I was coming home from school one evening when I saw a group of people engaging in a huge feast that was taking place in my home village, Enaibor-Ajijik, Narok. It wasn't surprising for me to witness this kind of massive celebration because in the Maasai culture, whenever one family celebrates something, the whole village is invited to join the party.
When my elder sister and I walked into the village, the drunken crowd was at fever pitch. I asked my mother what was happening and why they were holding the party. She told me that it was for me and my sister because we were about to be initiated into adulthood.
"You are going to be women," she said excited.
I did not know what she meant by that, so I asked.
I just couldn't believe what I was hearing. I was both horrified and outraged. She was telling us that we would undergo "Emuratare," the ceremony that initiates young Maasai girls into adulthood through ritual circumcision and then into early, arranged marriages,.
It wasn't that I hadn't heard about this practice before. Maasai girls are gradually prepared to face the knife from a very young age. We are encouraged to fight with sticks until blood oozes from the opponent's body without wincing in pain or running away. This is the mark of bravery, heroism and a readiness to face the cut. But I learned more about "Emuratare" at school about a year before, when some of my girl classmates would miss school for several weeks and when they finally showed up, they would have their heads shaved to signify their entry into adulthood. Some of them have given me details about the ritual, but I didn't want to believe that my sister and I would have someday to experience the same agony.
I told Mom to tell my father that I was not going to be circumcised. She was furious with me and sought an explanation as to why I feared the cut, while as a child, I showed courage and bravery.
"What are we going to call you? A girl, a lady or a woman?" she furiously asked me.
But I stood my ground and asked my mother to tell my father that I was not going to allow the "enkamuratare" (circumciser) to put her hand on me. In our culture, a girl cannot directly face her father or even talk to him. I have never talked to my father face to face, I have never seen him eat and can only communicate with him through my mother. This, in Maasai culture, is a sign of respect.
To this day, I have never discovered why my father agreed with my decision. He supported my idea of not facing the knife and this was usually not the norm. His decision further infuriated my mother and I became a pariah. Even my elder sister and my so-called friends started calling me "coward."
In Maasai, when a person is deemed as a coward, no one in the village has any respect any longer for him or her. To be considered a coward is a major insult because we are taught to face adversity, pain and suffering without giving in or shedding a tear.
The social pressure and the ridicule and mockery from my age mates became so excruciatingly intense that I finally gave in. I wanted to prove everyone that I was not the baby they thought I was.
The initiation ceremony started the same night I announced I would get circumcised. A pot full of cold water was placed outside the "manyatta" (Maasai farmhouse) with an iron axe inside the pot. The pot had to stay outside overnight for the water to get as cold as it can get in Kenya and, according to the traditions, the iron axe would make it even colder.
My sister and I slept in the same hut where the bloody rite would take place. The circumciser joined us. When my sister saw the woman in charge of the mutilation rubbing the blade on her thigh, she chose to sleep with me. I'm sure she didn't really want it either.
At the crack of dawn, the doors were opened up and the ice-cold water from the pot was poured on our bodies, especially over the genitals, to prevent excessive bleeding.
My sister was the first one to face the cut and I followed next. I sat down with one woman holding me from the back, her arms pinning my hands to my body and locked at my chest while two other women tightly stretched out and pinned my legs to the ground.
My peers milled around waiting with bated breathe to see whether the coward was going to scream and wince in pain or whether I was going to make it. I was determined to disappoint them and prove them wrong.
The circumciser approached me menacingly waving the blade in front of my face. She gorged out my clitoris and the labia majora and minora as I almost fainted. She then inserted two fingers into the fresh wound to make sure that the work was complete and that was nothing left.
Of the three forms of female genital mutilation (FGM), the one my sister and I were subjected to is the most painful, severe and horrendous. It is known as "Infibulation."
The other two biggest types of FGM, "Clitoridectomy" and "Clitoridotomy" are less painful and savage. The first one, also called "Sunna" involves the clipping of the tip of the clitoris while the second one implies the partial or total removal of the external part of the clitoris.
The one I had consists in replacing the vulva with a wall of flesh from the pubis to the anus, except for a pencil-size opening at the inferior portion of the vulva to allow urine and menstrual blood to pass through.
I bled uncontrollably for hours. I had deep cuts with my vagina bleeding from all sides. I was in severe pain, but I did not make a face. I slipped in and out of consciousness due to the huge loss of blood. The first few days were the most horrifying for me. My legs had to remain apart all the time while milk, butter and salt were applied on the wounds to make them soft and to prevent them from becoming septic.
