A low and steady thump sounds from outside the round hut. An acrid dust drifts through the cracked, dirt walls and singes everyone’s throats. After a few thumps Sipapei Lekisamba's daughters, O-Rozillin and Teresia, leave to help their mother pound tobacco into powder. Within minutes, other women from the boma [homestead] come to chat and help the Lekisamba family make it through another week.
When Lekisamba’s husband died nearly 13 years ago, he left his five wives with little money in a society that typically discouraged women from leaving their home or earning an income. To feed her family, she gathered 5,000 shillings [$2.50] to purchase and then sell the most profitable good she could afford: tobacco.
Lekisamba recalls that almost no women in her Maasai village in Oltukai,Tanzania, peddled goods at the market. “In the past, you just stayed in the boma whether there was food or not; you just stayed home,” she says through a translator.
According to Lekisamba, though, this may no longer be the case. “It has reached the time that the community realizes that women have power. Now they are struggling to help themselves and each other.”
In large part, this change is due to the introduction of women’s groups to the area. These groups—and the NGO that brought them—have been preaching the importance of women’s financial empowerment for years. Senewa Laamo, treasurer of the first group, argues that men will no longer prohibit their wives from doing business after they see their wives have the potential to provide income.
The change also stems from veteran businesswomen like Lekisamba who have shown the community, year after year, that women are capable of running a savvy and profitable business—even when they lack resources and capital.
There are 15 women in Lekisamba’s boma, and yet only four of them earn an income. Out of these four, only two sell at markets: Lekisamba and Laamo. They are a two-hour walk from the closest, once-a-week market and must travel by bus, often with expensive fees, to reach the next closest market.
Despite these challenges, Lekisamba believes that fear of competition keeps most women from selling in the markets. “It is cowardliness," she says. Although most Maasai women tend to sell the same variety of goods—milk, tobacco, and corn—at the market, Lekisamba thinks that fear of competition is foolish, “No one leaves missing a matchbox [approximately two cents].”
Instead of competition, Lekisamba says she only feels camaraderie with the other women. “For example, if I am the first to finish selling, I can ask to sell another woman’s tobacco for her just as she would for me.” The women also coordinate wholesale purchases and share tips of the trade.
“It is very hard to do this kind of work on your own. It’s possible, but we have come to rely on each other,” said Ngojie Merenei, a woman who sells tobacco powder with Lekisamba at the Kibaoni market.
Despite their best efforts, there have been times when Lekisamba’s 10,000 shilling per week profit could not match the increasing demands of life. These days there are taxes, vaccinations, and school uniforms to buy. Indulgences like radios, flashlight batteries, and cell phones also drain her income.
So when Lekisamba’s youngest, O-Rozillin, reached secondary school and needed 70,000 shillings [$35] to continue her education, she didn’t have the money. Determined to continue her daughter’s schooling, Lekisamba approached older half-sons and the village council for help but it was her women’s group, Kinapa (“We carry each other” in Maa), that provided the emergency funds needed to send O-Rozillin to school.
A direct beneficiary of Kinapa, O-Rozillin now only has one more year of school before graduation. She said that she wasn’t interested in small business (or marriage for that matter) because she wanted to continue her studies and become a nurse. However, in the past month her brothers married her to a schoolmate. “I’m happy. He’s very kind and doesn’t mind me doing business,” she says. She still plans to graduate, but will no longer become a nurse.
Lekisamba, who has no formal education, often wonders how her life will compare to the younger generations of Maasai women. “I wish that the groups had been here when I was married," she said. "We are too old now, but with the groups we have helped our children. We only want our children, like Teresia, to advance more than us.”
Lekisamba’s thoughts are mixed with regrets of the past. “If the groups had been here when I was young, I would have had a small house and a roof made of five or six metal sheets. So I think for these young people, they will have small metal houses.”