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Dowries run dry in drought-stricken E. Africa

As East Africa's worst drought in a generation turns grazing fields to rock-strewn expanses of dust, the Masai tribe's traditions are slowly changing.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

They were neighborhood friends who occasionally flirted amid the once lush elephant grass of the East African savanna.

He was a gregarious 28-year-old cattle herder who had a college education, spoke five languages and supplemented his income by working for an international safari business.

She was a lively 22-year-old high school graduate, respectful of her parents and a captivating storyteller who met his main physical requirement: She was tall.

He arranged to meet her parents, who brewed a traditional welcome drink of sugar, honey, herbs, sour milk and cow's blood at their farmhouse. For her dowry, he offered his best bulls and most productive dairy cows.

Then, with her parents' blessing, Moses ole Samante proposed marriage to Evelyn Kutingala last spring.

But the engagement of the two young Kenyans, both from the Masai tribe, proved stressful. As the region's worst drought in a generation swept across East Africa, turning grazing fields to rock-strewn expanses of dust, Samante's chances for a wedding grew as thin as his bony cattle.

Each month, more of his 300 cattle collapsed. Soon, nearly all were dead. By December, he had lost cattle worth more than $10,000 in a country where most people survive on $350 a year. The wedding was canceled. And Samante moved to Nairobi to find work.

"It's such a sad time," he said. "I had to leave my beautiful fields."

"Is there any way you can mate remaining cows quickly?" he recalled Kutingala pleading in a phone call from their village of Ntulele, about 120 miles south of Nairobi. "I fear they will give me to another, to an old and richer man. My mother doesn't want me to waste my youth."

Millions face food shortages
The men of marrying age in East Africa are calling the current dry season "the drought that killed the dowry." On the world's poorest continent, droughts and changing weather patterns are pushing more and more Africans into cities, putting pressure on already strained resources and changing cultural practices, from diet to marriage traditions.

Humanitarian organizations estimate that 3.5 million people, mostly nomadic herders, are facing food shortages in Kenya. About 40 people have died of hunger-related illnesses, and 70 percent of livestock in the drought-affected northeast have perished.

Masai herders trying to escape the drought are streaming into Nairobi, letting their cattle feed on the city's grassy traffic circles. Police blotters are filled with reports of herdsmen being hit by cars. The Masai are also building congested shantytowns to live in and wandering the city begging for jobs.

"The drought and changes of weather patterns are disrupting a whole way of life," said Doug Keating of Oxfam International, which is helping distribute aid in the region. "If one was to take the view that the pastoralist way of life is no longer viable and they should give up their cattle, then what's the alternative? Millions head for the cities. I think we know cities in Kenya can hardly sustain the populations they have."

Samante first came to Nairobi, a city of high-rises and high crime, after a punishing two-year drought started in 1999, the seventh to hit East Africa since 1975. His parents begged him to seek a college education, and it was his father's dying dream, Samante said, that his eldest son learn foreign languages and earn a living that did not depend on cattle.

Samante arrived in Nairobi with $300 for his college tuition. But he lost it to a pickpocket shortly after arriving in a city Kenyans have nicknamed "Nai-robbery."

"We didn't have cars, we have cows, so I was looking this way and that. Not paying attention," he said, laughing at his former innocence. "And there were so many people, some banging smack into me. I would just smile and shake their hands. They gave me odd glances."

City brings heartache
He returned to his village to sell more cows to make money. But when he returned to Nairobi a second time, he was robbed again.

This time, he thought he spotted the thief, a man who had stood very close to him asking questions about his Masai life. He ran after the man, and a fight broke out, he said.

Both men ended up in jail. Samante was beaten up by some inmates and teased as a "country Kenyan." He watched in shock as the thief used his college money to bribe his way out of jail, he said.

Samante eventually got out himself by having a friend also bribe the guards. But he had to work several jobs as a security guard to pay for college, and it took him years to graduate.

"We just aren't city guys," said Simon Kiraison, 22, a friend of Samante's from Ntulele who now works in Nairobi. "I can't marry. And I keep getting mugged. The city does not soothe my heartaches. It only brings more."

Samante and his friends in the city said they were afraid of the crime and frustrated that they could not afford milk, which they used to drink for free, or find cow's blood, a staple of their diet.

"Cow blood is very fantastic," Samante said. "I couldn't understand why the Nairobi tribes didn't want any."

Worst of all, they were lonely without their girlfriends and prospective wives.

Some of the rural men who moved to Nairobi took to having sex with prostitutes, a taboo in Masai culture. Cases of HIV infection began to increase in the Masai community, which historically has had a lower rate than the rest of the country, according to a government survey.

"We were losing all our self-respect," Samante said. "I wanted to try and remain a true Masai."

Strong traditions, new ideas
Samante and Kutingala's wedding was to be a village celebration with more than 1,000 guests. A month beforehand, Kutingala's parents prepared a traditional wedding chest for her that contained fabrics, beaded necklaces and silverware.

But at the end of November, after he had lost nearly all of his cattle, Samante met with his fiancee's parents.

"When I told them," Samante said, "they wouldn't even look at me."

The drought has forced elders to revisit a debate about dowry and its role in a rapidly urbanizing Africa. Some of the arguments against dowries draw on stories like Samante's. Community leaders cite examples of girls being forced into early marriage by fathers eager to get the dowries to replace their livestock. Last month, educators rescued 20 schoolgirls in the herding district of Samburu from early marriage, according to national television reports.

The Catholic Church in Kenya, which has helped coordinate relief efforts, has blamed the government for failing to prepare for the droughts. In recent weeks, several high-level officials have been accused of pocketing a total of $1.3 billion in public funds, money that critics say should have gone to irrigation projects.

"It's really a big issue to see our culture being stamped out by drought, corruption and urban ways," said Julius Lemanken, a Masai who works for World Vision, an organization that is helping fund feeding projects. "Sometimes, culture changes naturally, on its own. But could this have been avoided? Will my grandchildren be able to herd like I did? Will they even know our good traditions?"

Young Kenyans say they are caught between strong traditions, which they still feel they must obey, and new ideas about wealth. Masai children are taught a proverb that says: "All cattle of the world actually belong to the Masai. Even the ones in India and the west were stolen from our lands."

"I love cows. I can't remove this mentality. If I do, we are lost people," Samante said. "The minute I have money in my pocket, I just buy cows. When I have money in the bank and no cows, it's like I am poor and pathetic."

Samante still hopes to wed, maybe in a year when he can mate his few remaining cattle. He just hopes Kutingala's family will allow her to wait for him.

"She met all of my needs for a young lady," he said. "I was so very happy."

"He was a successful and kind man in my age-set," Kutingala said she told her parents recently. "I am still longing for our married life."