As perceived by Robert K. Thomas (1980), “peoplehood” or a people’s identity is determined by language, sacred history, religion and law. These four factors do not exist in a plane where one is more important than the other but rather where each is interdependent to the other. To explain this further, a people’s sacred history is partially formed by the phrases and rhythms of its language that help finely express the connotations of past events for generations to come. Law and religion are also involved in this process as they instruct a people on how to honour their sacred history through prescribed rituals or values or any other means that the peoples see fit (T. Holm, J.D Pearson, and B. Chavis, 2003).
In the Jewish tradition, young girls aged 12yrs and boys at 13yrs go through their Batmitzpha and Barmitzpha as an initiation process that has both cultural and religious importance. In most western cultures, students who are about to leave high-school go to their yearly prom. Although it may not have any religious or legal values, it is still an important part of culture. In a community in Eastern Africa, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) encompasses within itself all-of the four factors that make up a people. As an initiation process, it is required and in some cases, regrettably forced upon girls to usher them in to the next stage of life as individuals and members of the community. In times past, if an important event in the people’s history occurred, the name of the group of initiates at that time would be connected to the event as a point of reference therefore causing FGM to play a part in forming the peoples sacred history (Hon.Kenyatta.J, 1965).
So, how can a practice that is so important to a people’s identity but even more damaging to young girl’s physical health and all other aspects that are unseen be uprooted?
In the same East African region, missionary schools during the colonial era prohibited schoolchildren whose families adhered to the custom from going to school. This resulted in petitions and letters written by the communities to the imposed government to allow their children to go to school. Attendance was permitted with the condition that the teachers openly denounced the practice in hope of influencing the students to leave it behind. The communities’ response to this was the establishment of their own schools that allowed their children to gain a western education as well as keep part of their peoplehood intact. The missionary schools failed. A similar approach was taken by the Kenyan government in 2001 when it outlawed and prosecuted those who practiced FGM. This resulted in the incarceration of breadwinners which only left families in dire states. This also lead to circumcision being performed earlier on in a girl’s life with young girls as young as 10yrs undergoing FGM then married off therefore increasing child marriages within the region (Cultural survival, 2004).
Both examples show that a forceful and coercing method will not only fail but may cause even more harm to the community. Then what can be done? Firstly, an understanding of the cultural importance of the practice to the people is required to better understand it. Despite there being similarities in its cultural significance, FGM is different and holds unique meaning for different communities as all communities are unique. Therefore, an observation as to the importance of the practice to each community is needed.
As the transition from one stage of life to another is paramount in any community in the world, as abovementioned in relation to Jewish and general Western Culture, a replacement rather than a total upheaval of the practice would be far more effective. Through the information gathered from the initial step, a relevant ritual could be developed that would serve to adequately place the young girls in a respected position as well as honour the peoplehood of the community.
Among the Massai – a nomadic tribe that is found in Kenya and some parts of Tanzania, such a ritual has been adopted. Culturally, once a Massai girl reached the age of 9-12 years, they underwent circumcision and were then married off. Subsequently, the girls could not continue with their education. In some cases, the girls did not survive long enough to enter into martial life.
Nice Nailantei Leng’ ete an anti-FGM activist refused to undergo FGM, and initiated an alternative practice that initiates the girls without having to go through circumcision. Since the Massai are a patriarchal people, the elders-who are all men, had to be convinced to bless and permit the change to occur in the community. Leng’ ete successfully accomplished this by involving a male co-worker- Douglas Meritei, who was part of her community to initiate the conversation with the elders after which she could speak and convey her message.
Once the blessing was given, the community agreed to replace FGM with a ceremony that involves blessing of the girls by the community when they came of age and the slaughtering of an animal for celebration during which education on FGM and sexual health is provided. The tradition of the rite of passage is still intact but the practice of FGM has been eradicated. As a result, 700 people in her village were able to leave the practice behind and no girl has gone through FGM in the last 5 years (Aljezrah,2017).
It is important to mention that as this is a peoplehood’s matter, the people themselves must be at the forefront of the change. Similar to the aforementioned community during the colonial era, outsider’s influences are close to being futile without the peoples willing participation. Who else would better know the community than the community itself? They are the ones who would know the rituals importance and therefore know how to model a new one that is relevant to themselves.
Lastly, a recording of the transition from FGM to an alternative initiation would serve to help in further embedding the change in the community by causing it to be part of its history. A history that they were intentionally a part of as opposed to it being forced upon them and a change that they understood had to occur to preserve all other aspects of their peoplehood and allow their culture to evolve as all cultures do.
The author of this article is Shekainah Mungai. She is a 4th year Economics with Management student. She comes from a culture that used to predominately practice FGM but over the years has left it behind. However, in some areas it is still practiced and she believes that more work by the people of the culture should be done to eradicate it. She is also the co-founder of a faith-based organisation that mentors young-ladies and focuses on equipping them with practical skills and information which will enable them to develop and manage their gifts, talents and ambitions.