During the winter of 2007, while many people back home were enjoying what I consider to be the best time of the year, I was in Kenya as a volunteer teacher. Everyone in my American circle was busy holiday shopping, going to see “The Nutcracker,” making plans for New Year’s Eve, hosting parties and wrapping gifts. But in Transmara, the western part of Kenya that shares the Serengeti with Tanzania and boasts the famed Maasai warrior, there were some different traditions underway.
One Wednesday morning in November I saw seven girls mutilated.
My attendance at this event was precipitated by several important encounters and realizations, some by pure luck and others intentional. I had been in Kenya for almost two months by this time, having spent the majority of my weeks there as a primary and secondary school teacher, focusing on basic subjects like English, social studies and science. I never planned to get caught up in what essentially became an anti-FGM (female genital mutilation) campaign; on the contrary, I was shocked to learn that the custom was still practiced in Kenya at all, since the procedure had been banned by the “Children’s Act” in 2001. I quickly learned after a short time with the Maasai tribe that not only was the custom still deeply entrenched in their culture, but it was boldly advertised to ensure maximum participation by the villagers. My host, in fact, received a beautiful invitation to this particular event, the family obviously going to great (and expensive) lengths to ensure the ceremony was well attended.
I first learned of the prevalence of FGM in Transmara from one of the local school principals. I was in the middle of pitching an idea to take an afternoon with the older students to hold a health class of sorts in which we (the three other volunteers and I) would discuss adolescence and the onset of puberty and provide basic information about HIV/AIDS prevention and sexual reproduction. In the course of this planning, the principal mentioned that the class would have a great educational benefit for his students, particularly for the girls who were planning to be circumcised. Startled, I asked him to explain what he meant. He proceeded to tell me that several of the girls’ families were planning ceremonies to circumcise the girls to prepare them for marriage, and this was not just a moral issue with him but also problematic as an educator, since most of the circumcised girls never returned to school after having the procedure performed. I probably asked the poor headmaster a million questions that day, trying to comprehend the underpinnings of this Maasai custom and why it was still so prevalent. Over the course of that afternoon and over subsequent weeks, I gathered a wealth of information about FGM, drawing upon interviews with women (some of whom had been circumcised and some who were not) in the community, online research and any book I could get my hands on about the Maasai.
After my conversation with the principal, I spent the next month traveling with a fellow volunteer to local schools holding FGM awareness classes for girls and boys. It was immediately clear that there were several misconceptions perpetuated about female circumcision. We were asked by girls whether or not one could still contract HIV if she was circumcised and whether or not it was true that childbirth was easier post-circumcision. We were also asked by the girls if “Christian” circumcision was okay, since Mary (the mother of Jesus) had been circumcised. It was difficult to penetrate this very thick layer of indoctrination the girls had been subject to on the topic. Despite our attempts to lay out arguments against the practice, mainly medical, it was evident that it would take a long time for the culture to change its stance on FGM and provide girls and women more options for their future.
We also realized that, while our sessions with the girls were good exposure to other cultural norms, our legitimacy only went so far. We would need to enlist the help of local women, who had personal experience with this procedure and who could dispel myths about what constitutes a “good” Maasai woman. The Maasai take great pride in being courageous and withstanding adversity. For them, the circumcision ceremony has less to do with promoting female virginity and sexual fidelity (as is the case with FGM in other regions) and more to do with proving oneself strong or “mature” enough to join the tribe as a full-fledged adult member. It was surprisingly easy to find Maasai women who disagreed with the practice, with reasons ranging from religious conviction to the worry that it was keeping women in the cycle of dependency and submission to Maasai men. These were the women who eventually formed organizations dedicated to eradicating FGM in the community, continuing the work we started in those weeks leading up to the ceremonies.
