If you are a girl and you were born in West Pokot some 12 or 13 years ago, around this time, as the rest of the world heads into December’s hedonism, celebrations and excesses, you will be getting ready to be circumcised. That is, if “getting ready” is even an apt phrase to prefix in reference to getting circumcised. Nonetheless, you will find yourself in a hut with other girls, your peers seating on the cold earthen floor, knees touching each other. You will most likely be barefoot. Your hair will be short, thick, kinky and smelling of the sun. You will be in an old dress or a skirt, your best clothes, which ironically are also your everyday clothes. You will sit huddled like animals getting ready for slaughter in a “corner” of the cylindrical room, together yet alone.
Outside – beyond the hills of Chesegon – the sun will be going down in a perfect ball of orange, the short stubby withered trees covered in thin dust casting willowy shadows on the dry thirsty land of Pokot. There will be jubilation outside your hut. You girls will sit in silence in the encroaching darkness and avoid each other’s eyes, afraid to see powerlessness quickly growing in them like wild weeds.
In the next hut there will be a very old man seated on a stone, his shuka gathered around his waist. His nimble muscles will move under his saggy weathered skin as he sharpens a knife. You and your peers in the hut – as well as half the village howling in celebration outside – will be there because of that 4-inch knife. It’s the circumcision knife in case you are wondering; an ugly thing made from a long nail, pounded and curved into the shape of a leaf. A piece of wood is then attached at the end of it to act as a handle. The old man will sharpen this knife until it can cut by just looking at it. Then he will place it near a fire the whole night to retain its sharpness. Someone will stoke that fire, keeping it burning until the small hours of the morning.
There will be a celebrity in the boma; the old woman who will circumcise you the next morning. They are respected in the village, famed, lauded and celebrated. They turn girls into women, and women mean cows and children and clan longevity. This woman is wrinkled and stooped and her eyes sink further into their sockets as if unable to handle the light of day. Her skin resembles cracked earth. She has short stubby fingers with gnarled nails.
While the whole gathering outside will be drinking normal brew the whole night, she will be drinking special alcohol made from honey. She will sip it from a special calabash called kolowo.
She’s called Roda Longoleren. She’s got four daughters. All circumcised. And married off.
At 10pm, her shadowy figure will bend and make an entrance into the hut. Your hut. You and your peers will all flinch. Other women will trail behind her inside singing folk songs. She will be carrying that knife and while dancing, she will flash it in your faces to see if you show fear. She will laugh; a hysterical, high pitched ghoulish laughter that pierces your small bones with foreboding. The women will taunt you; tell you how much of an embarrassment and disappointment you will be to your parents the next day if you show fear while being cut. “Don’t be the laughing stocks of the village”, they will tell you, “don’t be weak and unworthy. If you flinch you will never get a husband.”
That night you will sleep in that hut as celebrations go on outside. The next morning, way before the sun rises from beyond Sigor; you will find yourself with your peers walking down to the river in a single file, surrounded by dancing and singing women. Dust reluctantly rising around you. You will be wearing only a top. You will dip yourselves into the cold flowing water, waist high and it will numb your lower body. You will shiver, from the cold and from fright. Your mother, dancing in the crowd, will wave jubilantly.
The entourage will walk back to the village where you will stand outside the cow shed, inside which there will be a stone. It’s a special stone picked by one of the women, flat at the base and high enough to raise your waist area above the ground. That stone will have been tried and tested for stability. There will be a handful of women in the cowshed, including Roda with her knife. All around the shed will be villagers singing and dancing.
You will see your father standing where he is required to stand, at the entrance of the cowshed. He’s holding a spear.
On cue from one of the women, you will run into the cowshed and sit on the stone whereupon you will part your legs, stick your chin up in the cloudless dawn sky, and proceed to raise your hands in the air.
Then you will wait for the knife.
Last week I met Roda in Kongelai, West Pokot. She has since walked away from this practice and is now an advocate against FGM. I asked her if she ever looked at the girls in the eyes right before she cut them and what emotion she saw in those eyes. Was it pride? Fear? Defiance? Resignation? She said it really didn’t matter then; it was and still is a tradition.
So anyway, there you are, seated with your legs open, looking up in the sky, it’s cold and your whole body is tense. You wait for the unknown. Then it comes. You feel a hand on your genitalia, a cold hand that has been rubbed with ashes from a three-stone stove, meant to help reduce the slipperiness because remember you are wet from the river water. The hands grope chunks of your young genitalia, the labia and the clitoris. You suck in your breath because you are not supposed to flinch you are not supposed to embarrass your mother and father and your aunts and the village.
You don’t see it, but you feel the movement of air as Roda swiftly brings down the knife. You hear the sound – that sickening searing sound of your flesh tearing apart – before you even feel the pain. It’s like the sound of a sharp knife cutting through soft linen. A macabre sound.
And just like that, Roda, with one swift expert motion, cut’s off parts of your labia and your clitoris.
She tosses them aside on the dusty cowshed floor. (Like unwanted items.)
The womenfolk cheer and ululate.
Your father smiles proudly.
You start bleeding.
I asked Christine Nakoki, 19, who had been cut not too long ago and ran away, to describe what went through her mind seated on that stone, the final moments before they severed her genitals. We are sitting in a traditional hut, a temporary safe houses set up by Action Aid Kenya that take in girls who have run away from their villages because of FGM and need care and education. It’s quiet and cool inside, a contrast to the blistering heat outside.
