KENYA: War Against Harmful Culture Far From Won in Maasailand
The grip of tradition on the lifestyles of many educated and urbane Kenyans may fast be loosening, but the conflict between the modern and the traditional is far from resolved.
Among the Maasai, usually perceived to be conservative in matters cultural, a battle pits traditionalists against modernists.
It is not uncommon to find modern medicine and western religious beliefs creeping into the territories that were once considered the safe havens for traditionalists.
This is fuelled by many NGOs that have cropped up in Maasailand to discourage young girls and boys from circumcision.
Weeks ago, we caught up with gender activist Grace Naiguran and her eldest brother, Dr Moses Saningo - a medical doctor at the Nakuru ACK Church during a graduation ceremony to mark the end of an alternative rite to boys' circumcision that had been organised by the church.
Dr Saningo had joined his sister to celebrate the graduation of their younger brother Sandria Saila Lemute after undergoing the cut arranged by the church since 2006.
"I expect some hostility from my age mates when I return home, but with time, I will be able to convince them that as youngsters, what is taught in the church is much more relevant to our future than whatever skills that they acquired in the bush", said the 16-year-old Form Two student.
The Mbita High School student, who would like to become a pharmacist when he grows up, is glad that the church programme took him through a counselling session during which he was taught how to live a responsible life in adulthood in this era of Aids.
In an interview with the Nation, Ms Naiguran, who runs an NGO called Oloip Le Ntito Ee Maa (The Shadow of Maasai Girl) defended the existence of many rights advocacy groups targeting Maasai.
According to her, more effort is needed to fight for the rights of the youth who for long have been subjected to inhuman treatments by traditionalists.
She formed her NGO after working with the Ecumenical Centre civic education team which had taken civic awareness campaigns to Maasai girls and their parents in Kilgoris in the hope of changing their attitude towards female circumcision.
She also took part in the Nepad civic education team during which she shared the plight of the young Maasai girls with Dr Graca Machel, the wife of the former South African president and the anti-apartheid icon, Nelson Mandela.
"When I was a little girl, an alarming number of my colleagues were being forced to undergo the cut at very early ages. Today, my agemates who accepted to undergo circumcision at lower primary school level are grandmothers," says the 35-year-old mother of two.
Like male circumcision, the female version of which is a deeply entrenched practice among the Maasai, is a rite of passage that ushers the young into adulthood. Once a girl, usually between eight and 14 years has faced the knife, she is encouraged to think of her role as a mother.
Gender activists say the cut rudely disrupts the girl's youth and forces her to forgo childhood rights such as education because as an adult, she is expected to come out of the wings of parental care and begin to give maternal care to children.
"Girls, very young and intelligent, are encouraged to seek marriage partners. Under the intense pressure to meet their adulthood obligations, they end up in polygamous marriages as third or fourth wives of old men," she said.
In the process, Ms Naiguran says, girls find themselves with children but have to depend entirely on their husbands for economic subsistence because by the time of the initiation, they had not acquired any survival in the increasingly competitive social life.
Therefore, whether they find themselves in abusive marriages or not, the marriage has to work for them as they have nowhere else to turn to.
Through her NGO, Ms Naiguran says she has been able to convince many young girls and their parents either to shun the cut, or to delay it until the girl is mature and has completed secondary education.
She is putting up a centre from where young girls can acquire entrepreneurial skills such as tailoring, then tackle the problem of poverty and helplessness.
"We link up intelligent girls who lack school fees with the several organisations with an interest in girls' education for scholarships," she added.
But the going has not been at all easy. In a region where cultural activities are still deeply entrenched, she says there has been a lot of resistance to the activities of her NGO's in maasailand.
She adds that her NGO cannot succeed if it just targeted girls but ignored boys, for both sexes face rites that threaten their future.
Today, apart from pushing the agenda of the girl child, the NGO has also opened its doors to boys and is working with church organisations to convince many young boys and their parents that circumcision is much safer in hospital than in forests where they have to brave the direct elements of weather throughout the initiation period.
AUTHOR: George Omondi
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