This is a beautiful scene, 2 figures walking against the silhouette of the setting sun and the red dust of the Kenyan earth. I watched these women walk from far away, they were on their way to a well close by, but thiers is not a convenient water source that you or I might expect, they may walk as much as 30 min or more to get to a well, and this may be the second or third trip of the day. Women and children spend countless hours everyday in places like Alale Kenya to get water, time that could be spent in education, childcare, or earning an income.
Yes that’s the term, GOLDDIGGER, but it’s not what you and I would normally think. The young girl in this story is the real thing, actually digging for gold in the hard red earth of Kenya’s West Pokot near the Ugandan border. Why would she be doing this? The girl wants an education, and was willing at the young age of 14 to risk her life in the deep narrow tunnels in the hills near Alale, Kenya in hopes of washing enough gold out of the ground to pay for her school fees.
Hands searching for gold in a remote area of Kenya. This backbreaking work is one way that many familes try to cultivate income, but it denies children the right to school. In this story however, a young girl willingly took to the mines to earn money for school.
These children are coming home from the mines late at night after fetching water all day, they don't get the choice to go to school.
I had been working with Sol Garcia of Project X Impact over the past few months, researching and listening to girls rescued from FGM and Child Marriage, hearing amazing stories of bravery, courage, conviction and fight for life. Here we were now in a new area which was in fact so remote it is difficult to find on a map, but is past Kitale towards the Ugandan border North East of Nairobi. We were hearing even more compelling narratives from girls as young as 9, experiences that would amaze and astound most people, especially those of us that have our own children. It was difficult to imagine my own children surviving some of the things that these children had, it was in fact, heartbreaking.
I will refer to this young girl as X to protect her identity. All of the girls we spoke with gave us their implicit permission to record their images and their stories, but Sol and I have both agreed that it is important to protect their anonymity as they are under age, which in some ways makes it even more incredible when you hear what their reality has been.
X was born in 1992 and was living in Uganda with her parents and siblings when, at the age of 6, her father was murdered by Ugandan Rebels. She referred to her Father as “lost”, and when we asked what happened she told us. She can still remember his face.
“After he died, life was very hard, my mother looked after us, but we had no money. When I was 8 years old my Uncle and my Grandmother decided I would go to be circumcised, I agreed because it was in our culture. So at 8 I was told I would be circumcised”.
“The day I found out about the cut, my Grandmother told me, "I want you to be circumcised so you can be married, or we will be ashamed". I was circumcised outside, they take away your clothes, you sit on a stone, they all sit behind and look. Women from the community and young girls too, you feel a lot of pain, a lot of bleeding. They gave me nothing for the pain. Right after they cut you, they used a sheet and we were left alone”
It is hard to believe that a girl this young is asked by the adults in her life to agree to something that she really has no way of comprehending the dangers of. The age old practice inflicted on her by people in her life who are meant to protect her. It is part of the culture for girls to be considered chattle, property to be traded, they are married in trade for cattle, and this is unfortunately how many fathers view their daughters, in terms of how many cattle they will eventually bring. The women that practice Female Circumcision hold a percieved place of importance in their community. It can often be the "elders", the grandmothers who have been invested in this practice that don't want to see it driven away. It is only through education and many of these Rescued Girls standing up for thier rights that is slowly changing the tides. Interestingly, we also discovered during our work in Pokot that the practices in this region were predominantly more traditional, the girls often deciding to take part, but then refusing marriage, where as in the communities in South Eastern Kenya where we had previously worked, girls were more often tricked into Circumcision by literally being jumped by a few strange women that forced them into it by way of the family giving permission and arranging it without the girls consent. Also, many of the girls in this remote area were also taking a cultural stand, refusing to take part in the practice and finding their own way in life, to them that means getting an education, but without any outside financial support or even family emotional support. Their quest for a better life through education is the one thing that drives them.
The story of X continued, as we asked questions we had never asked before, literally, how did she get through the first few days and weeks after the painful and brutal circumcision?
“They tied my legs together, to help seal the wound. You urinate by lying against a wall with your legs up. They checked me every morning and brought me porridge. My legs were tied together for 1 month. They check to see if you are well as they know it is dangerous, if any skin is remaining they will cut you again”. We often heard tales of girls circumcision where they were simply left all alone without any supervision until they healed, and also where the original cut is not deemed good enough, and they have to endure additional cutting in subsequent days after.
