"I’m the first Samburu warrior to start an organization to eradicate female genital mutilation and child marriages.... At first the elders were against everything I was doing. In 2013, they saw an impact when Pastoralist Child Foundation sponsored girls around the communities, and held educational workshops..."
Interview by Jennifer Timmons - Safeworld Trustee and Director of Field Partners
The Samburu of north-central Kenya are semi-nomadic pastoralists who herd mainly cattle but also keep sheep, goats and camels. The life of a Samburu moran (warrior) – a circumcised unmarried man, begins the first seven years after his circumcision ceremony, which takes place around age 14. From 14 to about 21 he is a 'junior moran'. Graduating to 'senior moran' marks the time when he is recognized as a future leader and future family man, and is fully entrusted with the security of his community.
What does it mean to be a Samburu warrior – particularly, one who is the first Samburu warrior to start an organization to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced child marriages in the 21st century?
Samuel Siriria Leadismo, Founder & Director of Pastoralist Child Foundation, a Safe World for Women Field Partner in Kenya, generously shares his perspectives on being a Samburu warrior, the challenges he faces in advocating for girls and women's rights, and his message for his fellow warriors – as well as for boys and men in general.
What does it mean to be a Samburu warrior? How do you become one – does every man become a warrior?
"A warrior is a circumcised unmarried Samburu man. Any young Samburu boy can become a warrior.
The warrior is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Samburu; their fashion, their battles, and their status are so interesting for many people that they are drawn to the Samburu warriors.
In society, the warriors are revered and secretive. Their sole purpose is to protect the sacred cattle, so by association, they are revered as demi-gods. Their influence in society is massive: they drive the boundaries of the land, increasing the grazing and protect them [cattle] for the tribe.
Because warriors are regarded as having superhuman strength required to defend Samburu cattle, it means they don’t have the trappings of regular mortals. Warriors don’t eat, drink, sleep, move their bowels, or have sex. When a warrior is circumcised he ceases to be part of the community, so his family severs all emotional ties with him until the next generation is circumcised, some 15 years later. If he dies in battle, all his belongings are thrown in the bush, his name is never used and he is forgotten immediately.
A warrior is not supposed to eat in his mother’s house, but he is free to walk and join other warriors.
Physically he will be with the family to take care of the livestock but no one will ask him where he is, in case he decides to go for two months with other warriors. The warrior will respect the rules given by elders. If he doesn’t, the elders will definitely curse him.
The warriors battle for livestock. They’re the ones who make sure the livestock are getting greener pastures, which is grass and water during the dry season. Warriors protect the livestock from wild animals e.g., lions and hyenas at night. They also protect the community from internal attacks by other pastoralist communities during raiding. Raiding is also known as “rustling.” The Samburu tribe conflicts with the Turkana tribe with regard to raiding/rustling.
Because of the battles and high chance of death, warriors are not allowed wives (but they are allowed to “bead” girlfriends – the act of giving a young girl beads in order to have her hand in marriage later on), the present warriors are not allowed to marry until the elders decide to circumcise the next generation of warriors.
This is for a reason: once a warrior has retired from the “army”, his priority is his family and children – looking after his mother and not going into battle where he may be killed.
For the warriors, it’s the pinnacle of beauty and strength; nothing impresses more than big healthy bulls, a big herd of cattle, striking and colorful beadwork, and stories of great courage to back it all up.
In the life of a Samburu moran ("warrior" – a man who has been circumcised and is of marriageable age), the first seven years begin after his circumcision ceremony, which takes place around age 14. From 14 to about 21 he is a junior moran. Graduating to senior moran marks the time when he is recognized as a future leader and future family man, and is fully entrusted with the security of his community.
According to the Samburu tribe, the moran graduation ceremony also marks an important step toward the next phase in life, which is becoming an “elder.” Once you graduate to be an elder, a new generation of boys will be circumcised to take over. A big ceremony will take place and other elders welcome you to be a junior elder. That takes an additional six years, and comes with the ability to get married in the community.
