Young Maasai Activist Challenges Circumcision Tradition

The African Maasai ethnic group is known for its deep roots in tradition and culture, including rights of passage for men and female circumcision. Now, young Maasai woman Nice Nailantei Leng'ete is crusading for alternative rites of passage and empowering young girls to continue their education in Kenya. She tells Michel Martin how she stood her ground to promote the dangers of female genital cutting.Note: This conversation may not be comfortable for all listeners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, Toronto's mayor Rob Ford is still in the headlines. He's admitted he has used illegal drugs including crack, but he says he won't step down. We'll ask the Barbershop guys to weigh in. That's coming up. But first, we're going to learn more about a controversial tradition around the world - female circumcision. This is probably a good moment to say that this conversation will involve a topic some will find sensitive. UNICEF estimates that more than 125 million girls and women have undergone the practice in 29 countries across Africa and the Middle East.

A few months ago, they published a report that shows that the practice is actually declining, and the steepest decline was shown in Kenya. And that could be because of people like the 22-year-old woman, Nice Nailantei Leng'ete. She's Maasai. You've probably seen pictures of the group on postcards and guidebooks - the warriors dressed in red, the women adorned in beautiful beads. In 2008, she was the only girl in her village who could read and write. So the African Medical and Research Foundation, or AMREF, trained her to educate other villagers about female genital cutting. She's come up with an alternative rite of passage for girls, but it hasn't been easy to convince people. On a recent visit to Washington, Nice visited with us, and she told me more about the practice she's trying to end.

LENG'ETE: It's usually done when you are eight years to 13 years. So when you are seven years, you now start going to your nearby villages if there are ceremonies for circumcision for you to get prepared. So you know that, once you are nine or eight, you can be circumcised. This depending on your physical appearance, or maybe...

MARTIN: More mature. If you look more mature...

LENG'ETE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Then it's coming.

LENG'ETE: Yeah, you look more mature. So if you look more mature, they'll say that you are ready for it.

MARTIN: How is this explained to young girls? I mean, it has to be excruciating. It has to be. And nobody likes to see other people in pain. So how is it explained to girls?

LENG'ETE: I don't think they actually talk about it because it's something that you must undergo. For you to be a woman, you have to be circumcised.

MARTIN: How did you, yourself, start to question this, that you did not want this for yourself? What made you question this tradition?

LENG'ETE: This was back in 1998 when I lost my parents. We had to move from our own home to our grandfather's home because there was no one to take care of us.

MARTIN: I'm sorry about that.

LENG'ETE: Yeah. It's OK.

MARTIN: I'm sorry about your parents.

LENG'ETE: Me, my brother and my sister, we are three. By that time, we are all young, no one can take care of us. You know, the wife was old, even him. He was old. So the only option we had is going to boarding school. So when we closed our schools for our first vacation, our uncle came to our home. He told our grandfather - my sister, by that time, she was 10. That was the time that she has to undergo circumcision. So they say that because I'm eight and - you know, in the ceremony there are so many expenses. They need to buy food, they need to buy goods to (unintelligible) and all of that. So they say it's better they do it at one time for them to avoid expenses.

So he came to our grandfather's home and he took me and my sister. So we were, like, just talking with my sister and me. I was telling her, I don't really think that I can undergo it because the first thing, you're not supposed to cry. If you cry, there is no any man who's going to marry you from that community. Leave alone crying, even moving your eyes - you're not even supposed to move your eyes. So I always think that I'm only eight years, and it's very hard for me to go through it. And then again, I was in a boarding school for my primary education. So we used to interact with people from different communities. So I could hear them saying that in their communities circumcision is not there. And they were so, like, beat about it. They were saying that, why is it being done? So I could hear them talking about the...

MARTIN: So you had other ideas at this point. You had heard that this was not something...

LENG'ETE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...It isn't true that everyone has to be circumcised...

LENG'ETE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...In order to be a woman or...

LENG'ETE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...To have children...

LENG'ETE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Or to be a worthy person.

LENG'ETE: Yeah, I could even ask my teacher questions. Is it right? Is it - and she was telling me, no, it's not something that is not a must for you to be done. So when we went to our uncle's place, we ran away to our aunt's home. But later, when he realized that and he came, and we were beaten. And he told us, next time, make sure you're not going to do something stupid like that. So the other vacation was in December. He came again, and he took us to his place. I also escaped again at 4 a.m. in the morning, but my sister was like, I'm just tired of the beatings. Because you are young, you just go. But for me, you know, it's like she just did it as a sacrifice for me. So she stayed and she was circumcised.

MARTIN: How did you escape being circumcised? Do you feel that it's after your sister allowed herself to undergo it that they just stopped pursuing you? Your family decided to leave you alone?

LENG'ETE: When I escaped for the second time, I went and talked to my grandfather. And I told him that, me, I don't want to be circumcised. I want to go on with school. And I told him that I've seen girls when they are circumcised. The next thing, they're going to leave school and they're going to be married off. And also, they give birth and they are still young. And my grandfather was really into education. So when he could hear me talking about education and all that, he was convinced by my determination. So he called my uncle. He talked to him and he told him, just leave her. Let her go to school and that's how my uncle...

MARTIN: Agreed.

LENG'ETE: Yeah.

MARTIN: What about your sister? She underwent this. Did the same happen to her? Did she, in fact, wind up leaving school and getting married...

LENG'ETE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Or was she able to finish?

