Brassy multicolored lights from shops, bars and trucks dot Kenya’s southwest Narok town at night. During the day, pedestrians in jeans and dresses chat on cellphones. Coffee shops are increasingly becoming staples at gas stations. But, a little more than 60 miles away, the spread of the sky, the red of the earth and the difference in style is jarring to the senses.
This is Elangata Enterit, Maasai land. Some of the area between northern Tanzania and southwest Kenya has been cordoned off for the Maasai people. Much of the land has been turned into national game parks and private reserves, making it difficult for the them to herd their cattle to water sources and to make a life off subsistence farming.
The Maasai have maintained a strong grasp on the traditions that make them distinct. They continue to live in homes made of mud and cow dung, gated by a ring of acacia thorns. They still wear bright Maasai blankets and adorn their ankles, necks and wrists with multiple, colorful, thick beaded bracelets. Cow’s blood is still drunk. Most striking might be the tradition of ear stretching, in which the lobe is stretched or pierced so that it is sometimes left closer to the shoulders than to the head.
Maasai jewelry and other accessories (including beaded leashes for dogs), and stays at “traditional villages” have a central spot in Kenya’s tourism space. The market economy and mobile phones have similarly infiltrated. Despite the adoption of some aspects of modern life, many among the estimated population of about 500,000 have fastidiously preserved its customs, keeping them undiluted by governments, private companies, globalization, and modernization.
One of these customs is female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C). Though the percentage of women and girls who undergo the practice across Kenya hovers below 30 percent, it’s still above 70 percent within the Maasai community. The World Health Organization classifies three types of FGM/C, each increasing with severity, from removing part of the clitoris to infibulation — cutting and reshaping the labia, and sewing most of the vaginal opening closed. The majority of the FGM/C performed in Kenya is Type One or Two. Besides the immediate physical and psychological damage, undergoing FGM/C can cause infections, cysts and complications in childbirth for both mother and baby, including increased risk of maternal mortality.
Maasai girls and teenagers are cut as part of a rite of passage. Undergoing the procedure represents a step toward womanhood and readiness for marriage. Nalangu, whose name has been changed, a (former) practitioner who estimates she has circumcised more than 1,000 girls, explained in an interview with Women in the World that without being cut, a woman has bad blood. Nalangu said she no longer circumcises girls, but still works with women as a birth attendant. She charges 1,000 Kenyan Shillings (about $10) to midwife a baby whose mother has been cut. She charges 3,000 Kenyan Shillings (about $30) for those uncut. “Her blood is dirty,” she explained.
Beyond this reasoning, FGM/C is just what’s done. “Cutting means to become a decent and marriageable woman, an adult member of the community,” Gerry Mackie, a political scientist who studies social practices, said. Without FGM/C, the traditional belief in some groups, including the Maasai, is that women won’t be able to control their sexual desires, and will be too distracted sleeping around to keep good homes for their husband.
In an unpublished but well circulated 1999 essay, Mackie remarked, “Like other outsiders I find FGC horrifying to imagine, but for an insider FGC is more like orthodontia than it is like violence.” It is not forced by malicious men on helpless women, but rather is believed by most to be beneficial for the child. “The people who do FGC are honorable, upright, moral people who love their children and want the best for them.” In the paper, Mackie compared FGM/C to American parents who pay for costly and painful dental work for their children. Much of the work is for superficial reasons — it’s difficult to be fully embraced by polite society and get a good job with a mouth full of disfigured teeth — even if nothing is seriously medically wrong.
“We’ve only been able to get it [FGM/C] down by a small percentage because it’s so rooted in the Maasai,” explained Tobikoyie Mpoke, an Assistant Chief of Elangata Enterit. Mpoke doesn’t wear the traditional dress, but instead a tailored shirt and slacks. His wife, Noorkieku, wears all colors and beads, the traditional dress.
According to Mpoke, it’s been 10 years since NGOs have been working to “sensitize” his community to the practice. FGM/C was formally made illegal in Kenya in 2011, Mpoke says the government does enforce the law, but does little to work with the community to educate and advocate for discontinuing the practice.
But such work is complicated, one government official told Women in the World. “The reasons for the slow progress go back to why FGM is practiced and these vary widely from community to community and no single solution can address the same,” explained the Honorable Dennitah Ghati, a Minister of Parliament and County Women Representative in the southwest. Ghati spoke of the work the government is doing with the authorities, and said that last year a number of arrests were made in Narok and in other parts of the country where FGM/C is commonly practiced.
