As Kenyan Maasai abandon girls' ritual cutting, elders lead the way

Why We Wrote This

Cultures are always in flux. But when change comes from the outside, people often see it as an attack. Here's a different approach: helping a community identify problems and solutions on their own terms. 

Courtesy of SAFE Maa
Cultural elders from the Loita Maasai meet to commit to abandoning the practice of female genital cutting, or FGC, Feb. 6 in Olmesutie, Kenya.

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For years, Maasai families in the Loita Hills have trusted Moipoi Kokiom to cut their daughters. Here in Kenya, nearly 4 in 5 Maasai women between 15 and 49 have undergone female genital cutting, or FGC, as part of an important rite of passage – one they could be ostracized for going without.

But on Feb. 6, Ms. Kokiom gathered with other cultural elders to make a declaration: no more. The Loita Maasai would abandon the dangerous practice, they announced, and embrace a different ritual for girls to enter womanhood.

It was a declaration years in the making. Over nearly a decade, the nonprofit SAFE Maa – whose employees are themselves mostly local Maasai – have been talking with the community about FGC’s significance and risks. Top-down efforts to ban FGC have sometimes driven the practice underground. By collaborating closely and respectfully with the community, SAFE Maa hopes, they can build more sustained change – change that doesn’t come at the expense of identity.

“We cannot go alone,” says Sarah Tenoi of SAFE Maa, who herself went through a botched circumcision. “We must have someone to hold hands with and move together.”

In the days leading up to Feb. 6, more than a thousand Maasai people traveled by foot to Loita Hills, in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.

They had been called to gather at the crest of a hill overlooking the spare, dusty town of Olmesutie. Under a vast, cloudless sky, towering palm branches were mounted into the ground, a sign that something historic was under way.

It was the day that cultural elders would publicly announce that the Loita Maasai were abandoning female circumcision, also known as female genital cutting (FGC), as a rite of passage – the first such declaration in Kenya.

One in 5 Kenyan women ages 15 to 49 have undergone FGC, according to the country's 2014 Demographic and Health Survey. Among the Maasai, it is nearly 4 in 5. A decade ago, nearly all girls in Loita had their labia and clitoris removed during a rite to usher them into womanhood, according to the local nonprofit SAFE Maa – a practice that risks hemorrhaging, childbirth complications, and painful intercourse.

But this gathering was meant to start a new chapter. As participants filed through an arc of palm branches, leading front and center were Amos Leuka and Sarah Tenoi, two Maasai activists from SAFE Maa, who have advocated against FGC for a decade. Behind came the morans, or warriors, who had fought stigma against uncircumcised women. Then, among a sea of blue robes, walked two dozen cultural elders, including women like Moipoi Kokiom. The first girl she cut, years ago, was her own daughter; from then on, she became a circumciser, trusted by many families to cut their daughters, too.

Worldwide, the fight against FGC has attracted a wave of attention and dollars. Yet today, SAFE Maa – the Maasai group of SAFE Kenya, a nonprofit that teaches through performing arts – is the only group in Kenya to successfully guide a community to publicly declare FGC abandonment.

Courtesy of SAFE Maa
Maasai warriors who have fought discrimination against uncircumcised women attend a gathering on Feb. 6, where cultural elders committed to abandoning female circumcision, in Olmesutie, Kenya.

It’s a story that speaks to the difficulty of changing deep-seated traditions – especially from the outside. SAFE Maa’s team, on the other hand, is comprised almost completely of Maasai from Olmesutie. Over the course of eight years, they have visited homes, listened to people’s concerns, and performed skits and songs that illustrated FGC’s risks. It’s a project in which respect and partnership have been key, they emphasize, and that they hope will create sustainable change, where top-down initiatives have struggled.

“In the beginning, we did not think this was possible. But we joined hands together with cultural leaders, with the community, with girls, with their parents,” says Ms. Tenoi, one of the founding members of SAFE Maa, who herself went through a botched circumcision that almost took her life. “We cannot go alone. We must have someone to hold hands with and move together.”

Pushback to the ban

In 2011, Kenya outlawed FGC, setting punishments for anyone involved: cutters, parents, or facilitators. Cases in which a girl or woman dies from FGC can bring a life sentence.

