Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 90, Summer 2009.
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I was just about to witness a young girl have her genitals cut off at the hand of her mother. Intentionally. With a razor blade. The government official, who should have prevented it from happening, smiled his semi-toothless smile at me, from outside the boma (homestead).
The chief respected the traditional law of no men allowed inside the ring of mud huts during the ceremony. He had no respect for the crime against Kenyan law that was about to take place, or the gross violation of basic human rights—a violent act against a helpless child.
The razor blade reflected the rays of the rising sun.
All around were smiles and hushed laughter. Expectations. The main focus for most of the people standing in and around the boma was to get it over with, but not out of sympathy for 14-year-old Mary, who stood shivering as the sun made its way above the horizon. They simply couldn’t wait for it to be party time.
And my role in all of this? I was the guest of honor.
I had read all I could related to female genital mutilation and I was on my second trip to Kenya to find out more about the 5000-year-old tradition. Somewhere along the way, I gained the trust of a community of Maasai, living life as they had done for generations, at the foot of Kilimanjaro. Human rights activist and photographer Justo Casal opened the doors for me and we had visited several times over the course of some months. I had even brought along my 10- and 15-year-old sons.
We tied bonds of friendship and, as a result, we were welcomed as family. The Maasai community opened their homes, inviting us to sleep with them around the fires in their huts made of mud and cow dung.
The last time we went, we arrived a few days before 14-year-old Mary was to be circumcised. I stayed with her family during the last hectic days of preparations before the event.
Her 18-year-old sister, Rita, adopted me as an older sister. She was my guide into understanding the surreal situation. Rita was talkative, getting on with her daily chores and including me in them. Making food, rounding up the cows and milking them. She explained to me how to make chiabata, a bread-like pancake fried on the open fire inside the dark hut. She taught me how to milk the cows by using gourds that functioned as a type of milk carton. She even dressed me as a traditional Maasai and showed me where to go to the bathroom in the bush where there were no trees to hide behind and how to brush my teeth with a stick. At night she covered me with a thin scarf and crawled close to me, to keep me warm as the fire died down. She tried earnestly to be the bridge between me and what was going on around me.
Mary, of course, was the real focus of attention. All the preparations were in her honor. They were performed according to age-old tradition. Mary went through the motions of doing the chores that were expected of her, but she seemed not to be mentally present. I could not reach her, despite my constant trying.
“She has a lot on her mind,” Rita explained and nodded toward Mary. She knew that what awaited her in a few days would change her forever.
Both Mary and Rita had attended school, unlike the girls in the neighbor boma who had been circumcised a few weeks earlier. I had met the 12- and 13-year-old cousins on a previous visit to the village, about two weeks after they had been cut. Both had been looking forward to going through the ancient initiation ritual that would transport them into womanhood. For them, the cut would open new doors. They could finally marry.
For Mary and Rita, the cutting and the aspect of marriage closed doors. They could no longer expect to continue school, to get an education or to move beyond the boundaries of their village. At school they had also learned of the dangers of being cut. They both knew of the immediate dangers of bleeding to death, dying of shock or contracting an infection. They also knew of the long-term complications they might suffer, such as infections, vaginal fistula, miscarriages and difficult child delivery.
I knew that Mary knew. I could not reach her, as she slipped further into her inner world.
“We don’t have the strong words to say no,” Rita told me. “But I won’t put my children through it.”
Rita had had her genitals sliced off a couple of years earlier. She claimed it didn’t hurt all that much. Proudly she kept telling me of her mother’s god-given gift of medicine. Not only was her mother a very good circumciser, but she was also the one whom pregnant girls and women turned to when delivering babies became difficult.
“She just knows what to do,” Rita stated confidently. Her mother’s abilities seemed to include divine wisdom about medical procedures and keeping pain at a minimum.
The young Maasai boys who heard Rita praise her mother so highly took me aside a bit later. According to them, the real reason Rita and Mary’s mother did the cutting on her own daughters was that the family could not afford to pay a circumciser. They pointed out that the goat that was slaughtered a few days earlier should have been a bull. The animal hide is used as a blanket where the girl sits while being circumcised and later functions as a sheet on her bed during the days of recovery. Each girl is to have her own personal bull hide. The embarrassment of Mary not having a bull hide of her own and of being offered a goat hide instead would later be covered up. The goat hide was nowhere to be seen on the day of Mary’s circumcision. Someone had traded it out for a used bull hide. Everyone pretended to overlook this crucial detail.
Circumcision is an expensive deal in Kenya. In Mary and Rita’s case, part of the financial burden was solved by their mother taking the razor blade in her own hand. But there is more to it than just paying the circumciser to do the actual cutting. Tradition requires slaughtering animals and feeding practically the entire community, not just on one occasion, but repeatedly over a period of about a week.
