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Deborah: widows have rights

Deborah: 'People without education suffer violation of their rights.'

Deborah is a Maasai widow in her 50s with eight children. She inherited her late husband’s share of the land on their group ranch but her existence is precarious. As well as growing food on her own shamba, she works on other people’s smallholdings.

She believes people need to leave behind “backward culture that impedes development” and is concerned that some traditional Maasai practices such as female circumcision and early marriage continue despite the church’s efforts to educate people on such issues. HIV and AIDS are “burning the world like fire”.

She calls for better roads and cheaper secondary education. The poor should be involved in all development projects, she says, and widows and orphans need particular assistance. She is pleased that her part of Oloitokitok has piped water, more doctors than before and a savings group, and that women can now engage in business without being accused by men of prostitution.

My father is a traditional Maasai. According to Maasai beliefs children go to the fields to graze goats and cows, and the girl child is married off while very young and does not get the opportunity to go to school… I was not able to go to school, I am a poor Maasai and I am not even well conversant with Kiswahili.

I have learnt a little Swahili from the schoolgoing children… I have only a radio which I listen to, I cannot read the newspaper and therefore I depend on this radio.

My older children are not educated because of our Maasai culture. Now we have realised that we shall lag behind due to lack of education, and that is why I sent my little ones to school… It is just a short while ago that we realised that education is the key, that it is essential to our lives. People without education suffer violation of their rights and are perceived to be the wretched of the earth.

“Casual labour is very hard”

I have eight children. I wake in the morning, I go to the shamba (farm) till noon. I go home to prepare food and then go back to the shamba. Sometimes I go for casual labour elsewhere and then later go back home to do all those little jobs… I go to work on someone else’s shamba, to weed among the beans and maize to earn some money.

I work for about five days after which I experience lots of fatigue and I go back to work on my own shamba after taking some rest. Casual labour is very hard. However, it’s better than being idle and earning nothing… We are paid about 100 shillings per day which we use to buy food like a little flour, and soap…

“All the household problems are mine”

The first problem [I have] is school-age children. Sometimes there is no money for school fees… [We need] a reduction in the secondary school fees that we pay – perhaps it could be made free. Right now schoolchildren have many needs, not only school fees, but uniforms, pens, books and many other things…

The second problem [I have] is that I don’t have a husband, my husband died a while ago and all the household problems are mine and there is no other person who can help me…

The other problem is that of food… My shamba is only one acre and that’s where I live and grow food crops…sometimes the maize crop dies due to lack of rainfall, and access to seedlings is very difficult…

The road linking Oloitokitok and other major towns all the way [to Tanzania] is in a very bad condition. Even those people who farm here, there is no way their produce can reach the market at the right time. People are selling their produce at throwaway prices…

[We need] improvement in road infrastructure, linking farm areas and trading centres with Nairobi to facilitate sale of our farm produce at a fair price.

Group ranches
I am [a group ranch member]…together with my sons. [Women’s membership] started the other day, when young people took over the leadership of these ranches. There are other group ranches that cluster owners into groups of five so that they can be registered; that’s how they have used this opportunity to [bring in] their spouses and children so as to retain the required number of five members…

My late husband was a member of one of those group ranches. There was no doubt about my inheriting his share because already the young men members have been converted to [the system of] their spouses inheriting their shares once they die…

I am the first woman to take my children to school and have benefited [from the system] in various ways. My children benefit from 5,000 shillings from the group ranches, given as a bursary.

Health care

This year the situation is good, unlike the other years; people are not dying in large numbers. I have witnessed [this change] with my own eyes… In previous years there were few or no doctors at all, but now they are there…

However, we must travel some distance, it would be better if we had health facilities in our villages… To reach the nearest hospital, you must travel up here to Oloitokitok General Hospital… [We also need more] health care facilities here in Oloitokitok town because right now the cost of treatment in private dispensaries is prohibitive…

[And] here there is a big problem of HIV and AIDS. This AIDS I am hearing about has no cure and now it is consuming people. It will completely finish off these people who are getting sick… AIDS is burning the world like fire… People have been sensitised on this scourge but they don’t listen…

“Women now engage in business”

Today the Maasai are on a development course, unlike before; women now engage in business, moving around markets, making dresses and sanga (necklaces made from beads). Our men used to say that we were engaged in prostitution [if we went out], and that made women stay at home, taking care of the homestead.

Now things are different and men have realised a way of empowering women within the family by letting them engage in business. Putting their resentment aside, they have realised that it is not earthly pleasure that has driven women into open society, but activities that can assist their families.

Things [such as female circumcision] are still there for those who don’t know development and neither do they know God. The church is trying to educate people on the issue of early marriage but there are still those who continue to cling to the culture. These things are not good at all… The community should be educated about backward culture that impedes development…

Where I am staying now there is no domestic water problem. We have piped water and when there is no such water we go to the river which is not far away – although there are some areas where the problem of water supply is huge and women have to walk the whole day long looking for water for cooking and drinking.

“Widows and orphans…have rights”

Widow and orphans – even if they are members of group ranches, and due to lack of capacity and money are not in a strong enough position to migrate from time to time – should perhaps be allocated land by the government. [This should be] land that they will settle on without being treated as if they were not Kenyans. Widows and orphans are also human beings and they are Kenyans and they have rights like other people. It is just that they are disadvantaged.

All projects have leaders and women are not very much involved in development projects… I just hear about those [development] funds. I don’t have information about such funds and how they are used, it’s just hearsay…

We poor people [need] to be involved in all development projects so that the rich do not appropriate our space… [And we need] increased food relief in time of famine and drought so as to prevent the disadvantaged from dying of hunger.

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.


Deborah: widows have rights 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