Needless to say, young men are very eager to graduate to the respected status of full warrior.
During the ceremony, the men are a stunning sight. They are fully aware of their visual impact—sellers of pocket mirrors make a good business at any Samburu market before a moran ceremony. Tucked inside a shuka (a brightly colored, wrap-around cloth) or peeking out of their numerous beaded armbands, a mirror is rarely far from the hand of a moran.
They are also rarely empty-handed, often carrying a spear, walking stick, or long knife. For the Samburu, to be a moran means being a defender of not only their people, but also of their culture."
Can you describe some of the training you go through as a junior moran and then afterwards? Or is that secret, for no one but warriors to know?
"The Samburu warriors pass through a vital graduation ceremony that shows they are rising up in their community. The ceremony, or Lmuget is a ritual that comes once every seven years and marks the middle of the 15-year period, after which a warrior becomes an elder.
The elders/community can identify a special space where the ceremonial manyatta/village can be built. More than 140 families, including more than 400 morans, friends and other extended relatives gather to celebrate. During the week, elders can elect the president of the warriors and give a name to their age group.
It's like you have passed through some life. Now you are real warrior. You can now defend the Samburu culture. A warrior will not eat food in his house. He must eat everything in the forest. He is only allowed to drink tea, milk, and blood in the village."
How does a Samburu warrior typically regard girls and women?
"Samburu warriors respect girls and women, but the culture itself misleads some warriors to violate women’s and girls’ rights.
Some of the examples are “beading,” FGM/C and child marriage. Beading is the act of giving a young girl beads in order to have her hand in marriage later on."
Pastoralist Child Foundation - Tackling FGM and Child Marriages
As you are the very first Samburu warrior to start an organization to eradicate FGM (female genital mutilation) and child marriage, has this affected your status as a Samburu warrior in any way?
"Yes, I’m the first Samburu warrior to start an organization to eradicate female genital mutilation and child marriages. There are some challenges I’m encountering as a warrior and Samburu elite. My colleagues and some people from the community are against me. They think I’m against the culture."
What challenges have you faced in this regard, from fellow warriors, and the community in general?
"At first I was not respected. I was abused, cursed, and elders were against everything I was doing. In 2013, they saw an impact when Pastoralist Child Foundation sponsored girls around the communities, and held educational workshops for girls, women, warriors, elders, and government staff."
How did you come about starting Pastoralist Child Foundation (PCF)?
"After I finished college, I came back home to stay with my family. In our village, I saw the need to help educate my entire community about child marriage, FGM, and the importance of education. Two months later, I applied for a job at Samburu Game Lodge as a food and beverage supervisor. I worked there for one year. While I was working at the lodge, Sayydah Garrett visited Samburu County in August 2012.
In August 2012, Sayydah Garrett visited the Samburu village called “Namayiana Village” where my family lives. I didn’t know she would visit our village. My family, brothers, and the entire community enjoyed the stay with her for an hour. She was welcomed by the beautiful Samburu tribe with songs and dances, and she was happy to join in the celebration.
Sayydah was fascinated by the tribe and excitedly returned to the lodge with many pictures. She called me and said, “Look at these pictures!” I knew everyone in the pictures because this was our village – Namayiana Village. I spoke at length about the harmful practices (I call them “vices”) in my community, mainly FGM and forced early marriages.
In our conversation I told Sayydah:
“I want to start a community-based organization to eradicate female genital mutilation and forced marriages before it’s my youngest sister’s turn to get cut. Girls should be allowed to go to school.”
Sayydah was shocked to hear this, but at the same time delighted to hear a man voice his concern about the plight of girls in his community. She responded with, “Well, I live 8,000 miles away but I’d like to help you. I used to work for a homeless agency and have nonprofit experience. I can help with fundraising, write proposals and raise awareness.”
I smiled, pointed at Sayydah and said, “Great! YOU will be our President!”
Sayydah said, “Ok!”
Two weeks later, I registered the organization as a Community Based Organization in Kenya and shortly thereafter Sayydah began the 501 (c)(3) public charity registration process in the USA. Pastoralist Child Foundation is fully registered as a nonprofit in both countries."