“Describe for me that feeling”, I asked. She launched into a long pause. “My heart was beating so fast, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Then when she cut me it felt like someone had poured very hot water on me down there, then it started burning, the pain moving from the waist going up.” She never looked at me in the eye.
Your father is required to stand with a spear at the entrance of the boma. In case you decide to make a run for it, he is to spear you. Yes, he is allowed. He’d rather kill you than get embarrassed. Should this happen, should you make a run for it, the women who are in the cowshed are required to dance before him, to distract him and offer cover for you as you are dragged back onto the stone.
But you will not make a run for it, or cower, but you will bleed, maybe even pass out from the pain or the bleeding. Or both. If you do, you will be carried out of the cowshed whereupon the next girl will run into the cowshed, sit on the same stone and get cut by the same knife held by Roda’s dexterous hands.
Later, in a special hut, your legs will be tied tightly together to keep the “wound” intact. You will stay in the hut with the rest of the girls tied like that, fed on ugali and plenty of milk delivered to your hut by different women. You will not leave that hut for a month; your legs will remain tied together. Should you want to pee, you have to lie on your back and then raise your legs up in the air to take the urine away from your genitalia.
Exactly one month after ‘the cut’ you will limp out of the hut and there, waiting for you, will be – most likely – an old man. “This is going to be your husband,” your mother will tell you proudly. He will probably be in his late 50’s, leaning on a stick, flanked by gaunt younger men eyeing you like reptiles. He will grin at you, this husband-in-waiting, an ugly grin – maybe partly toothless, his mouth curved into the shape of the knife that cut you. He paid 35 heads of cattle for you. Suddenly one of the younger men will haul you on his back and cart you off, kicking and screaming to spend your first Christmas as a young circumcised bride.
When you arrive at his boma you will realise, perhaps without surprise, that he has three other wives. That night, your honeymoon night, you will be expected out of obligation and duty to sleep with your husband, this strange old man with leather for skin and a rheumatic chuckle. Maybe he coughs all the time. Maybe he smokes a pipe that smells awful.
There will be no foreplay in case you are wondering (what is foreplay anyway?, you are a child, you don’t know anything). Not that night, not ever. He will have his way with you as you lie under him, stiff like a board and terrified, eyes shut tight as you twist away from his breath on your neck. The next morning you will be handed beaded bangles to signify that penetration was successful. However, if he tried unsuccessfully because your entrance was too small he will be surly and livid, and the next morning he will summon your village representatives and demand that something be done immediately or else his cows be returned, all of them, with not one hoof missing!
What happens then is that a bunch of elderly women will come to your new home, specialists on penetration. They will come with a cow’s horn, bent and sharp at the tip, and they will insert the tip in your vagina and wedge the horn inside, pry it open, and then they will bring it down, tearing your vagina. With the horn still inside, and you bleeding and crying, someone will call out to your husband who will come with his penis already erect and he will penetrate you right there as the women quickly recede out of the hut to allow him privacy to this spectacle pidgeon-holed under tradition.
I went down to Kongelai, West Pokot, with Corazon Aquino of Action Aid Kenya, and at this point when the women illustrated on a wooden dummy how the horn is used to pry open the girl’s private part in order for the man to penetrate her, she gasped sharply, leaned over and put her head in her hands, covered her face and stayed like that throughout the remainder of the grotesque demonstration, refusing to look up. I could hear her slow shallow breaths from my seat.
I met and interviewed some of these girls holed up in a particular safe house. Girls who ran away before they were cut and girls who ran away after they were cut. The safe houses are run by these amazing community women groups who take in the girls and nurse them to health, send them to schools with the support of Action Aid and go around villages offering workshops against FGM.
When I went into this temporary safe-house to interview some of these girls I was struck by not only their haunted looks, but how hunted they seemed. They cowered together in that darkened hut, wide eyed with fear and mistrust, not only towards me, but to humanity it seemed. It truly broke my heart. Instinctively, they sat with their legs tight together and I noticed how they kept pulling down their dresses over their knees. They were shy and spoke to me in halting whispers. They were jumpy. They giggled at times when I cracked a joke; surprisingly pure and melodious giggles. They were still children after all.
I’m told me that when they first come to the safe houses, they come stripped of any self-esteem. How they come as children who have seen a horror that children shouldn’t be allowed to see. Some come with the dreadful fistula. They come with scars uglier than the visible scars on their bodies, scars that perhaps very few will be able to reach or fully comprehend. They come fearful and desperate, bearing little or no dignity. They come violated and defeated.
They all come crying.
These girls walk from very long distances to escape – as long as 40km stretches. They come from the most interior of villages of Lelan, of Kasei, of Kapenguria, of Kacheliba, of Alale, of Chesegon. The walk barefoot in the scalding unforgiving heat and quite often they give up along the way and go back. Or they are caught and taken back. There is need for more safe houses to be built closer to them in different parts of West Pokot to give them easier access. Those safe houses need mattresses and beds and the community women, these dedicated old women who tirelessly help them, need a functional resource center.
And this December, the season for FGM, scores of them will be running to these few safe houses and when they do they will need to know that someone will be there to take them in and protect them.
We have the power to help these children. We can make these girls’ Christmas one they will never forget. Let’s show them that they are not alone.
Pay Bill – 899610
Account Name: End FGM
Standard Chartered branch – Westlands
Account name: Actionaid International Kenya-local fundraising
Account number: 01-080-336006-10 Branch: Westlands
Switft Code: SCBLKENXXXX
For more information how you can help: http://actionaidkenya.org/anti-fgm-campaign/