X became feverish and didn’t sleep very well. Eventually her wound healed and she stayed at the circumcisers for 2 months, this is a very traditional practice at the end of which there is another ceremony and then the girls are released.
In North Pokot we found that more traditional Circumcision is the norm, girls will often go in a group for the “cut” stay at the Circumciser’s for 1-2 months. During this time they are taught through discussion how to be a wife and mother. X also told us that very often while this is taking place the families are looking to make arrangements for marriage with other families, they look for husbands.
X also told us of another very strange practice, “They go to the roads”. When we questioned what this was about, X told us that the circumcisers ask for money, the girls have none from their families, and will go out in a group to try and find someone they can rob, often an older man.
When the girls are released to leave, they are commonly hijacked on the way home by groups of warriors. X was immediately married this way. On her way home some men approached her, at first 2, but then more came. They basically kidnapped her when she was 10 years old to be married. Her husband was old, she was wife number 5, there were 9 children.
After 1 month she decided to escape at night when they were drinking. X had been married into a family that were alcoholics, and she was not accustomed to this. She ran in the night back to Uganda. I can only imagine the fear of such a young girl, separated from those she knows and loves, trying to escape a life she had not counted on, and yet the strength and courage and will to survive are there!
X met someone that hosted her for a month when she heard rumors that her husband’s people were coming for her. She ran again, hiding in the forest for 3 days until she was so hungry that she went back home after someone that knew her saw her in the forest. Her Grandmother, Uncle and Mother recognized that she had suffered and welcomed her home, but quickly they arranged a second marriage.
This time X had enough. She ran again and made it to a school. Girls will often hear from someone that a safe place will be a school or church. She was protected and went to school for a time. However when school holidays come, the rescued girls often have no place to go, and when they return home are in danger of being married again. When X returned home she pleaded with her family to return to school. . Finally at the age of 14 in 2009 they told her that if she wanted to go back to school she had to fend for herself. X needed to go to secondary school and there was no one to pay for the fees. This is when she decided she would take to the mines and dig for gold. In 1 month X was able to save 9000 KS towards the school fees (a little over $100 USD, this is 1/5 of an annul tuition including room and board).
Often the school principles find ways of stretching their meager budgets to let these girls attend school, even offering them a place of safety during holidays so they are not endangered. X has been lucky to continue to attend school. She wants to become a Doctor, not a nurse.
Sol and I told her we were amazed at her story, how she had basically been one of the strongest young girls we had met, and if she could do all that she had so far, she could likely accomplish anything she set her mind to.
MESSAGE TO THE WORLD
“Don’t deny children/girls the chance to go to school”
These stories are often told to us in the mother tongue, in this case Pokot. We have a translator, and sometimes the girls speak good English and we can converse that way. More often than not they have a very quiet disposition, almost whispering, this is very cultural. The essence of these girls however is much different, they all have one thing in common, a streak of independence and a fight for what they want, which is to be educated and make a difference for themselves and their communities, but also for women in general. Their courage and willingness to sacrifice family and community for the very basic human rights of freedom of choice, education, escape of virtual slavery, child marriage and sexual mutilation are stunning. I learned so much from their human spirit. Utimately, it is their determination, faith that they will have a better life, and strength that carries them forward. Once you hear their stories, and look them in the eye, you know you want to help them succeed.
We want to bring awareness to FGM by sharing many of the incredibly compelling stories that we heard speaking to the Rescued Girls. If you do too, please:
2. find out more about FGM by researching on google
Meet Errol Luis, an entrepreneur, an organizer, and not least an artist.
