Lemaron: 'Most of the news items revolve around politics and crime... very little space is given to poverty eradication.'
Lemaron is 29 and runs a hair and beauty salon in Oloitokitok township. He has been disabled since he contracted polio at the age of three. After using a wheelchair for many years he underwent a series of operations and can now walk again: “I am on crutches and have calipers on my legs… ”
He says “my greatest enemy is not my disability but poverty,” and explains what he sees as major obstacles to reducing poverty in Oloitokitok: traditional customs and beliefs, poor infrastructure, and low self-esteem, leading people to “believe that being poor is God-given”. He also thinks that HIV and AIDS will “finish people…if they don’t change their behaviour”.
Having taken the initiative to set up his own business, he regrets the reluctance of many of his fellow Maasai to sell their cattle and invest in other forms of income generation. But he is pleased that they are using their culture to make inroads into the tourist industry and raising community funds by renting land to tourist lodges.
I was born in 1978 in a Maasai community… I went to school, although not to a very high level…
Right now I am a young man who is struggling in business. I have my own salon. I have learnt hairdressing and beauty therapy, although in the environment I am working in I don’t get much money due to the low number of people who can afford the services I offer – very few people here can afford a meal and [still] have an extra coin left for beauty.
Most people don’t understand me, due to the stereotype that hair dressing and beauty are only women’s business. People think that hairdressing for men is not right. I do get that problem, but I have managed to overcome it and prove that men can do hair dressing and beauty.
“I have accepted my disability”
My disability is a result of polio – where I came from, polio affected children so much. When I was affected I was three years old, and the community that I come from believed so much in culture and traditions – it hampered development. My parents are traditionalists and believed so much in Maasai culture… I was taken to many hospitals, but it was too late and the disability couldn’t be reversed.
I was taken to Kajiado childcare centre and underwent different operations by a doctor…who came from the UK. It was he who made me better… I was using a wheelchair before the operations, but now I am on crutches and have calipers on my legs, and I can stand in the way you can see.
My disability has not stopped me from doing anything! And you should take good note of this!… There are some people who are living with disability and they use it as an excuse for not even trying to be in business. These are the people you meet in the city begging, since they believe they can’t do anything for themselves.
I don’t believe disability is inability. I can declare to the whole community that I am capable of doing anything a normal person can do. In Oloitokitok I am the only young man who does salon work, and one might wonder how I am able to stand as I do my work, but I have managed to train myself, and I know what to do.
I would like to prove to the community that I am capable of doing anything a normal person can. I wish we could go together to my salon and you could witness me working… I have accepted my disability and I don’t live in denial, but life has to go on.
Recently I was to get married to a girl from my community, but my future in-laws looked at me not as a potential son-in-law, but as a disabled person who has nothing to offer. According to the tradition, they demanded so much [bride price] from me – as a means of discouraging me.
[But] I remained very firm and I told them I didn’t know why they were making such demands when I had proved to them that I was capable – I have livestock just like any other person. I don’t know whether they wanted an in-law who was very fat and able to walk; maybe this was their preferred person? But being fat and able-bodied is not important. What is very important is how intelligent one is. Even if someone is fat, we can’t slaughter him and make soup out of him. No! It will depend on how intelligent this person is and me, as a person living with disability, I am as intelligent as that preferred person.
I have been fighting against discrimination so much that it has become part and parcel of my life. In life human beings must love and be loved, [yet] human beings will always hurt one another and that is how we live. My wife-to-be told her parents that whatever the odds she will not stop loving me and she will get married to me with or without their consent.
Poverty: “my greatest enemy”
Discrimination is normal, but I don’t bother with those who discriminate [against] me. What I am working so hard to fight is poverty. I know if I was disabled and rich then I wouldn’t be facing as many challenges as I do… There are a lot of people here who are not disabled and I do better than them…my greatest enemy is not my disability but poverty.
Poverty manifests itself here in so many ways that if I was to describe them all we would fill so many tapes – poverty deprives you of all the things that you want in life.
Among the Maasai there is a saying that if a rich man who can’t articulate issues attends a baraza (community meeting), he is given a chance to address the people despite the fact that he knows nothing. But if a poor man who is conversant with issues and can articulate them well attends that same baraza he will be said to be stupid and unable to address issues because he is poor. Therefore the richer you are the more voice you have in the community.
