As the world marks Mothers’ Day on Sunday 13, May, Kajiado, in a special way, will be celebrating one of her own world achiever, Nice Nailantei.
Guests from across the seas, around Kenya will be converging at Oldonyo Oibor Primary School in Kimana Ward in Kajiado South for Nailantei’s homecoming and thanksgiving.
Nailantei was recently named as Times Top 100 World’s Most Influential Persons of the Year because of her role in fighting female genital mutilation practice among the Maasai girls.
She is the face of Maasai Culture and Heritage and Anne Marie Madison Anti FGM Ambassador 2018.
Nailantei is a Project Officer with Amref Health Africa in Kenya. She has been in the forefront in challenging the social norms of the male-dominated community in her quest to end the harmful practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM, also known as Female Genital Cutting or FGC).
The first time cutting season came around, Nailantei and her older sister ran away and hid all night in a tree. The second time, her sister refused to hide.
For Maasai families, the cutting ceremony is a celebration that transforms girls into women and marks daughters as eligible brides.
But to 8-year-old Nailantei, it seemed like a threat: She’d be held down by bigger, stronger women, and her clitoris would be cut. She’d bleed, a lot. Most girls fainted. Some died.
Despite the negative effects of this customary rite of passage, her sister still gave in.
“I had tried to tell her, ‘We are running for something that’s worth it,’ ” recalled Nailantei, now 27. “But I couldn’t help her.”
Nailantei never forgot what her sister suffered, and as she grew up, she was determined to protect other Maasai girls. She started a program that goes from village to village, collaborating with elders and girls to create a new rite of passage — without the cutting.
In seven years, she has helped 15,000 girls avoid the cutting ritual.
Her work mirrors national — and global — trends. Rates of female genital cutting worldwide have fallen by 14 per cent in the last 30 years. Here in Kenya, cases have fallen more than twice that fast.
New laws have made a difference, here and elsewhere. Kenya outlawed female genital cutting in 2011, and a special unit for investigating cutting cases, opened in 2014, prosecuted 76 cases in its first two years.
But laws made in the capital often have little effect on culture in the countryside, where custom is deeply ingrained and men’s power is virtually absolute.
In Maasai country, male elders enforce the customs, and the cut has long been one of the most important.
The belief has been that women aren’t women unless they are cut, which means men can’t take them as wives. Much of how Maasai society is organized relies, in one way or another, on that ritual.
So the fight against female genital cutting, experts agree, needs Nailantei’s kind of work: persuading village after village, and elder after elder, to overturn centuries-old custom.
“Every community has their own reason for why they cut their girls,” said Christine Nanjala, who leads the special prosecution unit. “You’re dealing with culture, and when you’re dealing with culture, you’re dealing with the identity of a community,”
“Some rural old men asked us, ‘What will we call this woman who is all grown up, married, has children and is not circumcised?’” she added. “They do not have a name for such a kind of woman,” added Nanjala.
Nailantei’s community did have a name for her. “It’s a very bad name in my native tongue,” she said, one meant to shame a whole family.
That shame is one reason the families pressure reluctant girls. Nailantei’s grandfather, her guardian, took a gentler approach and asked her, after her second escape, to explain herself.
“‘I’m only 8,’ ” she remembered telling him. “ ‘Wait until I am nine.’ ” She added, “I was trying to bargain,” says Nailantei.
But when he brought it up again, she still refused.
“I told him, ‘I will never come back even if it means being a street child,’ ” she said. “When he realized I wanted to run away from him forever, he said: ‘Let’s leave her. When she wants to go, she will tell us,’ ” Nailantei remembers.
Her grandfather was an elder, so he couldn’t be overruled. But the community still ostracized her.
“Families wouldn’t let me play with their daughters,” she said during this interview.
“Everyone saw me as a bad example, someone who disrespected her family and went against the ways of the community,” she added.
Things were different for her sister. After the cutting ceremony, she was taken out of school and, at age 12, married off to an abusive, older man. She had three children.
Nailantei, meanwhile, began to remake her reputation.
When she became the first girl in her village to go to high school, she noticed that younger Maasai girls admired her uniform.
She asked them if they wanted to be like her. “I wanted to show them I am happy with my life,” she said.
This news-making Maasai girl would tell the girls that she had opportunities because she had refused the cut, and soon some turned up at her house, fleeing the ceremony just as she had.
Because she helped them, she had to hide — again. “The morans wanted to beat me,” she said, using the Maasai word for younger men who assist the elders in defending the community’s customs.
So she changed her approach. She would bargain with the elders, just as she had bargained with her grandfather. But it wouldn’t be easy.
“The cultural elders are like a small Parliament in my village,” she said. “They have not gone to school, but they have so much power. All the decisions come from them.”
Traditionally, women aren’t allowed to address elders. Ms. Nailantei realized she had a chance to counter tradition after the elders sent her to a workshop on adolescent and sexual health run by Amref, a Kenyan health organization.
She told the elders that she had a duty to share what she had learned with the whole village. It was her first bargaining chip, and it — almost — worked.
They gave her permission to address the younger men, but none of them stayed to listen to her.
“No girl had been courageous enough before to challenge the status quo, to challenge men,” Douglas Meritei, one of those men, remembered.
She kept trying, for two more years. She made such a nuisance of herself that the old men told the younger ones to sit with her. But only three would talk with her.
She refused to be discouraged. “I thought, ‘Well, last time I had zero, this time it’s three, that’s not so bad,’ ” she said.
Gradually, more of the younger men came to talk with her, she said, and gradually the topics expanded — from H.I.V. prevention to teenage pregnancy and its health complications, to early marriage, to school attrition and, finally, to the cut.
Her work as a project officer with Amref Health Africa has saved an estimated 15,000 girls around Kenya from the cut, as well as from child marriage.
Nailantei is an extraordinary example of young African girls standing up for themselves.
After the loss of her parents, she could have given up and followed the norm, knowing that challenging attitudes in male-dominated communities can get you cast out.
But instead, she fought to get an education so she could help change the sociocultural structures that continue to impede women’s lives and well-being.
That approach has earned her admiration and respect.
Nice was the first woman in her community to be given a black talking stick by elders.
And now she speaks on a global stage, using her voice to raise awareness about her work. FGM and child marriage will end in Africa because of the likes of Nailantei.