Defying Climate Change: The Turkana – A World of Strong Women

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930A3720Late last week, I found myself in Isiolo – woke up early at Bomen Hotel, the sun lazily rising up from the horizon. Maybe I was awakened by the annoying motorcycles – the new disease of urban Africa. I do miss the days when the rooster and the donkey were the natural signals for a new day.

Anyway, I came here to film a project on climate change adaption – whatever this means in simple English. It is basically a way of intelligently saying “how people survive droughts.”

Isiolo is dusty but a fast-growing town. It has a brand new international airport and upcoming hotels in preparation for a monstrous project the government calls LAPSSET – that is expected to open up northern Kenya’s infrastructure through oil pipelines, new highways, and a railway line.

I left town after breakfast, driven by Abdi, another young pastoralist with hands that were specifically made to drive Land Cruisers. My host is Omar, the first Turkana Muslim that I ever met. Our destination is Ngare Mara villages north of Isiolo.

I am a child of the desert and have seen enough droughts and does not need to be told what climate change means.

So, I was cautious when an NGO asked me to find a silver lining in a drought situation. Omar took me to a few farms – most desolate. Crops have dried up due to lack of enough rain. He lamented about how much work he has put into training the nomadic Turkana people to grow crops as an alternative source of income from the dwindling livestock herds.

The further north we drove, the drier it got and it crossed my mind as to why my pastoralist people tend to settle in the worst of places. The sun was blazing, screaming down at us and it is not even 9am.

“God, I hope you put something very valuable under this land. Something like diamonds or oil,” I prayed.

“Everyone is trying their best,” Omar interrupted my thoughts. “The only thing letting us down is the rain.

930A3570Ngare Mara is a small trading centre on the Moyale-Isiolo Highway. We stopped at a home without a fence, house made of mud and reeds with a corrugated iron for the roof.  I got introduced to Paulina Eken, 38, a mother of 9 children. She also takes care of four orphans – children of her dead friends and relatives.

I expected Paulina to start stories about the drought, the lack of schools fees especially in the month of January. She beckoned us to a fenced area at the back of the house and opened the gate. Viola! A vegetable garden! I mean – really healthy kales, onions, and tomatoes.

What the…were the words in my mind. She told me she had stopped buying vegetables about a year ago – a happy woman and confident of surviving the drought after losing all her livestock. She is part of a group of women who have tried to grow the crop in a larger piece of land but the rain was not sufficient. Lucky enough, the NGO had introduced them to various ventures that include table banking and kitchen gardens. Paulina struggles to pay school fees and other bills but at least she is able to feed them.

Next to her is another eccentric lady – Mary Ekeno is straight out of the feminist manual and we had good laugh over many things. She runs a shop that sells Turkana artifacts …stuff that she makes with her own hands and this is helping her put her children through university, high school, and primary schools.  I tried out a wedding headgear and threatened to marry her.

930A3791
Getting their hands dirty.

In the nearby Zebra village, a group of women is working hard to better their lives. Here, poor rains ruined their dreams of a bumper harvest but they have just laid down a pipeline that will enable them to irrigate the farm. I found them working on the farm fence – they were sweating, getting their hands dirty.

“Where are the men?” I asked.

“We are the men here. We do everything. We are waiting for no one,” Julieta Ngirisia responded.

I learned that Turkana men kind of don’t fancy farming but rather do the culturally “honourable” thing of looking after livestock. Meanwhile, their women are learning new skills, trying business ventures, paying schools fees, feeding their families and planning for the future.

These women are literally defying climate change. I pay my respect to the Turkana woman!

I guess, my client has a lot of good stories that need to be told.

*John Kisimir is a Kenyan journalist and nature enthusiast. He is currently the Board Chair of Friends of Maasai Mara.

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