By Nash Mepukori

As I reflect on the past eight weeks I have lived and worked in the Samburu community, one encounter particularly stands out—an informal roadside conversation with a group of schoolgirls aged between twelve and sixteen years. The girls were returning home from school when Meshack, my supervisor at AMREF Health Africa, stopped them for a few minutes of conversation. We first asked the girls whether they knew what the initials FGC that were written on the backs of our T-shirts stood for. They unanimously said no. “FGC means Female Genital Cutting, tohara, or morata”, we responded. Tohara is the term used to describe the cut in Swahili and morata in the local language, Samburu. Realizing what this roadside conversation was about, the girls immediately began giggling shyly and averting their eyes.

Tension was high in the air and some appeared visibly uncomfortable but none left the circle. One of the first things we wanted to know was the age at which girls were typically cut in their village, to which they responded between 13 and 16 years old, the very age bracket most of them belonged to. In fact, upon further probing, we learned that some of the older girls in the group (15 and 16 years old) had already undergone the cut. In that moment, one Standard Six girl (13 years old) proudly spoke up and said she was to undergo the cut in December, a remark that left me with a deep and heavy sadness. The girls confessed that they hadn’t learned about FGC in school, which struck me as a great shortcoming on the part of the education sector.

Here was one of the most important rites of passage in this community, one bearing health, social, political, and economic consequences, and yet children did not even learn about it in school. I saw it as a failure of the education system, and specifically the Life Skills training courses, and planned to set up a meeting with the ministry of Education to better understand their approach to sensitizing pupils in schools. The girls added that even the lessons on HIV/AIDS that they had been taught only briefly during Life Skills were mostly forgotten by the time they were transitioning out of Primary School. And yet, retrogressive traditional practices in this community such as the beading of girls by young men (as a way to mark a girl as a particular young man’s sexual partner), would see numerous young girls engage in unprotected sexual intercourse starting as young as nine years old.

AMREF training of young girls on the effects of Female Genital Cutting

AMREF training of young girls on the effects of Female Genital Cutting

We explained to the girls the dangers of cutting the female genital organ, mixing serious facts with humour to assist the girls in understanding this complex phenomenon. For example, one of the more dangerous effects of the cut is the creation of a scar tissue on the vagina that usually tears during labour. As a way to help the girls comprehend what this tearing entailed, Meshack likened the process to the bursting of an overripe fruit, to which to girls burst into laughter. In describing a cut woman’s genitals, he used the analogy of a soccer field; “there’s nothing there, it’s completely flat.” Again, the girls were bending over with laughter. I could see the look of disbelief in some of the girls’ eyes at the information we were giving them, information that no one had ever given them before.

In the book I am currently reading, However Long the Night, Molly Melching points out that when she first began advocating against FGC in Senegal during the eighties, she found that circumcised women had always associated the complications they experienced after the cut and during childbirth with evil spirits, and not with the procedure. To them, FGC was harmless, and it was the presence of other supernatural forces that made women’s lives so difficult. I wondered whether girls and women in this community explain away FGC in a similar manner.

And yet, in some girls’ eyes, I saw approval, and even agreement with what we were telling them. I suspected the anti-FGC advocacy that has begun in towns was beginning to gain ground in the villages. At that moment, one girl with smooth ebony skin and milk-white teeth caught my eye. Hers was the friend that had confessed she would be undergoing the cut in December, and this young girl kept shoving her friend telling her not to get circumcised, and to listen instead to what the health officers were telling them.

When I revealed to the girls that I was uncut, and in university (more so in America), their eyes widened in shock and disbelief while others broke out in nervous giggles. To see a university woman uncut was, I suspected, very strange in their eyes. I told them how my father had protected me from the cut and kept me in school and how now I was in America studying health. I could tell they were both intrigued and surprised and perhaps even began to imagine that a woman can be successful without having to undergo the cut.

We turned to the boys who had been drawn into the conversation and were actively listening from the periphery of the circle. When we asked them whether they were willing to marry uncut women, they chuckled anxiously in response. We explained to them how sex with an uncut woman is more enjoyable because she can get fully aroused. I could tell we were making them very uncomfortable, especially given that girls were listening, but it was evident that they wanted to know more.

In leaving, I turned to the fierce young girl and told her to ensure that her friend remains uncut. But even as I left her with this hefty responsibility, I was fully aware that the decision to circumcise a young girl lies far beyond the girl’s say. Indeed, families, friends, and the community at large is involved in that crucial decision. At the very least, I hoped, she would manage to wipe the smile off her friend’s face when she is talking about FGC. Lack of knowledge, it occurred to me, is one of the factors that is driving the rite. When young girls are speaking of the cut with proud smiles and giggles, then it is evident that they have no idea what awaits them in the depths of circumcision huts. And until the mention of the cut brings tears to young girls’ eyes, the practice of Female Genital Cutting shall continue under the veil of ignorance.