Women Business Owners in Turkana (story and gallery)

By Marina Liao

LODWAR, Kenya- The dirt roads teemed with goats and children and motorcycles. Male merchants beckoned shoppers to stop and purchase passion fruit and cheap, Chinese textiles. Away from the main road, six women sat idly before a clay-colored building with “Lodwar’s Main Butchery” written on the wall in faded green paint. A soft-spoken, elderly woman stood up and entered the shack, which was lit only by the sunlight that fell through the mesh-covered windows.

“The men used to do the work,” said Arot, the co-owner of this butcher shop. “But now we have to provide the food. People in Lodwar depend on us to sell them the meat.”

The growth of small businesses owned by women in Turkana is a fairly new phenomenon.

Traditionally, the responsibilities of a Turkana woman were limited to the homestead: fetching water, tending to the children, and doing the cooking and cleaning. But in this remote corner of Kenya’s northern desert, an increasing number of women are breaking cultural barriers to become financially independent.

“Five or six of us have husbands who cannot support us,” said one of the younger female butchers, Amoni. “We work because we need to. I am proud to stand on my own feet.”

As the afternoon wore on, the butchery grew busy. Unfazed by the flies that swarmed around the raw intestines and her hands, Arot, along with nine other women, slaughtered and sold goat meat.

Aside from ambition, experts say the simple economics of survival in a drought-stricken area is pushing women to abandon their traditional roles.

“With drought, you can no longer rely on your animals. You have to diversify and find other ways to make money,” said Eugenie Reidy, a program specialist for UNICEF who has been researching the Turkana people for the last four years. “Women are the most nimble and flexible. They can sell firewood alongside the road, burn and sell charcoal, or sell baskets.”

To further promote a woman’s financial independence, Oxfam, a non-governmental aid organization, started a cash transfer program targeting Turkana women. According to a report by Dr. Jeremy Lind, a development geographer researching pastoralist culture in northern Kenya, 94 percent of those who registered for the program were women. As a result the women gained a foothold in productivity and greater economic control over their households, where traditionally men have dominated.

A small number of Turkana women – through education and willpower – have even started businesses for the pleasure of working. “The wives who sit at home, they are lazy,” said Naliaka, co-owner of “Echwaa Enterprisse,” a small convenience store in the provincial town. “They are waiting to be given something. Women should be more active.”

Still, the cost and opportunity of training, and the ability to turn a profit, remain a challenge for aspiring female entrepreneurs in Turkana. Many do not go beyond learning the craft of basket weaving, known locally as ‘kiyondo’, or making handmade beaded bracelets.

“Some days I sell my kiyondo and I am very happy,” said Nachodo, a basket weaver from Eliye Springs, a village on the western shore of Lake Turkana. “But there are days when no one buys them and my baskets just rot.” Nachodo said she makes baskets because she does not know how to do anything else.

On a recent winter morning, as her expert hands turned the dried palm fronds into teal and orange baskets and bowls, she said she would try to sell her baskets at a market near the shore where tourists go to barter for woven goods. Her back-up plan involved walking through the thorny desert for two days to Lodwar, leaving her children and elderly mother behind.

“Nowadays life is hard,” said Arot, co-owner of Lodwar’s Main Butchery. Still, capitalism continues to encroach, giving some women a chance at independence.

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