Having a daughter circumcised can bring a family close to the brink of financial ruin. This alone should seem reason enough for the poor to shy away from the age-old tradition. Oddly enough, the economic benefits are an incentive for the poor to scrape enough together to have their girls circumcised. Once a girl is cut, she is a financial commodity. She is ready to be married off. For the bride’s family, marriage means animals and money—a dowry.
The poorer the family, the higher the asking price often will be for the girl. For some men this can be a large problem. “I don’t have the prestige to marry a girl from a rich family,” sighed one Maasai boy. “So I have to make a plan of how to earn enough money to pay for many cows to get a poor man’s daughter.”
Although many of the traditions and reasons for cutting genitals off girls vary from tribe to tribe, the financial aspect is one that seems constant. Cut girls are ready to be married off, whether they are nine or 15 years old.
Miles away from the dusty Maasai village, the rainy season had just lifted from East Pokot. The arid, desert-like climate east of Lake Victoria is a harsh place to live. Water is normally scarce and during most of the year, the men take the cattle to water holes far from the villages. Women and children are left behind to manage as well as they can, with little food and no milk. The women walk for hours to the closest well or manage to dig up some water from the mud of the drying rivers. This water is nowhere near clean, but it is water all the same.
During the rainy season, water is in far too much abundance. Rivers overflow, making it impossible to pass. Malaria-infested mosquitos flourish during the rainy seasons and add to the hardships.
There is, however, a short period following the rainy season before everything dries up. In the month of July, East Pokot becomes a vivid and luscious, fertile place. I was awestruck by the beauty of the region, which seemed to be nothing less than a Garden of Eden.
One of the girls, Alice Chareem, rolled her eyes at my ignorant statement. “Come back any other time of the year,” she dryly stated.
During July, there is a small window of opportunity for the East Pokot when there is enough food and water to go around and when the malaria-infested flies are not quite as active. This is when girls all over the region are cut. They become the initiates—the old ritual that brings the girls in to womanhood.
“Come! The initiates are dancing!” beckoned Alice. At age 26 she was not circumcised. She was the first in her region to resist the tradition and had paid a high price for this. Despite not being cut, she found an East Pokot man willing to marry her. The marriage ended in divorce after years of physical and mental violence on his side. She feared that he would arrange a forced circumcision while she was giving birth to her third child, so she left him. The threat was a real one. Women who either intermarry from tribes that do not circumcise or who have withstood the pressures of circumcision have been forcibly cut during childbirth.
Despite her dramatic story and being something of an outcast in her community, Alice enjoyed frolicking with the initiates and the other youngsters in the village. She pulled me into the playful, flirtatious dance. On one side, the local boys formed a line. They jumped up and down and ran toward the girls’ line on the other side, teasing the giggling girls with their sticks. One boy jumped into the centre and a small line of girls broke loose from the girls’ side and bounced hand in hand towards the jumping boy. At one point he threw himself forward and ran in a tag-like play towards one of the girls. The girls then ran in every direction, while he playfully pursued the girl of his liking.
Alice and the other girls pulled me out into the line of jumping and flirting girls. And the boy who dared throw himself at me, the white uncircumcised Western woman, became the hero of all the other boys immediately.
The chanting and the jumping. The giggling and the smiles. The playfulness was a surreal contrast to the painful cutting away of the genitals of these girls only a couple of weeks before.
It was no secret which girls were newly cut. The East Pokot dress the initiates, the newly-cut girls, in brown garments. Their faces are painted white and they are adorned in all kinds of beads. There was no doubt that these girls felt pretty and sexually attractive while they jumped and danced. They celebrated that they now were women and anticipated getting married. Not one was older than 15; some were as young as 11.
Although many of the initiates probably would have preferred one of the playful, flirtatious jumping boys, they had very little chance of ever having these youngsters as husbands. The majority of these newly-cut girls would become the second, third, fourth or even fifth wife of a man twice to four times their age. In East Pokot, as in every culture that practices female genital mutilation, one important underlying reason for it is purely economic.
The girls’ playing and dancing would soon be a thing of the past. Within a few weeks, most of them would be sold off in marriage and take up the hardship and duties that are the reality of the East Pokot women. Even if any of these white-painted girls with their colorful beads once had attended school, they had very little chance of returning and getting an education.
As the sun set in the bush of East Pokot, the mother of one of the initiates came to chase her daughter and the other cut girls home. She frowned on the intrusion of the outsiders and did not approve of Alice being there. A bag of rice and a little sugar made her a little less hostile. It seemed appropriate at the time to buy her temporary approval. She was most definitely in the selling mood and her daughter was her most valuable commodity.
