In a remote part of Samburu, four-year-olds are neither attending school nor have they an inkling of video and computer games that their urban counterparts take so much for granted.In the villages of Kipsing location, Ol Donyiro Division, 100 kilometres from Isiolo Town, four-year-old Itoms is on the run; first from her own parents, who want her circumcised before marrying her off for 10 cattle, and from Samburu morans (Maasai warriors), who for a beaded necklace called saen, are free to have sex with a girl barely out of her diapers.
Itoms turns five this year. Yet, according to Samburu tradition, she is old enough to fetch bride-price for her father and become a wife to a man seven times her age. She had already been booked for sex and eventual marriage to a 27-year-old Moran, in a common ritual called Aisho saen (wearing a necklace).
But a local child rights activist got wind of it thanks to local assistant chief, Henry Lesokoyo, and whisked her away from home. Little Itoms has no idea what the man who “booked” her looks like, and is crying to go back home.
In the beading ritual, Samburu morans identify little girls as brides by making them wear a beaded necklace. Child rights activists in Samburu say that beading can happen any time a moran meets a girl, irrespective of her age. “If he meets the girl out in the field tending animals, and decides, ‘this one will be my bride’, all a moran has to do is put the necklace on her,” says Ms Josephine Kulea, a child rights activist in Isiolo.
The morans do not even have to consult the girl’s parents, Ms Kulea says. Once the girl wears the first bead, she is as good as married to the moran. Her parents, on noticing the necklace, immediately start making preparations to have her circumcised, in readiness for marriage.
During beading, morans are free to have sex with the innocent girls, many of whom are too young to recognise their supposed husbands, let alone attend to affairs of their matrimonial duties. And once themoran graduates to an age-group that allows him to marry, he simply pays 10 cattle to the girl’s father, before whisking the girl away to the marriage bed, no matter her age.
Child activists say this tradition has ruined the lives of many girls in Samburu, where decision-making is vested in elders. Girls, unlike boys, do not attend school, despite free primary education. “He is free to do with her as he wills, she belongs to him, and him alone,” Ms Kulea says.
As a result, an unknown number of girls end up getting pregnant as early as 12 years. Many die in the process, Ms Kulea says. “Last year we lost a 12-year-old who was forced out of school to get married, but she was too young to deliver her baby. She died together with the baby.”
Although there are no official figures, officers in the region say the number of children being rescued from early marriages and female genital mutilation is huge. This is mostly between November and January, the early marriage and FGM season among the Samburu, according to Children’s Department officers. Children’s homes in Isiolo and Nanyuki, which serve Samburu and Maasai, are packed with fleeing children at this time.
“Even as we speak, it (FGM and early marriages) is still going on,’’ says Mr Enock Manua, a children’s officer in Nanyuki. At one station alone, officers have been rescuing at least 10 girls a month since November. But rescuing them is one thing, and finding a place for them is quite another. By the time of going to press, 10 girls aged four to 12 years had been rescued from the heartland of Samburu and were stranded in Nanyuki, almost 100km away from their home village, Kipsing.
There is no children’s home to shelter them in Isiolo and the local officer had to refer them to Nanyuki. Officials made frantic calls to Nyeri and Meru, to get any children’s home with vacancies for the 10, to no avail. “They are telling us that they are packed,” said Mr Enoch Manua, a children’s officer in Nanyuki. Meanwhile, little Itoms, too young to understand what’s going on in her life, sobs quietly, wondering why she cannot go back home.