I had serious reservations about attending the ceremony, and I wrestled with this decision for many weeks before I agreed to witness the procedure. I didn’t want the locals, especially my students, to think that my presence there meant I somehow approved of the practice. Even though I had been educating students and interviewing women for about a month at this point, I was still relying on secondhand accounts. The girls I was teaching had much more experience and knowledge about the procedure than I did, and my ignorance hampered me at times. A good friend of mine cinched the deal for me when he said, “Celena, if you go you will find your own truth, and you won’t have to rely on the stories of others.” That perspective was just what I needed to hear to convince me that I should go, with the hope of later taking this story back home to raise awareness about the issue. But it was still very difficult.
The ceremony actually started the day before the circumcision, at a compound near the school where I had been teaching. The first thing I noticed was how many guests were there—probably upward of 500 people, dressed in traditional Maasai clothing, congregating in colorful groups. It was quite a celebration indeed. Lots of food, drink and laughter, with all the makings of a great party.
After scouting out the expansive compound, I followed the crowd to the cow pen, where the seven girls stood in a line, chanting, singing and whisking wildebeest tails in time with their music. The bells attached to their legs jangled loudly while they danced. Their outfits were an odd mixture of African and Western clothing: red baseball caps with the bills flipped up so their foreheads were exposed; slip-on rubber soled shoes; white tank tops stained from the red ochre plastered all over their bodies; skirts that were very short, much shorter than any skirt I’ve seen a girl wear in all of Kenya; several gorgeous Maasai belts of all colors wrapped around their waists; and an assortment of necklaces and bracelets covering their necks and arms. Some women kept wrapping scarves around their necks, too, as well as crocheted shawls. Their faces were the eeriest, painted orange-red with black circles around the eyes. It was a very haunting look.
The girls appeared to be in sort of a trance as they sang and gyrated, closing their eyes for long periods of time. A few women circulated behind them, coaching them constantly. One of the women in particular gave me chills. She was old and thin and bald, with ears lobes hanging down to almost her shoulders (per “old school” Maasai tradition), with hawkish eyes and manacing eyebrows. She didn’t want me there, I could tell. Other women observing the activity pushed me to the inside of the circle where the girls were being surrounded so I could get a better view. The “coaches” eyed me suspiciously, knowing, I’m sure, that I didn’t approve of all of this, despite my attempts to appear unaffected. I continued to watch for thirty minutes or so, taking it all in. There were many other girls dressed similarly, I suppose in a show of support for the circumcisees. They all walked around in packs, giggling and giddy with excitement over the event. A few of the women were noticeably drunk.
I then walked around to the other side of the compound and saw several groups of teenage boys dancing and singing. They were performing the traditional Maasai “jumping” dance whereby the boys stand in a circle or square and two of them at a time go into the center and start jumping, their bodies completely taut and straight. They can jump very high, some of them a couple of meters. It’s impressive, and meant to be so to attract female attention.
One of the local boys I befriended joined up with me then and was able to explain many of the traditions. He pointed out the hut that had been specially made for the circumcised girls, and I ventured over. Inside I saw several of my Class 7 and 8 female students there as well as some boys, who looked a little sheepish given our discussions about the risks of FGM at school. The hut is specially made for the girls to retreat to after the procedure is performed. They are kept apart from the rest of the community for several weeks to heal and receive special instruction. Although these girls are barely teenagers, this is surprisingly age appropriate: usually the girls are married off right away, after they emerge from the hut and their training is complete. It’s the opinion of several of the women I interviewed about FGM that this time in the hut may have a more negative impact on the girls than the actual cutting. The indoctrination is quite severe, likened to hazing. The girls are not just instructed on how to be good wives and mothers, but they are also told to sacrifice themselves at all cost for the sake of the family and the community. They are also subject to degrading rituals like strapping a baby doll to her back and walking on her knees around and around the hut, all night long, presumably to prepare the girl for the inevitable hardship of motherhood. In some cases, the girls are stripped of clothing the entire time they are in seclusion. Not only does this facilitate the domineering instructor-to-student relationship, but it also serves as a constant reminder to the girl that her body is not her own.
