TANZANIA: Balancing Tolerance and Tradition

I sat slumped on a rock washing off the red African mud from my pale white feet. The bucket of cold well water felt refreshing after a hard morning run in the hills of Arkaria village, Maasailand, Tanzania.

As I washed, I contemplated my decision: Should I go to a female "coming-of-age ceremony," where a 13-year-old girl would be circumcised in order to "prepare her" for marriage?

Or should I stay back in protest of what I considered to be an immoral practice -- essentially taking out certain sexual organs, thereby giving the female less pleasure during sex without her consent, but justified as "tradition?"

I spit on the ground. I still had the taste of iron in my mouth from my dinner the night before. In honor of my visit, my home-stay mother, Mama Ipaso, fed me goat's milk, cow's blood and Ugali mixed with semi-raw lamb and bananas.

As her guest, even though I had been a vegetarian for two years, I tried all that was placed in front of me to be respectful and culturally sensitive.

Cultural sensitivity, particularly being open to new foods, new ways of life and new perspectives, is essential when traveling to new places.

However, as much as I wanted to immerse myself in all the "cultural experiences" with which I was presented, I was having considerable trouble deliberating over whether or not to attend the female circumcision event.

Of course I did not want to disappoint or insult my Mama by not showing up, especially after she showed how much she cared for me by feeding me the holy blood from their sacred Masai cows and giving me a Maasai name, "Nazare," which means "beloved" in Kimaasai.

Yet, how could I attend a ceremony where the young lady we were supposed to be "celebrating" was voiceless and oppressed by the patriarchal society in which she lived?

I wondered whether my decision to not go would really make a difference. Would the entire Maasai tribe actually change its practices?

Would the fact that the funny-sounding white student didn't show up to their big ceremony cause the Maasai to conclude that maybe it was time to finally sit down and reconsider the inhumane ways they had been treating their daughters and wives for so many years?

I didn't think so.

So I went. I swallowed some of my pride and sense of justice. I put on my blue and red Maasai garb and experienced one of the most beautiful, emotional ceremonies I will ever attend in my life.

A sacred cow was slaughtered. The warriors danced and jumped higher than any professional basketball player I've ever seen.

The women sang. And I watched in awe, all the while deeply confused about my beliefs on women's rights and cultural relativism.

The ceremony was so beautiful, yet the reasons for it so ugly.

We have had moral progress all over the world in our history.

Do you remember learning about the days of foot-binding in China?

How about slavery here in our own country?

We can agree that slavery was an atrocity and that our society is now much better off without it.

But there is still a lot of progress to be made, which will mean making sacrifices.

Unfortunately, some of the beautiful traditions I was able to experience that magical day might disappear as cultures "progress."

But ultimately the world will be a better place with the elimination of certain inhumane practices -- including female circumcision.

Ann Thomas is a senior political science and environmental studies double major.

SOURCE: The Santa Clara

AUTHOR: Ann Thomas

URL: Click here

DATE: 01/02/2008

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