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Opinion

‘Only a rich man can survive here’ – Fatuma speaks out

Published on 13 December 2019

‘I want to present my problems to the world, because I am really oppressed.’

Meet 53-year-old Fatuma Hitler, a feisty Samburu woman living in the village of RAPland, Ol Karia, Kenya. RAPland is a new village for Maasai who were moved here to make way for geothermal development; it stands for Resettlement Action Plan land and was built by the geothermal company KenGen.

Fatuma stands looking at the camera, in front of her house.

 

Fatuma is struggling, she says, because of discrimination and poverty.

She feels discriminated against as a twice divorced Muslim Samburu, living in a largely Maasai community. As a result, she’s not been given a new house, which KenGen gave to Maasai who were moved here in 2014. She feels that is very unfair, and is contesting it.

‘But if I go to complain to the company I will be like a barking dog, because of this corruption.’ She believes corruption – both within the geothermal companies and the local community – works against powerless women like her, especially since she is not Maasai.

She lives on her own, in a small ramshackle hut she built out of wattle and mud, covered with pieces of sacking and polythene.

Fatuma had seven children, but five died. Her remaining sons Alvin (15) and Joshua (9) live with relatives. She used to keep sheep and chickens, but they all died – ‘there was no pasture for the sheep’. She scrapes a living from charcoal burning and selling miraa (also known as khat, a legal drug grown in Kenya). Many people here are addicted to chewing its leaves.

As a woman on her own, she is vulnerable – to both wild animals like hyenas, and men who try to attack her. In a traditional village, houses are clustered together and a wooden stockade keeps wild animals out. But Fatuma’s hut is isolated, and can easily be broken into.

‘My life is in danger since I don’t have a house; that is my biggest worry. Since I am a lady and staying without a husband, some people take alcohol, and they come and buy miraa, and sometimes some of them have the intention of raping me.’ Some of her customers stay till morning, chewing miraa.

Fatuma says she’d rather stop burning charcoal: ‘I want to take care of trees because of the environment.’ But, like poor people everywhere, she can’t afford to give up this work.

Lots of changes have happened here since Fatuma moved. There is increasing geothermal development that badly affects people’s health, less pasture for livestock, few jobs, more crime, and the threat of possibly having to move again. How does she feel about all this?

‘My feeling is like this is the end of the world, it is the end of us. Because these things [make us] totally poor, only a rich man can survive here. The changes have really affected me personally and my family at large, because there is no work, I need to pay school fees, I don’t have a single cow, sheep or a chicken. That means poverty is running at high percentage.’

Her health is poor, she says, because of all the dust and hydrogen sulphide emitted by geothermal plants.

Fatuma is not afraid of speaking up for women’s rights, but Maasai men don’t like it when women do. ‘Since I don’t have a husband, when I speak in public or even privately, they might come and rape me at night, or even kill me. Sometimes I speak in public and say: “No FGM!”’ (FGM stands for female genital mutilation, also known as FGC – female genital cutting).

She’s not against geothermal development. ‘I’ll not complain about it, because this is something for the future. But why don’t the geothermal company look for a place with a very good environment, put us all there, and give us five per cent [of the profits]?’

Everyone here is pinning their hopes on a natural resources benefit sharing bill, now before Kenya’s parliament, that would give communities a percentage of profits from underground and other resources.

Fatuma just wants some certainty in her life: ‘I’d like to get a land title deed so I can claim this is my place, no one will ever chase me away!’

A man and a woman sit at the doorway of a house looking at the camera

Fatuma was talking to Lotte Hughes, with Ken Siloma translating. Thanks also go to David Kipayion for assisting. Fatuma gave consent to be named and photographed.

This blog was originally published on December 13th 2019. Since then, Fatuma has sadly died.

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