But the most gruesome experience came the first time I needed to pee. I was forced to stand up and press my thighs together to urinate. As the urine passed though the wound, the pain was unbearable. I trembled like a leaf, my body drenched in sweat as I swallowed the pain around my mutilated vagina.
At that very moment I came to the realization that this cruelty was something that I would not want my daughter or any other girl in Maasailand or anywhere else in the world to undergo. It is a violation of human rights and should be discouraged and condemned in the strongest terms possible.
I was married off at 18 years of age. It was not my wish, because I wanted to proceed with my studies, but they pulled me out of school and married me off to a village elder. It is this tradition that keeps our girls out of school and we therefore need to do away with it. That is how it goes. Once a girl is circumcised, she is deemed an adult in spite of her age and she is quickly married off and says goodbye to an education. Young girls are being cut at the tender age of nine years and forced to marry before their 12th birthday. None of the Maasai leaders have their daughters cut and married off at such an age. Their children are studying in the best schools in Nairobi and overseas, yet they hold public meetings and debates and call me "a mad woman who wants to erode the rich Maasai cultural traditions and beliefs." I can only reply that I respect our culture, but I say a resounding no to this brutal practice.
I grew up resenting the childish decision to accept the cutting just to prove my peers I was not a coward, but at the same time, I saw there was a need to educate my people and create awareness among the girls and women and gradually venture into the heart of the matter that was to openly talk about this rite and its negative physical and psychological effects. I started calling this practice by what I consider its real name, the one used in the Western world and that reflects better what this is all about: Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). At first, I faced the opposition of village elders who threatened me so I'd stop making noise about this issue. The politicians also were against me, no matter the political party or tendency. I got very frustrated to a point I thought of giving up, but my sister, once one of my worst critics, encouraged me to keep fighting.
By 1999, as I championed as the voice of the voiceless and started teaching the girls at various villages I met Eve Ensler, the award-winning American author of the Vagina Monologue and founder of V-Day , a global movement to stop violence against women and girls.
With the help of Eve and her organization, I was able to set up the Tasuru Ntomonok (Rescue the Women) Initiative (TNI). This is a community-based rescue center for young Maasai girls who are trying to escape FGM and forced marriages.
The process of educating the public has not been an easy one. FGM is a subject few tribes in Kenya, including the Maasai, are willing to discuss in public. Today, the center is home to more than 48 girls who have escaped their homes in search of education and, of course, escaping from FGM.
The government of Kenya has been very supportive of my efforts and has given me armed security escorts to complete my rescue missions. It has also aided in enforcing the children's act that has seen many parents fined and jailed for abusing and violating their daughter's rights.
Local authorities and especially the village elders, however, still need to understand that FGM not only is an inhuman practice, but it also increases the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS from a shared blade. Besides FGM makes child birth an extremely painful and dangerous experienced. Once a woman gets circumcised, what is left is a very large scar that does not expand during child birth, when the woman suffers untold suffering and excruciating pain.
I was and I am determined to be the person who would teach the Maasai that FGM is not only cruel but dangerous. There is no official statistic, but from what I've seen I believe know several dozen Maasai girls and women in Kenya die each year of complications related to FGM.
Although it has been against the law since 2001, 40 percent of Kenyan girls are still mutilated. More than 2,000 girls have been saved from FGM as a result of the TNI project. Another important objective is to teach Maasai families how well-educated girls can increase the family's chances of increasing their income. The idea is to convince parents that it is in their interest to allow the girls to choose for themselves when they want to get married and that circumcision should play no part in that decision.
We need Maasai nurses, doctors, teachers and lawyers who can make a difference in our community at large. So far we have a huge population of illiterates who just vote in Parliament representatives who do not give a hoot about their welfare.
I am determined to make a positive change in the lives of Maasais in Narok and in other parts of the country. I have been networking with other Maasai leaders in Tanzania and they have warmly received the ideas and are planning to launch a massive education campaign among the Tanzania Maasais.
It is time for the Maasai women to wake up and look at what is happening. They should not hold on to useless cultural traditions that add nothing to their lives, that only invite pain and suffering for them. They have the right and the duty to evolve and I plan to keep helping them as much as I can. It makes me happy and proud to rescue a girl and help her to choose the life she wants or at least the one she dreams about. By giving girls an education we make them more independent and confident to make wise decisions that affect their lives. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction.