My bewilderment turns to anger. I want to run after the man and whip him myself. And this is the complexity of enjoying a ceremony such as this one. While it is a beautiful display of wealth, artistry and personality, it has inherent in it the subjugation of women. Earlier in the afternoon, Buddy asked one of the elders, “How many people were circumcised today?” The elder says, “7 boys.” Buddy asks, “How many girls?” “None,” says the elder. But after Buddy and Laly leave, Shayo says that in fact they have circumcised three. Only because they know it is illegal to do so, do they hide this fact from anyone who is not a Maasai.
There is so much about this place that I still don’t understand; I recognize this fact. I question myself and my impressions constantly. Unlike my understanding of China, which is informed by a childhood in a nearly-parallel culture, I have nothing to ground my impressions of this place. I have barely been here for a month and a half, and much of my thinking is influenced and shaped by the opinions of other Americans or non-Maasai Africans. I have learned long ago to test the assumptions of anyone who gives me information. So should you, while you read this.
Two days ago, we had a brief conversation over dinner about female circumcision (also called FGM = female genital mutilation). It turns out that many times, the older women are the ones who want to have the girls circumcised. They hold tight to tradition. “You have to educate the men,” said our guest, who was visiting from Arusha, “and teach them to reject women who have been circumcised. This is the only way to have everyone understand how damaging it is, for the women to stop insisting upon it.”
Circumcision is a key part of this ceremony, for it is the symbol of becoming a warrior. Shayo described his own ceremony to us: the night before, you are put in a hut by yourself and made very cold. In the morning you wash yourself with cold water, and then wait for the elder to come with the knife. One knife per boy is the norm, now that many of the Maasai have been educated about the transmission of HIV/AIDS. He was in 8th grade when he went through his ceremony. He had to sit and watch them cut the foreskin off. If he so much as flinched or made any kind of reaction, it would have been considered shameful. They use no painkillers. Afterward, it was up to his father to determine how long he had to go without bathing – sometimes it is one month, sometimes it is three months. For Shayo it was just 27 days, as he had to go back to secondary school. He is the first in his village to have attended university. His gift? 12 cows. He tells us this with a wide grin of pride. Later, during the dancing, he hovers around the side. I ask him if he thinks about home, and he nodded. He won’t dance if he isn’t dressed in his shuka, and though I saw him singing under his breath a bit, he remained an outsider.
Kelly insists that education is the key to changing practices of female circumcision. But it is obvious that the families here have been educated, or at least, told why FGM is bad. They know they shouldn’t do it, and yet they do. We know, also, from the literature that education is often not enough to overcome strongly-held traditional practices. Education is important, but it is rarely enough. In Loliondo, three educated girls ran away from home rather than be circumcised. An elder raved that he would kill them if they came back. The police arrested him. And yet the practice goes on, just more quietly than before. Education may say something about the incentives for change, but it will not demonstrate them.
Can ceremonies such as this one continue on even under the empowerment of women? Will the displays of masculinity and athleticism and wealth have the same symbolism if the women themselves have also power and wealth? I may have some values of women’s rights being more important than cultural traditions, and I may believe that change is for the better. But who am I to tell these people what to do?
In the end, perhaps Kelly is right. Education is the key to everything because education allows people to make informed decisions for themselves. Studies of customary law show that Maasai women do not have equal rights to the men. I see from the bruises on women’s faces, from the snap of the whip across their legs, that the men’s strength is physically used against them. They are, in all the little ways, told they are less important – they eat last, they get the worst food, they are paid less attention in school, they are not allowed to own family livestock, they are given away in marriage in exchange for cattle. This is not a place in which girls are making free choice about their bodies. If the women themselves know that female circumcision can cause a lifetime of pain, that it is not necessary but it is a part of their historical practice, and they do it anyway, then I believe we must step back and accept that. If we empower the girls to refuse to have this done and they refuse it, we should create the support systems to shelter them from the anger of their older generation. All women should be able to live in a system that allows them a life of free choice.
And does this, or can this, relate to conservation? Of course. Anecdotal and survey evidence shows women are more like to retain and apply information, they are more likely to use money to buy education and supplies for their families, more willing to utilize training for community benefit, and more able to commit to family planning. Women who are economically and socially empowered can move the needle on natural resources management, especially here on the Maasai Steppe where water is a constant limiting factor for the entire family and livestock herd, especially here where poverty levels are tied directly to the health of livestock, and where development and population growth are creating unprecedented demands on this area’s resources.