Challenges facing child development in Pokot region of Kenya.

A story by Julius Mbagaya and WBOC Kenya Team

Pokot is a predominantly arid region, frequented by severe drought throughout the year except for a few pockets which receive small amounts of rainfall that cannot raise up a crop to maturity. It is located in the northern part of Kenya in the North rift Valley. It is inhabited by a pastoral nomadic community, whose livelihoods heavily depend on livestock keeping. The region is vast, covering 9,064 sq Km with a difficult terrain, making the area inaccessible.

The effects of retrogressive cultural practices practiced over the years – among them cattle rustling, female genital mutilation and early forced marriages have had a very negative effect on the development of children in this community- factors that are a major challenge to the government of Kenya in the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals –MDGs as entailed in the Kenya Vision 2030.

Among this nomadic and pastoral community, meeting the millennium development goal of a world fit for children is still a far-fetched wish. The children have very limited opportunities to education and the girls are more vulnerable to the effects of the outdated cultural practices.

While the international community has pledged to strive for a world of peace, equity, tolerance, security, freedom, respect for the environment and shared responsibility in which special care and attention is given to the most vulnerable; especially the children, the pastoral pokot child is still grappling with his/her survival.

Access to food, health care, education, adequate nutrition, protection from harm and other necessary opportunities is still a mirage.

Due to high illiteracy levels and attachment to culture, the idea of global child rights, universal free primary education and issues to do with children cannot be explained to their satisfaction. To them, education is the art of teaching a child the traditional norms that must be observed at all stages of growth. Gender roles and responsibilities will be outlined. The girl will know that she must at all times feed the family, fetch water and firewood. She is psychologically prepared for ages 8 to 12 when she will go through what every woman is said to cherish- female genital mutilation, leading to early marriage to a suitor only known to her father. She is told that she has no choice over who marries her- even if he is her grandfather’s age, and even if she will make the fifth or sixth wife.

The boy child, on the other hand is introduced to grazing cattle at the age of five. He has to ensure that the cattle have access to the limited pastures and water sources in the dry land. He begins being a nomad at this age. He will also be introduced to handling the gun because he is the community’s protector and the livestock as well. He has to protect them against their frequent enemies, who have made rustling a trade. These informal teachings make him a ‘Moran’- fearless and ready to die while defending what belongs to his community.

This scenario has worsened in the predominantly arid zones, where communities are solely dependent on livestock. They eat meat and drink milk and blood from their cattle, with any other substitutes coming from relief supplies, which are never enough for their large families.

Culture has therefore down played the role of a girl child in the family, denying her an opportunity to receive education and contribute to the economic development of her community. The girls’ enrolment in school at basic levels is very high, but they drop out in large numbers at grade three because at this stage, they have attained age eight when they ought to undergo some cultural rites of passage, leading to womanhood. They are therefore forcibly withdrawn from school, or they fall out on their own volition on account of the informal teaching they received on the value of being circumcised.

While on duty in Kasei on the far North, I visited a girls’ rescue centre, on a mission to establish the number of children rescued and their safety measures while at the centre. I met a group of young pokot warriors around the centre, who I suspected were not happy with the rescue mission, and were therefore planning to storm the centre and take away the girls.

My guess was as right as that. The young warriors had been sent by the enraged would-be- husbands to snatch the girls from the centres and take them back to their suitors, and they were strategizing on how to accomplish the mission.

Among the 37 girls in the centre was a 12 year old Kristine Rotuno, who hysterically told me through my interpreter that she needed help- either to remain in the centre or relocate to a safer place where she can continue with her education.

Rotuno sobbed as word went through the centre that armed warriors had surrounded the centre to take all of them back to their husbands.

‘the man I was married to by my parnts is 72 years old – several years older than my own father,’ narrated Rotuno. ‘I had no knowledge of him until the day I was taken to his home, she said. ‘In fact I was his fifth wife!’

Kristine told me that her ‘husband’ paid the entire dowry that had been demanded for her by her parents, and that both parties were enraged after she ran away from the marriage and sought refuge at the centre. She said her parents did not want to return the dowry; neither were her in-laws ready to count any loses. The verdict was that she must return.

As we continue conversing in low tones, we are all filled with fear. The two government security officers who had accompanied me on the mission to provide the much needed security however did not look disturbed.

My interpreter is a male teacher at the centre, who has offered to go against the traditional norms to advocate for the education of the girl child. He then cautions that the warriors are close and that they may strike any time.

Since I am a visitor, the teacher points to me my hide-out, and Kristine takes another spot. It is not long, and the gunshots rent in the air, and I think that I am dead for some minutes. As I regain my consciousness, my interpreter is wreathing in pain. He was shot in the shoulders by a stray bullet; as government security agents called by my security officers were just on time to engage the warriors.

I sigh with relief on seeing the host of government security agents. At least they will not allow the warriors to attack again, I reason. The teacher and I are moved to the nearest government hospital, which is 200 miles away from the scene, and the 37 girls are relocated to an undisclosed destination for their safety.

Statistics have it that out of every ten girls in Pokot, six do not complete primary education. This deprives them of the opportunity to develop to their full potential. Our survey shows that an educated pokot woman is less likely to die or develop complications during and after childbirth. This is because she will seek medical attention during child birth, and she will seek maternal health care during pregnancy and take the child for clinics after birth.

We also found out that an educated pokot woman is more likely to send her children to school, and she would protect them against harmful cultural practices.

Further, government statistics indicate that out of every 5 girls who qualify for secondary education in Pokot North, only one attends, with two and three for Pokot Central and West Pokot respectively. Some reasons responsible for this is that there is no single girl school in Pokot North and a few in the latter.

Poverty plays a major role in this. The girls are married off to raise some dowry for the families – bringing onto the fore child mothers who lack vital knowledge about sexual and reproductive health, including HIV and aids.

When the girls undergo fgm, which is culturally the rite of passage into womanhood, the operation, which involves partial removal of the female genitalia is fatal. The practice is a daily occurrence that a regrettable number of girls can boast of having evaded it. Out of every ten girls of between ages 8 and 12, nine have been subjected to the practice.

Medically, the female genital cut has grave consequences, including the failure to heal, increased susceptibility to HIV infections, child birth complications, inflammatory diseases and urinary incontinence. Many initiates have died from severe bleeding and infections.

Hundreds of such children who need care and protection are rescued every year. The warriors keep following after them, to bring them back into the backyards of their enraged suitors. Some are rescued from fgm, but because they have no home they can go to, they are finally released to the same community, who force them to undergo the same rites that they were rescued from.

Such children need a home that will make this world fit for them.

The government is very much aware of these and other challenges impacting negatively on the development of the pastoral child. It has therefore empowered the law enforcing agents to use the Children’s Act to prosecute the offenders. But as we all may know, culture dies hard, and it may take a little more effort from other stakeholders to liberate the pastoral pokot child from the negative effects of culture.

It is possible to take these children out of the community and relocate them to a place where the ‘village’ can be removed from them. These will be the ambassadors of change in this community that really deserves the change.

We need to come together and find a lasting solution to this crucial matter. If you have any suggestions on how best we can do this please let us know so that we can partner to bring change.