It’s the kind of instruction that motivates the typical Maasai woman to get up every morning before sunrise, start the fire, milk the cows, gather more firewood, prepare the calabashes (gourds which carry milk and other liquids), make breakfast and tea, then get her husband out of bed. After she feeds him and the other children, she takes a jug or two or water to the well, fills them and carries them home, perhaps with a baby tied to her back if she’s a new mother. When she returns home, there is laundry to do (by hand, mind you), cleaning to do, cows to be taken out to pasture, other animals to be fed and more cows to be milked. Two more meals and another serving of tea will likely be prepared before day’s end. If she’s “lucky,” she’ll have a large brood children to assist with some of these back-breaking chores. She won’t go to bed until after everyone else in the house does, and the next day will be more of the same.
If Maasai men engaged in similarly rigorous activity, maybe all of this hard work would be understandable. But because of a lack of employment in the rural areas, many Maasai men suffer from what the locals call “idleness.” I was shocked when a Maasai man unapologetically told me, after I asked him about this obviously unequal division of labor, that they take their lessons from the lion, who lounges around all day long taking naps. They wait until a lioness has made a kill for herself and her cubs, then the lions get up off their lazy haunches and go take half of it for themselves.
The next morning I woke up while it was still dark for the main event, threw on some clothes and tried to psych myself up for the circumcision ceremony during my walk up the hill back to the compound. I arrived at the ceremony about an hour early, giving me plenty of time to observe the excitement and early morning drunken revelry as preparations were made. A crowd had gathered in the cow pen forming a half-circle, comprised disturbingly of mostly young children. The older boys and men hung back and congregated at the sides, leaving the best view for the girls and women. Everyone seemed very happy. I wish I could say that an ominous cloud hovered over the event and there was a sense of dread, but unfortunately there wasn’t; I suspect I was the only one there whose stomach was turning cartwheels. Even for the ones there who disagreed with the practice, at least it wasn’t anything new.
I wasn’t sure how I would respond, but I was determined not to show any sort of weakness. I wasn’t going to get sick or make a scene, no matter how difficult it was to watch. The Maasai pride themselves very much in their strength and ability to withstand pain (hence the coming-of-age ritual), and I knew I wouldn’t have any “street credit” with them if I fainted or did something stupid.
One of the older Maasai men (walking around taking swigs out of a large whiskey bottle) saw me on the fringe of the crowd and insisted that I move to the very font, in the very center, the best seat in the house. I stood there at first being gawked at, then sat down on a rock at my feet to get out of the limelight a little. It didn’t work. Everyone still whispered to each other, wondering why the “mazungu” was there. This worried me because I noticed several of my students were in attendance. I think, unfortunately, that many of them were left with the impression that I did somehow agree with the goings-on by being there, but that couldn’t be helped. It was an unfortunate side effect.
A line of girls behind me were dressed up the same as the day before, singing/chanting similar music. In front of me the older women laid out large animal skins over the dung and sparse grass in the cow pen for the girls to sit on during the procedure. At one point one of the women came over and asked me something in Maasai I didn’t understand. A girl next to me translated. She wanted to know if I was circumcised, because if I was, I belonged on the other side with the women. Uh, no. Some of the girls and boys around understood the exchange and giggled. Silly mazungu’s not circumcised! She’s like us: a child!
Over to the side, next to the fence, several women grabbed a goat, tied its legs together, took a big knife to its throat and sliced it. They waited a brief moment, then started cutting it from neck to anus. I had to look away.
Finally, in the distance I heard some whistles and chants and cheers. It was the group of girls, on their way. The crowd started yelling and the women ululated loudly. The girls arrived in a line, escorted by older women and their mothers, blowing whistles feverishly. They looked almost possessed with their eyes closed, gyrating rhythmically together, their faces painted red with those haunting black eyes. The bells tied to their legs jangled incessantly, adding to the chaos.
