Once I would have, but I’m a little wiser now
Visiting a foreign country is a lot like being a guest in someone’s home. As a guest, your job is to appreciate the hospitality you’re offered without demanding that things be run or arranged the same way they are at your house.
That’s easy enough when it comes to the superficially exotic (inexplicably short beds in a land of tall people, unidentifiable breakfast foods, traffic laws that seem whimsical or entirely absent). But when in the presence of customs that, no matter how much you allow for cultural differences, are clearly wrong, it’s trickier.
We’d gone on safari for the reasons most tourists do
The big draw was to see African animals — ones we normally only glimpse in zoos or on nature documentaries — roaming free in their native habitats.
But we were also eager to meet Kenyan people and to get a sense of what life is like in its cities, towns, and remote villages. Driving instead of flying long distances between parks gave us an opportunity to do so.
My travel companions were energetic and curious and asked endless questions of our patient guide. I too asked a lot of questions. But there was one topic I was careful not to bring up.
There was a time when I would have. But the intervening decades have taught me, however belatedly, that there is a time to keep my mouth shut. As a tourist for two weeks, I’m not going to reform a deeply rooted cultural practice by challenging it with my hosts.
Even though that cultural practice is an atrocity.
If you’re squeamish, skip the next section
FGM, female genital mutilation or female “circumcision,” refers to the deliberate removal of part or nearly all of the vulva. It’s usually done before a girl reaches the age of 15, and sometimes much younger. It’s usually performed without a girl’s permission and against her will, without anesthesia, in nonsterile surroundings, often by an older woman wielding a razor blade or knife. The woman may be related to her.
There are four types of FGM, depending on the regional custom. Type I is clitoridectomy, in which all or part of the clitoris is cut away. Type II, excision, includes the removal of the clitoris and inner labia, and sometimes the outer labia as well.
Type III is infibulation. The vaginal opening is narrowed by cutting and repositioning the inner and/or outer labia, leaving only a narrow opening for urination and menstruation. The clitoris may or may not be removed.
Type IV, “other,” refers to other mutilation of the female genitalia without medical purpose: pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, or burning.
Again: this is almost always performed by someone who is not a health practitioner, using an instrument that is far from sterile, and without the use of anesthesia or painkillers.
Needless to say, the procedure causes agony and lasting trauma. Infection, hemorrhage, and lifelong complications are common. Women who have undergone FGM are at much higher risk in pregnancy and childbirth.
To say nothing of how they are robbed of choice, bodily autonomy, and sexual function.
Why would anyone do this to their daughter?
In communities and cultures that practice FGM, it’s often considered necessary for a girl’s future. It’s a rite of passage that means she’s accepted as a woman and eligible for marriage. It increases her value to her husband and often the bride price he pays for her.
Other beliefs surrounding FGM are that it is somehow beneficial to a girl’s health and that it preserves her virginity before marriage and her chastity afterward. It raises her status and her family’s honor.
In some communities, as in the predominately Muslim northeastern districts of Kenya, FGM is tied to supposed religious justifications — although neither Islam nor any other major religion endorses it or advocates for it.
Worldwide, over two hundred million women and girls alive today have been subjected to FGM, possibly the purest form of gender-based violence.
And it still goes on in Kenya among some tribes and communities, although driven underground.
The Maasai tribe is famous for its traditions
They are proud nomadic pastoralists, tall and elegant in their brightly colored, plaid shukas. Expert at living in the unforgiving savannah, they guard the herds of goats and cattle that represent their wealth, traditionally subsisting largely on their animals’ milk and blood.
Traditionally, Maasai cultural practices also include FGM.
They’re not alone: other tribes and communities continue practicing FGM, even though it’s been illegal in Kenya since 2011.
That puts Kenya ahead of its neighbors in the campaign to end it. The World Health Organization and AMREF Health Africa report that FGM is on the decline in the country. In 2019, Kenya’s President Kenyatta pledged to eliminate it completely by 2022.
But that hasn’t happened. Cultural traditions and beliefs are not easy to uproot. President Kenyatta made his optimistic declaration before the pandemic when lockdowns sent some Kenyan girls home from boarding schools to impoverished families, where they were even more vulnerable to genital cutting, followed swiftly by child marriage.
