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Helen: poverty of war

Helen: 'Now if we had water, there wouldn't be a problem - one would farm, and sell the produce, and get money to pay school fees.'

For 28-year-old Helen, education is a major concern. Three of her four children go to school but there are not enough teachers, and parents have to help pay for additional staff. A Maasai, she lives in Kimana village, Oloitokitok district, and grows maize. But her yields are low and there is no surplus to sell, mainly because of “poverty of water”.

She belongs to a residents’ association, a church-based group and a micro-credit group enabling women to buy and sell goods in the local market. “We help each other,” she says, “…There is no help from the government.”

Helen describes the social impact of the church, which is working to change attitudes towards sexual relationships and early marriage. But she is not convinced that people are changing their behaviour in the light of knowledge about HIV and AIDS: “people are told but they do not listen”.

I am 28 years old. I am married and I have four children – one girl and three boys… I was born just here in Kimana… I went to secondary school, then I got pregnant and stopped. I dropped out in Form 2… I had the child and then said I will not continue school, and the man said he did not want me to go on – he wanted to marry me.

“I am a farmer through and through”

I am a maize farmer, my husband works with an NGO. I am a farmer through and through. Now we are getting maize that God has helped to grow. But you are forced to work hard… If there is rain my food supply will continue…

This maize helps me, I am farming more and more, and if someone does not have any, I bless them with [some maize] because life is hard… If you do not have your own farm it is hard. This farm is small, because now our home has many boys. If I could get another place, I would thank God…

I cannot sell [my harvest]. If [you produce] five or seven sacks of maize, that is when you can sell it. But this one sack, it would be like giving people hunger!

If you do not have money you go and labour for someone else. If you fetch water for three hours, that is 300 shillings… So life depends on you, on how you have decided to live.

“We have a water problem”

You have to buy water or you have to draw water yourself… We get water from far away, because if you are getting it from up there at Chemichemi springs…everyone is at that place… It is just a ditch and that ditch used by all the people in this area. Everyone has to form a line and it takes many hours…

If you do not have water, you have to pay 300 shillings and that represents school fees, so we have a water problem. There are those people who have dug wells and there are those who have taps, so it depends on your ability [to pay]… If you have money, about 10,000 shillings, you can connect pipes to your house.

The tap water comes on in one area at a time. For example, it may be available in the part with the hospital, but there is none this side [of Kimana] – but we understand… I have neighbours whom God has helped and they have tap water and also pumped water. They sell it. One container is 2 shillings. You are forced to buy it – if you do not want the water from the ditch you have to buy it.

“On Wednesday I go to market”
My day? Now… you know Sunday is when you are supposed to do all your personal things. On Monday I wake up in the morning at around 5am to make breakfast, because using thermos flasks make women lazy – you just sleep on and tell the child to put the tea in the flask and drink it. [It’s important] to wake up and cook for your children and make sure they have gone to school…

On Wednesday I go to the market. You cannot be there without being in a women’s group and that also requires money… I go to buy and sell things; other times I make tea at home and go and sell it to the women in the group. When we meet together like that, we plan what we are going to do…

There are business people who sell all kinds of things. Now if you go in the morning you can buy a 2 kilo packet and you sell it later for 20 shillings. You fill it completely [with produce, but] when you work it out, you find that your profit – that 20 shillings – is not really anything. [But if] you can sell it for 30 shillings…then you will come back from there with some money.

Now if I do not have money at home I go to the neighbours and I borrow sugar and tea leaves, and then I return them later. If I sell things at the market I get money for everyone and I pay them back. Then [my husband] is thankful. When you do that for a man he brightens up – he feels that he has achieved something. He also helps when he has money. When he does not bring money home, [it means] he does not have any…

Thursday is for the farm, and [when] the animals have gone to graze, when it gets to 9am, you go back home and continue with your household chores… On Thursdays there are also the cooperatives at 2pm. You have already left the farm [by then] and you know what you have done, you know that your children are clean and you have collected the water. Friday, like Thursday, is spent on the farm, working on the maize. You know that after you cut maize you have to let it dry…

“You need to be a provider”
On Saturday, I wake up and go to the farm [as well]. There is no day that can go by when you do not go to the farm – even if it is for just one hour you will do some good work. On Saturdays, you also do the laundry, sweep, and wash the dishes.

Sunday is a day of regular sermons. Now there are also women in the church and every two months we have a seminar… You cannot stay [in the church] without trying to earn some money because even in church you need to make an offering. Now, where will you get that offering from? You need to be a provider, because there are so many things that depend on the mother.

Women’s groups: “we help each other”
I am in three women’s groups… The first thing is that we help each other and are concerned with each other. There was a time when we were promised that we would be helped: we were told to elect leaders, we were told to register the group. We did that but since then those people have never come back – we were wondering if it was a political plot or something. Now it has gone quiet. We have never – right up to today – seen anything [result from registration].

