Growing Up in Ogiek, an Interview with Community Champion, Maureen Bii
Today, we take a look at Ogiek, an indigenous community of hunter-gatherers in rural Kenya which has been hunted by land right clashes until recent time. Commonly referred to as the caretakers/guardians of the forest, the Ogieks are one of Africa’s last hunter-gatherer tribes and for nearly two decades they have been fighting to keep their ancestral land in Mau Forest. Over the years, their land right has been brutalised. Like in many other African countries, access and right to land is still a major concern –leaving people underpowered and communities undeveloped as a result of clashes and lack of human rights.
We spoke to Maureen Bii, a native of Ogiek. Maureen’s life and that of thousands of others were affected by the illegal evictions from their land and for most, their life was never the same again as some were left dead, displaced and disempowered. Maureen is one of the lucky few who made something positive out of this experience. As a way of giving back and developing her land of birth, Maureen founded a Community Based Organisation called Kipkogo Ogiek Women Empowerment (KOWEP) whose membership includes the widows, young teenage mothers, victims of gender violence, victims of FGM and those affected by HIV through polygamy.
Sit back, relax and enjoy our conversation with Maureen Bii.
“A large population from my community is made up of single young poor mothers who dropped out of school due to FGM and early marriage. In addition when they get married, they are disrespected by their husbands who might be the age of their fathers by beating them up every time there is a dispute or when they are drunk.”
“I am advocating for the recognition of my community it terms of development because we have been marginalized and our voices have not been heard.”
“Empowered people are champions of peace, they help in bringing calm where there is conflict and brings understanding between warring parties. They are able to support is quelling the fight through shared knowledge and wisdom.”
Hi Maureen, please welcome our readers into the Ogiek community. Tell us about your community and its way of life.
Ogiek people are classified as nomadic pastoralists as well as hunters and gatherers. They never used to practice farming because their food came from hunting in the forests. They are bee keepers as well as forest preservers. The community protected the children and the people are generous. For instance, children would eat and sleep at the neighbours homestead for as long as they wished and he/she was safe.
Any elder would discipline a naughty child without the permission of the parents which instilled respect among the youth and young children, unlike today. The members used to support each other donating a cow to widows to enable them have sufficient milk for her fatherless children. During honey harvesting season, each family member receives a free jar of honey for the children. During big ceremonies, cows were slaughtered and each household would be given a piece of meat for their children
Like any other community, they performed their activities in collaboration and mainly the men had the upper hand. Women were supposed to submit and never question.
Is there anything done to change the status quo so that women can also have a say in the issues that concern them in the community?
The main channel we use is through religious leaders who impart knowledge to community members on the importance of letting women take charge of what concerns them and their children. These leaders got education at least to college level that’s why their way of thinking is different, the reason we partner with them.
What was it like growing up in Ogiek?
In my community it was a custom to hold celebrations for youths and it involved dancing to traditional songs (for) 24 hrs. Women aged 25 yrs and below were assigned the role of supporters to ensure that nothing bad happened to the young children as they enjoyed the party. Bulls were slaughtered during the event and the old men and women watched the youth dancing. Every youth wore beautiful regalia representing our culture and age bracket. We wore no shoes though but it was fun. Their faces were painted nicely and the dancing ground well-lit with fire on lamp stands. A born fire was also lit so that the dancers would go round it until morning.
I love my community though right now we’re becoming fewer everyday due to inter-marriages, deaths and tribal clashes between communities. The tribal clashes are not predictable, they suddenly happen on provocation. For instance, a certain community may feel that their lands have been invaded and taken away from their custody by foreigners (neighbours) they start sending out eviction notices to the victims and to make it real, they torch houses and war erupts. Sometimes it occurs when one community discovers that their rival has married their girl, then tribal clashes erupt and other instances involve cattle rustling. Nevertheless, growing up here was fun and members loved and still love each other. I would say they care for one another in as much as there is a lot of poverty due to lack of education and some cultural practices that do not add value. The cultural practices and customs I am talking about here are those of forced FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and early marriages which girls are subjected to in order to make them highly regarded in the society because in the real sense, no one cares after you’re done with the cut, you have your life to battle with and make ends meet otherwise poverty will still stare at you regardless.
