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Reporter's Notebook: Female Circumcision in Africa

Kristin Whiting
National Geographic Today
February 19, 2002

Circumcising young girls is a practice that dates back beyond anyone's memory in Kenya. Even though the Kenyan government recently banned the practice, parents are still risking jail terms and heavy fines to put their daughters through this rite of passage. More than a third of women in Kenya between the ages of 15 and 49 have been subjected to some form of genital circumcision. It is clear that the tradition will be difficult to eradicate.

National Geographic Today traveled to Kenya in December because it is the traditional month for circumcision ceremonies. Our intention was to travel southwest of Nairobi to Kisii where we know the practice of these rites of passage still flourish. Although 38 percent of Kenyan women have been circumcised, in Kisii that figure rises to 97 percent.

Jen, pictured in the middle, is a ten-year-old Masai girl waiting to be circumcised. In Kenya, female circumcision recently was outlawed; however, lack of enforcement and education perpetuate the tradition.

While traveling through the Masai Mara wildlife reserve in southwest Kenya we crossed paths with a Masai rancher who stopped to tell us he was making his way to a boy's circumcision ceremony. We asked him to take us along and he led us to the manyatta, or village.

When we reached the manyatta we negotiated with the village chief to observe the ceremony. After years of being photographed the Masai have learned to ask for money. The village chief, Joseph Ketuyio, expressed concerns that we would photograph the children who would be naked at times. Ketuyio also told us that the next day three girls would be circumcised. He tells us photographing the actual cutting is forbidden. We agreed, paid a fee and began shooting what proved to be a frenzied event.

As Masai tradition mandates, the boy spent the night out in the bush, then made his way with a large herd of cattle into the manyatta and then into the boma, the circular animal enclosure where the circumcision ceremony takes place. The villagers didn't let me in but I was told he lost consciousness during the procedure. The elders then carried him into one of the mud huts where he would recover for several days.

The next morning I left camp well before dawn because the circumcision ceremony for girls begins at sunrise. The circumcision procedure for girls involves the removal of all or part of the external female genitalia. Often done with crude knives in one of their huts, the painful operations can cause life-long health risks. The cutting may cause life-threatening infections, increased susceptibility to HIV, and could deprive the girls of ever having any sexual sensation.

I asked several of the adult Masai why boys and girls continue to be circumcised. Their answer was always that it was to mark their passage into adulthood. They implied that this was how it had always been done so it must continue to be that way.

Only after a girl is circumcised is she considered ready for marriage; and he community shuns those who refuse the procedure. I tried to talk about this ith one of the girls, Jen, scheduled for circumcision that morning. Jen was the sister of the boy whose circumcision ceremony we had attended yesterday. Although Jen was only ten years old and clearly understood my English she was reluctant to discuss what was about to happen to her.

Jen had a look of consternation on her face but it was difficult for me to distinguish between her fear and anticipation, and her annoyance with my camera. She looked at me with a piercing, wise-beyond-her-years, glare.

The ceremony began with a group of young girls - some of whom were circumcised just a month earlier - encircling Jen and the two others waiting their circumcision. There were far fewer people here than there were to celebrate the boy's coming of age.

The girls blew whistles and sang for more than an hour. Chief Ketuyio explained that the group is there to support the three girls and make sure they feel brave. When I asked him how he thought they were feeling, he told me they were happy.

Then it was time. I asked the chief if I could go into the hut without a camera. I wanted to see the actual procedure so I could accurately report what occurred inside.

Before coming to this region, I was told by an American anthropologist who had witnessed the actual procedure; that the Masai they don't always cut off the external genitalia during the circumcision sometimes it's simply a nick or a scratch.

But I wanted to know what procedure this particular tribe practiced, and what specifically would happen to Jen. I approached the hut where the cutting took place. Little girls and a few women surrounded the door.

When it was Jen's turn she told me, No, you can't go in THERE. She entered the hut and soon we heard screams. I stood outside and recorded the wails coming from the window. Her cries of pain were beyond disturbing. The degree of cutting depends on the tribe and place, but because Jen would not let me in the hut while she was being cut, I didn't know what she experienced and how much of her genitalia was removed.

Hours later, I visited Jen who was still writhing in pain. She clearly didn't want me around, so I let her rest.

That afternoon I drove a couple of hours to the town of Kilgoris to talk to a headmistress of a girl's school that has a program specifically designed for girls who do not want to be circumcised. Rosemary Mesoppir, a circumcised Masai woman, is one of a vociferous minority who is attempting to make education a focus for young girls in this rural area. She teaches her students that there are ways other than circumcision to mark their initiation into womanhood.

Often described as a "circumcision by words," Rosemary said she teaches the girls about the grave risks of the traditional practice. She stresses the importance of continuing their education. She teaches them self-respect and hopes the girls have the confidence to decide for themselves whether they want to be circumcised.

As I completed an interview with a group of students, a woman ran into the school to tell Rosemary that a young girl had just been brought into the hospital down the street suffering from tetanus as a result of circumcision a reminder of the prevalence of the practice and its possible dire consequences.

On December 13, four days after Jen's ceremony, President Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya outlawed female genital mutilation, but out here in the Kenyan countryside, people doubt he will be able to enforce the ban. Already parents are circumcising girls at a younger age to avoid government intervention and potential defiance from the girls themselves. But others, like Rosemary Mesoppir, hope the ban will at least inspire people to begin questioning the reason for preserving this kind of tradition.