Yet the law has driven the practice underground, critics say, exacerbating the risks. Girls bleeding heavily, for example, might not be brought to the hospital for fear of arrest.

In Elgeyo Marakwet County, farther north along Kenya’s Rift Valley, FGC has actually resurged since it has been criminalized – and, in a departure from tradition, has recently been practiced on younger girls. Some interpret it as a sign of protest against the area’s former member of Parliament, who was largely credited with getting the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act passed, says Hannelore van Bavel, a PhD candidate studying FGC among Loita Maasai at SOAS University of London.

Similar pushback took place in Senegal, on a larger scale, when the country criminalized FGC in 1999. Many Senegalese saw the move as an appeal for foreign approval. The following day, about a hundred girls were cut in southeastern Senegal, according to the nongovernmental organization Tostan, to the horror of activists who had worked for years to eliminate the practice.

In Kenya, where Maasai are often considered “backwards,” women value their ethnic identity deeply, Ms. Van Bavel says. Attempts to ban FGC sometimes “give easy arguments that don’t acknowledge the complexity of the issue,” she says, and communities wind up viewing FGC as a form of resistance, “a tool that defends against an outside world that tries to take their identity.”

But the ban on FGC also prompted a different crisis of culture, Mr. Leuka says. Girls were being cut under the cover of night, with the original meaning of the rite stripped away. “If you're doing it in secret, there is no tradition you are following,” says Edward Nekasar, a cultural elder from Mausa, near the border with Tanzania.

‘Our culture is beautiful and living’

In May 2018, SAFE Maa convened a council of Loita cultural elders to discuss the problem, and the risks of FGC – the largest gathering of elders in more than 20 years. They decided to bless a different rite of passage, one without FGC. This February’s Loita Declaration was the public capstone, announcing their decision to Loita Maasai, but also to the world.

For nearly a decade before, SAFE Maa had been visiting families, listening to women who knew better than anyone the risks of FGC. The group tried to treat the women – circumcisers included – as teachers, Leuka says, not ignorant traditionalists in need of correction.

“For over three years, we just attended the seminars but wouldn’t really listen,” says Ms. Kokiom, the circumciser. What changed her mind was eventually speaking to Kenyans from other ethnic groups who abandoned FGC decades ago.

Change doesn't mean abandoning culture, Kokiom emphasizes, just shifting it. She and other circumcisers were central to designing the alternative rite of passage into womanhood – called orkuaak ng’ejuk lemurata oo ntoyie, or literally, “a new culture in the promotion of girls” – in which the cut is replaced with pouring fresh milk over a girl’s thighs. The elders’ gathering was more than a message about abandoning circumcision; it was a blessing of orkuaak ng’ejuk.

The night of the declaration, elders gathered in a clearing of dry grass, shrouded in smoke from low fires roasting meat and tea. Circled, they reflected on the day and their continued responsibilities – most importantly, not to tolerate discrimination toward uncut women and their children. Traditionally, stigma has been so strong that families cross over to Tanzania to have their daughters cut, Mr. Nekasar says. An uncircumcised woman is greeted as a child; she would have difficulty finding a husband or midwife, and her children would be denied leadership positions.

“There can be a role for a legal sanction to support the social sanction. Then you’ve sequenced things in the right way, because the community themselves turn against any cutting in the community,” says Julia Lalla-Maharajh, founder of the Orchid Project, an anti-FGC advocacy nonprofit that supports SAFE Maa. Van Bavel, too, credits SAFE’s approach for creating an opportunity for the community to define the problem, and solution, in their own terms.

But this takes time. The Orchid Project often has to adjust the expectations of donors, Ms. Lalla-Maharajh says, who hope to see change after a year of support.

As Leuka, the key speaker, addressed a crowd of hundreds – before NGOs and government officials and cameras – he spoke in Maa, the Maasai language. He turned to the elders and thanked them. Then, he thanked the women of Loita, giving them credit for the day.

“Our culture is beautiful and living. In every generation there are changes,” says Leuka. “Our forefathers also changed from something to what we are now. As a community, we have to make sure that we change but we give respect to what our forefathers were doing.”

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