A couple of weeks ago I took a safari trip to Africa with my family. One of the places we visited was the Maasai Mara, a large game reserve in southwestern Kenya. It is named after the Maasai people, the traditional inhabitants of the area.
At the bookstore of our lodge, I read about the Maasai culture. Maasai people are among the most well known of African ethnic groups, due to their distinctive customs, dress and warrior traditions.
Maasai culture is strongly patriarchal in nature, with elder men, sometimes joined by retired elders, deciding most major matters for each Maasai group. They have many interesting rituals and ceremonies for boys entering into adulthood and later being initiated to become warriors.
My attention naturally went to the rites of passage for girls. And what I found shocked me to the core. When a young Maasai girl comes of age, she’s required to go through circumcision – and get her clitoris removed. I thought to myself, What the hell is this?!
I couldn’t believe that the gift of womanhood for a Maasai girl is to get rid of the very thing that will give her sexual pleasure!
I later asked our guide about this tradition. He was an educated man and lived outside of the tribe. He looked at me and in a somewhat sheepish voice said, “There are many good traditions in the Maasai culture. This is not one of them. But it’s a tradition, so Maasai people follow it.”
As you can imagine, I was not satisfied with this explanation at all, feeling terrible for Maasai women… “So are you telling me that sex is only a means of reproduction? What about a woman’s rights, wants and desires?”
Later I learned that female circumcision is not just practiced by the Maasai people. It permeates many other African groups as well. In Kenya alone, 50% of women have undergone circumcision. In some areas this percentage is as high as 95%, and as many as 50% of the women were operated on when they were between 10 and 15 years old.
“Female circumcision prepares girls for responsible married life,” was one of the arguments for the practice of female circumcision. Girls who are not circumcised, it is argued, are immoral, make rude wives and daughters-in-law. And in some communities it is drummed into the girls’ heads, right from a tender age, that no man will marry an uncircumcised girl.
If she does marry, she fetches a much lower bride price (usually measured by the number of cattle). In my own case, I was offered three cows for marriage by a young warrior. Hell no! I wouldn’t stay for 3,000 cows, or at any price for that matter.
Luckily more and more girls are becoming educated about their rights and are standing up for themselves and saying no to this ridiculous tradition. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s encouraging to see that only 62% of girls with secondary education in Kenya were circumcised, compared to 96% of those with no education (per womanaid.org).
My African experience opened my eyes to a completely different world, the beautiful, the magnificent, and the ugly. I felt a deep sense of gratitude for the freedom, the opportunities, the beauty and love around me. And sorrow for the suffering that so many experience.
How do you feel, and what are your thoughts?