As I told you the biggest enemy is poverty… What makes us live in this cycle of poverty is a lack of good foundations in life. Those people who are rich in Kenya – the biggest percentage – are those whose great grandparents left wealth and riches for them.
What makes Oloitokitok poor
[One] of the problems that contributes to poverty here in Oloitokitok…is traditional customs and beliefs. For example, the Maasai are pastoralist and they keep large herds of cattle. As a young person, if I make a request to sell off the cattle and invest in a modern salon, my community will not permit me… Then, after a while the drought comes and all the cattle die due to lack of pasture and water. The cattle will not have helped anybody…this [attitude] is contributing greatly to poverty.
Secondly, poverty is exacerbated by poor infrastructure, especially the very poor road network. Oloitokitok town is a border town with neighbouring Tanzania, but from Emali for about 400 km there is not one tarmac road. For a town to grow and business to prosper a good road network is important. It is very hard for somebody to travel from Nairobi to Oloitokitok like you did, unless you have a tremondously important task to do…
If the roads were good we would have guests visiting Oloitokitok to view Mount Kilimanjaro. Those people would require accommodation, food [and] transport…and would bring income to the community. But this is not the case.
“People have lost hope”
Thirdly, people here have lost hope of getting out of poverty. They believe that being poor is God-given. Everyday they wake up, they admit that they are poor and there is nothing they can do. People have written themselves off…in their own words, saying, ‘Me? I can’t [do anything], I am poor, I must be assisted.’ People idle around, looking for help from other people all in the name of ‘I am poor, help me.’ People are doing very little or even nothing to fight poverty here in Oloitokitok since they have lost hope…
It is not just [Maasai] traditional beliefs or customs [which cause this] because among other tribes – Kikuyu, Kamba, Luo and many others – there are people who have lost hope in life…[and] believe poverty is their way of life and nothing can change. It is lack of self-esteem, which is very different…
In my personal view I see those three things – traditional customs, poor infrastructure, lack of self-esteem – as the major contributory factors to poverty here. Oloitokitok, my brother, is a good place. If we could deal with those three things development could be realised so fast, we could eradicate poverty with much ease.
Nomadism defeats drought
[Does being nomadic contribute to poverty?] This is a very important question… God gave us Maasai a bit of knowledge which we use to survive. That is, [if] in one area there is no pasture and water for our livestock we move to other places in search of them… [When] the problem of drought is facing other communities, people remain in the same area…you can’t move with your maize plantation in the event of drought, so you continue suffering.
As an illustration, most of the Maasai have moved as far as Tanzania at the moment in search of pasture – among the Maasai in Kenya and those in Tanzania there are no boundaries since we are the same community. The nomadic lifestyle is what has kept our community [going]. Without it we would have died from drought, many years ago.
Group ranches and tourism
In Oloitokitok, [the land is] divided into two parts: the upper belt where the community graze livestock, and the lower belt where farming takes place. In the lower belt there are very few Maasai, since they are not farmers. As farming expands, the Maasai move further and further with their livestock… [although some of the] Maasai community have started farming instead of depending on livestock alone…
The group ranches [which manage the land communally] are benefiting the community in a big way… In Oloitokitok, on one side there is Tsavo West National Park and on the other side there is Amboseli National Park, so the group ranches are like corridors for wild animals crossing from one park to the other.
The Maasai have co-existed with the wild animals for very many years. We do not eat wild animals [but] we get our income from those group ranches. The communities have sub-rented part of the land to investors to build lodges, and in these lodges the tourists who come to see the wild animals spend their money and so bring in income.
The money paid by the lodges to the group ranches is used to provide bursaries for bright children in school and for building health centres. The same lodges create employment for local communities and also act as a market place for the Maasai artifacts that are sold to tourists and other visitors.
