April 17, 2024
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The Cruelest Cut

It’s illegal, but Maasai tribes keep defiantly slicing off the clitorises of their girls

By Sibylla Brodzinsky

There was nothing in the smooth brown skin of Salula’s small, wide-eyed face that gave the slightest hint that she was a woman. She hadn’t the slightest intimation of breasts and her slim hips had yet to begin curving into womanhood. But to her community, a clan of the Maasai tribe of southern Kenya, Salula was a mature adult ready to accept the few privileges and many burdens of being a wife. She was a woman to them because, as is the tradition of her tribe, her clitoris had been chopped off and the labia of her tender vagina sliced. Salula was nine years old.

Just over three months before I met her in the dusty Kenyan town of Narok, Salula’s mother had told her it was her time to become a woman. Her short childhood was to come to an end. Salula knew vaguely what that meant. There was to be a ceremony, something was to be done to her. She was afraid.

“I didn’t want to become a woman,” she tells my translator in her native language, Maasai. She didn’t know she had a choice.

As we speak, she repeatedly scratches the capital letter “A” onto the dark, dry skin of her right leg. She is just now learning the alphabet. Never having been allowed to go to school she had learned neither of her country’s national languages, Swahili and English.

Nor had she learned of the dangers and complications of what is euphemistically called female circumcision, a rite commonly practiced for different reasons in different ways in 28 African and Arab countries.

A Nine-Year-Old’s Clitoridectomy

For Salula it began before dawn on the chosen day in her small village on the edge of the world-famous Maasai Mara Game Reserve, where thousands of tourists flock every year to marvel at lions, leopards, elephants and other wildlife in the beauty of the wide-open East African landscape.

She half sat, half lay on a cow skin shivering in the morning cold. A village woman supported Salula’s back and wrapped her arms tightly around the young girl’s frail chest. Two others held her legs open. Suddenly there was a searing pain “down there,” and there was a lot of blood. It took two months for her wound to heal and even now, she murmurs, it sometimes is still painful.

Once she was healed, it was time for her to be married. Her father would give her as a second wife to a man his own age in exchange for wine, beer, new blankets and a few cows. Salula was decked out in new clothes and shoes, her head smeared in a foul smelling red ochre paste made with cow dung. She did not want to be married, she tells me. She saw her husband to be for the first time on their wedding day. But again, she didn’t know she had a choice. This was the way it had always been done in her village.

A village official had secretly sent word to a local NGO about this child bride. Just as the bride and groom prepared to leave for his village, two policemen who had posed as impromptu wedding guests arrested the father and groom.

Salula was taken to a safe house, and from that day her life changed completely.

The Safehouse

Three concrete block buildings and a shed are an unlikely frontline in the revolution that is occurring in Kenyan Maasai culture. This is home to more than 30 girls ranging in age from 9 to 18 who have escaped circumcision and early childhood marriage. This is the Tasaru Girls Rescue Center, a bastion of the campaign to stop traditional genital cutting in this southern region of Kenya.

Dozens of girls sat quietly at desks doing schoolwork, even though they were on holiday from their boarding schools. They come here now when school is out instead of going home to their villages where they would face pressure to conform to tradition.

As I was shown around the center I saw one girl sitting alone in a large room that served alternately as a dining hall and schoolroom. Her overgrown, filthily matted hair adorned with a metal headband identified her as a new initiate, meaning she has recently been circumcised. She was wrapped in a once-colorful but now faded and threadbare shuka cloth traditionally worn by Maasai women. She, too, had come here escaping marriage.

I accompanied her to a barber shop in town where her head was unceremoniously shaved while others in the shop laughed about her sorry state. She did not understand what is being said since she spoke no Swahili, she had never been to school. She just sat silently in the chair watching in the mirror as tufts of her hair fall onto the blue and white checkered cloth, the electric razor buzzing under blaring music. She had the look of someone accustomed to having things done to her.

The Crusader

Agnes Pareyio, a stocky buddle of dynamic energy, is the heart and soul of this safe house, which has become the headquarters of her crusade to save as many girls as she can from the knife that she herself was subjected to at age 12.

