Talking about FGM in Kenya

While visiting Kenya, I took a 3 day safari in the Masai Mara, Kenya’s largest open game reserve.  The safari was an amazing experience, and seeing four of the Big Five in the wild was incredible.  We experienced dazzling sunrises over rolling plains worthy of a Disney film, and saw hippos bathing and lions eating.

Our safari guide, Joseph, was young at only 24, but he was knowledgeable, friendly and attentive.  At dinner in our safari camp on the first evening, conversation turned to what my friend and I did for a living.  When we told Joseph that we both worked for a large travel agency, his eyes widened in an appreciation of what this meant for him.  He had an immediate understanding of the significance of having two people on his safari who worked for the UK and Ireland’s biggest seller of his company’s tours, and thereafter he bent over backward to make sure we we had everything we needed.  He had an innate understanding of the travel industry, and talked about it comfortably.  The company he worked for had taken him to Canada on one occasion, where he met colleagues from around the world.  He also told us compelling stories about the Masai Mara, the wildlife’s habits and the Masai tribes nearby.  He was intelligent and interesting, and the standard of his service was excellent.

On the second evening of the safari, we sat again over dinner at the camp.  Joseph was telling us about modern Kenyan society, his social circle in Nairobi, and the customs observed there.  He talked about how his life of travel with his work made it difficult to date, but said that he hoped to find a wife and settle down.  We asked about the lifestyles of young Kenyan women in the city, and whether they usually worked or stayed at home until married.  Joseph explained that those in Nairobi usually lived more contemporary lives than those in rural areas, and that most young women in the city had jobs, at least until marriage.  We raised our eyebrows when he expressed concerns about women being allowed such freedom, but put it down to cultural conditioning.

“However”, he then said, “Most of them are circumcised, so there’s no need to worry.”

This was jarring to hear, to say the very least.  Without wanting to be culturally insensitive, we carefully probed a little on this subject, telling him that at home in Ireland, this practice is referred to as mutilation, and that it’s completely illegal.  Joseph laughed.

“I know NGO’s want to ban this, but they need to understand that it’s a cultural tradition in Africa”, he said, smiling.  “White people always want to help.”  He rolled his eyes.

I considered my response carefully.  It’s true that there’s a huge problem with white people from richer countries who condescend to African people and nations without understanding their cultures and traditions.  This is talked about at length and satirised by  Radi-Aid, or Rusty Radiator, in their excellent videos focusing on unhelpful stereotypes of ‘poor Africans’, including the hilarious spoof-charity single ‘Africa for Norway’.

In the video, warm, helpful Africans sing about sending their radiators, of which they have plenty, to poor, cold Norway where people are freezing to death.  The track opens with singers coming in the door of the music studio together, a-la Band Aid, whose patronising lyrics have been accused of reducing Africa to a single, feeble, starving nation under a blistering sun in an arid desert (never mind the numerous different climates on what is actually the world’s largest continent, or that it is also home to the world’s longest river).  The irony and humour of Radi-Aid’s video isn’t lost on the fact that Norway is one of the world’s richest countries, and is more than able to afford more complex solutions than a stockpile of radiators to protect itself against the cold.

I’m very aware of the tendency of white do-gooders to patronise Africans in this way, and I’m always conscious that I don’t want fall into the trap of doing that, so I was cautious about my answer to Joseph.  But I refuse to consider FGM a cultural issue that I simply don’t understand.  Joseph was right, many NGO’s do want the practice banned, but those include African organisations, not just European or American ones.  According to the World Health Organisation:

FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death… FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies.

The UN also considers FGM to be a human rights violation and works toward ending the practice.

I mentioned the Egyptian doctor Nawal El Saadawi, who advocates against FGM, and the writer Pede Hollist from Sierra Leone, whose writing speaks against it.  I also told him about the group Akina Dada Wa Africa, an organisation of African women who live in Ireland, and their work in educating people about the risks of FGM and in protecting girls who are at risk of it in African communities in Ireland.  Again, he rolled his eyes, and surmised that they must have been influenced by living in Europe.

“If they don’t do it, no one will marry them”, he said with a shrug, as if that ended the discussion.

There was no happy resolution to the conversation.  I was aware that as someone who isn’t a doctor, an aid worker, or by any description an expert on FGM, I had little chance of convincing someone who had held these beliefs all his life, so eventually I gave up on the subject.  By then, Joseph had moved on to telling us how young women in Nairobi have recently taken to becoming pregnant on purpose in order to get money from the father, and what men’s rights groups are doing to fight this ‘injustice’.  It was clear that some attitudes are common all over the world.  Obviously this idea is hugely flawed and completely ridiculous, but I knew from my experience of trying to convince those who believe it at home that there was little point in trying to argue.

masai mara6

Sunrise in the Masai Mara

I’ve said before that I believe in writing about the problems of places we visit as well as writing about the wonderful time we have there (I wrote about the wonderful time I had in Kenya here).  I strongly believe that any visitor to Ireland should learn about the horrors of our 8th amendment and the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Catholic church here as well as enjoying our amazing scenery and culture.  Spreading information about these subjects is an important part of ending them, or for the things that are in the past, of ensuring that they don’t happen again.  That’s why we visit Auschwitz in Poland, the Killing Fields in Cambodia, the Genocide Museum in Rwanda, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and prison museums the world over.  These places aren’t pleasant, but we have an innate desire to know about them, to understand what happened so that we can avoid it in the future.  It was with this in mind that I decided to write about my conversation about FGM in Kenya, even though I’m not an expert on the subject.


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