Somewhere in Laisamis, Sagartula village, a village sandwiched between Marsabit hills on the east and Lake Turkana on the west; occupy the Rendille people, Rongumo Sub clan. Here you will find a group of about 15 women primarily functioning as a self-help group but with the noble intent to end Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Child marriage among young girls including their daughters.
After a 10hr drive from Kenya’s capital Nairobi and a further 1hr motor cycle ride from the local Laisamis town, I arrived at Kaltuma’s house just before the sun sank in the west. During my sandy ride, I was sporadically hit by waves of awful stenches caused by decaying carcasses of cattle and goats that scattered across the arid land; a manifestation of the harsh drought that adversely affects the region.
Ms. Kaltuma- Chairperson Bakal Self Help Group happily invited me into her home and served me camel milk tea. Her warm jovial family made me feel at home. We chatted away almost the entire evening. It was quite humid that I was unable to sleep. I tossed and turned for hours. The orchestra of the chattering insects outside almost soothed me to sleep. Her daughter, Saum, occasionally asked if I was fine; ‘aunty, are you Ok?’ She inquired, ‘Sure Saum,’ I lied. I kept peeping through the openings of the twig hut to enjoy a stupendous array of bright stars that dominated the sky. Just when I was at the ‘peak’ of my hard found sleep, noises outside distracted me; the early morning birds chirped different tunes, the cows mooed at intervals, the cock crowed repeatedly while the goats bleated in turns. I could also overhear Ronte and Saum giggling outside and Ms. Kaltuma yelling their names on top of her lungs; Ronteeee! Saum!!. Clearly, every creature was up. So up I woke! And stepped out of the hut with a haggard look in my eyes.
It was a bright breezy Saturday morning. Orange -pink sun rays beatified the sky on the east. I was excited and fervent to meet these wonderful women of Bakal Self Help Group. During breakfast, the girls were curious about my work. I tried much to explain. Saum was more inquisitive and expressed her dream of becoming a journalist when she grows up. I encouraged her to work hard in school and read a lot of story books. After breakfast, they directed a video of ‘I reporting live on location’. Saum firmly held my I pad ‘Ok Aunty Lorna, 123 start!’ I rattled on…(these girls can be something!)
(Saum and I)
At about 10am, the women started streaming into Ms. Kaltumas homestead, one after the other, others in pairs chatting and occasionally stopping for a minute or so to gossip – then high five in cracking laughter. Saum, Ronte and I were done with ‘reporting live’. We carried benches and arranged them under a tree- at 10am the equatorial sun was already shining with a strange cruelty. Soon all the women had arrived, the total sum lacking one woman, probably caught up by other pressing matters. Oh, she notified Ms. Kaltuma of her absence through one of the women present.
The meeting started. Ronte and Saum had been requested by their mother to give a hand with livestock. I took up my space, dressed in disguise, smiling a bit too abnormal-probably trying to create rapport. Ms. Kaltuma did the best. She introduced me to the ladies and introduced the ladies to me. She informed them of my presence. Most women here speak local dialect, ‘this is going to be hard’ I thought to myself. Not to worry, Ms. Kaltuma volunteered to translate. She told the women that the agenda of the meeting was going to change a bit since I was around. And that they would carry on with their meeting a bit later.
She led them through who I was once again (in detail) and what had brought me there. She asked them to be honest and to feel free in expressing their views and opinions. The discussion began….
What was obvious is that these women are really bold and some including Ms. Kaltuma have been divorced by their husbands for being audacious- pastoralists’ wives are expected to be very humble and obedient to their husbands. Others have been ostracized by fellow women. This group is vigilantly protecting girls including their own daughters from FGM, bidding (booking underage girls for marriage) and child marriage cultures that are quite rampant in Laisamis. Circumcision here is performed as a highly valued culture and as rite of passage. A girl who is not cut is considered dirty and is a laughing stock to her peers.
These women are working to change that perception. They regularly approach other women and encourage them to preserve their daughters. I loudly wondered how possible that was….
When they started they were a group of about three women. The three women have slowly been reaching out to other women and gradually over one year the number has been growing. Some members drop out especially for fear of being shunned majorly because the group is against the deeply entrenched practices.
The women started by saving their own daughters before reaching out to the rest. They have chosen to use the funds they save to support each other, educate their children-both girls and boys. So far, they are celebrating their achievement where one of their members’ daughter is set to sit for final exams this year.
‘How do the girls manage to deal with peer pressure? Do some of them choose to undergo the cut just to fit in?, I probed. They reveal to me something quite perturbing.
‘Sometimes when pressure is a lot, we lie about the cut’, said one woman. The type of FGM performed here is excision-where the vaginal lips and the clitoris are scooped out. Under high secrecy, they revealed to me that they convince cutters to slightly cut a girls’ thigh using a sharp object-just for blood to drip. The girl sharply screams – that’s enough indication that she has gone through the ritual. A pact is made between the women and the girl- The girl is asked to remain silent and continue with her studies. The cutter is however paid triple the amount for risking her life by agreeing to tricks.
‘What if one day you are discovered?’ I asked shocked, my eyes growing wider. ‘We will deal with that when that time comes’ they said. ‘For now what we want is safety for our girls’ expressed another woman. These women value education. They know that the educated children will be their instrument for change in Sagartula.
The women highlighted that awareness levels are quite low and that the community is quite reluctant to stop the practice. They however said that they have heard of an organization working to end the practice in the area though they have not been reached. They also pointed out that cutters make a good income out of the ‘business’ ( KES 1500, 5Kgs Sugar, A goat, 500gms Tea Leaves per girl) and that they are not just about to stop. In fact cutters are rich! Some of the women were sad that their elder daughters who have undergone the cut have dropped out of school and are married off leading impoverished lives.
Laisamis is arid. Rains come in the month of December through to January. During this time there is plenty of milk and blood since livestock have enough pasture to graze. This is considered the best time for FGM and child marriage. Child marriage is done to replace the livestock lost during drought through dowry- exchange of livestock for a girl.
They pointed out that their men especially elders are the most difficult to convince and if they were targeted, the practice would end. The women concluded by stating that their vision is big. But they will save one girl at a time…
Piece by Lorna Andisi, website here