Standing up to her mother, she had refused to be circumcised. But her determination was worn down by taunts and gossip in her village.

“It went all around the village that I was coward,” Agnes told me as we sipped sodas in a gaudy garden restaurant on the main road in Narok.

Sappy Dolly Parton songs blared over the loudspeakers. “So to prove I’m not a coward I agreed to be cut,”  she said still with bitterness in her voice. “I hated the whole thing.”

After being married off in the tradition of the Maasai, she began to get involved in grassroots women’s organizations promoting girls’ education. In a small study about girls’ dropout rates they discovered that after circumcision the girls were married off and never returned to school. So they decided to tackle the big taboo issue of female cutting head on.

I had been told of Agnes’ favorite teaching tool, so I thought I would be prepared to see it. But when it was brought out for me to see I had to hold back my nervous laughter. There sitting on Agnes’ desk at Tasaru was a beautifully carved wooden model of a woman’s pelvis, the truncated legs spread wide. In the middle is a modular space where she places wooden blocks depicting vaginas in various states of cutting.

One block shows a healthy, complete vagina, the clitoris and labia in tact. A second one depicts a vagina that has been subjected to excision, a type of circumcision in which the clitoris is removed completely and the inner labia are sliced off, as this is the type of cutting most common among the Maasai. A third block shows the most severe form of mutilation in which in addition to the excision, the outer lips of the vagina are sewn together, leaving only a small opening for the passing of urine and menstrual flow.

Eunice Kenana, a teacher at Tasaru, popped in the block that represents a normal, healthy vagina complete with clitoris and pink labia. She taps it with a pen. “Beautiful,” she declares with a broad white-toothed grin.

This shockingly graphic and highly effective teaching tool is what Agnes and other Tasaru volunteers take with them on their rounds of the villages for “sensitization” meetings where they gather the men and the women in separate groups and outline for them the problems and complications of genital cutting.

When Agnes first began her crusade in the mid 1990s, people thought she was crazy and she was accused of lying to the women about their bodies and trying to destroy Maasai culture. Often she would show up at a village only to find it temporarily abandoned, its residents gone into hiding from her, and her teachings. She grew a thick skin to deflect the criticisms and continued her struggle. With time and persistence Agnes gained the respect of many in her region and was even elected to a slot on the local county council.

In 2002, with funding from The V-Day Foundation, founded by Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler, she established Tasaru. Girls seeking to flee mutilation and marriage see it as a refuge. But many in the community think of it as “the place where they steal our children.”

Or Else Your Clitoris Will Grow Long and Green!

Many Maasai men have never seen an uncut woman, said Chris Oloishuroh Murray, the only man on Tasarua’s board of directors.

“When we talk to them about female cutting they seem surprised to learn that some of the problems they have seen their wives have are related to circumcision. They are especially surprised that their wives lack of interest in sex is directly related to this cutting.”

At meetings with Maasai men, Oloishuroh Murray said, he is often asked whether girls will become more promiscuous if they are not circumcised, and if they will become prostitutes. The men worry about not being able to satisfy their women.

The women villagers are more worried about carrying on their traditions and ask what will be left of their culture if female genital mutilation is stopped.

But the biggest question from both men and women is “Who will marry uncircumcised girls?”

Traditionally in Maasai culture a girl cannot be married unless she is circumcised because that act is what makes her a woman.

Ellen and Phyllis, both 15 years old, arrived at Tasaru when it first opened, escaping their respective circumcisions. Ellen says she had been told in her village that if a girl was not circumcised, her clitoris would grow long and turn green and fall off in pieces. At school, she had learned about the female anatomy and the dangers associated with female genital cutting.

But while they saved their clitorises, they have lost an important connection to their traditional culture.

Both Phyllis and Ellen know that being uncircumcised means they will never marry within the traditional community.

“Boys say they will not marry girls who are not circumcised, but we say we will find boys who will,” said Phyllis.