The “nurse” administering the procedure started preparing with the help of another female assistant. I watched them carefully throughout to see how sterile the instruments were and how strictly she ensured that blood was not spread from one girl to another. She took great care to use a different razor blade (yes, razor blade) for each girl, and she changed gloves in between each girl as well. This practice has evolved with the times, with the reality of rampant HIV/AIDS in this region. These aren’t bush people (although the practice is still performed in the bush under much more austere, dangerous conditions)—this community has access to alcohol pads, syringes, needles, rubber gloves and stainless steel razor blades procured at local clinics. In fact, after interviewing the circumciser privately after the event, I learned that the girls received a reasonable degree of medical attention before and after the procedure. She told me she injected the girls with a tetanus shot one week prior to the circumcisions. Right before the cut was made, on the morning of the ceremony, she gave them local anesthesia. She confirmed that the girls didn’t feel any pain while she was cutting them with razor blades. A few minutes after the procedure was finished, she gave them each two painkillers. About ten minutes after that, the girls were administered penicillin shots in their legs. Later, after the girls were brought into the hut, they were given a cleansing wash to clean the affected area with every day. And one week after the ceremony she followed up with a visit to clean the wounds and ensure there wasn’t any infection.
Even though it’s obviously better for the health and wellbeing of the circumcised girls in question to receive this level of care, this new method makes some medical arguments against FGM no longer valid. If the perpetrators of this practice have managed to make it virtually sterile, almost healthy (not many other children receive tetanus and penicillin shots in Transmara), then the physical risks can be equated with the same medical risks posed by male circumcision that is widely practiced around the world and which many Westerners are loathe to condemn. Being shut in a hut with a dirt floor wrapped in a recycled animal skin for a month may present some problems, but for the most part this community has managed to prevent the spread of disease and infection with regard to FGM specifically . This theory was supported by the district hospital and local clinics I visited, who reportedly receive very few patients who have been recently circumcised. Of course this could be due to the lack of clinic use to treat minor infections, but it’s clear that young girls are not dying by the droves as a result of FGM. A greater threat to their health and one of the long-term effects of certain types of FGM is difficulty during childbirth. Because the affected skin is scarred and loses its elasticity, circumcised women commonly tear while giving birth, causing a whole host of other problems in unsanitary environments. These cases are reported in much higher numbers among Maasai women.
As the crowd chanted and sang, I was pushed/grabbed/pulled to the very front, so close I could have touched the girls if I’d wanted to, to see everything clearly. The first girl was pushed onto the ground, then whipped by an old woman so she would open her legs wide. The circumciser proceeded to bend down, pinch the girl’s clitoris and pull it away from her body, then use the razor blade in her right hand to cut the prepuce off. Immediately the area started bleeding profusely and the girl’s legs were shut tight. The entire procedure, from start to finish, took about five to seven seconds.
It was evident that the speed of the cutting was intentional as well as many other elements of the ceremony. The whistles, for instance. The girls kept blowing them the entire time, which prevented them from crying out. The whistles reminded me of pacifiers, which was exactly what they were. The sound of the whistle also seemed to have the same effect that chanting does in a military formation—sometimes what pushes the soldier through fatigue is the constant rhythm of the jodie, sung in unison. The girls were also herded very fast and kept in a line to keep them from seeing all the blood and the activity happening in front of them, until it was too late and it was their turn. Just like cows in slaughter houses, I thought. Additionally, the girls had been kept awake all night long, so they were undoubtedly exhausted. The girls were probably running on pure adrenaline by the time the cutting took place, when one takes into account their lack of sleep, the excitement of the crowd and the requirement to constantly sing and dance.
After every girl was cut, they were all told to stand up, jump around and celebrate for a few minutes. After their ecstatic display, they collapsed onto the animal skins, soaked with blood by this point, and fell into the arms of their mothers. The mothers themselves had tears streaming down their cheeks, crying tears of joy. Their girls were now “real” women, ready to be married to the man with the highest number of cows. What respect, pride and wealth the girl was helping to heap on her family!
After the circumcisions were finished, the girls (very wobbly by this time from the loss of blood) were given orange Fantas to drink while they accepted congratulations for another fifteen minutes or so. Later, they were assisted by their mothers to the area outside the hut I mentioned before, underneath a shady tree. They lay down on the grass while women fussed over them. Most people were staying away from the girls by this point, and I debated going home right then, feeling pretty worn out myself. But I mustered some courage and charged the hill in their direction. I walked over and looked around, trying to figure out what was happening and how the girls were faring. Two women approached me, talking in Maasai very heatedly. A young man was summoned to translate, and the women essentially said that I wasn’t welcome there anymore. I was interfering with their custom, and I needed to leave or I would be caned. Fortunately, no international incident occurred that morning. I simply left, reminding myself, once again, why I was there and why it was important that I remain calm.
