Drought Forces Herders to Seek Cattle Through Marriage

A widespread drought in the Horn of Africa is killing the livelihoods of herders. Hundreds of thousands of cattle, camel and other livestock have perished, with their carcasses now littering the region. Some herders have resorted to marrying off their daughters, some as young as ten, to get dowries that restock their herds. Activists are trying to stop the practice.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Kenya a drought is wiping out livestock herds in the Eastern part of the country, and that's leaving nomadic herders destitute. The Masai are among one of region's most prominent cattle herding tribes, and now Masai parents have started marrying off their young daughters in an effort to get dowries of cattle to replenish their herds.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:

Sophia Toti was eight years old when her father announced that he was going to give her in marriage. The family had lost most of their cattle to drought and her father planned to swap Toti for a plot of pasture and two cows.

Ms. SOPHIA TOTI (Child): I decided to run away. My mother helped me. She gave me some money and she told me you just go.

BEAUBIEN: She fled to a Masai girls' rescue center at a boarding school in the town of Cajado(ph), that was four years ago. This year as the region is being hit by the worst drought in decades, staff at the center say even more Masai are trying to marry off their daughters early, including Toti's 10 year old sister.

Ms. TOTI: Some two weeks ago my sister ran -- my little sister ran away just because of that. She's here with me now.

BEAUBIEN: Priscilla Nangarai(ph), who founded the rescue center in Cajado says this year's drought has been devastating to the Masai. The center is about an hour east of Nairobi. Many families here have lost all or most their livestock, this in a culture where cattle not only provides meat and milk, but also a predominate symbol of wealth. Nangarai, who is Masai herself, says traditionally, after the onset of puberty, Masai girls are circumcised and then their fathers arrange a marriage for them.

But she says this year families aren't even waiting until the girls are in their early teens.

Ms. PRISCILLA NANGATAI (Founder of Rescue Center): But now you find that the girls I have now are between nine and eleven years. That is not tradition at all, but the drought forced the parents to do that just to sustain their families.

BEAUBIEN: Legally in Kenya girls must be 18 years old to get married. But Nangarai says nobody bothers to try to enforce this law with the Masai. The current drought is affecting people across the entire Horn of African. The U.N.'s World Food Program expects six million people in the region to need food aid to survive this coming year.

The majority of those people are livestock herders. Hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions, of cows, donkeys, goats, sheep, and even camels have perished because their pasture's completely dried up.

The seasonal rains have started again in this part of Central Kenya. The scrubby hills are green, but the rains have come too late for many of Masai who lost large parts of their herds. Maryiamo Cassani(ph) lives in a mud and stick hut on the plains outside Cajado. Sitting under a thorn tree with a traditional Masai red blanket wrapped around her shoulders, she says even before the drought she had very little.

Ms. MARIYAMO CASSANI (resident OF Cajado): (Foreign spoken)

BEAUBIEN: I used to have four cows and eight goats, she says, but they all died earlier this year. The cattle had been the dowry she received for her only two daughters. Now she says her daughters are gone and so are the cows. She survives now by making charcoal.

Ms. CASSANI: (Foreign spoken)

BEAUBIEN: I cut some trees and burned them to make charcoal, she says, then I sell it in town to get some money to buy food. Cassani says she is hoping her two sons can get jobs in town, so that eventually her family will be able to buy more cattle and slowly rebuild the family's herd.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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