Some of the challenges faced by Ogiek community members include illiteracy, culture dispute and access to land right; how has this shaped your life as a daughter of the soil?
The challenges made me to rethink about my future and the future of other girls and women from my community as well as their children. I spend every day of my life trying to find a solution to ending FGM, early marriages among teenage girls, fighting for their access to education amidst the challenges of poverty, finding avenues to economically support the widows, the teenage mothers, the helpless old men/women from my community and trying to solve issues of infrastructure like championing for a health facility which is not available. Mothers lose their children during childbirth because they cannot access health facilities on time. The nearest is located 7 km away. I am advocating for the recognition of my community it terms of development because we have been marginalised and our voices have not been heard. We are fighting to be recognised as the legal owners of our ancestral lands which the government is trying to take away.
As a young leader in your community, what culture or act persists that you would like to change in your community and why do you think this is very important for the growth of the people and the community at large?
Gender based violence, child labour, human trafficking and teenage marriage is what I would like to change. Many girls hardly finish education first because of the extreme poverty and the pressure to undergo FGM which in turn leads to early marriage.
A large population from my community is made up of single young poor mothers who dropped out of school due to FGM and early marriage. In addition when they get married, they are disrespected by their husbands who might be the age of their fathers by beating them up every time there is a dispute or when they are drunk.
I have witnessed many young mothers sleeping out in the cold with their children on empty stomachs. Majority of the children born by these teenage mothers hardly go to school because they cannot afford to pay for their school fees and hence are given out as house helps and others as shipped to Arab countries to work as house-girls with the promise of good income to support their mothers. Some children are sexually abused in the village because they were born by a teenage girl who cannot take care of her.
You were you able to get an education and escape this fate (early marriage, FGM) –I am hoping you did. How has your chance at getting an education paid off for you?
My mum sent me away when she got wind that I was to be the next candidate because in our culture, candidates are secretly selected when they are about 13 years old and there is no dispute. I was taken to work as a house-help in a different town far away from our village and my employer was kind enough allowing me to go to school as I worked. I survived the ordeal courtesy of my mum who was already a widow.
As I went to school, I met a teacher who mentored me and helped shape my future in order to realise my dreams. Education enlightened me about what FGM was all about and what education could do to me and my whole community. It helped me to focus in order that I would come back to save the other girls who were at risk.
I studied all the way to university before going back to the village and when I was almost through, I went back to save other girls through securing them scholarship opportunities to avoid them being subjected to FGM & marriage. I later expanded the program to include vulnerable women (widows, teenage mothers, single mothers, victims of Gender Based Violence and those affected by HIV) as well as their babies. I also incorporated the boys into the program to enable them feel involved and engaged in building the community and helping them gain skills to support their parents. I met well-wishers along the way who paid my fees and now am grateful and busy helping others to grow and improve their lives too.
To date I have taken 35 boys and girls to high school, three joined university this year and four are sitting for their final form four exams this year. Beside scholarships, we distribute re-usable sanitary kits and March this year in partnership with Huru International, we empowered 655 girls to enable them attend school 100% and that they will not get pregnant as a result of falling prey to Motorbike riders who give them money to buy the towels then they later take advantage of them.
On women empowerment, we are working with widows, single mothers and teenage girls. I started table banking for 32 women who benefitted from our small loans to start off some income generating activities to earn decent income and break away from poverty. I also started a vocational training hub to train teenage girls’ entrepreneurship skills like clothing and design, basket weaving, beading and agri-business.
As a daughter of the community, what are you doing to address some of the (cultural) challenges faced by your community?