East Pokot mothers of newly-cut girls are, without a doubt, in the sales business. You can hear them from far off because they wear bells. Their dress outdoes that of the initiates. The mothers wear ostrich feathers on their heads and other ornaments that signal clearly to the world around them, “I have a cut daughter who is ready for marriage.” They are nothing short of walking billboard advertisements for a daughter for sale to the highest bidder.
The population in the remote area of East Pokot seem not to have caught on that female genital mutilation is now banned by Kenyan law. They made no attempts to hide the unlawful practice that continues, as it has for generations.
In the little Maasai village, some were very aware of the fact that the upcoming circumcision of Mary was illegal. The chief of the village, who also was the brother of Mary’s mother, had conveniently gone on a trip for the week in question. He had given us permission to attend, but would be nowhere near the goings-on. The chief from a neighboring village tried to run us off at first. He threatened to call the police and have us arrested for interfering in a place we were not welcome, but Mary’s mother assured me that the threats were just a way of trying to scare us into paying him off. Indirectly we did. Not by money or commodities, but by letting him test-drive our vehicle and by picking him and his four wives up on the day of the circumcision celebration, saving them for a couple of hours walk through the bush.
After we became buddies, he confided in me that he would never have gone to the police. He could lose his job if it became official knowledge that he did nothing to prevent circumcision of girls. “It is illegal in this country, you know,” he told me. “But it is such a deep part of our culture that we cannot force people to stop doing what they feel is the right thing to do.”
“The government asks us for reports on a regular basis,” he continued, and he admitted to lying. As far as the official statistics go, no girls are subjected to female genital mutilation in the district. That did not give me much confidence in the government-based reports from several African countries which claim the practice is in decline.
The chief claimed that he would indeed uphold the law if a girl came to him and said she didn’t want to be cut. This was not the case with Mary, according to him. She had consented.
I glanced in Mary’s direction. During the last few days she had had her head and brow clean shaven, had made jewelry and washed her black circumcision garment. She had grown quieter and more withdrawn, while everyone around her had gotten more into the celebration spirit. Goats had been slaughtered and abundant meals had been served. There had been feasts in the boma for the women and circumcised girls and there had been feasts out in the bush among the morani (young warriors).
The most unnerving part of it all was the blood. There seemed to be blood everywhere. The women tapped the goat for blood, mixing it in a gourd to keep it from coagulating. Bloody tea was served as a delicacy. Out in the bush, the morani men slurped the warm goat blood right from the animal carcasses.
Mary clearly felt caught. Female genital mutilation is embedded in the culture of many of Kenya’s tribes. Culture is above question. Some girls, however, choose another course of action. They run away.
“About a third of our students are so-called ‘needy’ girls. These girls have run away from home due to female genital mutilation, forced early marriages and other types of sexual abuse,” according to headmaster Nicholas Muniu at AIC Girls Boarding Primary School.
The first girl who sought refuge showed up at the door of the school in 1996, five years before female genital mutilation became illegal in Kenya. It was unheard of at the time for a Kenyan girl to oppose her parents. An increasing number of girls have since taken a stand against harming their bodies and have run away. Some to boarding schools that open their doors, some to shelters, and others to families who will hide them. These girls become outcasts and many are never reunited with their parents again.
“Our goal is to replace culture with knowledge,” said Muniu, pointing out the myths that keep the tradition alive. “People genuinely believe that uncut girls cannot control their sexuality, that the clitoris grows to the size of an erect penis if not removed, that babies will die because of the unclean blood of the mother and that circumcision actually prevents disease,” he explained.
“Many are shocked to learn that the opposite is true. They learn that the problems women encounter at child delivery have been caused by the mutilation. They hear that HIV spreads when girls are cut. They know nothing about these matters and we need to educate them.”
Muniu emphasized that it can be difficult for a young girl to be estranged from her family. The school tries to reconcile the girls with their families when possible, but the decision to trust parents who promise they will not harm their daughter if she is permitted to return home for a visit is difficult.
“We instruct the girls to keep their eyes and ears open,” he said. If a girl suspects that something might happen to her against her will, she is encouraged to trust her instincts.
“If they have the slightest fear of anything happening, we tell them to run to somewhere they know they can be safe. Run, and never look back.”
Female Genital Mutilation: Painful Procedure
According to WHO and UNICEF, 140 million women are victims of female genital mutilation (FGM). About two million girls between the ages of five and 13 undergo it each year. In some places girls as young as four months old are put through this painful procedure.
Traditionally older women or barbers perform the circumcision. Anesthetics are rarely used. Tools can be anything from razor blades to knives to pieces of glass. In order to avoid such poor sanitary conditions that can cause infection, the families who can afford it use medical personnel.
Female genital mutilation is performed in a variety of ways. The “mildest” involves removing the clitoris and parts of the outer labia. The more abusive methods include cutting the inner labia and sewing the vagina opening more or less shut. Two-thirds of the female genitalia is removed or mutilated. In the most extreme cases the genitals are burned instead of cut off, the wall between the anus and the vagina is punctured and other grotesque forms of mutilation are performed.
