Changing Norms Means Kenya’s Traditional Female Roofers Face Job Losses

Building homes has long allowed women to contribute to their families financial security, but it is now increasingly dwindling

<p><strong>IN FILE - A group of activist demostrating against unemployment in Nairobi, Kenya on October 9, 2019. Women house builders in Africa are facing a dim future, as modern designs take a lead, leaving numerous women builders without a stable stream of income. SIMON MAINA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES</strong></p>

NAIROBI, Kenya — Among the Kenyan pastoralist communities, women are traditionally tasked with the responsibility of building family homes this is a role that in other Kenyan communities is reserved for men who are family heads.

The unique tradition of female home builders has for long enabled women to become contributors to the economic wellbeing of their families.

36-year-old Grace Molok from the Kenyan Endorois subtribe of the large Kalenjin tribe  has been building houses since she was 12 years old.

In Kenya, Masai Village, Traditional House Under Construction, Jan. 01, 1991. as modernization spreads, the culture of traditional homes is gradually disappearing, leaving women housebuilders without a career. WOLFGANG KAEHLER/GETTY IMAGES

“I was introduced to traditional house construction by my grandmother. After my primary education, my parents could not afford to take me to secondary school and that is when I got into this trade,” said Grace, a resident of Mochongoi village in Baringo county, 156 miles from the capital Nairobi.

Grace like many other women of her community is an expert in construction and roofing of traditional houses using a special kind of soil and grass. 

In their community, husbands are rarely at home and women are left with the role of taking care of homes including construction.

Through the construction of traditional houses, Grace has been able to take care of her six children after her husband was killed by armed bandits who stormed their village in 2010.

“I love what I do,” Engineer Molok as she is popularly referred to says.

Grace is a member of a group of women house builders that moves across villages and communities putting up traditional houses.

“Our group has a total of 35 women who are all experts in building and repairing traditional houses,” said Linet Chepsire, chairperson of the group.

Chepsire says that house building to them is not only about culture but a source of empowerment for women.

“Most of the time, our husbands are away from home and the little we make from construction of traditional houses is what we use to take care of our families until our husbands return,” she narrated.

But with modernization taking root, the culture of traditional houses is slowly fading away and the women house builders are being rendered jobless.

“The new generation is no longer keen in building traditional African huts”  says Jeremiah Lokorio, a village leader in the community.

According to Lokorio, the modern generation who he describes as ‘the educated generation’ view traditional houses as a sign of poverty and backwardness.

“People are shifting to modernity and putting up modern houses to replace traditional ones and this means that our women who rely on house construction as a means of employment will be jobless,” said Lokorio.

A woman stands, holding an infant, outside a hut in a Maasai village, Shompole, Kenya, April 10, 2002.  EDOARDO FORNACIARI/GETTY IMAGES

Elijah Maritim is among the many who have abandoned their traditional houses in favour of modern houses.

He says that with changing times, traditional grass-roofed houses are no longer tenable.

“With a traditional house, the family gets exposed to unlimited weather and health hazards that’s why we are abandoning that cultural practise and putting up modern houses,” Maritim explains.

For 47-year-old Nancy Chebet, the USD 20 she used to make from constructing one traditional hut is no more since all her clients opted to build modern houses.

“Life is tough now because I have to fully rely on my husband to provide for the family. When my husband is away grazing cattle, it becomes hard to feed my children and this is having a negative impact on their health,” said Chebet.

And as pastoralist communities embrace new norms, the traditional female house roofers are feeling the pain on all fronts.

Jane Sei, a single mother of three, has not been able to take her children to school for the past two years after her only source of income closed.

Sei notes that house roofing could fetch her enough money to not only feed her three children but to take them to school.

“Until I get another source of income, they will just stay at home,” Sei says with teary eyes.

John Bartok, a cultural leader in Baringo says that the women home builders have no otherwise but to change with times.

Bartok says that the cultural engineers will have to train in modern house building if they have to survive in the sector.

“We cannot resist change, our women will have to upgrade and learn how to build modern houses,”

“As a matter of fact, they will make more money building modern houses compared to what they have been making in traditional house building,” said Bartok.

But for the women, changing with time is possible only if they get someone to pay for their training in masonry, plumbing, modern roofing and plastering, skills that will enable them venture into modern home construction.

“All our women builders are willing to learn, but the challenge has always been resources,” said Linet Chepsire, chairperson of the group.