“My second enemy is HIV and AIDS”
Public health here in Oloitokitok is very poor – firstly, due to ignorance among the community. The Ministry of Health insists that one should sleep under a treated mosquito net to curb malaria, but the community doesn’t stick to this [advice]… Secondly, prevalence of waterborne disease is high. People use water from anywhere without treatment or even boiling it. So, most of the diseases are caused by ignorance, poor hygiene and lack of sanitation…
I told you [earlier that] my first enemy is poverty; my second enemy is HIV and AIDS. I don’t know what to say! HIV and AIDS has come to finish people off and it will do so if they don’t change their behaviour. HIV and AIDS for now has no cure, so to prevent it first [there] is abstinence and secondly the use of a condom….We have VCT (voluntary counselling and testing) centres here in the general hospital and at Mbirikani. For those who are tested and found positive, free ARVs (antiretroviral; combination drug treatment) are provided.
The young Morans (male Maasai ‘warriors’) share girlfriends and this is one way that [the disease is] spread…. However, it is a misconception that we go to the extent of sharing our wives.…. At the moment I am a Moran and in our age group there are certain things that we do. If I visit a homestead, the first question they will ask me before giving me accommodation is what age group I am. If I am a Moran then they will show me a manyatta (Maasai homestead) for my age mates, even if the man who lives there is not in the house.
The little hut you see is very spacious and there are two beds — we the Maasai, we do not share beds with our wives, so there is a bed for the husband and a bed for the wife. A male visitor will actually sleep where the husband sleeps and it will depend on the morals of the visitor and the wife whether or not to have sex. The only thing that we share are girls who are not married, and as I said, this spreads HIV.
“Media houses are too commercial”
If there is something that I like more than anything else in Kenya it is news from newspapers and radios. Most of the homes at least have radios and they listen to the news. The biggest problem is that newspapers get here a day late. For example, today we are reading yesterday’s newspaper – this is caused by the poor road I talked about.
The problem in Kenya is with the reporting – the way reporters write their stories. You will find that a story is given so much emphasis in order to cause fear, rather than give remedies for a problem. Most of the news items revolve around politics and crime in this country; very little space is given to the poverty eradication that communities are involved in. The media houses are too commercial and social wellbeing is not given preference.
“We are using culture to generate income”
I have started a small business as a means of fighting poverty… This year the business is better than last year and at least I get some money… I don’t waste time if an opportunity arises. Just like in football, once you get a pass you must make it a goal very fast. So the little [money] I have made, I will use wisely…
We have electricity here in Oloitokitok town, but in the villages we don’t. In most cases electricity is not required in the villages, it is only in urban centres for the purpose of business that it is required. Electricity is very expensive and we can’t afford to pay for it… For instance, in my little salon I pay about 1,900 shillings per month – that amount is not what I make on a monthly basis…
There are those who are using culture as a means of generating income. The local people have started building their own lodges to compete with those owned by other investors.
More people have become enlightened about the importance of going to school, not like some years back – although there are those still who do not go to school. It is very difficult to change our culture, although we are embracing modernisation and using culture to generate income…
“We are left out of all the government interventions”
The only active group in which I participate is the one for people living with disability. We fundraise and buy wheelchairs and artificial legs… There are so many groups, although I have not yet benefited from them financially. I overheard people saying that there were forms from the Social Development Officers that young people are supposed to fill in…they must be in groups of up to 12. Each group will receive 50,000 shillings only. I was wondering what project someone can start with 50,000 shillings – although it’s better than nothing.
There are all those development funds like the Constituency Development Fund, but I think there should be a development fund specially for people living with disability. In the entire legal framework that governs those different development funds [and interventions] there are women representatives, youth representatives, and the provincial administration, but there is no representative for people living with disability – we are left out of all the government interventions. Are we not Kenyan?
[At least] we trust the current government compared to the previous one, when about 17 million shillings were raised to assist people with disability – but to date we have never seen the money.
“Ways of eradicting poverty”
Despite the fact that I feel I am poor, I don’t feel like I am the poorest, since every day I am fighting poverty and encouraging myself to get out of it… I would say the poorest person is one…who is mentally ill. These people cannot do anything for themselves… If it’s possible, those people should be…trained and counselled.
Training on…ways of eradicating poverty can assist [everyone] to change their way of thinking… For me, the three things we talked about [are crucial]: good infrastructure, change in rigid cultural beliefs…that do not embrace development but hold back the community…and behaviourial change to raise self-esteem.
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.