The terror of what was to come overwhelmed me. I could run no more and knew that for my mother to be spared from being beaten and from possible death, I had to submit to my father’s will. I was to be circumcised, and I could do nothing to stop it.
Back then I knew nothing about the risk of bleeding to death, the transmission of infectious diseases, the permanent damage done to a girl’s life—all the things that can occur with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
I was only 12 when my father took me from school and told me it was time for me to be circumcised. I asked my mother for help. She said that as a woman she could not resist my father’s will.
“All you can do is to run away,” she said.
I asked my sister Esther.
“Mother is right,” she answered, “they will force you.”
Esther helped by giving me some money, and one morning I caught the bus to an older sister who lived in Nairobi. I thought I had escaped the practice.
But my father began asking questions. “Where is Naingol’ai?” (My Maasai name.) My mother denied she knew where I was, and my father threatened and beat her.
“If Naingol’ai does not return within a week, I will beat you to death!” he said.
My mother was very scared and wrote me a letter, pleading with me to come back. I was anxious about losing her, so I returned home. I found her lying in a dark corner of the hut, stone-still. I thought she was dead and that I had come too late. My father had beaten her so badly with his traditional Maasai stick—her head, her legs, her hands…she was injured everywhere. Her eyes were so swollen that she could not see. I was in such a state of anguish. “Thank you for coming back,” my mother whispered, exhausted and in pain.
Three days later, the circumcision ceremonies began.
I come from a very large Maasai family, my father having six wives and I being one his 50 children. There were 30 girls to be circumcised. Six of these were my sisters; the others came from the neighborhood. We received a new dress and most of the girls were excited, completely ignorant of what was going to happen. Some of the older women were making jokes, saying that if they were young again they would run away. No one said why.
Although FGM was illegal in Kenya even in the 1990’s, the police did not prosecute the practice. Teachers did not mention FGM and why it was prohibited. It was an expected course that this would happen to all girls in our community. According to the traditional beliefs, circumcision turns a girl into a woman who is fit for marriage. The practice is said to “clean” the girl and to guarantee that she will be a faithful wife.
The circumcision ceremony started with two days of dancing and singing. Then, on the third day at 6 a.m. we were taken outside. All our family and neighbors attended; small children were bouncing around, playing and laughing. The girls who were going to be circumcised laid down on cow skins, two to three girls to each one. Then a woman came along with a knife, and she cut us. The procedure took a minute for each girl. This was performed without anesthetic, and the knife was not cleaned or disinfected. To cry out during this ceremony would have been seen as shameful; no one screamed. Initially, the pain was short lived, but the pain that came later was terrible.
We were moved into a big house and had someone care for us, usually an older sister. We were too weak to get up alone or to go to the toilet without help. For a whole week, there was nothing but tears and pain. Nothing made the pain go away. The girls cried all day and night, unable to eat or sleep. I lost a lot of blood. It was a relief when at last I lost consciousness.
I was lucky enough to survive. Many girls bleed to death after being cut. Other girls die later due to infections that are caused by the procedure. HIV/AIDS is often spread by the cuttings. Moreover, FGM causes an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths, as the scar tissue can delay the childbirth process. According to the World Health Organization, about 92 million African girls age 10 years and above have suffered FGM. [paging] My story does not end with the ceremony. It is customary to be married soon after the cutting. I was to be married only one month after being circumcised. One morning, a man of about 60 years, married with five wives, came to my home.
I asked my mother, “Who is this?”
She said, “This is the man who wants to marry you. He has brought food, beverages, and blankets and is talking to your father now.”
I was upset, “No way am I going to marry this stranger!”
Three weeks later, the man came back. The final date for the marriage was set and a dowry agreed upon. I knew I had to run away again, and this time it had to be permanent. At sunrise I began my journey to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. I knew there was work and perhaps someone who could help me. I walked all day until evening. When I arrived a man from my home district was willing to help me and I was given a job. I was lucky.
Back home, my mother did not wait for my father to beat her as a means of getting me to return home. She took my youngest brother (fortunately all my other siblings were old enough and had left home) and escaped to her own family. My mother’s older brother talked to my father and calmed the situation. Eventually, my father promised he would not beat my mother anymore. However, he said I was no longer his daughter and never wanted to see me again. I was cast out. I didn’t see my father for seven years. During those years change was taking place for the better. My brothers refused to circumcise their own daughters, despite pressure from my father. In the end, even my father was persuaded to change his mind. When we met after all those years he said to me, “Come home Naing’olai. You are welcome.” He respected me for the stand I had taken.
In 2009, I founded an organization, Tareto Maa, on a personal vision and a determination to stop this barbaric practice that happened to me. I wanted to offer protection to young girls who had nowhere to go for help. I spoke with many people in my community who agreed to support the task of protecting girls from circumcision and child marriage. In the beginning, there were seven girls who asked for shelter. Within 18 months this number had risen to 27 girls, all sheltered in private houses. Soon there were no more homes available for girls who came to ask for protection. We had to send new girls back home. I will never forget their tears and their despairing question: “Why have you helped some of the children but not me?”
By October 2010, we raised funds for a shelter, helped by a growing number of supporters, especially from Europe and North America. We opened in January 2011. Presently 96 girls are in our care. Our campaigning within the local community has also seen successes. Many families are starting to re-think the practice of circumcision and child marriage. But the fight is not yet over.
Many girls are still at risk, and there is still a long way to go. I want to offer girls the protection that I, and many others like me, needed but did not have when we were young. I believe there can be an alternate rite of passage for a girl to become a woman: a practice where each girl will benefit her family by having health and an education. Terato Maa works to make this dream a reality.