Face to face encounter
20th Nov, I set out to meet the most feared reformed cutter; Ms. Emily Enetukero Neboo. Neboo is definitely not feared for her knife, she is rather revered for prowess at her job! No other cutter from Ildalat le kutuk, Ilkaputies and Ilkeek-onyokie villages was renown, respected and skilled as Neboo!
About 30kms west of Kajiado town, a drive through beautiful landscapes of hills, baby mountains adjoining Mt. Kilimanjaro, vast fields scattering a mammoth of livestock and valleys of dried up rivers, I arrived at Neboo’s homestead, Sajiloni village. She had been expecting me. She abruptly halted tending to her livestock and instructed her grandsons who were consumed in play to take over her work. She warmly greeted me and gestured me towards her house. I politely declined and opted to sit outside her neatly-tended homestead. A quick rush of fear waved through me at the thought of her job. Well, she wasn’t going to perform the cut on me so I relaxed and exuded bravery!
She quickly popped into the house and emerged with two traditionally crafted chairs which we would sit on and have our candid conversation. She placed them a few meters from the door. I made myself comfortable but complained about the journey and the heat, obviously insinuating a need for some cold water. She beckoned her granddaughter Naisula*, ‘Naisula! Naisula!’ she yelled out on top of her lungs. Naisula quickly stormed out of the smokey traditional mud kitchen wiping her teary eyes and snorting, ‘Yeees!’ she responded. Neboo requested her to bring me water specifically meant for visitors. Naisula darted into the house and within a short time she emerged with a jar of water.
While smiling, she gently poured the water into a metal cup that I held, still, itching and wiping away her nose with the back of her left palm. I couldn’t help but admire her beauty. I hastily gulped the clear cold water down my dry throat; the rythmic sounds, (Kwa Kwa Kwa) a clear indication that I was thirsty! Naisula covered the jar, placed it down close to me (just in case I needed more) and mounted the cup. I thanked her. Her grandmother told her something in maasai language, she nodded and scurried back to the kichen where I could smell some food burning. While she was hurrying back, I was struck by the imagination that Naisula could have undergone the cut, or might have been spared.. That, I would find out later.
I downplayed the thought by chit chatting about the weather and quite irrelevant topics. Glistening pops of sweat wrung over Neboo’s forehead;- caused by the sun that danced dizzily in the sky with a strange cruelty. She suggested that we move to a cooler place, under lovely acacia trees outside her compound. After about an hour of talking and gigging we slowly slid in to the conversation….
Neboo, 55 year old widow, tall, dark, silky skinned beautiful woman, with perfect set of teeth and a beautiful mid gap on lower jaw had been performing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) for close to 25 years. As she revealed to me, she had cut close to 5000 girls including her daughters and relatives. She first started the practice years ago when she was birth attending to her brother’s wife. She was a traditional birth attendant then and had never seen a woman who was uncut. Unfortunately, her brother’s wife was not Maasai, she came from a community where FGM is not practiced. Neboo assumed something was wrong with her. She cut off her clitoris before proceeding with the rest of the business. There is where her skill was born! Luckily everything went well.
She remembered very well that years back, there was no law prohibiting the practice. FGM was a highly celebrated tradition that united the community. She sharpened her tools and with no time she was an expert. She started off by performing it on her own three daughters and close family members. During school holidays, she moved from homestead to homestead performing FGM. She became famous as her services were preferred. She revealed to me that she used to be picked up by a vehicle to go and perform en-masse FGM in neighboring villages. She would at one go cut over 100 girls!
Back then, Neboo would be paid either with live animals (a she goat) meat or animal fat. She recalled that the meat was so much that after drying it could last her though the next cutting season. Within the past decade, Neboo used to be paid 2000 shillings per girl. She garnered so much income that she was able to construct a modern house, educate some of her children and put food on her table. she was regarded rich.
The Actual procedure
Neboo described to me how she carried out the painful procedures; years ago, she used to perform type 2 FGM-excision; where the clitoris and the minora labia were scooped out.The vaginal lips were carefully and skillfully cut out to ‘perfection’. Animal fat was then smeared around the wound to manage the bleeding. (I trembled as she gestured). The girl was later told to stand up and go; that she had become a woman and should do things that women do! The flesh remnants were thrown away to the birds.
Cut girls were between the ages 12-16 years. She also revealed to me that as years passed, type 2 FGM caused infections as a result of bad care of the wounds. It also caused so much pain and bleeding. She changed to type 1; (clitoridectomy) where she only cut the clitoris, and later trained other cutters to carry out this type of FGM. She also started using local anesthesia to reduce the pain. Her first born daughter (Naisula’s mother) who was to take over from her used to purchase syringes and drugs from a local chemist-This brought a boom to her business!
The turning point
Neboo recounted to me a very disturbing tale. She remembered that last year she almost lost her 15 year old grand-daughter; Naisula, after she performed FGM on her. Neboo’s face became pale. (And yes am deeply saddened to learn that Naisula was cut; my heart sank!) After the cut, Naisula almost bled to death. It took the help of three professional doctors to resuscitate her. These doctors were secretly brought in to help because Neboo feared that if she took Naisula to hospital she would be arrested. She was aware of a cutter who caused death of a girl and parted with 200K shillings fine and is currently serving jail term. She was terrified. Of all the procedures she had carried out in her entire life this one turned very unsuccessful. Fortunately Naisula survived. Since then Neboo confessed that she has never performed FGM on any other girl. She vowed never to do it again!
