A revolution in Maasai land: the great alternative rite of passage

 Photography Anja Ligtenberg

Pink and yellow balloons hanging on the acacia trees sway, under the thump of a disco beat, in the wind.   In the schoolyard shrill voices of Maasai schoolgirls can be heard. They sing to the tune of ancient songs about brave warriors and dangerous lions. But the lyrics are different, because they call for the banishment of female circumcision and ditching the practice into the dustbin of history. While posing for a group portrait they unabashedly jut their pelvis forward. Then under the stars and a waning moon, they light hundreds of candles. The young girls are now ready for the important event tomorrow: the ceremony marking their transition to womanhood. But this time no blood will flow.

A zebra does not despise its stripes. The Maasai pastoralists in Kenya and Tanzania are proud of their tradition. The between one and two million Maasais have a culture of open doors.  In their shelters made of mud and manure every group member is always welcome. Together they undergo rites for the transition from one age group to the next, and together they receive instructions in social skills, sex and martial arts. That community spirit made the Maasai a formidable tribe feared by neighbouring peoples, and until recently protected them against external influences. But now a revolution has begun which is to the benefit of the generally submissive Maasai women. For the past seven years a campaign is being waged in Maasai land against the amputation of clits. The elders have even devised a new way of performing this ceremony for modern day girls: the great alternative rite of passage.

. "Ngai Ngai" they chant – the blessing of God for the girls“Ngai Ngai” they chant

The next morning, a group of colourful warriors waits at the entrance of the kraal fenced with thorny branches. They perform traditional dances, making vertical jumps, their necks swaying like those of camels, to a rhythm of screams emanating from deep within their chest. In a winding snake like fashion the long line of girls approaches. The girls perform their own dance with rhythmic jerky movements of their upper body which makes the beaded necklaces around their necks swing in the air up to their chins. A hollow sound is heard from a kudu horn and the men at the gate start swishing their fly whisks made from wildebeest tails. “Ngai Ngai” they chant – the blessing of God for the girls! Now the girls have become women and it’s time to eat meat and dance.”

The young woman Nice looks fulfilled at the spectacle. “I am the change,” she proudly says. When she was nine, she was almost circumcised. “My grandparents took me out of school for the circumcision. In the early morning I escaped and hid in the bushes. I cried and cried. In the evening, upon returning to my ancestral kraal nobody wanted to relate with me. I had become an outcast”. For months she continued to resist until the family again let her go to school. She received support from the teachers who participated in a campaign by the medical organization Amref Flying Doctors against circumcision.  “So I became a role model for the Maasai”, she enthuses. Within the past seven years up to 7000 girls have been rescued by the campaign of Amref Flying Doctors in a quarter of Maasailand. A leader of the ceremony addresses the crowd of men and women: “This is the only kraal in the history of the Maasai where we advocate education.” Education put the values ​​and customs on the slope. The rough terrain of the tree savannah crossed with dry riverbeds isolated the Maasai from other people until less than thirty years ago. The shepherds with their red blankets could live there as they had always done, with the blessing of their ancestors. The British had tried to enforce a change. The settlers found the Maasai men with their fluttering cloths too sparsely dressed and their naked bodies beneath offensive. They therefore denied men without underpants access to the towns and arrested groups of “naked” warriors. To free their relatives the warriors bought one underpants, which was given a prisoner to wear for him to get released. Once outside the city he took off the trousers to be given in turn to another detainee to enable him regain his freedom. By progressively using this method with the same underpants all the detainees were able to regain their freedom within a period of one week.

After independence in the sixties the governments of Tanzania and Kenya had little interest in the headstrong nomads. The Kenyan Maasai leader Stanley Oloitipitip in the seventies had a group of 27 wives, with an unknown number of children and cows. He organized large family gatherings at the state’s expense and declared that the Maasai would never change. At that time it seemed nearly unthinkable that something would change in their value system, and certainly not in favour of women. They were stuck in their traditional roles. Almost every Maasai woman allowed herself to be circumcised. After all, an uncircumcised man or woman was a child and dirty.

In recent years members of more progressive tribes settled in Maasai land and began “to dig in the head of God,” in other words, they practiced agriculture. Some Maasais went into business and commercialized their cattle by selling to a slaughterhouse close to the capital Nairobi. The government built roads and schools. And so the modernization of the Maasai got underway.

Peter Nguura of Amref Flying Doctors treks from kraal to kraal in the campaign against female circumcision. “The biggest resistance we do encounter comes from the women,” he says. “They themselves were circumcised and now they refuse to indemnify their daughter”. Female circumcision is done within the family. There is no man involved; it is a task performed by the older women. “I once turned up in a kraal and when I showed an explicit film about how a clitoris is resected without anaesthesia, with a knife or glass, shocked men wanted to attack the women with their batons. The men had never studied the details of the woman’s body. ”

Professor Paul Mertens of the Erasmus University in the Netherlands has travelled to witness the special ceremony. He has been campaigning for years against the circumcision, which he says, may already have been practised 5000 years ago under the pharaohs. Globally, there are between one hundred and one hundred and forty million women circumcised and three million girls who annually undergo this surgery, especially in Africa and the Middle East and in Europe among migrants. “Circumcision leads to diseases and traumas. Sometimes the girls bleed to death”, he says.

In Kenya the practise been banned for years, but according to a UNICEF report a few years back ethnic Somalis still stuck to the old habit for 98 percent of women. With Maasais it is 73 percent. When some Maasai leaders recently had their daughters circumcised, they ended up briefly in prison. Of the 3,000 midwives and circumcisers in Maasai country only 85 have ditched the practice.

A Samburu, related to the Maasai, has come to show solidarity

At the great alternative rite of passage the young warrior Lomomo notes the ritual dancing and jumping with a wry face. “Damn, can’t we also no longer circumcise? Where does this lead to?” His friend Bonafice Nyamai had been to school. “Don’t complain. We also do not walk in goatskins anymore, do we? With this alternative ceremony we do not turn against our culture, no, we only eliminate a bad practice “.

When Bonafice begins to talk about Sigmund Freud his friend walks away, shaking his head. “From Freud I learned how our brains work. The removal of the clitoris has an effect on the brains. Girls are so humiliated that they lose their self-esteem. I can readily differentiate amongst a group of women between those who underwent the cut and those who did not. ”

Resistance to change persists. Kenyan Maasai go to Tanzania in secret to have their daughters circumcised. Kantim Mwanik, Chief of Staff to the Governor of the Kenyan Maasai region of Kajiado, highlights the dangers for politicians. “You take a risk that the electorate will turn away from you if you denounce it,” he says. Will he have his daughters circumcised?  “Certainly not, but my grandparents condemn me for that. I ask them: ‘How has your generation improved the lives of the Maasai?’”

Maybe that’s the big difference between the old generation and the new; the changed perception that life does not make the Maasai, but the Maasais can put life into their own hands. But where will all this lead to? Will marriages with young girls disappear? Will the bride money that chains the wife to the husband be abolished? Will there be equality between men and women?

Simona, 12 years, has just been blessed. She is a woman now. She radiates self-assurance. “We have the knowledge which was missing with our fathers,” she says. “In 20 years time, no Maasai girl will be circumcised. We will then not just be the same as men. No, thanks to our knowledge, we shall rise above the men. ”


The great alternative ceremony took place on 28-8-2015 at Rombo, not far from Loitokitok at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, the House of God. This story originally appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 8-9-2015

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