LENG'ETE: After her circumcision, she had to leave school because now they wanted to marry her off. She didn't want to get married.

MARTIN: How old was she when she got married?

LENG'ETE: 12.

MARTIN: 12?

LENG'ETE: 12 - 13, yeah.

MARTIN: She was 12?

LENG'ETE: Yeah. Once you're circumcised, you know it's understood that you're now a woman. You're no longer a girl. Even if you're 9 years old, even if you're 10 years, you're now a woman. So you can give birth, be married off and all that.

MARTIN: Is she married now?

LENG'ETE: No, she's not, but she has two kids. Yeah, when they wanted to marry her off, she had to go and get impregnated by someone else because she didn't want to get married off to the old man.

MARTIN: That must be hard for you...

LENG'ETE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Knowing that your sister and you are so close. And yet, her life took such a different path. Kenya made female genital cutting illegal in 2011.

LENG'ETE: Yeah.

MARTIN: And it's supposed to be punishable by jail terms and big fines.

LENG'ETE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Do you think this practice is still going on despite this?

LENG'ETE: Actually, the constitution is there. But these people in the village, they can't read or they don't even know what the constitution says about female genital cutting. That's why we've seen that it's important to introduce the alternative rites of passage because it's like you're negotiating. It's like you're telling people - you want them to look for an alternative of circumcision. So...

MARTIN: You know, in fact, the report by UNICEF that we cited earlier says that nearly 60 percent of girls and women who've actually been through this say that there is no benefit to this practice.

LENG'ETE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is it that no one cares what they think, or is it that it's really the men who have to be persuaded? Do you - why is it that if a majority of the people who've undergone this feel that there's no benefit to it, why do you think it persists?

LENG'ETE: You know, you need to have information for you to talk negatively about something. So mostly, they know that they have so many complications because of the cutting they underwent. But to speak out, you still have problem. They don't want to speak out about it. And they need information because they are also giving birth. Even if they undergo, we don't want their kids or their children to undergo it.

MARTIN: In fact, you started developing these alternative rites of passage. How did you come up with this idea?

LENG'ETE: I was thinking that people really doesn't care about what's in the constitution. So I was trying to think which alternative are we going to use. So we were talking with people from my community, just exchanging ideas. People would say that we want these, we don't want these. So we didn't do any in our village, whereby girls could undergo a three days training and a one day ceremony. So in the three days training, they would learn so many things about sexual reproductive and their rights, what the law says about human genital cutting, what are the disadvantages of human genital cutting, child marriage, teenage pregnancy and all that.

So on the last day, it's the usual ceremony like the ones we have during circumcision. What is not there is the cutting only. So everything else is there - the dancing, people singing, old men drinking traditional beer. So everything is just there. It's just the cut that is not there.

MARTIN: What do you think is the key to getting more people to buy into your idea, to understand your idea because people had to have seen girls bleeding to death. They had to have seen all the difficulties with giving birth. And they have to be weighing this against their, you know, tradition of thinking that this is necessary. What do you think was the key to getting people to embrace a different idea? Any ideas?

LENG'ETE: I think the most important thing here is the approach, how you approach people. And also, knowing who is supporting you and who is not supporting you. So there are key people who's there. Like in my community, the key people are the old men. They are the decision-makers in the community. So once they say no to something, it's going to end. If they say it's not going to end, it's never going to end.

MARTIN: How do you think you persuaded the elders in your community to look at it a different way?

LENG'ETE: Yeah, like...

MARTIN: Are you very persuasive?

LENG'ETE: To be sincere, when I was starting it, it was difficult to talk to them. You know, they're like my grandfathers. But if I start talking with them about female genital cutting or anything, they would say like, I don't respect them or I don't have respect with them. So it was very hard in the first place. So what I did is I tried to look for the old men who were supporting me. I first talked to them, and then I tell them to go and talk to the other older men. So that's how we started. And in the first sessions, it was difficult. But later on, they accepted me and I started talking to them. Yeah.

MARTIN: You're only 22, and you've done so much already. I don't know if you would feel it was OK for me to say that you must be very proud of what you've done so far. You must feel some pride, or do you not want to say that?

LENG'ETE: I would say I feel so happy 'cause in the last, I think, two years - through the alternative rites of passage - we were able to save 800 girls who are now in school without being married off when they are young and they are not circumcised. So if I look back and I see the girls are going to school, I feel so happy about it.

MARTIN: I wonder what your uncle feels now. Have you ever talked to him about it? Your uncle who was so insistent that you and your sister be cut? Have you ever had a chance to speak with him? And I wonder if he feels he was wrong?

LENG'ETE: I don't know because until now, we are still not friends. Yeah, we - I still don't like him, and we don't talk. Yeah, we don't talk.

MARTIN: Do you have some words of encouragement for, perhaps, other young women like yourself who might be hearing your words and wondering if there's anything they can do to make a change? What would you tell them?

LENG'ETE: Yeah. Maybe, if you want to make change, you really need patience. Without patience, you can't make change, yeah. And if you have a dream, go for it. Even if there are challenges, you just go for it 'cause if you want something, you'll get it, I'm sure.

MARTIN: Nice Nailantei Leng'ete is a project officer with the African Medical and Research Foundation. She's working to end the practice of female genital cutting. We were able to catch up with her, actually, on a visit to Washington, D.C. And she was nice enough to come by our Washington, D.C. studios to tell us about her important work. Nice, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LENG'ETE: Thanks so much.

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