But among ourselves, from day to day, we help each other. If I get a problem or another group member gets a problem we have got to help each other. There is no help from the government…

The first group, we call it the residents’ association, and that is for helping [our families] in times of need… There is another one that has come up in the church, for all the worshippers. Through that we visit each other. If you see that your sister has problems you go and visit her.

There is another group…for the market. There are 10 people and we all give 100 shillings every Saturday so there is 1,000 shillings altogether. Now when [it is your turn to be] given that money it is up to you to sort yourself out. That is how we help each other.

My first boy is in Standard 3 [of primary school], the second one is in Standard 2 and the other one is in a private nursery. Now the last one is still at home, she is seven months old. The first one, I was taking him to a private school and then the fees increased too much. It forced me to move him. The other one stayed there and when he got to Standard 2 I moved him too. Now the third one, who is four years and three months, is the one that is in the private school.

The problem is the cost [of education] for these children is high. I see that they should go to school, but the problem with the government school is that it has very many children and it is far away. Also there are [not enough] teachers, so we are forced to contribute 50 shillings every month to employ them…the headmaster said that there is a need for about 10 more teachers who have not come from the government. That is why we had to hire them…

Now you see for the child that is in the private nursery, I pay 700 shillings every month. But the ones that left the private schools and went to the [government] school, they are not doing as well as they were doing before. But it is good as long as the children get an education.

I do not want my children to suffer. In this area all the children are in school and we are happy that the president revived free [primary] education. Now the chief of this area will take steps to see that there are no children that are staying at home. Now it is essential that you take your children to school. So the chief has contributed a lot: he calls meetings and tells people what they should do.

Changing customs
I would have finished my education, but…I was forced to leave school and get married. You see, here traditions and customs are followed. Here it is not known who your husband is, because everyone is your husband as long as he is in the same age group as your husband…

It is good that that custom is on the decline because it was really increasing diseases. Many have been harmed and have got those diseases that cannot be healed. The church has helped to educate people through seminars…

Not all [the Maasai] agree that girls should be circumcised…now there are many girls that have not been circumcised and they live well, get married and start having children… These days girls even take care of the house, they build homes. [It is not] like in the past when it was only the males that were supposed to go to school.

HIV and AIDS: “People are told but they do not listen”
In this area there are many people that have HIV, but now they are being helped by medicine. But there are many people that go and [later] stop taking the medicine. The problem is, they go and are given the medicine and when they see that they are getting better, the women go and look for men – and the men look for women…

Doctors come and talk to us about those [diseases] – people are told but they do not listen. All those things about AIDS we are told, even in church… There are children that have been left by their parents and they have problems… Here the government does not know how to educate us about these things, but there is a person that I know who has completely dedicated himself to this and he is the one that educates us. He is a preacher that has volunteered to help people in this area and to give them education…

[Getting tested is not common]; there are no people to emphasise its importance. Maybe pregnant women go – they have to be tested. We also have a maternity unit that helps. There are many who are being tested there…

“Doctors are few”
[Some women give birth at home.] If I have not gone to the hospital and if I see that there is no problem – I am not even in pain – there are women who come and help me. They see us before we give birth, and if she sees that you have a problem she tells you early on to go to hospital. If it is your first child the [doctors] do not like those women attending to you; they tell you to give birth in the hospital…

Here there is only one hospital, and doctors are also few – and if you look at this area it has many people. You will find that there is one doctor to write and the other one is administering the injections… Those two men are very hardworking… If they open at 8am they are forced to close at 6pm because there are so many people… However, there are also people who use traditional medicines, and even we see that traditional medicines are better – they really help.

“Poverty of water”
Now if we had water, there wouldn’t be a problem – one would farm, and sell the produce, and get money to pay school fees. Now it is a problem: will you pay the fees or will you buy water? Some [children] are forced to stay at home…

Poverty of water – that is the big thing in our area… Here life is hard, my sister. We have a lot of problems but we pray… Every Sunday we come together.

I am expecting a lot [this year], but now I am very happy because God has kept me whole. I pray to God to help us with rain so we can be successful and leave this poverty behind. And…we pray the education will go on being free.

This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.


Helen: poverty of war is produced as part of the Living with poverty: Kenya oral testimony project.


Alice: sleeping hungry

Deborah: widows have rights

Elias: cultural change

George: no jobs

Helen: poverty of war

Joseph: keeping optimistic

Lemaron: challenging discrimination

Martha: battling corruption

Mary: life of struggle

Mercy: completely forgotten

Nyiva: cardboard homes

Peter: search for work

Key themes






Self-help initiatives

Sanitation and health

Political representation


Crime and unrest



Homelessness and insecurity

Pastoralism and agriculture