KENYA: Climate Change, Poverty and Tourists put Maasai Daughters at Risk

Kenyan correspondent Charles Njeru – WNN Features

A rise in human trafficking points to more than one cause


A Maasai tribal girl studies at a school near Narok, Kenya. World Concern, an international relief organisation, provides opportunities for education in an area without other schools. It’s a big deal culturally for girls to have a chance to learn. Image: Derek Sciba / World Concern via

Nairobi: Lack of adequate education, extreme poverty and the encroaching fallout of climate change is now forcing Masaai parents in the Mar region of Kenya, Africa to ‘sell off’ their young underage daughters to a group of human traffickers who are posing as white foreign tourists.

Problems relating to extreme poverty are not new to the Maasai. As the incidence of human trafficking rises and sex tourists flock to Kenya, frustration, fear and distrust among Maasai communities is also rising.

“Human trafficking is a serious problem in Kenya,” says a recent 2010 IOM – International Organisation for Migration factsheet.  “Kenya has been recognized as a country of origin, destination and transit as well as a place for domestic trafficking. Women, men, girls and boys have been identified to be trafficked in Kenya, although most cases identified to date involve children, especially in cases of domestic trafficking.”

Tourists who come to the region with intentions to market the work labour of Maasai girls, whether for domestic work; street vending; factory or sex slavery are now entering the country outside the radar of most standard reporting agencies.

“Victims are trafficked mainly for sexual exploitation and domestic labour but also for agriculture work, factory work and street work,” continues the report. “Victims from neighbouring countries have been identified in Kenya and Kenyan victims have been identified in Europe, South Africa, the Gulf States and North America.”

Some traffickers who are entering the Mara region come into Kenya as standard ‘tourists’ saying they are there to visit the nearby Masaai Mara National Park and view wildlife in the world renowned park. But the travel cover is a farce. For those who may not want to stay in high class hotels inside the Mara Game Reserve, they end up choosing lodges in Kajiado and Narok Townships where they interact freely without sanction from the communities there.

“They are usually friendly and they shower us many times with some small pocket money,” says Hezbon Sarpur, a member of Narok Township, as he describes the general parade of tourists who come to the area legitimately and non-legitimately.

Climate Change Impacts

Gáldu – Known as The Resource Centre for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples works from its base in Norway, specifically for the indigenous rights of the Maasai, especially its women.

“The Maasai historically have not worked outside their communities,” says Gáldu in a August 2008 report. “They have eschewed a Western style, currency-based economy, opting instead for a life based on nomadic pastoralism. Cattle are the central component of the society. But because of climate change, things are changing in the Maasai lands.”

As climate change intensifies, the impact for families to find food brings desperate measures. Families are now seeking any solution to survive. The selling of daughters into slave markets is one of the solutions causing young women and girls to be swept away by what many guess are modern slave traders.

“In the past few years alone, because of droughts, we have seen a huge number of economic refugees targeted by human traffickers with a promise of better life elsewhere,” said Mr Abdullahi Hirsi, Executive Director of Northern Heritage, a local aid agency in Garissa. “A spot-check in Garissa, Wajir and Mandera shows that illegal business is conducted daily with final arrangements done in Nairobi,” he added.

For decades human trafficking in Nairobi has been relatively ignored. Only within the last ten years has attention to this growing plight been given more notice. Political strife in Kenya, added to climate change stress on the economy, has made the area an easy target for international crime cartels.

“They even give us lots more money ($2000 Kenyan Shillings, which equals approx $27 USD) for them to take our daughters, nieces, cousins, and younger sisters for a ‘better life’ for the girls,” continued Sarpur, explaining the selling of girls.

Some of the Kajiado residents do not see anything wrong in the selling off of young girls to foreigners, despite being warned and advised by a few fellow residents. They blame poverty in the area, saying conditions are very extreme. But this doesn’t excuse the disappearance of young girls.

“Several young have disappeared with no trace and lack of communication since last year,” added Hezbon. “As a community we are now very worried.”

