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The Maasai – a tradition in transition

05 December 2014

Christian influence and changes in Kenyan law are challenging long-held tribal traditions such as female genital mutilation, discovers Madeleine Davies


Lucy Sekento with her daughter Shelley

Lucy Sekento with her daughter Shelley

SITTING under a tree, 19-year-old Lucy Sekento, has the air of a storyteller. She has just finished teaching at the school opposite - children are drifting back across the grassland, heading home for lunch - and a morning's instruction has left her voice slightly husky.

The story she is going to tell us - a group of visitors to Sitoka village, in Narok County, Kenya - is how a Maasai girl becomes a woman.

"When that day arrives, the girls to be cut get ready. The girls look beautiful. They wrap a blue cloth around their waist, without anything else. Their breasts are out. Bells are tied around their thighs so that, when they are dancing, you can hear them. When everyone hears the sounds of the bells, they will give way and give them respect.

"The other girls sing songs: 'Bye bye! You are no longer a girl. You are a woman. We respect you.'

"All the people are present. Even the birds. Everyone is looking at them, and they are not ashamed. They are just the way that God created them.

"The mother comes with a cow skin. The girl sits here. There is a woman with a knife. Nowadays, they have small blades, but, in the old days, it was a knife like for cutting vegetables."

Is there crying, we want to know. It must be so painful.

"If you scream or cry, that is a very big abomination. You have to be brave like a lion. . . After the cutting, there is a celebration. People sing songs praising the girl, and her family: 'Now you are a woman, not a kid.'"

It is a story told in the present tense. Ms Sekento has been taught that female genital mutilation (FGM) is wrong, and she believes that, by the time her eight-month-old daughter Shelley is grown, "everybody will have changed their minds." But she is un- sure whether or not her younger sister Louise, who is 12, will undergo the cut.

Her own "passing through", three years ago, was important, she says. It was carried out, illegally, by a doctor, a "quack", who performed a small cut, and provided painkillers, and a tetanus vaccine.

"Without that, I think I could not have been respected," she says. "If I had not, I would have just felt like nothing. . . I was not scared. I was happy. I was one of the women to be respected."

MS SEKENTO is part of a generation of Maasai in transition. She has completed her teacher training, and hopes that the children in her class will become doctors and pilots. She chose her husband, "an educated man", rather than marry one selected by her family.

And she is very aware of the government's determination to eradicate FGM (it has been illegal in Kenya since 2001). Yet the meaning of the ritual - it is a passport to womanhood - is a powerful one that still resonates.

The prevalence of FGM among the Maasai has fallen by one fifth in the past decade, but it remains high: 73.2 per cent. Across Kenya, it is 27.1 per cent.

The history of attempts to eradicate the practice is a chequered one. Christian missions in the early 20th century, notably those of the Church of Scotland, opposed it as a barbaric practice. But they failed to grasp the significance of the rite, and their campaign met fierce resistance from tribes.

In 1929, the Kikuyu began establishing their own schools, in direct opposition to those provided by the missions. Indigenous churches grew alongside them.

Today, the Anglican Church, to- gether with other Churches, the government, and NGOs, is taking a multi-faceted approach to abolishing the practice, delivering education, training in the law, and alternative rites. Since the Prohibition of FGM Act (2011) tightened the law, 71 cases have been heard in court, and 16 of them have resulted in convictions. 

TOM OPEE is a community field officer for Transmara Rural Development Programme (TRDP), Christian Aid's partner in the region, run by the diocese of Kericho, in the Anglican Church of Kenya. He is confident that "in the next ten years, we will not be talking about it."

Sitting in the waiting room in the mother-and-child unit at Lolgorian Sub-district Hospital, he describes a careful process of education, built on a foundation of friendship. He is not Maasai himself, but believes that "anyone can work anywhere. It is about attitude and understanding. I understand them, and they understand me. They are my friends. They are good people."

This is evident in the faces of the children who come running up to him when he arrives in Sitoka on his 100cc motorbike, tilting their heads towards him for his palm (the greeting for those younger than you).

"It is a process," he says. "There are retrogressive cultural practices; so we make them list those one by one, and they come up with ways of how to change those, and keep those which are still of good value to them. If you go to them, and just tell them to stop, they will resist. They come to a consensus and say 'OK, which way will we take?'"

Staff of the diocese have gained first-hand experience of the consequences of leaving some customs unchallenged. At their headquarters in the town of Kilgoris, the Archdeacon of Transmara, the Ven. Dominic Santeto, the executive director of TRDP, describes how a young girl hid her pregnancy from her parents because she had not yet been circumcised.

She was brought to the diocese heavily pregnant with pre-eclampsia, which proved fatal. "She passed on, just because of that taboo," he says.