NGOs do work with the community. Grace Uwizeye, a Program Officer with Equality Now, says that progress in Narok county has been made in recent years, and the law helps. “When we first started the campaign in Narok, there were no cases of FGM being reported but now the law is being used, people are being taken to court and imprisoned,” she told Women in the World. “A number of high-profile cases has helped raised awareness and now people know they will be arrested if they are caught cutting girls.”
Caroline Murgor, the National FGM Coordinator with the UNFPA (the U.N.’s population fund), says linking the anti-FGM/C cause to organizations that work on maternal mortality and education has been effective. Creating Alternative Rites of Passage (ARPs) to replace FGM/C has also resulted in some success. The UNFPA works closely with Kenyan institutions that maintain rescue-centers for girls that have run away from home to avoid being cut.
Naseyio Nkurrunrh, 15, is one of those girls. Nkurrunrh’s friend bled to death when she was cut. Besides that horror, Nkurrunrh also has a grinding sense that she could “reach higher” if she could avoid undergoing the practice.
So when Nkurrunrh was removed from school at about age 10 and told she would soon be cut, she approached a teacher who connected her to World Vision, a charity that works in the area.
Nkurrunrh explained the situation to counselors, and World Vision offered to support her at a boarding school in Elangata Enterit. Her parents were not consulted, she said, and, as far as she knows, no one told them where she was. She stayed at the school for a month, and then representatives from the organization traveled with her back home to talk to her parents, who were very happy to see her, she told Women in the World. Now, according to Nkurrunrh, her parents have changed their minds about the practice because the NGO explained the affiliated health problems.
UNFPA’s Murgor says parents are made aware of where their girls have been placed. “The rescue center and the Children’s Officer contact the area chief about the girls who in then in turn inform the parents,” she told Women in the World in an email.
Findings from annual demographic and health surveys show a steady decline of the practice of FGM/C in Kenya. Mackie has studied the trends, and attributes the decline less to NGO programming and more to urbanization.
“This is what they know,” Shinina Shani said, discussing the isolated Maasai communities. “Their world begins and ends at that village.” Shani, who works as the Area Programs Manager in World Vision’s Narok office, is from Naroosura, a Maasai community near Elangata Enterit. She desperately wanted to be cut when she was a child, but her father refused. Today, Shani is passionate about ending the practice.
According to Nkurrunrh, most of the girls in her class have been cut. A few other girls at the boarding school who have also “escaped” and are on NGO scholarships reported that they’ve been shunned by their classmates, because they haven’t been cut.
Going home for December holidays is an especially scary time for girls who think like Nkurrunrh. Every season, many refuse to leave or hide out at school, to avoid the practice, which peaks at this period when they’re back in their communities.
Surveys also note that the age at which girls are being cut is slightly declining. Both this trend, and the December high season, suggest that parents are making sure their children are taken care of before schools, NGOs and the government can have an influence.
Among the Maasai communities, the types of FGM/C performed are increasingly minimal in nature. What seems to be the most common is Type One, according to Assistant Chief Mpoke. This involves cutting off a bit of the clitoris. The healing process is quick, and no one notices, he explained. Mpoke has daughters, and has not cut any of them, in order to set an example. Noorkieku, his wife, chuckled when asked about the small cut. Her girls haven’t had it, but, “that one doesn’t matter,” she says.
Much like abortion, which, many argue, will happen whether or not the practice is legal, some see medicalizing FGM/C as an option. This would involve making sure the smallest possible cut happens in a sanitary environment.
Helen Joyce, the editor of The Economist’s international section who wrote the leader for the paper’s Op-Ed on such possibilities, came to this conclusion based on extensive reporting and research by the paper’s foreign correspondents. Speaking broadly of the practice, she explained that the paper is suggesting a harm-reduction approach, starting with infibulation, and clitoridectomy, which she says are “the worst forms of gender-based violence in the world.”
“I understand that people loathe the idea of institutionalizing FGM/C,” Joyce said. “But we have to keep a focus on the women and girls subjected to the worst forms — lessening their suffering is the most important thing.”
Nalangu, the former circumciser, has kind almond eyes. She jingles as she gesticulates. “I’m not happy with the government and NGOs,” she said. “They are forcing us to abandon our culture.”
“The Maasai culture is not being disrupted,” argues UNFPA’s Murgor. “We are reinforcing the good aspects of culture and empowering communities to address the harmful cultural practices which infringe on their human rights.”
Nalangu maintains that she no longer cuts, because she knows she would be arrested, but says that she would go back to doing it again if given the slightest opportunity.
Two administrators from the Kenyan government amble outside. When Nalangu is mentioned, they laugh and say she still cuts girls.