Against all odds, Erisen Lengerded (25) has managed to become a role model himself. Having grown up in a community that considered education unnecessary and with no one to look up to, he now brings his knowledge back home – and things are visibly changing there.
Text and pictures: Cynthia Omondi and Eunice Mwaura
We arrive in Samburu County through rough, dusty roads and a rolling countryside. We then proceed towards Maralal to meet Erisen Lengerded. This is northern Kenya, located north of the equator, where the land is mostly dry and barren.
The Samburu people are semi-nomadic cattle herders, who through time have relied almost entirely on their herds. With more cattle available than there is grazing land, there have been persistent clashes with the neighboring Pokot people. This is due to both communities’ migration routine in search of good land. In 2010, things escalated and cattle theft has been the order of the day ever since.
Education is not a priority here, mainly because parents prefer to take their children with them whenever they migrate with their cattle in search of pasture. According to the 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census, three-quarters of people in Samburu are illiterate – and 63 per cent of children over the age of three do not attend school.
Erisen Lengerded, born in Samburu and raised by illiterate parents, felt a desire to change the community. Although there was no one to guide him through his education, he struggled with it. He managed to get through primary school though on many days he’d be absent. He continued on his path at a secondary school for boys called Solai, in Nakuru County. Here his ambition was firmly anchored.
“My fellow pupils there were from all parts of the country,” he says. “It was a culture shock but I learnt a lot from them, especially during the visiting days. Their parents would come with full shopping bags, while my parents – far away in the village – did not even know what a visiting day was. I envied them. I never got to experience it, but I wished it for my own children, one day.”
Creating Cultural Empathy
A fire ignited in him from the experience of seeking knowledge far from home. He marveled at how developed the big city was, and wondered why this was not the case in his old surroundings. He wanted to do something for his own people!
“After I left school, I was motivated to stop the conflict. My family and I were particularly affected by it since we were forced to leave Samburu for Laikipia. I thought about how our communities could learn to live together in harmony. Our region is still backward and with little development, so conflict over the limited available resources is bound to flare up sooner or later; almost every family lives off livestock. I mulled over how a Samburu could live alongside a Pokot or Turkana, comfortably. How could such a thing be arranged? I proposed the concept of an Annual Cultural Exhibition of Laikipia to the County Council. It would be held in a huge *manyatta (a traditional Samburu house, ed.) with exhibitions from different tribes. This would enable us to learn more about each other and to live harmoniously.”
His idea was implemented albeit without his consent and without even informing him, presumably because he was ‘just a youngster’, he reckons. And yet it felt good that it actually came about, even if it was somewhat different from his original vision. Laikipia County still organizes a cultural exhibition every year.
Youth in Action Training
He managed to earn himself a university degree from Moi University in Eldoret, in Planning and Project Management, and is one of a handful of graduates from Samburu. “I had no desire to work under anyone,” he says, “Not commercially or in government, I wanted nothing but to work for my community. I wanted to give something back, in my own way. About the ‘how and what’ I just had no idea, not until I underwent the ‘Youth in Action’ training.”
He was fortunate enough to undergo a three-month advocacy programme in 2019. Youth in Action had been formed two years earlier under the auspices of Amref Flying Doctors by a group of young innovators. It was set up to address challenges defined by young people themselves. It provides tailored training, mentoring and coalition building assistance. Thanks to these efforts, African youth have gained an opportunity to alter national and regional policies, address the difficulties and then reach their full potential. Lengerded is proof of it.
“After the training,” he says, “I understood more about partnerships, collaborations, policy development and the budget process. That is how the journey of my own community-based organization began.” He believes that young people should be trained before they are given a budget. This will not only capitalize on their full potential, but will also exponentially increase their impact.
His Empower Pastoralist Organization of Kenya (EPOK) is strategically designed to educate and assist the pastoralist communities with sustainable development projects. It aims to raise the living standards towards a more favorable environment with minimal scarcity and better facilities.
‘The training became a clear road map. I now pick out potential partners more easily, mobilize resources and present plans to investors, all of which contribute to my growth. Young people have an amazing energy that only needs to be activated through capacity building to positively impact society,” he says.
Youth Advocacy and Public Participation
His love for public participation has earned him appearances on local radio stations, such as Radio Mchungaji. This allows him to educate the Samburu people on how best to engage with the government and hold its leaders accountable on issues of development. He takes every opportunity given to preach the gospel of public participation.
He was very persistent in his efforts to reach out to Professor Patrick Lumumba, the well-known Kenyan lawyer, writer and pan-Africanist. He firmly believed that the professor was the most ideal person to help him answer the tough questions he usually gets at public forums. “I knew he was the right man to help me, but it was not easy getting a hold of him. I relentlessly searched on the internet and finally managed to find his CV with his contact details. I saved the number and luckily it was on WhatsApp. After months of countless blue ticked messages, I finally received a response. My stubborn tenacity actually paid off,” he says with a sarcastic laugh.