In communities where FGM is still entrenched, a girl who manages to refuse it may face rejection by her family, shunning by her community, and lose the right to speak in public.
The United Nations Population Fund reports that 21% of Kenyan women aged 15–49 have undergone some form of genital mutilation. But it varies widely by region: in the northeastern regions of the country, the prevalence is 60% or more.
According to the National Institutes of Health, that figure may be even higher among the Maasai — as much as 78%. They typically practice Type II FGM.
Our driver and guide was a Maasai man
He grew up in a village outside the town of Narok — an area that last summer launched a vigorous anti-FGM policy to combat its prevalence. I assume he grew up among women who had undergone cutting.
I didn’t ask.
He’s well-educated and has been a safari driver and guide for 20 years — a highly demanding, highly skilled, and high-prestige job in Kenya. When he wasn’t on duty and wearing his khaki-colored uniform, he relaxed in shorts, a polo shirt, and a porkpie hat, looking less like a Maasai warrior than somebody you’d sit next to at a football game.
He lives in Nairobi with his wife, a teacher, and their three daughters. The photos he proudly showed us of his family revealed a tall, self-possessed-looking woman and three lovely girls between the ages of nine and thirteen, all of them in Western dress. His oldest daughter, he told me, wants to be a pilot.
I am confident that neither his wife nor his daughters have been subjected to FGM, or will be.
Again, I didn’t ask.
I saw no point in broaching a topic so sensitive and possibly shameful. I didn’t know if my traveling companions were aware of FGM and if not, I couldn’t see how any good would be achieved by provoking the raft of questions they’d likely ask our guide.
Still, I wondered about the women I saw
The women draped in bright cloth and decked out in beads and silver spangles selling trinkets at the park entrances. The women with five-gallon containers strapped to their foreheads, toting water over long distances. The women manning their rickety market stalls by the side of the road — what had they undergone as girls?
The shy, dignified wife of the bartender at our lodge who brought their three-year-old son to meet us. Speaking only Swahili and Maasai, gorgeously decked out in her tribal regalia, she kept her eyes cast demurely downwards as she shuffled forward to present her grinning boy.
I wondered about the way she shuffled.
Had she, like the other tribal women I saw, been held down by relatives while a village woman sliced away their most sensitive, intimate flesh? Was that moment, as it has been for so many girls, the end of their childhood, their schooling, their independence?
Had they been quickly married off to an older man, now that their value was enhanced by their cut status?
Would they ensure the same was done to their daughters? At night I lay beneath my mosquito netting, musing in quiet horror.
But expressing that horror and disapproval aloud while visiting Kenya as a privileged American tourist seemed the height of colonialist attitude. Besides, FGM is an underground practice in the US as well, predominantly although not exclusively among immigrant communities.
It wasn’t so long ago that it was an accepted medical practice in America. From the mid-19th through the mid-20th Centuries — so during my lifetime — clitoridectomy was considered a medically sound treatment for masturbation in girls and women.
I wrote about the questions haunting me post-safari
This is certainly one of them. What can I do to help women and girls who have suffered or are in danger of such horrific violence to their bodies and minds?
Here’s what the UN recommends: raise awareness in any way you can (hence this article); observe and promote the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM on February 6 (which I didn’t know about until I did the research for this article, so I will be making noise about it from here on out); support the individuals and organizations who are working on the ground to educate people in the communities where FGM persists.
The website Global Goals names three individuals who are doing this work, and offers their Twitter/X links to follow them on social media, which is a beginning, and an easy step to take:
- Josephine Kulea — Samburu Girls Foundation
- Jeddy Lemarom — The Malkia Initiative
- Natalie Robi — Msichana Empowerment
Interestingly, the link to Josephine Kulea shows a Twitter account that has been suspended. Elon, are you listening? What’s up with that?
The hope of Global Goals and other organizations is to end FGM worldwide by 2030. I will do what I can to help, with the full knowledge that while it won’t be enough or all that much, that is no excuse for inaction.
I really, really hope it won’t take another seven years to end the torture.
And yet, I’m still glad I kept my dismay to myself while in Kenya. They’re doing the best they can, and as an American, I’m in no position to pass judgment.