are allowed to have a temporary marital relationship with a very young girl. They buy beads for the girl with approval her family as a sign of engagement. The objective of the beading is to prepare the young girl for marriage in the future.
As I walked around with 15-year-old Atabo, I did not fail to notice the layers of multi-coloured beaded necklaces she is wearing. I soon learn that each piece symbolises a stage of her life.
She informed me that she had been declared a potential bride by the time she learned to talk fluently and that at four years old, she already had a suitor, a man old enough to be her father.
Atabo got her first set of beads at this tender age, marking the beginning of a rite of passage among the Turkana people that confirms a girl has been booked for marriage.
Born in a family of one boy and four girls in the remote region of Kaapus, Turkana Central, she witnessed her parents send her siblings to school while she remained behind to help with house chores and to graze her father’s goats as she got ready to play wife when the time came.
With each passing year, her suitor parted with tens of goats, camels, cows, and donkeys as part of the bride price for Atabo, now 15, and who is soon set to leave her father’s house for a life in marriage.
This is the fate that faces most girls born in the impoverished Turkana County.
The tradition has been a lifelong means of acquiring wealth, especially for struggling families. Here, daughters remain prized property, trained for a life of servitude in exchange for livestock.
Atabo had been visiting the sister, who has since dropped out of school to start a family when I met up with her in Namoruput, Turkana Central.
“My wish is to go to school but my father chose to find me a husband, I have been at home grazing his goats and doing house chores. They say that they are preparing me for a life as a wife and mother,” says Atabo.
James Ekuwom a middle-aged man from Napuu village in Loima Sub-County equates a girl to a profitable investment and asserts that he sees no point of according them formal education. He says school only serves at “devaluing” them.
“Girls in the family serve as the source of wealth in our community. If you have four daughters, to be fair only three can go to school while one is left behind. The father needs to at least marry off one to recoup the money spent in educating other siblings and for him to also have wealth (livestock),” says Ekuwom.
Unlike in most communities in Kenya, where the birth of a boy is celebrated with pomp and honour, in Turkana, women giving birth to girls tend to receive better treatment from their husbands and community. And this special treatment is marked right from delivery, when the midwife while announcing the birth sounds four ululations for a girl, while a boy only gets three.
Ekuwom explains that beading starts when the child aged two, and it is also at this time that the initial dowry (in livestock) is paid.
The first set of white beads are followed by blue beads after a year or two, a process that goes on until the girl’s dowry is fully paid, often by the time she is 12 to 15 years old. All this while, the girl stays in a special house in her parent’s manyatta ( the homestead).
Kenyan law stipulates that marriage must be consensual and parties getting involved be should be aged above 18. By law, any child below the stipulated age limit cannot enter a valid marriage contract.
Yet, the practice of marrying off children is rife in Turkana region.
Michael Losee, a Lorogon chief from Turkana South, told the Business Daily that poverty prevents most children in the area from enjoying their basic right to education forcing them into early marriages.
“Poverty is the greatest enemy in this region, the situation is so bad that children are forced to go out to look for own food. If a young girl in a desperate situation finds a man who can promise to take care of her regardless of his age, chances are that she and the parents will agree to the arrangement,” he says.
Currently, the region remains adversely affected by drought and the situation has become severe following the erratic weather conditions that have faced the country the last two years.
The drought means an insufficient supply of food and water for both people and livestock.
Losee, whose location of about 3,000 people is served by two public primary schools, says his job description includes encouraging Lorogon residents to take their children to school and by openly discouraging early marriages and aiding arrest where parents flout the law.
Chiefs, the government representatives at the village level, have been instrumental in getting girls to enrol in school by taming child marriages.
Esther Tioko, a mother of five from Loima, says regular visits by chiefs to manyattas have helped deter some families from marrying off young girls.
“All the children now are in nursery (pointing to a close by early childhood development centre) school. You get arrested if you fail to take them to school. There is no point in having them wear Ishanga at such an early age now because the government is watching,” says Tioko.
Kaptir location chief Charles Lopuya says the nomadic pastoralists are the hardest to reach but efforts are underway to get their children enrolled in mobile schools in Turkana South.
“Nomadic people are the hardest to get to because they move with children, but whenever they come around in July, we try as much as possible to get the children to school even if it often happens to be for a short while,” he says.
“We are now setting up mobile schools for them to try to follow them wherever they go.”
Lopuya uses the Nyumba Kumi Initiative, which makes it the responsibility of persons living in a community to report whenever a child marriage arrangement process is on course in their neighbourhood. The location, served by 14 primary schools all with early childhood development centres, plays host to adult education classes, especially during the weekends and holidays to keep the parents well informed on the advantages of keeping their children in schools.
Owing to adult education a new crop of women and men championing for girls right to education is slowly rising in Turkana, giving hope that the oppressive culture will die in the near future.
Alice Amojong, a mother of seven from Namoruput, cherishes modern education, which she says improves the value of her girls.
“School is good. All my children are in school. I know that when I am marrying off my daughter when she is well educated it means I will get more wealth because she will be able to send me money whenever she gets paid, in addition to the dowry that the husband will pay,” she said.
Josephine Namuya, chief of Lokichar location, in Turkana South, has also been proactive in flushing beaded girls out of their parents’ homes and to the classrooms.
She says schools in her location have been forced to cater for needy students’ learning materials including uniforms, just to keep them in school.
“It is tough but we are trying where we can to keep the children in schools, especially where the parents are too poor or just don’t care.
“We are also enrolling beaded girls to schools and getting rid of the beads slowly. The resistance has subsided in recent years after we started prosecuting parents marrying off young girls, but the progress made so far is great,” she says.