Please share a bit about yourself and your family – how they shaped who you are today.
"I’m originally from Samburu County, Kenya, from the Samburu tribe, Black Cattle clan. The Samburu tribe is nomadic – moving from one place to another with their livestock searching for greener pastures.
I’m a role model, advisor, and counselor in our villages, always encouraging my fellow youth to continue their education. I’m working against early marriages and female genital mutilation (FGM) by actively promoting childhood and adult education amongst my community members. I attained a higher Diploma in Hospitality and Tourism Management from Zetech University. I’m a proud dad of a 5 year-old daughter.
One of the things I love most about being a dad is watching my child put to use the lessons that I’ve taught her. I feel so proud of my daughter when she does the little things without anyone telling her to do them – things such as helping clean up the house at the age of five, or just saying “please” and “thank you.” When that happens – and I don’t have to tell her, I know she has learned that lesson for life. She can make me cry when I have to go out of town for work.
My favourite thing about being a father is that I can work hard every day to leave this world a better place for my daughter and the community I work with. Being a dad softens my heart, and makes me instantly more accountable and responsible to the world around me.
My dad is a polygamist and lived far from us, so it was my mother who influenced my life the most through kindness, compassion, integrity, calmness even in the face of extreme challenges, passion for life, humour, and unconditional love. During my mother’s last year, she asked me to guide and educate my younger sisters, and to fight for the right of all girls to enjoy the opportunities she didn’t have. I am proud of myself, our community, and the work we do through Pastoralist Child Foundation.
Two other women have also influenced my life. One is Blake Valin, an American woman living in Florida. I met her when she visited Kenya in 2005. She taught me how to be patient, understanding, and to fight for what I believe in. She paid all my high school and university fees, and helped my family. She taught me to never give up!
The other is Sayydah Garrett, the Founder and President of Pastoralist Child Foundation, who gave me the confidence to found our organization. We sponsor girls in high school, and offer community workshops to end FGM and child marriages. We also teach about teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, self-awareness, self-esteem, sexual and reproductive health, gender-based violence, sanitation, and the importance of formal education here in Kenya."
Do your family members give you moral support in your efforts to eradicate FGM and child marriages?
"Yes, but not that much. They respect what I’m doing. My family tried several times to convince me to stop what I’m doing, but later they told me to go ahead because it has an impact in changing the negative practices of Samburu culture. The great support I had was from Sayydah Garrett, my co-founder. My family didn’t help me in any way to start Pastoralist Child Foundation. They joined me after we started our work.
I have the passion as a warrior to continue helping pastoralist children. Some of my colleagues think I’m against the culture, but after attending PCF’s educational workshops, most of them joined me to spread the word."
If they do not support you, what are their reasons?
"My family members now support and cheer my work, but not 100%. They still fear that my family will not be permitted to attend Samburu rituals and ceremonies."
Challenges and Dangers
Do you face any dangers, threats in your work? If so, what do you do to prevent or stop potential threats?
"At the beginning, people threatened me in various ways and I even received deaths threats. When we started sponsoring girls, they saw a positive impact and some started understanding the work that I’m doing. We started community awareness workshops with the help of UNICEF Kenya; we empowered the community at the grassroots level. I understood handling cases like FGM require community dialogue and awareness. Now, I’m comfortably empowering my community and they’re ready to listen to the PCF team."
What have been your greatest challenges, personally, and from those closest to you?
"My greatest challenges have been mobilization resources such as funds, hiring staff, getting a vehicle to reach distant rural communities at the grassroots level, and materials to run our small office."
The Way Forwards
You recently got married – congratulations! Will your wife be working with you?
"I got married December 19th, 2015, and my wife closely follows and supports what I’m doing. She is always learning what I’m doing. She has that passion. I know she will join me very soon with my work."
What do you consider your strongest tools to eradicate FGM and child marriage?
