Eyapon seated outside her home.

Tribulations Of The Aged Female In The Turkana Drought

Reverence for the elders is the one thing that you expect to find in any corner of the African continent; and such is the case of elders in the Turkana community that form a vital structure for decision making on any issues affecting the community. However, there is a gender imbalance as women are largely excluded from important decision-making processes, even though they play a critical role in the day to day lives of the whole community. In times of drought, women bear the brunt and spend hours searching for water and burning charcoal for sale to provide food for their families.

This begs the question, where is the reverence for the aged female in this community? Doesn't their age come with wisdom like their male counterparts? Shouldn’t they be involved in making decisions on issues that affect their lives. In Lokicheeda village, in Turkana East Sub County where conflict and drought have converged, these aged women have everything going against them. They do not have the energy to burn and transport charcoal for sale or go to the mountains to cut roof thatches for sale to meet their basic needs. Unfortunately, just like the humans, the disasters do not recognize their age nor do they spare them. Worse still if they are differently abled and rely on support from their relatives.

Take for instance the case of the frail 75-year-old Eyapon Epong Emanman. We meet her as she walks to her hut, a loose-fitting cloth hanging on her waist, her neck adorned with colorful beaded necklaces and countless earrings on her ears. My aide for the day, who happens to be a Community Health Volunteer shouts her name to get her attention, in vain. I am made to understand that she has a hearing disability.

The aide runs ahead of her and Eyapan gives a huge smile upon seeing her. I follow behind as she motions her to lead us to her hut. “Eyapan has not been lucky enough to have children and her brothers’ children have taken her in”. This is whispered in my ear in a sombre tone, an indication of the trauma this woman has had to live with all her life, because of the stigma and shame that comes with being barren. As we walk, I cannot help but notice, a tiny shanty hut that is her home which sits in the middle of the homestead; as if to protect her from the lurking dangers that lie beneath the hills in the horizon. Dangers in the form of cattle rustlers’ guns, that have led to so much loss of lives and livelihoods, as if the drought was not enough.

There's however a silver speck in her story, sadly it lasts as long as this sentence. Eyapan is a beneficiary of the government's safety net programme that targets the elderly. I am informed that her brothers children take her to Lokichar whenever the cash has been disbursed, she faithfully provides her thumb print to facilitate the withdrawal and that's where her role in this safety net ends. Whoever facilitated her to get to the bank agent, then decides how the money should be spent. The last time KES 8,000 was withdrawn, she ended up with a few hundreds’ which she only got after requesting to give as offering in church.

One would argue that she is an old illiterate woman, with a hearing disability, being taken care of by her relatives hence it's seemingly right for them to decide on how to spend this money. However, her body tells a different story. A story of a body that has forgotten how it feels to have three meals in a day. A story of a body that is resigned to its fate. A story of a body that has seen more years than it has lived. When I initially inquired about her age, a few members of the community blurted out without wincing that she's over 100 years, 120 to be precise. It turned out she's only 75 years as evidenced in her identity card. I am then informed that she gets to have only one meal a day of boiled maize just like everyone else in the household.

She holds her feeble six-month-old grandson that has the weight of a two-month-old and is visibly stunted, confirming the food security situation of this household.

Dejected, I stop by a homestead where this young beautiful girl is having her hair braided, to visit yet another elderly woman, 89-year-old Jalinga Nyakaa. My aide tells me she is visually impaired. I get in and she sits up, her eyes staring right through the walls of the hut with sadness written all over her face. I ask if she is completely blind and my response comes in the form of my aide’s fingers moving from side to side in front of Jalinga’s eyes to see if she can follow. Her eyes remain focused, staring through the moving fingers. Jalinga has experienced so much loss in the form of human lives. Just like Eyapan, she has no children.

She had them once and lost all of them including her husband to conflict. A few metres away from her daughter’s in law hut, lies a fresh grave of Jalinga’s brother. He was shot when the neighboring community attacked and he succumbed to his injuries a few days before the visit. Jalinga like Eyapan is being taken care of by her daughter in law, 29-year-old Napeiyok Ekaale, a mother of nine children, three of whom are deceased. Napeiyok supports her family through selling local liquor made from sugar. She buys sugar worth KES 400 to make the liquor and makes a total of KES 800 after sales. When business is good, it takes 2 to 3 days to sell everything and her profit is KES 400. This she uses to buy about 4 kgs of maize (Ebong) which is boiled and consumed within 2 days.

She says, “Some customers come and drink alcohol worth KES 300 and beat me up when I ask for the money. I just let go and end up with nothing.” Napeiyok is happy that Jalinga has been registered to benefit from the one month START Fund Cash Transfer intervention through Turkana Pastoralist Development (TUPADO). “I will buy her food and clothes. She doesn’t have any good clothes”, explains Napeiyok. A need that was earlier highlighted by Jalinga, when she said, once she gets the money, she will use the money to buy clothes and food.

Such is the life of the elderly female in the drought affected areas of Turkana. Whose age doesn’t earn them anything including respect from the unfolding drought that has rid their families off their livelihoods in equal share as conflict. Now all they do is sit and wait for what tomorrow brings.

Oxfam in Kenya through the CAT fund and START fund through a “No Regrets Response” has directly reached 1438 vulnerable households like Jalinga Nyakaa’s in Turkana with monthly cash transfers of KES 4,000 to help them cope with the effects of the drought that continues to worsen after two failed rainy reasons. This is just but a drop in a county where 379,000 people are in need of assistance currently. There is an urgent need for stakeholders including the government to come together and respond to the drought and more so paying special attention to women like Jalinga Nyakaa and Eyapon Epong Emanman who are severely affected by the drought and should have a say in decisions affecting their lives and especially where humanitarian aid is concerned.