The diocese is thinly spread. There are 107 congregations, numbering 6000 members out of a population of 1.5 million. But the TRDP is reaching the remotest parts of the Transmara district, providing education, HIV counselling and testing centres, and mobile health services, including immunisation and family planning.

The diocesan website lists high illiteracy levels, environmental degradation, and "hopelessness" among the challenges that face the region.

"The government has put in place inadequate measures to reverse the above situations in terms of policies and physical infrastructure," it states. "The Church is the only institution founded on the word of God, and the only tool that God can use to transform the society."


A SIGNIFICANT obstacle to transformation is the traditional balance of power among the Maasai. "The determinant of health is the issues of power and the role of women," Rodney Kaleke says. He is a nurse, and a vocal proponent of family planning, who co-ordinates the TRDP's maternal child-health programme.

"They need the consent of their husband, or traditional birth attendant, or mother-in-law. We are establishing mother-to-mother groups, and trying to get hold of the power-holders so that we are able to talk to them, and allow women to make their own decisions. Power determines service uptake. We are telling men: 'It is OK for your women to access health services.'"

The scale of the challenge is evident when we talk to Melita Sadera and his 28-year-old son Loshe. Melita was born in 1965, and his two wives have given birth to 16 children in total. Dressed in the traditional Masaai shuka (shawl), his lobes stretched by heavy earrings, he sits next to his son, who wears a Nike jumper and trainers, and whose ears are untouched.

Dress and age aside, they share not only facial features but a belief in the importance of tradition. While Loshe thinks in a "very different way" from his father - he is loath to have as many children, because of the cost -he is "not comfortable seeing culture being washed away".

"The biggest reason is children are losing respect for their elders," he says. "It's a major worry. Before, it was the father who went and looked for a wife, but now the children of today lack respect. They just go and pick ladies from anywhere, and say: 'This is my wife.'"

Between them, the men tell the story of a wife in the neighbourhood who was chased away from her village, after the death of children and animals was traced to her practice of witchcraft. This is the risk that you run when your children choose their own wives, they explain. 

Both men are aware of the government ban on FGM, and the risk of a prison sentence. It is this, Melita Sadera says, that has changed his mind (he would allow his daughters to choose whether or not to undergo the cut). But there will be confusion, he fears: how will he know whether someone is a child or an adult?

We ask Loshe Sadera whether he thinks there will be any circumcised girls for his two-year-old son, toddling past us, to marry. He is confident that they will be found. "It is still continuing, but silently," he says. "Now, there is no celebration, but it can be done in the homestead."

The law, or perhaps the fear of imprisonment, appears to carry weight among the Maasai. In June, a Maasai couple were charged with the murder of a girl in their care who bled to death after being cut. Women in Sitoka tell us of others who died, and a nurse at Lolgorian reports seeing "many" infections resulting from the procedure ("they chop all the muscles and just leave a hole").

But Mr Opee argues that it is beliefs that change practice. "The Church started to champion opposition to FGM," he says. "The idea that a woman is a companion, not a worker, is a Christian concept. And attitude changes practice. Since practice has changed, men are adapting to new ways of living. Now they can share work, and prioritise health issues. Currently, 80 per cent of men are polygamous. Christianity is changing that." 

THE impact of Christian missions was evident from the moment that we arrived at Sitoka. Emblazoned on the shawls that women tie around their shoulders like capes is the face of Jesus. He is present again on the walls of the first home we visit, illustrating a 2014 calendar that depicts the Last Supper. On the adjacent wall are posters depicting both African presidents and, bizarrely, the capture of Osama bin Laden.

A recent report by the Public Broadcasting Service in the United States suggested that as many as a quarter of Maasai have become Christian. The reason that they embraced it in recent years, Mr Opee believes, is that it is tied closely to education: a new generation has grown up going to school, and, in doing so, adopted the Christian culture.

"They still take Christianity for a new thing," he says. "They are not used to it, and its values make them feel a bit better." Attending church is also a way of gaining recognition among your peers, he says.

Through TRDP, the Church has brought tangible benefits to Sitoka. Traditional birth attendants, delighted to find their antecedents in the Old Testament, tell us that it is thanks to the Church that they now use gloves when delivering babies.

Members of a mother-to-mother group tell us excitedly about the seed money given to them to invest in income-generation projects. One says that the opening of a longed-for dispensary, funded by TRDP, is a sign that "God has remembered us after all that long." Life, however gradually, is changing.

In 1960, the Maasai Creed was composed by the tribe, in collaboration with missionaries. It transplants the Christian story to the plains of the Mara. Jesus, "a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village", was "always on safari doing good". In Sitoka village, a community in transition, TRDP is following in his footsteps.

Madeleine Davies travelled to Kenya with Christian Aid. For details of the Christian Aid Christmas appeal, visit www.christianaid.org.uk/deliverhope or phone 0845 7000 300. Donations made before 6 February 2015 will be matched by the UK Government up to £5 million.

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