KEN180402TO005SAMBURU, Kenya – As she sat outside her hut making jewellery to sell to tourists, 9-year-old Joyce Lempeei pleaded with well-wishers to rescue her from an early marriage that she said her parents arranged without her consent.

“It pains me a lot,” said Lempeei as she broke down in tears. “I want someone to help me move out of this marriage so that I can go back to school.”

Lempeei’s husband “beaded” her when she he was 20 and she was seven years old. He placed traditional beads around her neck, declaring his possession of her, and gave her family a dowry of cattle, goats and sheep to her parents.

They were married against her will in early 2017.

Beading in the Samburu tribe of northern Kenya is a form of enslavement that allows sex between family members or people from other families. Girls as young as six can be beaded by the warriors. The ritual lets the men engage in sexual intercourse with young girls even when they do not intend to marry them.

“The culture prepares these young girls for marriage in the future,” said Erick Lengolos, an elder in the community. “But we do not allow these young girls to get pregnant. In case of pregnancy we advise them to abort because we consider the baby as an outcast, being born as a result of people of the same family sleeping together.”

In Lempeei’s case, Lengolos said she was lucky because the warrior who placed red beads on her neck was from a different family. He went ahead and married her unlike other young girls who are abandoned by warriors because they come from the same family.

Lempeei is one among thousands of Samburu girls living here in the dry heartland of northern Kenya around 350 miles from Nairobi.

A few miles from Lempeei’s home, Agnes Lenjagu, another another victim of beading, said a close family relative approached her parents in 2016 with red Samburu beads and placed the necklace around her neck.

A few months later, she was pregnant and aborted the baby taking poisonous herbs, as access to health care is minimal in the region.
The warrior abandoned her and married another girl from a different family, she said.

“I felt very bad because my parents allowed it to happen,” said Lenjagu, who is now 13. “My mother built a hut for us where we used to sleep with the warrior. I was not allowed to go back to school, and later the (warrior) went ahead and got another lady, leaving me alone.”

Child beading is a major cultural practice found in the Samburu community. But now religious leaders are battling to end the menace.

Last month, Father Francis Limo Riwa, a priest of the Diocese of Meru in northern Kenya, rescued a Samburu girl from an early marriage after he negotiated with elders to return the dowry the man had given the girl’s parents. The dowry was eight cows and $500.

The girl, Lilian Nabaru, was married when she was 12 years old in 2015 to a 50 year old man called Tutten Lenewalubene. She was his fourth wife. Though the old man allowed Nabaru to continue with her education, the girl had to spend the school holiday in her matrimonial home with the man.

“I didn’t know the girl was married,” said the bearded priest who founded several schools in northern Kenya to help orphans and poor nomadic children access education. “I confronted the older man and told him that he had two options: either to release the girl or allow us to call the police and begin prosecution.”

Lenewalubene finally agreed to set the girl free from marriage but demanded his cows and money back. Father Riwa said the girl would continue with her education and called upon the elders to disband the culture and allow girls to go to school.

“I want to urge the government to sensitize the community on basic rights and elders to allow girls to access education,” said Riwa, who said he has rescued hundreds of other “beaded” girls in the region. “We’ll continue to save other girls against this brutal act that denies them basic rights.”

Local leaders had no comment about the plight of Samburu girls. But observers said the politicians in the region are afraid to go against the elders will because they fear being rejected at the poll come elections.

“They can’t do more about the issue. It’s our culture and they embrace it,” said Lengolos, the elder. “Our leaders in the government and political office got their wives the same we are doing right now. How can they fight the culture that gave them wives?”

Meanwhile, Lempeei is waiting for help. She needs to go back to school and achieve her dream of becoming a teacher. But anyone who is willing to save the girl will have to pay back dowry, said elders.

“I can’t help myself. I will be disobeying my parents,” she said. “But I want to go school and still be a small girl.”

Photo: A young girl in Samburu makes bead jewelry. Many here practice female genital mutilation. But traditionalists from neighboring Uganda have now shifted to circumcising married women due to the strict government laws.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network Inc. (06/13/18)

Story/photo published date: 09/11/18

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service.