On FGM and early marriage, we hold advocacy programs to highlight the problems the practice brings to the girls in question as well as the burden they have to bear once they are married off at tender ages. We ask for support from teachers and pastors to end the practice as it was slowing down the process of moving away from poverty because a large percentage of poor population are these teenage mothers. We are also collaborating with the old women who have been practising the cut by training them on the problems that arise due to the practice and also enlightening them about HIV as many are dying due to the disease arising from the practice.
For girls, I empower them to be able to attend classes 100% by donating re-usable sanitary towels, panties and soap plus training on menstrual health management. In addition, I donate stationeries through well wishers to enable continuous learning and availability of writing materials. We recently built a classroom near the forest to help the children under 5 who cannot trek long distance to school to acquire knowledge. We added a mobile library for the children. We are also planning to build an ICT centre for information sharing among the students because there is none in the area.
Every year I also ensure to get financial support for the bright and needy children to continue with education so that we reduce illiteracy levels. I don’t discriminate but give both boys and girls equal opportunities to further their education.
How has your advocacy paid off? What challenges do you encounter and how have you been able to manage these challenges?
At KOWEP, our strategy involves giving back to the community to enable them support our course. For instance through the distribution of sanitary towels to manage menstruation among teenage girls, we have reduced dropout rates by 50% and imparted knowledge on sexuality and self-awareness therefore killing FGM by 68%.Through teen mentorship program, boys are now supporting girls in education through appreciating their nature. They no longer tease and make fun of girls.
Ideally, girls are viewed as a burden because they “drain” resources especially during period and fear of getting pregnant before getting a suitor that’s why they are sold off to early marriages but subject to FGM. That’s why we intervened through mentorship and advocacy against the retrogressive practice.
The challenges include resistance from some old members to stop the cut because according to them, this is how a girl becomes a respected member of the society and is taught how to start assuming new responsibilities of a new wife and childbearing. Also, I am trying to erode their culture which has been in existence for ages because I am not a total woman. I have managed to deal with these challenges by courting the elders especially during harvest ceremonies.
Compared to the clash which emanated years ago in Ogiek community, how has it been, especially in terms of conflict resolution?
There is still tension in the air. The fighting ensued because of land grabbing which left us with nowhere to live and constant eviction by the government claiming that the lands are part of the forest reserve. Today there is a committee nominated to deliberate on the issue of land and this committee has really worked tirelessly to ensure that there is no fighting. They normally hold high level engagements with the lands ministry and the latest information was the issue of title deeds to the Ogiek members in order that they may have a place to call a home and own lands legally.
You witnessed the clash that dis-harmonised the community years ago before the present calm. In your opinion, how important is the role of empowerment in conflict resolution in communities?
Empowered individuals are able to make informed choices and are able to respect the wishes of others. Empowered individuals are not easily manipulated by politicians for their selfish gains but instead they advocate for peaceful coexistence. They don’t take part in wars and do not fuel clashes.
Empowered people are champions of peace, they help in bringing calm where there is conflict and brings understanding between warring parties. They are able to support is quelling the fight through shared knowledge and wisdom.
Giving your experience of growing up in a rural community and working with people in rural communities, what’s your advice to people or those who wish to do development work in rural communities (what are they doing wrong, and what do you think they should get right) ?
My advice to them is to first have passion in their communities where they come from and be the change they want to see instead of running away and neglecting their communities.
They need to understand the existing cultures and how to work with the members as well as understanding their needs.
They should be people of good social standing. This helps to convince the members to join your course and support your idea.
It is very important to involve them in decision making process and this will help them own the idea you are putting across. It will not work out when someone starts projects without the blessings from the community; they will feel that you’re shoving things into their throats.
What’s your advice to young people who want to take leadership role such as yours in their community?
My advice is for them to have a clear objective in what they want to do as well as build persistence because change will not be realized instantly. They also need to persevere and build courage to penetrate the difficult walls of prejudice and discrimination especially where culture is involved and more so if they are women. Above all, they should have passion for humanity and development.
Are from Ogiek or familiar with their story or do you have a similar story to share, please join the conversation in the comments section.