Two months ago, Amira was the most excited she felt in months. Her brother was getting married, she was told, so the family were preparing to head to Garissa Town, a Kenyan county adjacent to the Somalia border, for celebrations, reports the Daily Mirror.
“I had a new dress to wear, they were putting henna on my hands. It was going to be a celebration, I was looking forward to eating lots of food,” she said. The excitement of a feast was palpable for a young girl reeling from the impacts of drought and edging closer to starvation.
But little did Amira know, her brother’s so-called wedding was a front for her own wedding to a 70-year-old in exchange for a small dowry of cows, all arranged by her uncle.
Amira is, by Kenyan law, a child and child marriage has been prohibited in Kenya since 1990 when the country approved the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Amira’s mother died of cancer a year ago, leaving her father a widower in a desperate situation with three children, Amira the youngest and only girl.
Her father herds the remaining cattle while the children are cared for by their uncle.
“That day I took the bus with one of my relatives and had been told we were going to my brother’s wedding. I was excited,” Amira says describing the day of the wedding.
But after a short while, she realised something was wrong when her uncle made a number of stressful phone calls, adding: “It was actually my wedding and I was the one getting married.”
Amira couldn’t stop crying, she felt angry and betrayed.
“The relative I was with did nothing to support me, he was just going to do what my uncle told him,” she continued. But when the bus stopped at the services halfway through the journey, Amira noticed her step-brother standing on the side of the road with police. Despite the potential risk of persecution from his male relatives, Amira’s step-brother caught wind of the plan and intercepted her, stopping the wedding from taking place.
“I was so happy. I knew I didn’t want to be married to this old man,” she said.
Amira’s family have struggled on a low income since half of her father’s 22 cows and most of her grandmother’s goats died in the drought earlier this year.
As the whole world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, some countries have felt the impacts of this more keenly than others.
On top of the pandemic, Kenya is also grappling with four consecutive years of failed rains leading to drought and destruction by regional locust infestations. Many girls in the East African nation now face being wedded under 18 as their families are desperate to find extra resources through dowries from the husband’s family.
They also hope, but it is not a given, that their daughters will be fed and protected by their wealthier husband. Girls’ lives are precarious in normal times but they are now being pushed over the edge by successive blows to the nation.
Food prices in Kenya are up 15.3 per cent compared to last year, while inflation climbed to a five-year high of 8.3 per cent in July. The whole Horn of Africa region, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, was already one of the most vulnerable parts of the continent but now the threat of famine is more acute than ever.
Food production and consumption in Kenya have both been hampered since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine.
Ukraine and Russia are both major producers of fertilizers and they also dominate wheat imports to the East African region. In Kenya, 67 per cent of wheat is from Russia, 22 per cent from Ukraine and 11 per cent from the rest of the world.
And in March 2022, the price of fertilizer soared by double from Ksh 2,500 (£17) to more than Ksh 5,000 (£34).
The mama mbgoas, the ladies who sell vegetables on the streets, told National Public Radio that even the price of potatoes, a somewhat basic commodity, is up. They are moved from Nairobi on vehicles that need expensive fuel. One seller says she used to buy them for 1,800, now it’s 35 to 4,000.
Where other countries are trying to lift up their economies post-Covid, the World Bank forecast in June that the drought, coupled with economic disruption from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, would drag on Kenya’s recovery.
Over 1.5 million livestock in Kenya alone has died as a result of the extreme dry temperatures. Residents are finding the roads littered with animal carcasses.
“You can’t survive off 10 cows,” Amira says only looking only at Jamila Rashid, the local children’s officer when she speaks.
Animals are central to families and villages’ lives across eastern Kenya, holding the important role of both a food and money source.
Amira explains that because they lost so many cows they had to buy milk powder which is very expensive.
“The remaining cows were weak, one was killed by a hyena,” she continues.
Ms. Rashid says she was very surprised that a brother intercepted an attempted child marriage as normally the brother would collude with the uncle as money changes hands.
It is not only children who suffer from the effects of early marriage but the whole country too. Once a family exchanges a child for a dowry the child is stopped from attaining an education.
Amira is living temporarily in one of the only Children’s Rescue Centers in the region, which is run by the Kenyan government and was refurbished by UNICEF. She says she prefers being at home because she was going to school. “I love learning and we had good teachers”, she says saying her favorite subject is math and that she wants to be a doctor.
UNICEF has found that the number of children at risk of dropping out of school in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia due to the impact of the drought has tripled in the space of three months – from 1.1. million to an estimated 3.3 million children.
“We know that an institution is not the best place for a child and that she wants to be with her family. But it’s complicated because we can’t send her home, knowing that the risk of her being married off by her relatives remains high”, says Ms Rashid, the children’s officer.
The impact of child marriage is also debilitating in the long term not long for the loss of education but for their mental well-being and potential health implications, where safe sex is not always practised as young girls do not understand what is and is not right.
There is a criminal case next month against Amira’s uncle, who is on bond until the trial. The father claimed he knew nothing about the arrangement so although he was arrested, he is now free.
The crisis in Kenya comes as almost a decade under President Uhuru Kenyatta comes to a close, with Kenyans going to the polls this week to decide on his replacement in the hotly contested presidential election.
Citizens are desperate for a brighter future and have high hopes for peace, so long queues were pictured forming at ballot stations.
Post-election violence in 2008 left more than 1,000 dead and 600,000 displaced and the most recent election in 2017 was botched leading to protests and unrest.
Meanwhile, Amira remains stoic: “Once this is all over, I want to be back with my family and back at school. I still intend to fulfil my dreams of becoming a doctor.”