WOMEN REINFORCEMENT IN TURKANA
Women Reinforcement Efforts in Turkana
Gladys Nagilae, who leads a number of women’s support groups in Lodwar, Kenya, tending her crop of Kunde
“We used to use this land to graze goats,” Catherine recalls, “but goats die in the droughts, and they cost 3,000 shillings [about $35] each to replace. A packet of seeds only costs 350 shillings [about $4].”
Catherine Nakwawi is from Lodwar, a town in Turkana, northernKenya, which was one of the areas most severely affected byEast Africa’s worst drought in 60 years in 2011.
The majority of Turkana people are pastoralist, traditionally depending on their flocks of goats, donkeys and camels for milk and meat. However, shortages of water and plants for grazing saw livestock dying last summer on an unprecedented scale.
Now, women from Nasanyanait, a women’s support group started by international medical charity Merlin, wind their way through newly planted corn and kunde crops (kunde is a plant whose bitter green leaves are commonly cooked and served with ugali, the East African corn-based staple), as they lead me to their meeting – part of an innovative agricultural movement.
The gardens now yield enough food for the group, which is attended by around 15 women, to feed their families and sell the remainder. They use the profits to buy new seeds, pay for a guard to protect their crops from goats, or lend a member the funds to give birth at a hospital or send a child to high school.
“The only traditional crop we are growing is kunde. Everything else has been an experiment,” explains Gladys Nagilae, leader of a number of similar support groups in Lodwar, as she gestures to patches of watermelons and onions. They tried tomato a few months ago to no avail, but spinach and kale have been nutrient rich success stories.
Catherine used to own 30 goats but now only has 10, a story all too common in Turkana.
In an area where drought is increasingly becoming a recurring pattern – indeed, there are already early warning signs of poor rains in 2012, with worst-case estimates that rainfall will be less than 60 per cent of the average – Merlin is encouraging women to take the lead in looking to new sources of food.
Women support groups are not a new idea in Turkana. Women have always come together, for example to share tips on making clothing and more recently to participate in popular micro-financing schemes.
This particular group was brought together as a part of Merlin’s health and nutrition programme in an effort to drive down Turkana’s high rates of infant and young child malnutrition. Based on the belief that a well nourished child starts with a healthy and educated mother, these groups began as meetings to teach pregnant and lactating women about the best infant and young child feeding practices – such as hygiene and exclusive breastfeeding up to six months. Merlin has continued to support the group by training group leaders and community health workers to spread key messages.
With the onset of drought, however, it became clear that the groups were also an ideal platform to improve food security.
Nasanyanait is one of 10 women’s groups in and around Lodwar which now farm. The women come together to discuss plans for crops, irrigation and buying seeds, in addition to other health areas like infant hygiene and breastfeeding.
“It’s better than sitting at home,” one woman laughed when asked if they were glad that the group had made the move from pastoralism to agriculture.
This group is lucky because they live along one of the few rivers in Turkana. Nonetheless, it can still be a challenge to bring water to their crops, especially when the river dries up or changes course.
They hope to get funding for a windmill or a generator to power a pump soon, but for now they are satisfied with benefits their garden is providing.
The land originally belonged to Catherine’s mother. Perhaps the most striking thing is how the women lend each other such strength, and take responsibility for each other’s welfare.
As they get back to work, Gladys starts singing a song about child nutrition and quickly the whole group joins in, reminding each other about infant hygiene as they pull weeds.