Dowries Running Dry in Drought-Stricken East Africa

Women use donkeys to transport water south of Wajir, in Kenya, where food shortages caused by drought threaten millions. Many young rural Kenyans are also being forced to postpone marriage as the loss of cattle affects their ability to raise a dowry.
Women use donkeys to transport water south of Wajir, in Kenya, where food shortages caused by drought threaten millions. Many young rural Kenyans are also being forced to postpone marriage as the loss of cattle affects their ability to raise a dowry. (By Chris Jackson -- Getty Images)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 20, 2006

NAIROBI -- They were neighborhood friends who occasionally flirted amid the once lush elephant grass of the East African savanna.

He was a gregarious 28-year-old cattle herder who had a college education, spoke five languages and supplemented his income by working for an international safari business.

She was a lively 22-year-old high school graduate, respectful of her parents and a captivating storyteller who met his main physical requirement: She was tall.

He arranged to meet her parents, who brewed a traditional welcome drink of sugar, honey, herbs, sour milk and cow's blood at their farmhouse. For her dowry, he offered his best bulls and most productive dairy cows.

Then, with her parents' blessing, Moses ole Samante proposed marriage to Evelyn Kutingala last spring.

But the engagement of the two young Kenyans, both from the Masai tribe, proved stressful. As the region's worst drought in a generation swept across East Africa, turning grazing fields to rock-strewn expanses of dust, Samante's chances for a wedding grew as thin as his bony cattle.

Each month, more of his 300 cattle collapsed. Soon, nearly all were dead. By December, he had lost cattle worth more than $10,000 in a country where most people survive on $350 a year. The wedding was canceled. And Samante moved to Nairobi to find work.

"It's such a sad time," he said. "I had to leave my beautiful fields."

"Is there any way you can mate remaining cows quickly?" he recalled Kutingala pleading in a phone call from their village of Ntulele, about 120 miles south of Nairobi. "I fear they will give me to another, to an old and richer man. My mother doesn't want me to waste my youth."

The men of marrying age in East Africa are calling the current dry season "the drought that killed the dowry." On the world's poorest continent, droughts and changing weather patterns are pushing more and more Africans into cities, putting pressure on already strained resources and changing cultural practices, from diet to marriage traditions.

Humanitarian organizations estimate that 3.5 million people, mostly nomadic herders, are facing food shortages in Kenya. About 40 people have died of hunger-related illnesses, and 70 percent of livestock in the drought-affected northeast have perished.

Masai herders trying to escape the drought are streaming into Nairobi, letting their cattle feed on the city's grassy traffic circles. Police blotters are filled with reports of herdsmen being hit by cars. The Masai are also building congested shantytowns to live in and wandering the city begging for jobs.


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