Kenya's stronger sex

Paul Harrison August 25 1980

Kenya's stronger sex

Paul Harrison August 25 1980

Kenya's stronger sex



Paul Harrison

Bent double under 50 pounds or more of stout branches for firewood, a woman staggers along a dirt road in Kenya, her face stretched taut as a drum by the yoke tied round her forehead. By her side her husband strolls erect, a furled umbrella under his arm. It is a common sight. Indeed, it is even a common occurrence here for women who see a man carrying a heavy load to offer to carry it for Tiim. As the halfway mark, 1980, of the United Nation’s Decade for Women passes, women in Kenya, as in so many other parts of the Third World, are still the main beasts of burden. Nowhere is the need for improvement in their lot clearer than in Kenya. So it seems fitting that few countries have more projects under way to help women.

ects way to help women.

About half of the women in rural Kenya have to cope alone with farm and family. What little good land exists grossly overcrowded. The average farm consists of a couple of acres of land and a cow—small enough for one person work, but too small to feed a family. many of the menfolk leave their wives home and seek work in Nairobi or Mombasa, coming home three or four times year with the modest funds left over after bars, prostitutes and extortionate landlords have taken their share of the low wages.

Kenya’s women are a hardy breed. They are women like Rachel Mwangene, a sturdy 34-year-old from Mraru, a dry area in the Taita Hills northwest

Mombasa. Her husband teaches at a distant primary school and only comes home for the holidays, leaving her to look after four children, three cows, seven goats, one sheep and a two-acre farm. The whole family lives in a circular mud hut 3.5 metres in diameter, capped with a pointed gnome’s hat of thatch. A more spacious house next door stands empty because Rachel has no time to patch the crumbled, leaky walls. Building and mending houses is also women’s work in Kenya.

Rachel’s day is long. She rises “when the sky is beginning to lighten,” cooks

the children’s breakfast, gets them off to school and cleans the house. Then she sets off for her land 3 km away, tethers the animals to graze and gets down to planting, digging and weeding her corn, cassava and cowpeas, eating a snack in the field. On her way home, around 4 p.m., she gathers firewood. At home, there’s still a half-hour’s walk to fetch water. Then, as the sun begins to set, she cooks the evening meal of ugali—a maize porridge which ends up as stiff as bread—in a pot balanced on three stones: “You are stirring it solidly for an hour,” she explains, “and at the end the sweat is pouring off you.”

It is Kenya’s women who most embody the national motto of harambee (Swahili for “pull together”). To make up for lack of male support, they have banded together into nearly 6,000 selfhelp groups. Most of them began as savings clubs, pooling weekly contributions to buy each member in turn a tin roof or pay her children’s secondary-school fees. Since the International Women’s Year in 1975, Kenya has been the focus of one of the most intensive campaigns in the world to improve woman’s lot. Backed by the funding of UNICEF, which

now sees helping mothers as an essential part of its aid to children, Kenyan government and voluntary agencies are working to reduce women’s burdens with projects providing more convenient water supplies and stoves which use less firewood. The government’s Women’s Bureau helps groups set up enterprises to boost women’s incomes, with UNICEF providing animals, seeds, tools or training. Women are now running bakeries, hotels, handicraft workshops, communal vegetable gardens and herds of pigs, cattle and poultry.

Rachel Mwangene is an active member of one of the most spirited of these ventures: the Mraru Women’s Bus Company. In this poor, dry area women de-

pend on the meagre profits of small trading to survive. For this they need access to markets, but the nearest small town, Voi, is 12 km away. Buses used to pass through Mraru full and women would often wait all day for a seat, sometimes with a sick child to take to the health centre. So in 1971 the women’s group conceived the notion of buying its own bus and running it regularly between Mraru and Voi. Four hard years followed of saving, fund-raising, chasing loans and coping with bureaucrats, bus salesmen and bank managers.

It was on May 3, 1975, that the shiny white 21-seater arrived in Mraru from the factory in Mombasa. Loan repayments were steep, but the bus did a brisk trade, making three or four round trips a day. Within 18 months the women had paid off their loans and had a handsome surplus of $2,000 in the bank. Half was distributed to members, half invested in a new sideline: Mraru’s first village shop. Diversifying faster than any multinational, the women then pooled their village goats with high-quality stud males provided with a UNICEF grant, and set up a goat farm.

But then things started to go wrong. By 1978 the pitted dirt roads to Mraru had taken their toll on the bus. Repair bills mounted and earnings fell while

the vehicle was off the road. One major patch-up cost $2,500, and a police safety check incurred a fine of $250. Early in 1979 the old crate, no longer able to earn its keep, was finally cashiered. While the women were determined to replace it, inflation had raced ahead of them and their savings of $5,300 were less than one-tenth of the sum needed to buy a new bus. But once again they pulled together and the deposit was raised. The new bus, an imposing 26-seater, made its maiden voyage in January this year. Yet prospects for the next year

look bleak. Competitors started running bush-taxi services while the bus was out of action, so daily earnings are down. Average monthly profits will be about $500 a month less than the loan repayments, and if the women default even once the bus will be repossessed. The shop, too, now has a rival, its shelves are nearly empty and its profits barely cover the wage of the manageress. Half the goatherd died in a drought and more were sold to pay the goatherder’s wages.

The women of Mraru are fighting for survival. “We have made mistakes,” Chairwoman Eva Mwaluma admits. “When we started, we did things without knowing if they would make money. But we have overcome problems in the past and we have faith we shall overcome them in the future. We are unstoppable.”

That sort of spirit will be badly needed in the years to come, for the problems that plague the Mraru projects are not unusual among the women’s enterprises in Kenya. Business management and book-keeping are among the skills in desperately short supply, and until these are wedded to their enthusiasm for business, the women will have to run their concerns on the admirable, but fallible, supports of spirit and pluck alone.