After the threat of violence, it occurred to me that the Maasai women must feel very empowered by this custom, for it is one of the few times in their lives when they are afforded complete control by the men. There are a handful of rituals and practices in which Maasai women are extended this power, and no doubt they embrace those times. I wondered then if this practice was partly perpetuated because it allowed the women to not just rule among themselves, but to also steer the men (and anyone else they desired) clear for a change.
On my way out, I passed merrymakers all around the yard, dancing and drinking on the lawn. They continued this frenzy all day and into the night. I could hear them up on the hill well after dark, well after the girls had been shut inside the small hut for their weeks of seclusion.
To get to the crux of the issue of FGM, there are many other aspects of the Maasai culture that are worth examining that I haven’t already mentioned, not least of which is tradition of a wedding dowry and the bride price. At first when I heard that it was required of a prospective groom to offer gifts (usually cows) to the family of the bride, I thought this might be a positive thing. I figured it showed a degree of respect for the value/worth of a future wife (if eight cows can be considered a “good” value), as opposed to the dowry required by the bride’s family in other cultures, which always seemed to smack of bribery to me. Here, take this daughter off my hands, she’s just a liability. But what’s problematic about the Maasai tradition is that it encourages marriage—including early marriage of girls to much older men—to increase the wealth of the bride’s family. The father has a financial incentive, perhaps the worst kind of incentive (and a very compelling one in this poverty-stricken region) to marry off his daughter. And since the culture demands that circumcision take place before a girl can be married, you can see how this plays out. The tradition contains the trio of sex, money and power combined, with the girl a helpless victim in this societal construction. She is the quintessential piece of property Western feminists have been railing against for a hundred years or so now.
Witnessing FGM is an event one never forgets. But what struck me about the procedure wasn’t so much the physical aspect, though certainly the associated pain is a huge part of it, but the emotional effect. The cut isn’t just skin deep; it’s also a circumcision of the spirit. The girls are now part of a process that has been centuries in the making and will likely negatively affect another generation of Maasai women. The circumcision is just the beginning. Afterward comes almost immediate marriage, then children in rapid succession. It is not uncommon for these girls to have three children by the time they are eighteen. And they will, on average, have six or seven.
The focus of anti-FGM campaigning should extend beyond just education of the risks posed by the procedure. It should also include assisting women to become financially independent and in giving them more reproductive choices. It need not be a foregone conclusion that Maasai women struggle to support large families. This is not to suggest that having large families is wrong or ignorant—but surely it’s obvious that having a family that can barely have its needs met isn’t ideal for a parent or child in any culture.
Several Maasai women mentioned to me during my time in Kenya that they were desperate for information about birth control options. I remember very clearly sitting around a rickety wooden table at the local school, discussing this topic with a couple of the female teachers. Their eyes widened as I described different types of contraceptives to them, and they looked rather puzzled when I tried to describe how an IUD works. They clamored for more information from me, even after my own personal knowledge was exhausted. I learned from the local clinicians that certain types of contraceptives are made available, but most women don’t take advantage of what’s offered for various reasons, to include the lack of transportation to and from the clinic, taboos and myths surrounding birth control and initial negative reactions/side effects to the contraceptives that cause the women to lose the motivation to keep trying new types until the right one is found. I heard on more than one occasion from local women that ingesting birth control causes barrenness, and this made many of the women too anxious to try it.
If the world is to make any real contribution to eradicating the practice of FGM, we must take a multifaceted approach and extend into many arenas. Educating communities about FGM risks, facilitating women’s organizations and support groups, providing culturally appropriate trade training for financial self sustainability, helping local clinics make health care and reproductive options more readily available and interacting with women and girls on a personal level to show them different examples of womanhood—these are just a few ways that we can make a real difference.