Among many tribes in Kenya, girls as young as 8 years old still undergo the practice of FGM, or female genital mutilation. In some circles, they use the more polite term “female circumcision”, but there is no denying that these girls are mutilated, using sharp objects such as glass, rocks, or metal in unsanitary conditions. Although the practice is illegal in Kenya, it has deep cultural roots, and I believe, is in part tied to poverty. If a family cannot afford to feed their female children, then it is time to marry them off. The culture of some tribes dictates that the girl undergo the procedure before she can be married, and often these girls are married to men who are old enough to be grandfathers because they can pay the largest price. I have often fought to change the minds of my fellow Maasai by writing articles and speaking to fathers and brothers about this practice. I began a campaign to offer to pay father’s to not perform the practice with my “Give a Goat” campaign. Needless to say, when I hear stories like the one I am about to share with you, I have hope for my people – that men can learn to value the education of their daughters over early marriage. Ultimately, education is the key to overcoming poverty, outdated cultural practice, and prejudice.
A young woman I know had shared with me her story. She had the opportunity to attend a special science course at a local university while in high school, and her experience was the beginning of a dream that would change her life. She began to imagine that one day she could be a pilot. But not just any pilot. She believed she could be the most distinct female pilot in her community. She was of average background, and the cost of such an education “pushed into her heart and psyche like the thorns of a thistle.”
She shared her ambitions and desires with her father, even though she knew their circumstances made her goals virtually unattainable. “My father is unique, because regardless of the battle ahead, in spite of me being neither the first kid nor the last conceived, his clear words rang in my mind like a doorbell when he said , ‘ if what you need is to end up a pilot, then far beyond any doubt you will be. If I have to sell this hut and land I will do it.’” Her father raised her to believe that she could match a man in her abilities and to believe in herself. Indeed, she went to flight school!
But she said that many blessings in life come with comments from those that would try to destroy your dream. On her first day in class, she stood to share her name, and instead the class began to make fun of her. First because she was a girl, and second because she is Maasai.
“ I felt like a strange animal … perhaps with 10 appendages, disfigured face and a prolonged head.” She said the class immediately began to talk negatively about the Maasai and their way of life. They tried to destroy her spirit as they questioned what her father had sold to get her into school, giving her the impression that she didn’t belong. But her strength came from having experienced their type of prejudice against her tribe before, when at a lower level of schooling, she was also the only Maasai girl in the class.
“ I have learned to defend myself and my way of life, yet that didn't mean I wouldn’t cry late into the night following a day like that.” She often asked God why her tribe is treated as less than human.
Despite the limitations to education she experienced both by her culture and by those who would hold her back because prejudice, she was blessed to have a father who had a different vision for his daughter. And by the time she completed her pilot permit, everybody knew she was a Maasai pilot. She urges other young women to not be influenced by the naysayers of life who would tell them that they can’t compete with a man, that they can’t achieve their dreams because they are “less .” It is so easy to try to change who you are to fit in with others’ concept of who you are, instead of proving that you are capable, unique and special.
Let’s hope for a day when more young women are allowed the opportunity to become who they are in their hearts, and that more fathers like hers will see their potential.
Written by guest author, Saitoti Kaloi, Narok, Kenya