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The Cut

The Cut

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Feature article in Midwifery Today (Summer edition 2009) on female genital mutilation.
Feature article in Midwifery Today (Summer edition 2009) on female genital mutilation.

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Published by: Linda May Kallestein on Oct 01, 2011
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04/02/2012

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www.midwiferytoday.com
 
Midwifery Today—International Midwife
Summer 2009
 
I
 was just about to witness a young girl
have her genitals cut o
ff 
at the handof her mother. Intentionally. With a
razor blade.
 
e government o
cial, whoshould have prevented it from happening,
smiled his semi-toothless smile at me, from
outside the
boma
(homestead).
 
e chief respected the traditional
law of no men allowed inside the ring of mud huts during the ceremony. He had norespect for the crime against Kenyan law that was about to take place, or the gross violation of basic human rights—a violentact against a helpless child.
 
e razor blade reflected the rays of the rising sun.
All around were smiles and hushed
laughter. Expectations.
 
e main focus for
most of the people standing in and aroundthe
boma
was to get it over with, but not
out of sympathy for 14-year-old Mary, who
stood shivering as the sun made its way 
above the horizon.
 
ey simply couldn’t wait for it to be party time.And my role in all of this? I was theguest of honor.
I had read all I could related to femalegenital mutilation and I was on my second
trip to Kenya to find out more about the
5000-year-old tradition. Somewherealong the way, I gained the trust of a
community of Maasai, living life as they had done for generations, at the foot of Kilimanjaro. Human rights activist and
photographer Justo Casal opened the
doors for me and we had visited severaltimes over the course of some months. Ihad even brought along my 10- and 15- year-old sons. We tied bonds of friendship and, as aresult, we were welcomed as family.
 
eMaasai community opened their homes,
inviting us to sleep with them around
the fires in their huts made of mud andcow dung.
 
e last time we went, we arrived a
few days before 14-year-old Mary was tobe circumcised. I stayed with her family 
  The
Cut  
by Linda May Kallestein
during the last hectic days of preparations
before the event.Her 18-year-old sister, Rita, adopted
me as an older sister. She was my guide
into understanding the surreal situation.
Rita was talkative, getting on with herdaily chores and including me in them.
Making food, rounding up the cows and
milking them. She explained to me how to
make chiabata, a bread-like pancake friedon the open fire inside the dark hut. Shetaught me how to milk the cows by usinggourds that functioned as a type of milk 
carton. She even dressed me as a tradi-
tional Maasai and showed me where to go
to the bathroom in the bush where there were no trees to hide behind and how tobrush my teeth with a stick. At night shecovered me with a thin scarf and crawledclose to me, to keep me warm as the firedied down. She tried earnestly to be thebridge between me and what was goingon around me.Mary, of course, was the real focus of 
attention. All the preparations were in her
honor.
 
ey were performed according to
age-old tradition. Mary went through the
motions of doing the chores that were
expected of her, but she seemed not to
be mentally present. I could not reach
her, despite my constant trying.
“She has a lot on her mind,” Rita
explained and nodded toward Mary. Sheknew that what awaited her in a few days
Sharpening knife
   P   h  o   t  o  s  p  r  o  v   i   d  e   d    b  y  a  u   t   h  o  r
 
 
 
Summer 2009
Midwifery Today—International Midwife
 
www.midwiferytoday.com
 would change her forever.
Both Mary and Rita had attendedschool, unlike the girls in the neighbor
boma
who had been circumcised a few weeks
earlier. I had met the 12- and 13-year-old
cousins on a previous visit to the village,
about two weeks after they had been cut.Both had been looking forward to goingthrough the ancient initiation ritual that
 would transport them into womanhood.
For them, the cut would open new doors.
 
ey could finally marry.
For Mary and Rita, the cutting and
the aspect of marriage closed doors.
 
ey could no longer expect to continue school,to get an education or to move beyond theboundaries of their village. At school they 
had also learned of the dangers of being cut.
 
