Women of the Maasai fight back for their daughters

Photo Simona Ghizzoni

Kajiado (Kenya) - “The Maasai society denies girls an education: they prefer to send male children to school…” A cell phone rings interrupting Faith in mid sentence. It’s an emergency that the small woman with tightly braided cornrows is used to tackling, cool headedly and quickly. “A girl has just been cut: the ceremony is happening right now, but we don’t know where exactly” she says as she listens to her informant, while trying to figure out the precise location in the savannah she will send a delegation of women and a police escort to help the victim and denounce those responsible.
 “Aren’t you going, Faith?”
“No, it’s safer if they don’t know my face,” she smiles, “otherwise I wouldn’t be able to travel around the villages anymore.”
In Elangata Wuas, a settlement in the Kajiado County in southern Kenya, 80 kilometres from Nairobi, everyone is familiar at least with Faith Mpoke’s name. In this 13 thousand people community overshadowed by the Odonyio hills, she is known as the “different” Maasai: a scandalously independent woman to some; an extraordinary example to follow to others. She is 33 years old, has a son and has been working with ActionAid international NGO since 2011. Every morning, from the gloomy town of Kajiado, she sets out in a jeep heading towards the steep, barren, dirt roads that lead to the thorny bushes enclosing the Enkangs, the camps with round, poorly lit, mud huts, and tries to persuade her people that it’s time to look towards the future. And the future, in the land of the Maasai pastoralists, begins with renouncing traditions that herald disease, maternal-infant mortality, ignorance and poverty.  Such as female genital mutilation (FGM). “I underwent it, too,” Faith admits in a faint voice. “But my mother was a teacher and she fought for me to be able to complete my school education. This is an issue that is still taboo in my family: they disapprove of me and find me shameless because I talk about it and take my decisions without asking my husband’s permission.”

In Kenya, according to the Unicef’s 2016 FGM prevalence report, 21% of women have felt the blade on their vaginas. The national prevalence varies within the more than 40 ethnic groups present in the country, and in the Maasai society (around 2% of the population) it reaches 73%. The semi-nomadic cattle herders, obstinately devoted to a patriarchal social system, impose the ormurunya, a traditional knife, on 10-11 year-old girls that entails the removal of the clitoris and the labia minora. Emuatare  - the Maasai word for female circumcision – is less ferocious than the infibulation typically carried out in the Horn of Africa, which concludes with sewing the vagina closed, but it still disfigures a woman’s body condemning it to haemorrhages, infections, and complications during childbirth due to the scarce elasticity of tissues. It also denies women sexual pleasure so that wives remain monogamous and submissive. “But that’s not all,” adds Faith Mpoke. “Emuatare is the root of female illiteracy and early marriages: a cut girl is considered to be a woman, thus forced to leave school to get married to an older man who offers the girl’s family a dowry in cattle, their most valued good”.
The “cut” is unrelated to religion, which for the Maasai is a syncretism of Lutheran Christianity and the cult of the ruthless god Enkai. Emuatare is rather an indisputable social norm that marks the passage from childhood to adulthood: “If you get pregnant before circumcision,” Faith points out, “you are branded as an Entaapai, a slut, and no obstetrician will assist you during childbirth.”

