The Samburu people are semi-nomadic pastoralists in North-central Kenya, related to but distinct from the Maasai people.
Female Genital Mutilation – sometimes referred to as female circumcision or genital cutting – refers to procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. In Africa an estimated 101 million girls 10 years old and above have undergone FGM.
What is your own definition of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)?
In Samburu it is ‘Muratare’ which is the initiation of a rite of passage so that you can be accepted and respected as a member of the community.
The practice of FGM began at the time when men from the community began hunting or cattle rustling. Hunting made them look strong and earned them respect from elders and community members. They could stay in the bush for over a year but when they returned they would often find their wives pregnant or with babies. This went on for a long time until one day the elders, together with community members, came up with FGM. This, for them, was a way to reduce women’s their libido so that they would wait until their men came back from the bush.
Often girls were circumcised the day they got married - many African women find this day the best and happiest in their life but for Samburu women it was not because of the pain they had to go through
How is FGM a part of traditional culture?
FGM has become a part of the Samburu community and there is no way to detach yourself from it. If you do, you are considered an outcast or seen as bringing a bad omen. If you became pregnant before being cut, you would be dragged out into the bush with the elder women. They would step on your knees and stomach and pull the infant out of you. It was so brutal that often the mother died with the baby or, if she got lucky, the mother would have complications in future while giving birth.
In our village no-one ever refused to have their daughter circumcised because everyone in the community would know it would mean that no Samburu men would ever marry the girl.
Those who didn’t get circumcised or ran away were tracked down and cut to avoid bringing a curse to their siblings. The curse would mean that the younger sisters could never be circumcised because their elder sister had not ‘passed through the knife’.
The day of circumcision was often also the day a girl got married - many African women find this day the best and happiest in their life but for Samburu women it was not because of the pain they had to go through. Both parents had to be there at the circumcision. Afterwards the elders would gather and ask repeatedly whether the girl was ‘clean’. By this they meant had she ever had an abortion or engaged in pre-marital sex. If she said she was ‘clean’, the elders would spread butter on her father’s head, symbolizing blessings upon the family and a sign of respect. This made the father feel proud.
If the girl was not clean and the butter was spread on the head of the father, it would bring a bad omen and a curse upon the father and his family. Relatives would start dying slowly and bad things would start happening without anyone knowing their origin. It would also deny the father the respect that he used to be accorded by the village elders and his community and he would die.
As a result, elders decided that girls should go through the rite at a younger age to avoid future shame and bad omens befalling family members.
What are the consequences of FGM?
a) You are respected and recognized as a member of the village and community who strongly upholds and respects the norms and Samburu culture.
b) It enables your younger sisters to also undergo the rite.
c) Many girls or women of your age group will attend your wedding and circumcision day; it makes you feel you not alone but part of the community.
d) Your future children will not be seen as bringers of bad omens that that would cause people in your community to start dying.
e) When a woman who has undergone FGM gives birth it brings complications that may be fatal.
What do you think about the children who are taken away or killed?
As a Christian I highly condemn that heinous act since it’s only God who is the giver and taker of life. It’s really wrong to kill innocent lives. The Bible condemns it and teaches us to respect and bring forth – not to kill.
At first people in the community would despise and disrespect you for not abiding by the norms but after the child is born, people will forget. They will welcome the baby and embrace it as part of the community.
Maybe the same child that they at first wanted to kill will rise up to be the community’s saviour.
My sister was molested at the age of 14 and got pregnant while living with my aunt. My dad agreed that my sister would be circumcised on the day she gave birth so that the child would survive
My dad refused to have my sister’s child killed at a time when the Samburu culture was at its most conservative. She was molested at the age of 14 and got pregnant while living with my aunt. He agreed that my sister would be circumcised on the day she gave birth so that the child would survive. So my sister went through a lot of pain on that day. My dad saw it as a blessing that she had a boy child because he had never had one. That same year my mum got pregnant and had a son. If my dad had not refused to have my sister’s child killed, my nephew would never have seen the light of the day.
I strongly disapprove of abortion. I always tell my kids never ever to do it; it’s better that they give me the child who I would raise as my own, even if it meant I had 40 kids.
What do the elders say?
FGM in the Samburu community started long ago and there’s no-one who can over-rule it. The elders see that it’s fulfilled and followed to the letter. No elder can go against it, even if their own children are involved.
There was a time when the area District Commissioner (DC) called a meeting with the village elders to tell them to stop the practice. The area chief, being a Samburu, had warned the DC that it was impossible. The elders who attended the baraza (Swahili for ‘meeting’) listened for a while then walked away vowing never to give up FGM in the community. They prayed to God that the DC’s wishes would not come true and swore to themselves never to allow that to happen in the community.
How often does FGM happen in the Samburu community?
It goes with age groups. Normally it’s between the ages of 7 to 10. But if anyone in that age group misses the knife they have to wait another 7-10 years to be cut. That’s why some are still forced to go through it when they are older.
After I witnessed it being done to some of my sisters, I vowed never to let that happen to my own kids. I moved from the village and got married into a tribe that came from Nyanza (the Gusii community) but who, to my surprise, were the worst when it came to practicing FGM. Luckily neither of my daughters have had it done to them.
Some parents still practice FGM but those who follow and abide by Christianity have moved to urban centers, never to return to their ancestral land. The fate of those who do return and the fate of their children relies on the elders in the community. My sister has written a book about the Samburu culture and the double pain she suffered on the day she gave birth just because of this cultural practice.
Samora Asere is an On Our Radar citizen journalist living in Nairobi, Kenya.