Lengerded arranged for sixty youths from Samburu County to join countless others from across the continent for a Zoom training on – of course – public participation. It took five days and Prof. Lumumba did it for free. He noticed the impact he was having when he saw how dedicated everyone was. Without reimbursement of expenses, many spent their last shillings on mobile data to follow the training to its conclusion.
They learned, from insights about social accountability that if young people do not participate in the development process, the chances of political manipulation increase – and that is how it often happens. It was an eye-opener, an impetus to move beyond tribal tendencies and drive the African agenda with innovation and inventiveness.
He has built up a network of county officials and involves them in many matters, which often leads many to mistakenly believe that he is a County Council staffer. If an ordinary, average Kenyan wants to make an appointment with a governor, it is virtually impossible, but for Erisen Lengerded, it is no big deal. It took him no more than one phone call, and a few seconds later he had arranged a short interview for us with the Deputy Governor at his office.
He introduced us to Julius Leseeto, the Deputy Governor for Samburu County, who during the interview showed his admiration for Lengerded. “Erisen is a role model,” he says. “He contributes to the development of Samburu County by sacrificing his time and resources to make a difference in his community. He demonstrates great leadership qualities by leading the people by example.”
The Desert Rose
Together with Lengerded we set off for Baawa, a village in North Samburu, 25 kilometers from Maralal. The extraordinary sight of different types of cattle, camels, zebras and goats takes our breath away, with scattered *manyattas visible from a far as we approach a village. We are warmly welcomed by women who traditionally weave rope. The conversation immediately turns to our host.
“Erisen is always at the forefront when it comes to women and youth programmes,” says one of them, Ellie Modester. “He guided us through the start-ups and fundraising and now we are independent. Our community was very rigid, afraid to change our ways and embrace alternative methods of economic activities and livelihood. But because of him we slowly started vegetable gardens and small businesses that earn us a little income. On the radio he speaks in the local dialect, ensuring that most people here understand it and get to learn, even those in remote places.”
Women are the backbone of a community and when they flourish, the whole community flourishes, a saying that Modester fully embraces. She is a happy beneficiary of Lengerded’s advocacy work, and calls him ‘a blooming rose in the desert.’ According to her, having a young person from their own community, speaking their own language and showing them the way out of poverty is such a blessing. Their own son!
“Many children,” she says, “Can go to school now that women see and use him as a role model. By now we all wish to have our children educated and taking charge, it feels good. It is not easy to find a young graduate who returns to give back to their community. Most of them would rather choose an office job in the city. Something has really changed here since these women found an alternative way to make ends meet. They can take care of themselves and feed their children when the cattle fail. It is a growth they owe to this young man, Erisen Lengerded.”
Silango Youth Group
We get back on the road again head to West Samburu to a village called Silango. It is a ride of fits and starts, over impossibly narrow and rocky roads, and it is a miracle that we arrive, though with a flat tyre.
We meet 4 young women and 3 young men who came together to form a youth group. The youth group consists of eleven members though three young men had left the village with their cattle in search of greener pastures while one female had prior engagements elsewhere. They named their group Silango, after their village. The land here is vast and dry, as far as you can see, beyond the horizon, with no bushes or shrubs just withered grass.
Surprisingly, the Silango group owns a fenced nine-hectare piece of land where they have their project. Five hectares are cultivated, the remaining four are for the sheep and goats. They are an illiterate but sharp people and, with the help of an interpreter, it is easy to have a conversation.
“We met Erisen at a cultural event,” one of them says, “Where he encouraged the youth to use state funds for positive action by starting a youth group and initiating a meaningful project. Afterwards we spoke to him and asked for some clarification. He was very helpful and helped us register the group and seek for funds.” Luckily they succeeded.
They began by buying five sheep and through trade they now have forty three. They took a bigger risk in 2020 and tried cultivation on a dry land with unpredictable weather patterns. They planted maize on a five acre land and alas! They received very good produce that has lasted them for a year.
“We were so happy when our maize did well,” says another, “Which motivated us to continue. This year we tried something different, because the maize stock is still there. We chose beans, but as you can see, the lack of rain has dried them out.” It’s true, and it’s heartbreaking: so much time and effort put in and nothing left. “If you come again,” they say as we part, “Will you bring us some seeds?”
As we say goodbye to Lengerded, we ask him what he thinks about the youth, their future and how the narrative can change. “Our development is still a long way off and progress is only possible through true, sincere relations between policy makers and the community. It is the young generation that can change the world – all they need is resources and guidance. Now we are just workers for the older generation, and by definition the young do not yet have the experience that employers are asking for in vacancies. Young people should not be judged on experience, but on their ability and potential. We need to bridge the gap between experienced and inexperienced by giving young people a chance to prove themselves. If we stop treating them like juniors, it will be a better world.”
This story previously appeared in the youth special of Vice Versa.
Vice Versa Global is a platform spearheaded by young African journalists who are keen on telling the African story from the youth’s point of view by creating socially conscious content through vlogs, columns, video, articles and discussions in order to share ideas and spark dialogue about social change. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.