Neboo also told me that she was approached by a community based organization called Il laramatak Community Concerns (ICC) to dialogue towards putting an end to the practice. At first she was quite reluctant. After weeks of pondering over the idea, she visited the organization and told them she was ready to work with them to end FGM in her community. She agreed to mobilize fellow cutters since she knew them. At the initial attempt, they too were quite reluctant. They feared that it could be a set up to have them arrested. After months of interceding, ten cutters agreed to come for dialogue. They agreed to be trained. The numbers kept growing as months went by. Continuous dialogue led to gradual behavior change. The women saw the damage they caused to their girls. They saw how they greatly contributed to young girls’ wasted lives, how FGM contributed to underdevelopment in their region since young girls dropped out of school and lacked both formal and informal education. They also were able to relate and note the difference between homesteads of girls who had been spared the cut to those who had been cut. Those who had gone through full education system economically uplifted their parents and siblings. The cutters eventually made a decision to stop the practice. They chose to publicly declare their stand so that the whole community is aware that they had downed their tools, that they had resigned..
After the six months training and dialogue with the rest of the community members. The women had learned about the social, economic and health effects of FGM (a practice that they previously believed was good for their daughters) and the need to keep their daughters in school. They had also become ‘Inkaitengenak’-(maasai name for educators and not ‘enkakitoni’-maasai name for cutters- a name that had given them so much pride.
They were also taught about available government funds that would support their small ventures. Together, they registered as a self-help group where Neboo is the secretary. And continuously receive training and support.
Neboo also said that she will enroll Naisula back to school and ensure that she studies to the highest qualification!
The public declaration ceremony
On 25th of Nov, to mark the beginning of 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence, a total of 55 reformed cutters took center stage to declare that they had ceased their services. The big ceremony held at Enkorika Primary School was attended by The Cabinet Secretary Youth and Gender Ministry Sicily Kariuki, EU Ambassador Stefano Dejak, Principal Secretary Zeinab Hussein, Chairperson Anti-FGM Board,Linah Jebii Kilimo, CEO Anti-FGM board Bernadette Loloju, World vision, civil society organizations and leaders from Samburu and Narok counties as well as the media and the local community.
Led by the chief cutter Neboo, the women brought all their circumcision paraphernalia and set them a blaze. It was one of the biggest ceremony in the land of Kajiado. Their decision was backed up by Morans who also declared that they would not marry cut girls. Community elders also declared their will to support and respect the women’s decision. Area chiefs said that they are now relieved that the women have made the big decision and it will no longer be cat and mouse games!
The Cabinet Secretary congratulated the women and made a commitment to help in the fight to end FGM in Kenya by strengthening laws, increasing funding and setting FGM and child marriage as a priority agenda.
The recently appointed CEO Anti-FGM board, Bernadette Loloju called upon everyone to join in the fight to end FGM in Kenya. She said that the board will continue supporting efforts by campaigners to end FGM.
A notable milestone
Kajiado County Childrens Stakeholders Network (KACCSNET) a netework consisting of more than 30 Non-Governmental Organizations, Faith Based Organizations, Community Based Organizations working together with the National and County Government in Kajiado drafted amendments on the law prohibiting FGM (FGM Act 2011) to suit Kajiado county context. Amendments pointed out that the law does not give solution on the educational and sensitization aspect of FGM as a violation of human rights. It only criminalizes the act forgetting it’s a cultural practice that communities can only drop if they are educated that it is wrong. The final draft is awaiting assent by the National Assembly. A move that is set to manage FGM in Kajiado.
FGM among the Maasai
In the Maasai community, circumcision has for long been seen as a rite of passage. It is a clear step between childhood and adulthood. Once a woman undergoes circumcision, she is ready for marriage. Maasai believe that the practice helps reduce immorality among girls because they are not allowed to engage in conjugal duties before they undergo circumcision. Besides, the Maasai believe that circumcision further helps improve people’s morality because it reduces sexual urge, preventing cases of girls engaging in sex before marriage and giving birth out of wedlock. The Maasai do not perform the practice to harm people, but rather out of love and care for their people, because they are truly concerned about their people’s morality.
Because of the negativity surrounding discussion of the practice, many Maasai are not willing to talk about the practice in public. Many Maasai families cannot afford to give their children formal schooling, so to protect their daughters from lives of poverty they choose to marry them off at a young age. Because Maasai girls are traditionally considered children until they are circumcised, it is seen as imperative for a Maasai girl to undergo the circumcision rite before she is married. This strongly ingrained cultural belief propels families to go to great lengths to complete the circumcision.
The actual circumcision ceremony takes place in early morning. The girl first bathes with cold water, and then the operation is carried out. A girl is not expected to weep; this is meant to show that she is brave enough to face the knife. This gives her fame and respect from the community at large and she becomes a role model for the younger girls to emulate.
Female circumcision as a time-honored practice among the Maasai, should now be stopped for the betterment of the Maasai girls. Despite the stated objectives of for performing female circumcision, it is obvious that the disadvantages of the practice outweigh its advantages. The Maasai community need to be informed of the disadvantages of female circumcision, which alongside other strategies can lead to the elimination of FGM gradually. Besides the physical effects, People who have undergone FGM suffer psychologically due to the trauma of the incident, and also because of the stigma it has obtained.
The Maasai community has managed to keep most of their cultural traditions intact thus far, and because female circumcision is a part of that culture, it will be a hard task to convince the communities to stop it. Thus all those involved in anti-fgm campaigns have their work cut out.
FGM Prevalence in Kenya
The National statistics stand at 21% , according the Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS,2013). A very recent report by 28tooMany shows FGM provincial statistics as below.