SILALI, Kenya — Soitanae Ole Kyoiogo watched helplessly as his treasured cows dropped dead in the drought, one after another, until only two survived from a herd of 50. Desperate to feed his family, he turned to the only source of wealth he had left: his daughters, ages 8 and 9.
The 47-year-old Masai father arranged to marry the girls to a pair of local men in exchange for three cows per child, plus some blankets and cash.
It's one of the saddest side effects so far of an East African drought that has killed dozens and is threatening millions more with hunger. Child welfare advocates in Kenya report a sharp rise in forced early marriages, particularly among Masai families looking to replace lost livestock. A growing number of fathers in this southern Kenya countryside are trading their daughters' futures for bridal dowries.
"Because of the drought, my father wasn't even going to wait for me to grow up," said Timpian Soitanae, 9. "He was going to give me away."
The girls' mother, who is separated from Soitanae, foiled the secret plan with the help of a villager by alerting authorities and tribal chiefs, Kenya officials say. Police arrested Soitanae in December, long enough to remove the girls from his mud-hut compound and take them to a rescue center 20 miles away.
The detention came three days before he allegedly planned to have the girls undergo genital excision, a precursor to marriage.
Timpian and her sister, Suya, giggled and buried their faces in their hands at the mere mention of marriage or boys.
"I'm still too young," Suya laughed, covering an embarrassed smile with her doll-sized fingers.
Dressed alike in too-big green school uniforms, the girls could almost be twins. They've enrolled in first grade at an adjacent primary school and at night share the upper mattress of a bunk bed.
Both say they don't want to return home and express a sense of betrayal by their father.
"I don't love him as much as before," Timpian said.
Scanning the barren land around his home, the father denied any marriage plans, saying his ex-wife made up the story. "I'm just trying to feed my family," he said.
Food has been so scarce that he, his two other wives and 10 children survive on government-donated maize. The fields around the family's home are littered with rotting carcasses of cows, goats and donkeys. They skin the dead animals and sell the pelts for $1.50 apiece.
Soitanae also earns $70 a month as a night watchman in town. But it was the cows that sustained the family, providing milk, meat and even blood for nourishment.
"To us, the cows are everything," he said. In Masai culture, a man's esteem and identity are measured by the number of cows he owns.
Kenyan law prohibits anyone from marrying before age 18, even with parental consent, and outlaws female genital excision, an African tradition meant to symbolize a girl's transition to womanhood. The procedure, also known as female circumcision, entails cutting away part of the girl's sexual organ. It is painful and medically risky.
Despite the law, both early marriage and female genital excision are still widely practiced, particularly among tribes such as the Masai, whose pastoral lifestyle sometimes keeps them out of the government's reach.
Child advocates say they began to note an increasing number of underage brides when livestock began dying last fall.
Although drought has plagued East Africa for years, the failure of December rains and predictions that April showers will fall short has put more than 6 million people at risk in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and other countries. Humanitarian groups predict disaster if emergency food supplies do not reach the region by spring.
Child advocate Prisilla Naisult Nangurai measures the desperation by the age of the girls she has been rescuing.
"Now they are giving away girls even younger," said Nangurai, who heads the African Inland Church Girls Rescue Center in Kajiado. Seventeen girls fled to the center in December alone, she said, the highest monthly total she has seen.
Younger girls are less likely to challenge their fathers' authority or attempt to run away, she said. The fathers "want to marry the girls before they are old enough to make their own decision," Nangurai said.
She and government child-welfare officials say they don't have a full accounting of how many early marriages have been arranged in recent months. They base their concerns on anecdotal evidence and note that most such forced unions are never detected or reported.
Nangurai says she counsels Masai families as well about the benefits of educating their daughters. But with the drought, such arguments fall flat.
"When there is no water and no food, I can't go to a family and talk about a girl's education," Nangurai said.
Child advocates instead have had to rely more heavily on police and government welfare agencies to intervene.
"Our caseload is rising," said Louise Cheptoo, children's officer for the Kajiado district, where she estimated that illegal early marriages have doubled over the last year. Some mornings, girls seeking refuge are waiting outside the door of Cheptoo's government office when she arrives.
Finding alternate homes is a problem. "At the moment, all the facilities are stretched," she said.
Some girls are brought in by concerned family members or school officials, but others find their own way to the office.
When Naipei Melita, 9, heard that her father was arranging her marriage to a man in his 60s, she wasted no time planning an escape. During a milder drought three years ago, she had watched an older sister married at age 10 in exchange for five cows and grazing rights. Another sister ran away to avoid the same fate.
Naipei pleaded to go to school so persistently that her father threatened to beat her if she brought it up again. "What's so special about you?" she recalled him asking.
In December, she told her father that she was going to the well to wash her clothes. Instead, she and a friend hopped onto a cargo train and made their way to the Kajiado rescue home.
"She's an ambitious little girl," said her science teacher, Veronica Mbuva. Although Naipei had never enrolled in school before, friends and siblings had helped her learn the alphabet, to write her name and count to 20.
In addition to academic classes, girls are educated about their rights under the law. One workshop, called "Speak Out," teaches girls not to be afraid to express their opinions. It's a bold concept for many Masai girls, who are raised in a culture where women rarely directly address men and are not supposed to rebuff sexual advances.
Instructors begin with simple topics, such as the girls' opinions about the cafeteria food or school fees, and gradually move to more controversial issues, such as early marriage and genital excision, Nangurai said.
For some girls, the sense of empowerment is already apparent.
When asked whether she believed she was worth three cows, Timpian shook her head. At first she insisted she was worth at least eight cows. A few minutes later, the price rose to 10.
Then after mulling the matter for a while, she decided that the wealth of her future husband or the number of cows wasn't as important as the man's education.
Most of all, she said, "I want to be the one to pick my husband."