In any case, they both now have bigger plans: Ellen planned to become a journalist and Phyllis said she dreamed of becoming a doctor. There was little chance they will ever return to their villages to continue the traditional way of life.

They have both gone through an alternative rite of passage sponsored by Tasaru, to initiate into their culture without the brutality of the cutting. But few of the villages they have left recognize the alternative as a legitimate passage into adulthood.

Phyllis said that since she escaped her cutting, her father decided that her five-year-old sisters, who are twins, would not be sent to school.

“He says it’s just a waste of time educating girls.” But she had hope for her small sisters. “Hopefully the world will be changed by the time they reach circumcision age.”

But because of pressure from NGOs, Christian churches and the government, girls are being circumcised now younger than before, and circumcision ceremonies, which were once grand affairs and announced far and wide, are becoming secretive and more dangerous for the girls.

Circumcision at Dawn

The call of the muezzin from the oddly imposing mosque in town awoke me at 5 a.m., beckoning the small local Muslim community to prayer. I laid awake in the chill of the predawn hour thinking of a different ritual, one where girls are sentenced to a life with little sexual pleasure, complicated childbirth and the knowledge that their bodies are incomplete.

It is at that hour that most circumcision ceremonies are practiced, though each clan has its own customs. I imagined that somewhere out in the bush, in a remote village a girl, maybe 12 maybe 10 years old, was having her genitals sliced by a drunken old woman wielding a razor blade. Somewhere, at that early hour, a girl was being mutilated so that she could be come a woman. I could not go back to sleep.

A pair of scissors with blue plastic handles arrived with my morning coffee. They are meant to cut open the small packet of Nescafe that served as my caffeine fix for the day. But they seem aggressive, threatening, sitting there on the plate while I’m thinking about genital cutting.

I looked over the balcony of the restaurant at women in the town and tried to imagine their vaginas. Are they circumcised? Were they somehow, miraculously, spared the knife? When I saw the women in full Maasai regalia, I looked past the colorful shuka cloths draped across their bodies, their necks weighed down by tangles of beaded necklaces, their elongated earlobes heavy with even more beads. I looked past all that and try to imagine their clitoris-less, labia-less vaginas.

And I looked at small girls playing with plastic bottles strewn in the road. Things are changing here but would they change quickly enough to spare these girls?

Monday is market day in Narok, and many Maasai women come to town from the surrounding villages to sell charcoal. They huddle under the shade of scrawny trees on a putrid, garbage strewn plot of land that serves as a park. I squatted down next to them amid the trash and flies and asked them about emurata, circumcision.

Nekusa is in her late 20s and her closely shaved hair highlights the classic Maasai elongated earlobes decorated with a tube of beads.

“We are not ready to give up circumcision,” she told me in Maasai through another of the women who spoke English. “Even if we wanted to leave it, it is our husbands who rule,” she said. I ask her to imagine a world where men do not govern women’s lives. If it were up to her, I asked, would she do away with the practice? “But our husbands do rule,” he answered shrugging.

As we spoke, an elderly man with the typical red and blue checkered blanket of the Maasai warriors wrapped around his shoulders approached and interrupted the conversation.

“Look at these women, all these women were circumcised and there is no problem. We will change nothing of our culture,” he said, reaffirming Nekusa’s fatalism. Before I could ask him any questions he briskly walked away.

At one point, as I talked to the women, one of them wondered why I was asking so much about circumcision. Did I want to be circumcised? she asked. No way, I said, clamping my legs shut. I was just curious.

The Circumciser

Mama Sayianka doesn’t know her age, only that she was born during the Mau Mau rebellion, a defining period in Kenyan history in the 1950s when Kenyans rose up against the colonial power, Britain.

For nearly 20 years she wielded the circumcision blade, proud to uphold the traditions of her clan, having learned the “craft” from other circumcisers who preceded her. She performed her first cutting on her own daughter and had to lay down the tools of her trade when her hands became too shaky to perform an accurate operation.