"Political will to protect girls from FGM is rising and strong anti-FGM networks, including survivors, are increasing across Kenya. Surveys are also showing decreasing prevalence. To build on this progress and to help improve enforcement of Kenya’s anti-FGM law (Prohibition of FGM Act 2011), we worked with the Anti-FGM Prosecution Unit and the Anti-FGM Board to create a comprehensive FGM case-tracking tool.
The tool aims to promote accountability in the reporting, investigation, and prosecutorial phases of cases, while also providing authorities with the ability to track successes where the girls were spared from FGM due to proactive judicial mechanisms and alternatives to criminal prosecution, e.g. injunctions, parental agreements. Information gathered helps pinpoint areas where interventions are most needed to protect girls and women at risk and to ensure the successful implementation of the law.
We, at Pastoralist Child Foundation, are trying our best to educate communities through educational workshops.
We also try to simplify the anti-FGM law from English to Swahili and Samburu languages aimed at non-legal professionals. The booklet targets girls, teachers, chiefs, police, parents, medical practitioners and the general public to encourage them to protect, prevent and report the practice of FGM. It also includes information on the FGM hotline and girls rescue centers where the public can report and receive assistance.
I personally have great support from my fellow warriors and other colleagues."
What more needs to be done to achieve your mission?
"I believe men and boys can play a role in preventing and stopping violence against women. Men can join women and girls in challenging violence and oppression globally and help create a place where people of different backgrounds, lifestyles, and communities can learn and feel safe by listening and caring for each other.
Some of the ways in which I can do this is by connecting with other men and boys about their experiences with violence and with privilege, and coming together with an agreement of honesty and respect by putting aside fears and creating a culture where we practice understanding rather than winning, communication rather than fighting, sharing rather than defending.
I really love working towards ending violence against women because women changed my life by educating me, raising me, and believing in me. I hope many men can take this message to another level so that they can see the necessity of ending violence against women. I’m doing this through my charity work and am seeing progress as men in my community are moved by my ideas about ending violence."
Do you feel certain that you can protect your own sisters from FGM and child marriage? What kinds of pressures do you face in avoiding FGM and child marriage?
"Yes! My young sister, aged 15, is NOT circumcised. I will protect her and she will not be cut. She is staying with me. The pressure I have from my dad is so high, but he decided to leave my sister and me [alone]."
Can you provide a bit more detail about the pressures girls such as your young sister go through when they resist FGM and early child marriage?
- "She believes she will NOT attend Samburu cultural activities;"
- "She won’t be married by any Samburu man;"
- "She is not recognized in the Samburu community through community dialogues/barazas or functions;"
- "She believes that unless a girl’s clitoris is removed, she will not become mature;"
- "She doesn’t have rights to associate with others of her age group or her ancestors."
What do you want most for your sisters and all the girls of your region?
"Gender discrimination is recognized by Kenya's government and other organizations as the number one cause of persistent poverty among the pastoralist communities in Kenya, which causes a higher than average rate of illiteracy and gender discrimination, as well as preventing economic development in the area. I know men don’t value girls’ education in my communities. That’s why I value girls’ education and prioritize it before I help boys as well.
I want my sisters and other girls to know their rights, value education, and get good jobs like all other women around the world who are doctors, nurses, social workers, lawyers, teachers, and managers.
Pastoralist Child Foundation developed a comprehensive strategy to get more girls enrolled in school and to keep them in school until they have the knowledge and skills to enter the workforce in Kenya."
Finally, do you have a message for your fellow warriors as well as young boys with regard to how girls and women are treated?
"To be a role model and a change agent in the community, one must have passion and commitment to help the community. We must change attitudes toward education. Change starts with a conversation. An educated girl contributes more to her family every year than her dowry would bring. She pays their medical bills, buys shoes and school uniforms for her nieces and nephews. She also purchases food for her parents, and more. Her family is healthier and economically stronger, and they are now revered in the community for having an educated, successful daughter, whom her father readily brags about.
I would also like to tell my fellow warriors:
“Let’s all come together and address the myths about female genital mutilation.” "
Thank you, Samuel!