Leah Namunyak is depressed. Since Covid-19 struck Kenya in March 2020, the middle-aged woman can barely earn any income and her children are on the verge of starvation.
Namunyak and her village mates of Aitong village within Masai Mara National Reserve in Narok County, some 250km south of Nairobi, depended entirely on ecotourism activities through a local community-based group, Nasaru Ntomok, which enabled them to make and sell beads to tourists visiting the reserve.
“Since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the country in March 2020 leading to cancellation of flights, we have not seen any tourists here in the Mara. Many of the tourist lodges that used to give us space to sell our beads are now closed. It is a tough life now. As you know, very few women own property in Maasai land, and therefore business activities were our only saviour,” she says, forlornly.
Extremely difficult life
Similarly, Judy Sengeny, a mother of five in her early 30s and a member of Nasaru Ntomok, has nothing to smile about. Her husband married another wife, leaving her to fend for her children alone. She says life has become extremely difficult during the pandemic.
“I hardly make any money. We are told to sanitise, wear masks, yet we have no money to buy these things. We were told about the COVID-19 emergency relief money, we have not seen it. We were also promised free masks and sanitisers, we have not seen them. We now depend on well-wishers for food and protective items.”
Nasaru Ntomok’s 40 members are involved in table banking as well as ecotourism activities, where they sell bead work to earn a living.
“I used to make beads and sell to tourists; now we have no one coming here in the Mara… we are just living on hope that soon this disease will go away so that our lives return to normal,” Sengeny says.
Previously, Maasai tradition did not allow women to own any property. Also, most of them never went to school, they lived at the mercy of their husbands.
Through empowerment projects and organisations like Nasaru Ntomok, which started in 2012, women are now contributing to the welfare of their families through savings from their small businesses. But, this contribution has now been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Kenya has so far recorded more than 16,000 Covid-19 infections with nearly 300 deaths reported. With the pandemic, many households in the Mara, especially those led by women, are suffering. Many cannot even access a proper diet that is necessary for building immunity against the disease.
Debra Kaigil, a community leader within the Mara says, “At first people here did not believe that COVID-19 was real. They thought that due to their practice of using herbal medicines they would build resistance against the disease. They only came to believe that it was serious after some cases were confirmed in Narok County.”
Kaigil further explains that that Maasais are pastoralists by nature; they do not plant crops and therefore many buy fruits and vegetables from neighbouring farming communities. “With the impact of Coronavirus, they do not have money to buy fruits and vegetables; many families have no food and continue to depend on well- wishers”.
“Donations are not enough as they do not come on a daily basis. Further, women have been worst hit as caregivers; most of their sources of income are no more, a very tough situation indeed, ” says Kaigil.