I met Mama Sayianka in Pulunga village at her family’s circular enclosure called a boma that holds two tiny huts of sticks held together with cow dung. The roofs are just over 1.5 meters high and are clearly meant only for sleeping, since no one taller than a child could stand up in one.

She led me out of the enclosure, out of the earshot of the men where we could talk freely about her work.

In her clan, the circumcision ceremonies begin with the brewing of a special traditional beer, which the circumciser and her aides drink freely as in one of the huts they prepare a bed of the soft, furry leaves of the African wild sage tree, like the one that shaded us that day from the searing equatorial sun as we talked.

At about 4 a.m. on circumcision day, milk is poured on the initiate’s head to symbolize purity, and her head is shaved. She dons a specially made dress of cow hide decorated with beads and is made to stand outside in the pre-dawn chill “to freeze the body.” This is the only anesthetic she will have. Once the sun is high enough in the sky, Mama Sayianka would cut a hole in the dung roof of the hut to allow the sunlight to enter and help her perform her task.

She described precisely how she would set about it the actual cutting but finds it easier to demonstrate. Beside her was a village girl, about 18, with her two-year-old daughter on her lap. Mama Sayianka suddenly turned to the child, spread her legs wide and started showing me on this tender young vagina how she would spread the labia, find the clitoris, hold on to the small nub and with a new razor blade, lop it off in one swift cut. This needs no translation. I stared wide-eyed at the intrusive demonstration. The toddler squirmed at being poked and prodded until the mother protested.

Mama Sayianka leaned back and laughed at my visible shock. Just to make sure I understood she grabbed the plastic tip of the lace of one of her small white rubber sneakers, holding it as if it were a clitoris and swiped at it with a stick. I got it, I told her.

I asked her how she felt about the movement to stop female circumcisions and her face became grim.

“They are doing bad because they are spoiling our culture and we want to maintain our culture,” she said through a translator. The move to abolish the practice, she believes, is an outside imposition.

Mama Sayianka told me that schools are contaminating the girls.

“Girls like circumcision,” she assured me, “but then they go to school and suddenly they don’t like it.”

She looked me straight in the eye. “If Maasais came to your home and told you that not circumcising girls was bad, and ordered you now to circumcise your girls, how would you feel?”

I would feel angry, violated, I would fight it. But I did not answer her and just nodded my head to signal that I got her point.

She doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. Anti-female genital mutilation campaigners say it brings complications with childbirth but Mama Sayianka, who is now a midwife, says she’s never seen any such problems because the type of circumcision practiced in her clan is clitoridectomy which doesn’t affect “where the baby comes out.”

And they say that a circumcised woman doesn’t enjoy sex, which Mama Sayianka assured me is not true. My interpreter translated her words faithfully, but then added to me in English: “That is what she is saying, but I am saying that it is true, we feel almost nothing.”

Chris Murray, from Tasaru, has had sex with both circumcised and uncircumcised women. “With circumcised women it takes quite a long time for her to reach orgasm, if at all, and she’s not really interested in what you are doing.” With an uncircumcised woman, he says “you move all the way together.”

Widespread in Africa

No one knows when or why the practice of female genital cutting began. The different types of circumcision, at different ages and for different expressed reasons make it difficult to trace its roots. But the practice is surprisingly widespread. In 28 African and Arab countries, it is a time-honored tradition.

Some cultures, like the Maasai, use it as a rite of initiation into adulthood, as with male circumcision. But in Ethiopia most circumcisions are practiced on girls under five years of age. In Nigeria, most are cut before their first birthdays.

Many different reasons are cited for the practice, including hygiene, aesthetics, and disturbingly, as a way to control women’s sexuality.

Most of Kenya’s more than 40 ethnic tribes practice some form of circumcision but, according to a UNICEF survey, the prevalence is decreasing. While in 1998 38% of women 15 to 49 said they were circumcised, in 2003 the percentage had dropped to 32. But among the Maasai, an estimated 93% of women and girls have been victims of female genital cutting, which has been illegal for girls under 18 since 2001. Despite the law, few parents or circumcisers are fully prosecuted.