According to the Ministry of Health’s 2014 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS), prevalence of the cut has decreased 20% among the Maasai in Kenya since 2003, but the struggle towards women’s liberation is still rough around the edges. Yet Kenya is considered a champion in the battle against female genital mutilation in Sub-Saharan Africa: since 2003, FGM prevalence dropped by 16% nationally, and the report “Demographic Perspectives on Female Genital Mutilation” released in 2015 by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates a further decrease of 40% by 2020. There are two strict laws being enforced: the latest one, passed in 2011, foresees up to three years imprisonment for cutters as well as sentences for those who discriminate against women who are not cut. A government anti-FGM Commission was established in 2011 and since 2014 a national prosecution unit has investigated cases throughout Kenya to enforce the law. But within the confines of the Maasai Enkangs, the only supreme law is sanctioned by the elders following the path of the tradition.
“Many people organize ceremonies secretly,” reveals Konina Tarayia, 50, the chair of the local Women’s Network at Elangata Wuas. There are dozens of women members, of all ages, with short-cropped hair and huge, dangling earrings of coloured beads. They trudge on foot for kilometres to meet under the shade of the acacia tree outside the ActionAid office to discuss women’s rights and social issues. “We have suffered genital mutilation for too long,” continues Konina. “We want to spare our daughters and nieces from the pain. Once, a girl died from haemorrhaging: we women protested and her parents were arrested, but the cutter escaped.”
In two years, these relentless women, who mingle serious meetings with songs, dances and irresistible laughters, have convinced many families to keep their daughters intact. They visit schools to talk about women’s rights; they invent role-play games and even involve into the battle former cutters, who until recently earned 20 dollars a day to sharpen their knives. Like Kimuntet Kaise who, leaning against her hut under the sweltering afternoon sun, tells how good she was at healing the wound by covering it with a paste of cow manure. Until one day she saw her niece die: “I was shocked,” she confesses, “so I quit this job. The women helped me and now I sell wood to schools.” Ester Oseur buried her ormurunya knife long ago and she is proud to have physically struck “mothers and fathers who wanted to circumcise their daughters. The Women’s Network gives us courage: we are many and we are strong, no one dares attack us.”
“The Maasai society is male dominated: women don’t have a voice and they don’t have property rights,” clarifies Faith Mpoke, who actually founded the Women’s Network at Elangata Wuas. “These women have seized their place in the community and carry out an excellent work at raising awareness about the effects of FGM. They get fathers, husbands, and local leaders involved and explain that the only way the entire society will make progress is to send girls to school.” Julius Rotiken, an influential elder in one of the villages, is one of these “feminist males”. “My uncle did not have his daughters circumcised and I saw how they were healthier and did better at school,” he says. “Unfortunately, there are few men here who see things as I do.”
Lucy Yepe Itore is very familiar with the ferocious reprisals of the Maasai men. Vice Principal of the school in Il Bissil, not far from Kajiado, two months ago she made room in the dormitories for 20 girls taken from their families to rescue them from genital mutilation and early marriages. There isn’t a day that goes by when the Moran’s, the young Maasai warriors, arrive at the gate wielding sticks and demanding the return of their young girls. “They threaten me. I had to hire guards,” Lucy, a matronly woman who is not afraid of anything, says as she bursts out laughing. Like Faith Mpoke, she receives emergency calls from her “spies” in the camps and leaves on expeditions during the night to save girls. “In another rescue centre, we accommodated 130 girls,” she explains. “Some of them have since become nurses, one works for an international NGO and travels around the world. I am convinced that by allowing girls to study and further their education, we’ll be able to turn around not only their destinies but our people’s destiny as well.”
Sukuta is 9 years old, the youngest girl at the rescue centre in Il Bissil: she has a bright, sweet face and her eyes burst with curiosity. She looks much different from when she first arrived, traumatized and in terrible pain. She had been married for three months to a man as old as her grandfather who had bought her innocence with a dowry of five cows. “I would like to meet her parents and try for reconciliation,” whispers Lucy Itore. “But they haven’t answered. Many parents, once their daughters have settled here, say: ‘That’s it, she is no longer my daughter’. Very sad stories.”
Irene is only 13 but she’s already a mother. Lucy’s sentinels found her segregated at home. “All she was asking for was to continue going to school. Her grandmother is now taking care of her child.” Irene wants to talk about herself, but tears, weighty and paralyzing, flow over her words. Soila, also 13, ran away from two marriages and she sings us a song: “I sang it softly to myself to give me the strength to get through the worst times.”
To cover the education costs of the 20 fugitives (but their number may have doubled as we are writing), Lucy Itore organizes long-distance adoption through ActionAid. “All they own is their shuka, the Maasai blanket they were wearing when we saved them. They need everything.”
In the school-yard, watching them play with the water gushing out of the well, singing in a ring around the rosie, laughing loudly in their pink school uniforms, you can’t help but think they have already won the battle against that cruel legacy that was trying to rip their childhood to shreds.

UNCUT is a multimedia project by Emanuela Zuccalà. It has been developed with the support of the Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programof the European Journalism Centre (EJC), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and carried out in partnership with ActionAid NGO and the cultural association Zona.

The complete web documentary at this link: uncutproject.org

From Mail & Guardian (South Africa), 8 July 2016


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