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Warning: Discussions of Female Circumcision

Growing up, I can vividly remember the typical portrayal of tribal people in mass media. With dark, shining skin and short black hair, they were usually dressed in bright robes, wearing rainbow-coloured jewellery made of beads, feathers, shells and other such items . As a child of course, I generalized all tribal people as looking like this (which is a COMPLETELY different issue that needs to be talked about more), which was only fueled by episodes of Akbar-Birbal and Chhota Bheem depicting a typical tribal person the same way. It wasn’t until I went on the Internet and watched a video of the Sidemen attempting to make African food did I actually look up tribes around the world. (Thank you JJ and Tobi :) )

The tribe that immediately caught my attention was the Samburu people from Kenya. I was immediately drawn to the colourful jewellery the women wore because, come on, who wouldn't fall in love with jewellery that was so colourful and exquisite! Immediately, I started reading about the tribe. I read about the jewellery, made by local women. Underneath all the sparkle lies a grim darkness however, and that’s when I found the tragic conditions of Samburu women.

Like most societies, the Samburu was and still are a patriarchal one. Their society is a gerontocracy, one in which the elders usually hold most of the power. Girls are given red necklaces to signify that they are ready for marriage. In order to be married, they have to undergo the painful process of female circumcision - which involves mutilating the external genitalia of young girls, sometimes without painkillers. This can happen in infant girls and all the way up to the early teens. While this is traumatic enough, most girls are also married off at very young ages to men much older than they are, leaving them incredibly vulnerable. According to the WHO, female circumcision has zero health benefits and actually INCREASES health risks, including problems in the urinary tract, infections as well as complications in childbirth. Yet, due to fears of social exclusion, many girls as young as the age of five have to undergo this procedure.

But this devastating tale is not without a ray of hope. Reading more, I came across a woman named Rebecca Lolsoli. Aspiring to be a nurse, she was unable to pursue further studies due to financial conditions. She was married off at 18. However, she refused to remain silent and spoke out against the patriarchal customs of her tribe. This resulted in physical assault from the men of her neighbourhood. Seeing her husband unwilling to speak against the assault, she decided that enough was enough and started her own village, one where no men were allowed. Umoja started as a safe haven for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, forced marriages and all the other hellish states women were put through. Umoja, the village, today serves as a safe haven for women fleeing from all forms of harm to them.

To me, the tale of Rebecca and Umoja is a huge inspiration, a tale of freeing yourself from oppression forced onto you by someone else. Yet, these problems still persist and women from the Samburu tribe still endure them. But, with inspirational figures like Rebecca, I am sure that more women will free themselves from such oppression and move towards a better life. A free life, without external threats, where they are free to chase their dreams.

~ Varsha

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