Emurata, as circumcision is known in the Maasai language, is practiced on boys as well as girls, in the same crude and often unhygienic manner. Sitting in a cafe in Nairobi, I read in the newspaper about two boys who had sustained severe injuries to their penises during a circumcision in the northern Samburu province.

Here there is no movement to stop that practice, though in the United States there is a small but growing campaign to have male circumcision, practiced on an estimated 60% of American men, declared a human rights violation.

It is of course not the same. Male circumcision cuts away skin. Female circumcision cuts organs. It is like having an eye or your tongue removed.

“Whoever thought of cutting organs was a crazy bugger,” Agnes pronounced.

Second Thoughts and Regrets

Jacqueline was a boldly beautiful girl of 16, her high rounded cheekbones sweep up to narrow eyes inherited from her nomadic ancestors of the Maasai. Thin braids peaked out of a yellow bandana that covered her head. We sat together in the yellowing grass of the yard at the Tasaru Rescue Center.

She escaped being married off when she was 13, and is clearly proud of having run away. But she did not escape circumcision, and she seems ashamed. When I asked her to talk about it, her confident voice turned shy. Her head bowed, she told her story to the grass.

It was during the December school holidays when Jacqueline was told she was to be circumcised, along with another girl from her village. For three days there were celebrations. Cows were slaughtered, traditional beer was brewed, friends and family came from nearby villages. Jacqueline was not able to participate because she was still, then, considered a child and not privileged to join the festivities to mark her mutilation. Only after her cutting would she be initiated in the world of adulthood.

Before dawn on the fourth day, she and her fellow “initiates” were taken by a small group of women into the corral where the cattle were usually kept, and told to lie on a freshly-stripped hide. Jacqueline was first. One woman held her shoulders down and the circumciser parted her legs. No one held her feet. It was sheer will that kept her legs open as the circumciser sliced off her clitoris in one clean cut. It was all she could do to keep from screaming.

“It’s a taboo to scream,” she told me, still looking at the grass. “People will look down on you and won’t eat the food your family prepares. “Even this,” she twitched her foot “is considered a scream.”

After the ceremony she was given milk and herbs to wash her wound. She bled for a full day. After a week of bed rest and being treated like queen because of her bravery, she began to heal, and felt proud of her newly-acquired womanhood.

Jacqueline went to her cutting willingly, and this is what shames her most.

“It is our custom, I did not know it was bad until I came here,” she says with her head bowed again. No one at the school she attended ever talked about the dangers of female circumcision. No one had ever hinted that there might be a problem. With longing in her voice, she finally lifted her head and looks me straight in the eyes and cried out, “Oh I wish I could go back and undo it.”

There is a saying in Maasai that translates roughly as “A sewing thread follows the awl,” which is said to mean that one has to follow the trodden path and not veer into unknown territory.

This reinforces the Maasai feeling that tradition must be followed, that female circumcision must continue. Without these traditions Maasai elders say, their already fragile culture will fall apart. They will be swallowed by the globalizing influences imported from the west.

But there is another Maasai saying, that “a ringing bell cannot be silenced.” The anti-female genital mutilation campaigners are that bell, and if it is rung loudly enough and long enough, perhaps what will be silenced are the choked early morning screams on the African savannah, of girls being cut.

Sibylla Brodzinsky is a Colombia-based journalist who writes for the Economist, the UK Guardian and the Christian Science Monitor. She’s at work on a book about displaced Colombians.

3 comments about “The Cruelest Cut”

  1. Shobha Gallagher says:

    A very sensitive, moving and insightful article…the imagery will stay on my mind….especially the “ringing bell that cannot be silenced” - not now.

  2. Twitter Trackbacks for Big World Magazine » The Cruelest Cut [bigworldmagazine.com] on Topsy.com says:

    [...] Big World Magazine » The Cruelest Cut bigworldmagazine.com/the-cruelest-cut/ – view page – cached Because there’s more to life than life on the block. [...]

  3. World Spinner says:

    Big World Magazine ? The Cruelest Cut…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

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