ey both knew of the immediate dangersof bleeding to death, dying of shock or con-
tracting an infection.
 
ey also knew of the
long-term complications they might su
ff 
er,such as infections, vaginal fistula, miscar-riages and di
cult child delivery.
I knew that Mary knew. I could not
reach her, as she slipped further into her
inner world.“We don’t have the strong words to say no,” Rita told me. “But I won’t put my chil-dren through it.”
Rita had had her genitals sliced o
ff 
a
couple of years earlier. She claimed it didn’thurt all that much. Proudly she kept tellingme of her mother’s god-given gift of medi-cine. Not only was her mother a very goodcircumciser, but she was also the one whompregnant girls and women turned to whendelivering babies became di
cult.“She just knows what to do,” Rita statedconfidently. Her mother’s abilities seemed
to include divine wisdom about medical
procedures and keeping pain at a mini-
mum.
 
e young Maasai boys who heard Ritapraise her mother so highly took me aside abit later. According to them, the real reason
Rita and Mary’s mother did the cutting
on her own daughters was that the family could not a
ff 
ord to pay a circumciser.
 
ey pointed out that the goat that was slaugh-tered a few days earlier should have been abull.
 
e animal hide is used as a blanket where the girl sits while being circumcised
and later functions as a sheet on her bed
during the days of recovery. Each girl isto have her own personal bull hide.
 
e
embarrassment of Mary not having a bullhide of her own and of being o
ff 
ered a goathide instead would later be covered up.
 
egoat hide was nowhere to be seen on theday of Mary’s circumcision. Someone hadtraded it out for a used bull hide. Everyonepretended to overlook this crucial detail.
Circumcision is an expensive deal in
Kenya. In Mary and Rita’s case, part of thefinancial burden was solved by their mother
taking the razor blade in her own hand. But
there is more to it than just paying the cir-
cumciser to do the actual cutting. Tradition
requires slaughtering animals and feeding
practically the entire community, not just on
one occasion, but repeatedly over a periodof about a week.
Having a daughter circumcised can
bring a family close to the brink of financialruin.
 
is alone should seem reason enough
14-year-old Mary preparing jewelry for her circumcision garmentMary’s entire family decorated themselves in preparation for Mary’s circumcision.
 
www.midwiferytoday.com
 
Midwifery Today—International Midwife
Summer 2009
 
Mary’s older sister Rita, my guide
for the poor to shy away from the age-old
tradition. Oddly enough, the economic ben-
efits are an incentive for the poor to scrapeenough together to have their girls circum-cised. Once a girl is cut, she is a financialcommodity. She is ready to be married o
ff 
.For the bride’s family, marriage means ani-mals and money—a dowry.
 
e poorer the family, the higher theasking price often will be for the girl. Forsome men this can be a large problem. “Idon’t have the prestige to marry a girl froma rich family,” sighed one Maasai boy. “So Ihave to make a plan of how to earn enoughmoney to pay for many cows to get a poorman’s daughter.”
Although many of the traditions andreasons for cutting genitals o
ff 
girls vary 
from tribe to tribe, the financial aspect is
one that seems constant. Cut girls are ready 
to be married o
ff 
, whether they are nine or15 years old.
Miles away from the dusty Maasai vil-
lage, the rainy season had just lifted from East
Pokot.
 
e arid, desert-like climate east of Lake Victoria is a harsh place to live. Water
is normally scarce and during most of the
 year, the men take the cattle to water holesfar from the villages. Women and childrenare left behind to manage as well as they can,
 with little food and no milk.
 
e women walk 
for hours to the closest well or manage to digup some water from the mud of the dryingrivers.
 
is water is nowhere near clean, butit is water all the same.
During the rainy season, water is in far too
much abundance. Rivers overflow, makingit impossible to pass. Malaria-infested mos-
Young girls have been circumcised for thousands of years. Unlessthere is a huge change in this village, this little girl will alsobe cut when she is in puberty.

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