Like other areas around the globe sex tourism in Africa, specifically in the regions of Kenya, is now rising.

Land Grabs, Tourists and Human Trafficking

Poverty levels, which have been at its lowest ebb, are now lowering even faster for Maasai communities who live in the Mara region. Due to the fall-out of change to the region, problems have reached epic proportions. Seven years of climate change has been a precursor to increased hardships.

Impacts of climate change also affect the “legitimate” international tourist trade, a main source of bringing money into the region. With worsening weather conditions and disappearing animal populations, including a wide array of birds, some 380 bird species in all, bird species and other wildlife in the region are now showing impacts in the Mara Game Reserve, which surrounds Lake Manyara National Park.

“It is likely that changes in climate as well as change in the lake level and hydrological conditions may alter both migration patterns and other wildlife dependent on the lake,” says a detailed report from the University of East Anglia (UK).

But wildlife are not the only ones who are facing serious impact. Changes in food sources, due to the deaths of numerous cattle and goats in the region, are forcing Maasai families to seek more work outside the region. This opens the door to traffickers who also encourage families, and their daughters, to seek what they describe as “good paying jobs” in other regions.

“Human trafficking is a growing problem in Kenya,” said Millie Odhiambo, director of The CRADLE – The Children’s Foundation, which works daily to secure rights for children in Kenya.  “Due to the secret and criminal nature of trafficking,” continued Odhiambo, “its extent and magnitude is largely unknown. There is however anecdotal and some empirical evidence that shows human trafficking could be more rampant in Kenya than earlier thought.”

In spite of much harder conditions for locals, some residents in the area are reporting that a number of foreign “tourists” are deciding to settle down in Kenya, as they buy land from Maasai community members for as little as $250 KES – Kenyan Shillings (approx $3.24 USD) per acre.

“During the colonial period, the pastoral Maasai were forcibly removed from large areas of their land to allow room for European and Indian farmers and plantations,” says a current report from the CIDCM – Center for International Development and Conflict Management, an interdisciplinary research center from the University of Maryland (US).

The story of Maasai opportunists taking advantage of land grab deals is still an big issue today. Acts like these continue to increase the level of distrust and extreme poverty in the Kenya, especially for the rural regions of the Maasai.

Many Families Hinder Education for Maasai Girls

Obstacles for Maasai girls, within the context of extreme poverty, include common acts denial, for them and their families, in spite of the family’s wishes to receive some education. Often families cannot afford the costs that come with educating a child, especially a daughter. Costs, including school uniforms and books, often make school an impossibility.

With a severe lack of schools in rural areas, girls, if they are allowed to attend, often have to walk over 15 plus miles round trip each day to attend school. “Many girls are denied an education solely because of parental concerns for their safety during these long walks,” says Maasai Girls Education Fund.

Now more than ever, fathers feel increased pressures to feed their family, as they also insist their daughters must marry at increasing early ages in order for the girls family to gain money from a dowry. Marriage also relieves the father of any further debt in caring for his daughter(s) as she becomes part of her husband’s family upon marriage. The obligations of early marriage often also prevent girls from attending any classes.

Expectations by families toward girls for early child marriage and experiences for girls in what is locally known as ‘female circumcision,’ a term which is known today in global circles as FGM – female genital mutilation, add much to the hardships many girls must face at an early age. Even though Kenya has outlawed FGM, the practice continues.

With so many limitations placed on girls, along with the costs associated with raising them, it is no surprise that some girls are being given or sold to strangers in the region at very early ages.

“After one sells his land they (the family) have nowhere to sleep,” explains Hezbon Sarpur. “The fathers and other relatives then begin to negotiate with the traffickers. How does one negotiate with a stranger for a child or niece to be taken somewhere for a better life?” asks Sarpur.

In what has been quoted as, “the worst drought in the area in more than 70 years,” elderly residents from Enkaroni in the Narok District of Southern Kenya, just a few miles away from Nairobi, say they have not experienced any rain for quite some time. The drought has now lasted almost past the point of nature’s ability to return.

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