Sometimes things go terribly wrong and the girls bleed to death, either at the time the procedure is performed or in the first few days because the bleeding just cannot be controlled. Others fall into a state of shock.
Most survive the procedure itself, but must deal with the long-term physical and mental damages. Infections are very common. Cysts, pain during sex and problems urinating and menstruating are complications for many women throughout their entire lives. Giving birth becomes more complicated. Because the most extreme procedures ruin the inner genitals so badly, there is an increased chance of miscarriage and death during child delivery. Vaginal fistula is often an outcome.
Transmission of HIV is another problem, especially when the same razor blade or knife is used on several girls. In sub-Saharan Africa, where almost three million people contract HIV every year, 60% of those infected with HIV are women. How much of this can be traced back to FGM procedures is uncertain, but the risk of transmission is quite large following such bloody and unhygienic procedures.
Before the sun was up, Mary rose on the morning of the circumcision. She took a full body bath with ice cold water.
“The cold water helps against the pain,” Rita explained. All I could see was Mary shivering.
She sat all alone, dressed in her black cape, leaning against the wall of the mud hut. No one seemed to notice her. She seemed lost in a world of thought.
I sat down next to her, wanting to hold her hand. But how could I comfort her?
Mary’s mother signaled to her that it was time. Without a sound, she lay down on the bull hide that was placed in the covered door opening of the hut.
All the men and boys had left the boma. Only women and girls were permitted to partake in the sacred ceremony. We were gathered around the hut. The oldest women continued talking and laughing. They kept a keen eye on the entire process, to ensure that everything went according to plan. The younger women—those who had been cut in recent years—winced and had expressions of sympathy on their faces. They kept exchanging worried glances and never really looked in Mary’s direction. The girls who were soon to be in Mary’s place hid their faces behind scarves, peeking out in fear and horror.
I looked around for Rita. She was nowhere to be seen.
Four women held Mary, as her mother took out the razor. Not one sound came from Mary.
On one occasion her hand instinctively tore itself away from her aunt’s grip and she pushed her mother’s hand away from her genitals. The women held her tighter after that.
It was over in a matter of minutes. Mary’s mother beckoned me over with her blood-stained hand. Proudly, she pointed to Mary’s bloody genital area. She wiped a bit of the blood away, so I could get a really good look.
I remember thinking, “Does she expect me to clap her on the shoulder and admire her good work?”
The other women poked their heads in to see and nodded approvingly. Mary’s mother continued with her task, wiping large quantities of lard on the clean-cut, open wound.
The women helped Mary to her feet on the bloody bull hide. It is difficult to estimate how much blood she had lost, but I was shocked by the amount. She was standing in a bright red puddle.
Mary stood clutching her bulging stomach. Fourteen-year-old Mary was about five or six months pregnant on the day of her genital cutting. I was afraid that the shock or loss of blood would lead to a miscarriage. Ironically, it was because she was pregnant that Mary had to be cut and make her way into womanhood now. Not only as a symbolic ritual, but because the Maasai believe that babies will not survive childbirth if the mother is not cut.
Many ethnic groups that perform female genital mutilation do it to restrain female sexuality. In East Pokot, this is partially the case. “Uncut girls are too interested in sex,” according to a circumciser still active in East Pokot.
For the Maasai, sexual morality is not an issue. The myths that lead them to circumcise have to do with what they believe will happen to children of uncut women.
The circumcision was Mary’s sacrifice for her unborn child’s life.
Within minutes, Mary and her borrowed bull hide were placed in the mud hut. Some of the blood was wiped off the hide and Mary lay down on it to rest. At that moment, the boma erupted in celebration. Songs and chants were sung, faces were painted and food was prepared. People had come from near and far and everyone was hungry.
They performed a number of traditional rituals. One had to do with a branch that had been especially transported from far in the bush. Now it was sung to and erected outside the mud hut. Milk was squirted in a number of places. Rita returned in time to join in the festivities. All this and more was done in honor of Mary.
Mary, on the other hand, was in no condition to participate in the celebration of her coming of age. She lay in the dark, alone and unattended. I sat down next to her for a short while and she asked me not to go, telling me that the men soon would chant. For the first time in days, I believed that there was contact between us. But that was all she ever said. The next moment she relapsed into her withdrawn state.
Outside the mud hut, the celebration was well on its way. There was no way that I could consider swallowing a bite of the meat that was grilling; the smell of it had a nauseating effect on me. My breakfast of bloody tea still lingered in my mouth.
I took my farewells. As we were getting into our vehicle, the neighboring chief flashed his semi-toothless grin a final time.
“Come back in a few months,” he said waving us off, “when my youngest daughter will be cut. I’ll show you a real party.”