Emorata. Others call it female circumcision. Mama Liz calls it female genital mutilation. 130 million girls in 29 countries have undergone this mutilation. It's hard to comprehend such big numbers. For comparison, the population of the UK is nearly 64 million. Let Pendo tell you her story.
I like my name, Pendo. It means Love in Swahili. I feel loved. I am sitting on an ant hill, just getting my breath back after working hard, gathering kuni (fire wood). We need it for cooking our maize flour into ugali porridge, our staple food. Nearly every day, I come here alone to get more.
I can sense something new in the air after the dry season. The fragrance of the trees is so sweet. Mama Liz says she would pay a lot for this perfume in London., Also, slowly by slowly, the ground is becoming greener. Soon the goats will fatten and the cows will produce their best milk; creamy and rich just like we Maasai love. It takes me back to a time of my youth which was not that long ago really, for I married young. Yes, before I married my lovely Saigare, my handsome husband, tall and muscular and so full of love.
I remember being so afraid. Everyone told me, joyfully. I was going to be a woman, I tried to smile and embrace what that meant but then I thought of my cousin Monika whom I adored. She had those same promises made to her at her time; the cutting season they call it; and yet, she is no more. The cut was deep and she did not survive. The rumours are that she was cursed. That's why they did not bury her properly. They left her body to the hyenas. How could she be cursed? She was so full of life. I longed for times when we could travel to be together and just enjoy each other's company. I wondered if I would now join her in death?
Now, from my anthill, I see everything in my mind as if it was yesterday. Everyone preparing for the ceremonies that will happen after the next new moon; the women getting out black cloaks for the girls to wear and gourds to mix paints in and others to hold the ceremonial milk. The church had been busy too. I remember seeing the pastor and elders moving to and fro, here and there, on motorbikes and push bikes, with guests coming and going. The guests seemed very important. Special meals were prepared and the talks between the men were very long; so long that they called a taxi from town to take them home in the dark. Only important people will ever travel in the dark. What can they be discussing that is so important? As a young girl, not used to thinking too much, I could not understand.
I remember trying to stir myself and trying to look as if I was preparing to enjoy that day. After all if I do not go through the cutting, I would never have a husband and that is so shameful for a Maasai that I cannot allow that shame to come on my family. Who would marry an uncircumcised woman? I thought about how I would love to have a baby one day...maybe two or three or four..ah now I am starting to think that the cutting will all be worthwhile if I survive. I can fit in with everyone else and be counted as worthy because I am a mother.
I know that my father has had talks with a potential husband, Mother doesn't know who it is and would not dare to ask. I pluck up courage to tell my mother that I am afraid of the cutting. She asked in an annoyed tone if I had been eavesdropping on the meetings. I did not know what she meant. 'in the church, she said' All those people coming and going. I think they are going to protest against the cutting season. 'Mother', I said. Have you been eavesdropping? Well, I was curious, she blushed. But then they asked me to join the meeting so that made it OK. I lean forward. Go on Yeyo. Tell me what happened. She assumed an important posture on her three legged stool while I squatted beside her. 'A woman a Maasai woman addressed them and told the disadvantages of cutting.' Mother was clearly fascinated . 'A Maasai woman, fearlessly speaking in front of men' she said, open-mouthed. What was more intriguing, was that she was challenging a deeply held cultural practice. Nobody could ever think of a girl not being cut. But she was there, I am telling you the truth; boldly speaking against it.
I smile as I remember. I now know 'that woman' as Rebecca. She is just a Maasai woman but also a trained midwife and she has trained many traditional birth attendants in such a way that women in her village do not die in childbirth. That is amazing. Unbelievably amazing. Now she is saying that girls won't die in the cutting season if we don’t cut ! ' Incredibly' my mother continued, one by one, men stood up to say they are willing to side with her. Men! influential men, elders, even the village chairman, saying that if men are happy to marry uncircumcised women, they will not insist on circumcision'. Wow, I can still feel the goose bumps that i felt on that day.
But another astonishing thing happened. The man who was bargaining with my father for me came from Rebecca's village. He told my father that he would be happy if I was not cut ! Father was amazed and he went to the meetings too as he wanted to know why people were talking like this ! Eventually, everyone agreed that the usual preparations and ceremonies will still happen. The tradition of having special food and wearing special costumes and necklaces and having singing and dancing can continue. We will still be Maasai, doing Maasai things. Just no cutting. I still can't believe it but it's true…no cutting.
That man was Saigare, my Saigare. He was willing to put aside the traditions of his ancestors so that I and many other girls my age and younger, could be spared the pain and the risk of cutting. He has also promised that I will be his only wife and that all of our children will go to school, even if we have daughters. Oh I am so blessed. Now I must get up from this comfortable mound and steady the sticks on my head and walk back to prepare supper for me and my lovely Saigare and as I walk back, I thank God for Rebecca and her willingness to stand up for women. I hope that one day I will get a chance to be as brave as she is.