The road wanders through the lush green slopes of Mount Elgon. The temperatures suddenly drop as the altitude gets higher and little evening drizzles fall lightly on the gorgeous peaks. Never had I seen that many waterfalls in the same place in my life. If Hollywood ever wanted a paradise without setting it up, Sebei Region, Eastern Uganda the home of the Sabiny people is the place.
Picturesque as it is, this in the past was no home for an uncircumcised Sabiny girl. She would be ridiculed in the village. Her husband if she was lucky to get one, was mocked when he sat in the company of fellow men. It was believed that the uncircumcised woman could not get near a cow lest she causes it bad luck and it dies, that means she would not have milk and dung to paint her walls. She was a curse to the community.
Succumbing to the pressure at the well, in the field and at home, she would want to get circumcised so that she can fit in. She didn’t do it for her self, she did it for her community.
When the circumcision season approached and she had hit puberty, on the night before the circumcision, as the komek brewed, the girl and her age mates danced all night, watching for the night fade into morning, anxiously waiting to be women, to do this once and for all.
“I saw other girls doing it. I had to do it too and avoid shame. You’ve been defeated if you run away, you were not a real woman if you screamed when the mutinde cut you with her knife.” Recalls 72-year-old Koko Yego of Kabei Village in Bukwo District.
The mentor counseled the girls, she told them that real women don’t cry after they’ve been cut. The mentor said that she protected them against the spirits that roamed during the circumcision season.
“Before the cutting day, I would protect the girls. Traditionally we believed that during the circumcision period, the spirt world was awake, that is when witches performed their witchery and it worked. I had to do my job, lest the girls die when they are cut, or are cursed with bareness. I would protect them that no stranger comes near them. I talked to the girls all night to endure the pain.” says 65-year-old Jennifer Cherop a former mentor that abandoned the trade when FGM was outlawed.
As morning dawned the girl and her peers were ready to meet the circumciser. The arena was set, the girls prepared, drums sounded as villagers gathered. It was time for celebration because girls were turning into women. It was her turn, she spread her legs, she could feel the the surgeon’s hands hold her clitoris and labia, she secretly clenched her teeth as the surgeon’s knife cut them off, blood gushed out, she saw her unwanted body parts thrown to the ground. The surgeons bloody knife would then go to cut the next girl and the next girl and the next girl as the villagers ululated at the spectacle, children and villagers giggling at the girl that flinched.
“It was my job to cut the girls, I started cutting girls when I was in my mid 20’s. I cannot tell how many girls I cut because they were very many. I did this until 5 years ago when people came to educate us about the dangers of female circumcision. After cutting the girls, most of them regretted immediately, others came years later asking me why I had done it. Some girls failed to heal until medical workers came to intervene. Thank God none died because I had cut them. But other circumcisers were not that lucky, I know many girls that died after they had been cut. I knew that I was doing the right thing because I was fulfilling the demands of my culture.” Says 61-year-old Friska Yapkworei of Tukumo Binyiny sub-county Kween district.
The mentor would clean up the bloody arena, throwing the unwanted parts into a pit latrine. That latrine had to belong to the family of one of the circumcised girls to ensure that the parts are not used by witches. By the time the mid day sunshine cleared the misty mountains, the villagers would be drunk on the Komek brew, celebrating that their girls had become women.
She was now a woman in their eyes, she was now marriage material, she now afforded privileges of being a woman. For months she nursed the wounds in the care of her mentor that gave her herbs. Her husband would be confident when he went on expeditions in faraway lands that she would remain chaste, he would sit in the company of men and be respected. Yet, this woman would never know the pleasure of sex, she had been condemned to painful child births, she would go to her grave never knowing what it was to truly be a woman.
“The surgeon left, but the pain remained with me.” says 38-year old Elimo Scovia of Kabei Village in Bukwo district.
The European missionaries arrived on the slopes of Mount Elgon in the early 1900s to spread Christianity to the Sabiny people. The converts were ridiculed and the uncircumcised girl soon succumbed to the pressure from her community,
The Female Genital Mutilation Practice persisted.
The Rebel girls
In 1960, rebel girls arose – they refused to be cut. Among them was Jane Francis Kuka. She narrates her story.
“I told my mother that I didn’t want to be cut. My mother told me that my only hope was education. That if I could read hard and continue with school, I would survive. One day, I visited my grandmother but she and grandfather slept in separate rooms. I wondered why they were sleeping alone each. My grandmother told me that she could not endure the pain every time they made love. My grandmother told me, “My daughter if you keep scratching a scar you will feel terrible pain.” I worked very hard at school. I became a Grade 2 teacher, I upgraded until I became a tutor in a tertiary institution. I got married. I managed to convince my husband but the first real line of attack was my mother-in-law. She was livid that her son had married an uncircumcised girl. I did all I could to befriend my mother-in-law- we later became friends and I was safe.”
Kuka had started a revolution that she could never imagine. More girls were refusing to be cut and in 1990, the District Resistance Council led by Peter Kamuron a Saul turned Paul, passed a decree that it was mandatory for all women and girls above 13 years to be cut. In 1992, Kuka along with all the rebel girls was being hunted by the elders who wanted to forcefully cut them. She hastily took off to Kampala where she met with Joyce Mpanga, the then Minister of Gender, Labour and Social Development. Mrs. Mpanga took the case directly to the president, who gave her a helicopter back to Kapchorwa where she met the Resistance Council leaders. The minister ordered that the decree is nullified. This was a victory for Ms. Kuka but it made her grossly unpopular among the elders and the populace. She stood for office three times and lost the race every time. She started fighting from the sidelines with the women’s movement, the church, civil society, and development partners until 2010 when the Female Genital Mutilation Act was enacted.
The FGM practice has since gone underground – some women are cut at childbirth, where their husbands and community assume they are nursing birth wounds. Some girls are sneaked into neighboring Pokot to be cut. The cutters have no safe haven because Kenya too doesn’t tolerate FGM.
Now that the practice is underground is one of the reasons UNFPA Uganda, religious institutions, the Ministry of Gender conducts an annual marathon in Sebei region. What the heck does a marathon have to do with female genital mutilation? Some people have asked. Here is why: The Sabiny are amazing athletes, in fact, many young Sabiny girls and boys aspire to be runners. They love the sport and they are good at it. World gold medalists Moses Kipsiro, Jacob Kiplimo, Stephen Kiprotich, silver medalist Joshua Cheptegei are all from Sebei region. Youngsters watching their role models running to end FGM creates a huge impact.
“The impact of the event is striking, it helps raise curiosity among the community why all these famous runners, and people of different races are running in their communities. For instance, 2016, was a cutting year, but we never heard of any case being reported. The practice has gone clandestine,” says the Chief Administrative Officer of Bukwo district.
Despite the fact that no case of FGM has been reported in all the three districts of Sebei Region; Bukwo, Kween, and Kapchorwa in the past year, the sensitization has to go on. To change attitudes completely so that the girls can know that their bodies belong to them and not to the community and to make Female Genital Mutilation a thing of the past.