By Tabitha Nderitu, Womens Feature Service
A Samburu woman in traditional attire, decked with stunning red bead necklaces, is perhaps one of the most well known images of tourism in Kenya.
Millions of travellers who visit Nairobi are struck by the young nomadic women who greet them and give them a preview of the cultural extravaganza that awaits them in the East African nation.
“The presence of the Samburu woman adorned with layers of red necklaces is an attraction to behold,” says Leonard Waithaka, co-owner of Cats Of Africa Ltd, one of the country’s top firms specialising in marketing Kenya as Africa’s best tourism destination.
According to Waithaka a foreigner watching a Samburu woman with her multiple beaded necklaces is stunned by the grace with which the wearer carries herself.
But no visitor can ever imagine that the aesthetically beautiful red beads that the Samburu women wear are in reality part of a tribal rite of passage that robs the young girls from the community.
In Isiolo district, women have many emotional and tragic tales to share. Saitoni Endeshani,a 12 year girl who is pregnant although she knows that her child is as good as dead.
“I know my baby will be dumped into the forest to die or for a wild beast to feast on, if it is not killed by the elders. All my girlfriends have found themselves in similar circumstances,” says Endeshani.
Life for Samburu women is tough. Just like their counterparts in traditional societies and tribes around Africa women experience discrimination. Cultural practices followed ensure that women have no rights, own no property and are generally viewed as the property of their husbands.
Endeshani has never been to school. Like other girls of her age group, she is clustered as a “child bride” within the community.
According to Oliver Lemantile, 72, a Samburu elder, a “child bride” connotes that a young girl is “temporarily married off to a Samburu warrior also known as Moran
“Upon a girl being beaded, which literally means being adorned with necklaces by a Moran. Her parents are required to build her a house where the Moran, usually a relative is allowed to engage in sexual activity with her,” says Lemantile.
Necklaces to bead potential girls cost about Ksh 10,000 (US $ 125) and are normally purchased in Nairobi. According Peter Ole Kamwaro, an elected civic leader in Isiolo, to cobble money to purchase the beads, Morans normally conduct raids in neighboring communities where they steal animals. The money are used to buy the colorful beads.
Parents consider the beading of their daughters by Morans as a sign of great respect. Beaded girls are at liberty to marry any other suitor because in most cases the girl and the Moran originate from the same clan and marriage. Therefore, marriage for them is forbidden.
Beads have great symbolism among Samburu women. Different colors signify different status. Engaged girls are adorned with red beads. Married ones wear mixed beads. White beads signify purity and health and the black beads symbolize hardship. While a combination of orange and yellow signify hospitality.
“Color differentiation allows a Moran to temporarily betroth a girl from the clan. However, when a girl is beaded she is barred from becoming pregnant because she is uncircumcised. Cultural mores of our community believes that uncircumcised women should not give birth,” reveals Lemantile.
According to Naisanyye Lepiranto, a women’s leader at Isiolo, a beaded girl who becomes pregnant is considered an outcast. They are often subjected to induced abortion using crude methods like pressing the womb with rough objects or knees and elbows. The practice often leads to severe complications for the women.
According to Maube Nabakwe, an official in charge of child welfare in Isiolo district, beading is against the Children’s Act of 2001. But he admitted that his office is not equipped to end the practice.
For Endeshani, life has so far been cruel. The tradition of beading has led to her becoming pregnant at such a young age. Her Moran has disappeared without a trace. Alone and living within a hostile community, she can only hope that the future will be more bright.