[BLOG] Special Youth Series: Why the Maasai Mara Rivers Run Red
By Meshack Ian Acholla
When we mention the Maasai Mara in Kenya, we visualize a place with epic landscape and serene atmosphere. For those who have been there, it is a phenomenal life experience and indeed an unforgettable memory. Yet for the Maasai people, the plains and its narrow rivers are part of their everyday life. But there is significance to these small rivers. Though they are not deep, they pose a big health risk to adolescent girls—though not in the way you’d expect.
To better understand this significance, we must understand a wider, seemingly unrelated, context: sexual health. Adolescent girls and boys in Kenya comprise 51% of all new HIV infections across the country, according to reports by the National Aids Control Council in Kenya. These reports also determined that HIV prevalence rate is higher among adolescent girls than boys, validating the theory that—hypothetically—adolescent girls in Kenya may be engaging in cross-generational sex with older men.
Teenage pregnancy is a major sexual and reproductive health challenge for many adolescent girls in Kenya. The national teenage pregnancy rate in Kenya is at 18% for girls between 15-19 years of age. A shocking statistic from where these Mara rivers flow is that 4 out of every 10 girls age between 15-19 years have begun child bearing, making it the worst affected by early pregnancy in the country. Culture significantly contributes to the high rise of teenage pregnancy, as the community around the Mara still perpetuates the practice of child marriage.
Efforts to introduce comprehensive sexuality education in part of the national education curriculum has been adamantly fought by community elders and religious leaders. As a result, knowledge levels on HIV/AIDS and sexual and reproductive health and rights among adolescents and young people between the ages of 10 and 24 remain low. Teachers and parents tend to shy away from meaningful conversations about these subjects with their children, which contributes to the young people’s lack of knowledge on critical issues affecting their teenage years.
The national 2014 Demographic Health Survey found the estimated starting age for sexually adolescents in Kenya is about 10 years. In the midst of these sexual activities, most of these young people lack basic knowledge on how to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS, sexually-transmitted infections, and teenage pregnancy. Girls in most regions of Kenya—both rural and urban—have no information about any form of contraception. Their minds are filled with numerous myths and misconceptions, which could well be the reason why so many fall into the pit of teenage pregnancy.
A girls’ secondary boarding school in the Mara region is already experiencing the negative effects of its location close to one of these rivers, which is a dangerous place to be. Girls’ education is a rare treasure amongst these local communities, where girls are oftentimes prepared for marriage from the moment they approach puberty. Here, female genital mutilation and cutting is still practiced in secrecy, and few girls achieve their dreams through education. This school has the capacity to accommodate 120 girls, but is rife with vacancies. Here, nearly half of the girls who begin classes will never make it to graduation, because of the short, 20-minute-long walk to the river.
“If we send 10 girls to the river to wash up or collect water, only 6 would come back,” explains the school principal, a short dark complexion lady with short hair. She didn’t look jovial just at first sight—you could tell she carried a lot of psychological distress. “It is a dangerous trip in the evening—not because it is dark, but because men from this community eye the girls. They invite them to run away after seducing them with cheap gifts and big promises that they will marry them and give them a large herd of cattle.”
“Why aren’t you assigning teachers to keep watch of the girls?” I asked, wondering what reason they might have for not maximizing the obvious solution.
“We are understaffed, and the few teachers who work here live very far from the school. This is a remote area. We only have one male teacher out of the 5; the others are mothers and wives. They need to be home early.”
“Do the girls go outside at night?” she says.
“The school needs water to cook. The girls need water for…personal hygiene.”
Her words catch at the end of the sentence. I understand what she means, even if she doesn’t explicitly reference the need to bathe because of the blood. It’s the same evasiveness around adolescent health that is ingrained in our cultural consciousness—the words left unsaid that still say so much.
The principal sighs, puts a smile that fades too fast. I think she is trying to be reassuring.
“The girls who run away come back eventually, but later we find out they are pregnant.”
At my request, she walked me to the river that ran close to the school. It was about a kilometer away – quite a distance for a girl to navigate at nightfall. The foot path stretches alongside a sugarcane plantation.
“Our girls disappear into this sugar cane plantation,” the principal said, throwing a glare into the gently-rippling crops, “The men wait for them here. Then after a day or two, they join the others back in school. Some emerge unscathed, but others find themselves pregnant or sick with HIV.”
The school’s biggest nightmare is sending the girls to the river, but they have no other choice; it is the only source of water available to them. When I visit, it is just the beginning of the year in 2017, and 11 girls have already fallen pregnant. There is no health facility nearby to check their progress, and the school has no resident nurse to offer health services to the girls. These girls, none of whom have ever attended antenatal care classes, are likely to deliver at the hands of traditional birth attendants instead of trained midwives. This puts them in even graver danger than early pregnancy already does to a body that is ill-equipped to bear a child; traditional birth attendants are unskilled, unverified, and perpetuate harmful practices that are steeply rounded in superstition and tradition, instead of science—But it is the best option there is.
“We have managed to keep the girls safe from female genital mutilation, but our biggest fear is that these women who help them to deliver are swayed by false ideas. Many consider it a bad omen to assist a woman who is un-cut in giving birth.”
I can see the disappointment on her face. The ghosts of female genital mutilation—something she is actively trying to combat through education—continue to haunt her, awakened through the unwelcome onslaught of teenage pregnancy.
“Last year, we lost a girl who bled to death. The traditional birth attendant decided that she had to undergo female genital mutilation when she was giving birth. Culture and traditions here have really glorified female genital mutilation; you cannot be a woman unless you undergo the cut.”
This barbaric practice elevates girls to the higher community status of becoming women, and the knife is what sees them graduate. Community values are firm in their belief that every child must be born from a woman who has undergone the cut, the mother’s blood spilling to the ground as a sign of the strong community bond between the living and the dead.
She imparts the information in a low, weakened voice. I asked her about the welfare of the child and she shook her head: no.
A girl and her baby died. And the yet the traditional birth attendants who perpetrate the act remain. They still walk, head high, through the villages. Just like many other cases, the death of that girl and her baby was considered as a bad omen within the community ranks.
Maternal deaths and birth-related complications are the leading cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years in Kenya. According to the 2014 National Demographic Health Survey, Narok County’s Transmara region will see 4 out every 10 girls pregnant by the age of 15. Without access to midwives, contraceptives, or safe abortion services, these girls are vulnerable to a host of life-ending sexually-transmitted infections or complicated pregnancies. The question is, if the resources do not exist, and the adult men do not have the good conscience to stay away, then how can the girls be dis-incentivized from flirting with such danger?
The fate of these girls could drastically change, if they were provided access to affordable sexual and reproductive health services; at least in this context, an ill-considered sexual experience need not mutate into a potentially fatal outcome.
The women in Maasai community have one of the lowest contraceptive prevalence in the country, and many have never even heard of modern contraception methods such as the male condom. Knowledge is critical to empower them to negotiate for safe sex, as the harsh reality is that they are already sexually active and older men take advantage of their naiveté.
The rivers do not care; they will flow on regardless of whether they run clear or thick with blood. So at this juncture, our best safeguard to protect these girls is not to protect their innocence, but to armor them against real-world consequences of their adolescent development.
About the author
Meshack Ian Acholla | Kenya
Meshack Ian Acholla is a passionate youth anti-Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) activist from Kenya who optimizes digital media and editorial articles to provide insight and true stories about the fight to end FGM in Kenya.
As we seek to create global youth engagement in all international development spaces, Every Woman Every Child is partnering with Wellbeing for Women Africa, encouraging young writers to discuss discuss key issues affecting women’s, children’s and adolescents’ health and wellbeing.