14 December 2011
Nguruman — The repeated hooting of the Ostrich bus announces the break of dawn in Nguruman, a pastoralist village about 150 kilometers south of Nairobi near the Tanzania border. It also stirs Kipaa Ole Kitesho from sleep to answer the call of a new day.
On any other morning, Kitesho, 24, would be rounding up his livestock from their shed to prepare for another trek through thorny thickets in search of pasture to feed on.
The Maternal and Newborn Child Health (MNCH) training offered by the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref) is being held at an Anglican church a few yards from Kitesho’s home.
At the church, Kitesho joins some 20 young Maasai men, called Morans, who are visibly charmed by a talk given by community health worker Damaris Toroge. The topic is hygiene among married couples, and how the presence of the father inspires a satisfying relationship during both pre- and post-natal care.
A group of Maasai youth and elders gather early one morning before a meeting about reproductive health begins in Magadi, Kenya.
During a discussion on how sex during pregnancy creates a three-way relationship between the parents and the unborn child, laughter rips through the church hall. It’s astonishing that the young men are even open to the conversation, considering some of the taboos that keep many young Morans separate from their wives during pregnancy.
“My wife is expectant,” says Kitesho, already a father of three. “I would have taken her to a traditional birth attendant, but now I will use these lessons to connect her to the village dispensary for support until the baby is born and it is able to walk.”
To the Maasai mothers who struggle to deliver and take care of the baby while the father is away, a new generational order is bringing some relief.
In the 45 years that Loshe Lemanyi has lived in Nguruman, the mother of seven has seen young women die during childbirth at the hands of traditional midwives. Other women have lost children due to failure to immunize their newborns.
In her community, Lemanyi is seen as a hero of sorts for having raised a healthy family up to maturity, a chore that leaves many women frail and stooped.
In fact, Maasai women are held in such low esteem that they barely possess basic rights, according to the Amazing Maasai Girls Project founded in 2010. According to the project, a man has the right to beat his wife even during pregnancy.
“If the family is poor, the wife may not even feed on a balanced diet to enable her to sustain the young child,” says a July report by the project. “This is why many Maasai women are thin.”
Yet, a community policy developed by the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation in 2006 states that it is the right of every community to access basic health care and a safe environment, according to Daniel Ole Momposhi, an Amref officer in Magadi.
“This resulted in high mortality rates by both the mother and the child,” says Momposhi. “But the society is now raising healthier families since we started training the men on their importance in parenting.”
Through interaction with some of the 6,000 Maasai people who live in Nguruman, it is easy to spot the growing number of homes in which the MNCH call has been heeded.
As Nalepo Ndatai walks home from the market in Nguruman, strapped on her back is one-year-old Selian. Ndatai’s experience in raising her first child has been positive, and she has her husband Samuel Ndatai to thank for his proactive role as Selian’s father.
This new responsibility presents a challenge that many homes must confront as they struggle to balance between cultural obligations and a progressive society.
And not everyone welcomes this shift. To Sereu Leyisiamon, the reach of MNCH into his village is an attempt to strip men of their standing in the society, a move he says he will resist to the end.
The 74-year-old-elder, who spends much of his time drinking beer with his friends, maintains that in Maasai culture men should not be near their expectant wives but should seek company with their other wives or concubines.
“The business of the man is with the livestock,” says Leyisiamon. “That of the woman is bearing children, raising them and taking care of the home”.