Errol lives in Petite Riviere de L’Artibonite, a community close to the epicenter of the Cholera outbreak in Haiti. I met him there as he was doing what he loves, involving himself within his community in a huge variety of ways. Errol happens to be one of the first Haitian entrepreneurs to run a bio-sand filter complex, employing many men and women in the community to make the bio-sand filters that are desperately needed there. He also happens to be a talented painter who galvinized many of the local artists by creating ACDART, a local artists cultural center, where they can showcase their work. He is a busy family man that takes pride in both his loved ones and his community, and on the last day of our time in Petite Riviere, we bumped into him at Zanme Lasante, (Partners in Health) as he helped to lead a workshop for families afflicted with HIV, teaching them the importance of clean water and sanitation, and how the bio-sand filter works. Errol’s bio-sand filter center is working directly with PIH to help these familes have access to clean water by distributing the filters to familes with HIV with help through a special grant. His t-shirt says it all “Ti Rivyeh, Mwen Renmen Wo” which means “Petite Riviere, I Love You” in Creole. March 22nd will see the 2011 debut of “Waves of Change“, a documentary photo exhibit about lives effected by the world water crisis, access to clean water, and a spectrum of these stories will be from life in Haiti where writer Melanie Jones and I visited in August through CAWST, a water NGO. On March 22nd an updated website will also debut showcasing all of the new Haiti stories and images, stay tuned!
I could barely keep up with her and had to trot as she sauntered with her water can! This image from North Western Kenya in Pokot near Alale. We were walking in to an area where families are mining for gold. Sounds like a great idea, but in fact it means that Women and Children are doing all the work, the biggest part of which is hiking water in from 3km away; this also means that the children do not attend school because they are busy being Water Gophers! In the coming weeks I will be writing on the experience of hiking into this remote area where we met families that were trying to sustain themselves by mining for gold. It’s a hard life!
Pokot is a fairly remote village in northern Kenya. It took 14 hours by car to reach it. You can see Uganda from here, and there is a fair amount of tension between the Pokot here and other local tribes the Turkana, and the Karamoja. We traveled for roughly 45 minutes up the mountains surrounding Pokot to an even more remote place.
We went to talk with a local woman that performs female circumcision. I was interested to actually speak with one of these women after hearing so many girls talk about their experience of either having or escaping from the customary practice. The element of danger was wafting in the background as we were there. We are told that many of the men hide guns under their robes. We learned that this community of Pokot so longer circumcise their males, as other tribes have killed their youth, designating them as Pokot from the fact that they were circumcised. Only last week there were dead Karamoja in the hills behind us, their bodies left after a breakout of fighting. I guess not that different from gang war driveby’s back home, except they use guns as well as bows and arrows, and they are usually fighting over cattle.
As we drove up from Alale, the Landcruiser slowly navigated the rocky road near Mount Sasak. Every so often we would pass by people that lived in the region, they would often wave and wonder who we were. David Ogot, our amazing “man on the ground”, our “fixer” had found someone in the community who was leading us to a Female elder that was known for performing circumcision. As our vehicle stopped at what seemed to us an undetermined point, a few locals began to gather around.
When I pictured it in my mind, I thought of being in a wise woman’s hut, likely an older woman, probably a colorful character, perhaps some mortals and pestles about with herbs in them, you know… However we arrived at a place where slowly but surely most of the local woman of all ages gathered to join Sol Garcia and myself as we asked questions about the practice, the operation, the healing process, the celebrations and the reasons for ding it in the first place. We sat in a large circle, near the shad of a tree, and the longer we were there, the more women gathered, word travels fast.
It was truly interesting, to look at all of the women gathered and to wonder about their lives here nearly on a mountaintop. It was beautiful countryside, but nearly every child that I saw was very unhealthy, dull eyes, feverish looking, and often very skinny nearing malnourishment. When we asked about common illnesses here, they told us malaria was the biggest problem.
We spoke with the women for over an hour, Sol asked very direct questions, and they complied, although at times a question would bring much discussion, shouting, shoving, and posturing before one answer could be agreed upon. The elder women seemed to be the only ones holding court, the younger ones staying silent. In the end it was an experience, and we left carrying with us the chief, and around 4 other family members back to market day in Pokot. I had hoped to get many more photos, but sometimes it is not possible. I could have risked firing off a few, but that would have created too many problems. Instead I did the bare minimum, not wanting to create any bad feelings. They ultimately wanted to garner a deal for money in return for talking with us. However, working in development this way it is normally not a good idea to do this, it sets a precedent and makes it difficult to return and do any work on subsequent visits, as they will always expect money.
As we drove back down the mountain, I realized how incredible an experience it was. Where I had been, whom we had spoken with. We were slowly beginning to learn that although FGM is a long practiced tradition in many Kenyan communities, the traditions and the way they are played out differ from region to region, tribe to tribe, and sometimes family to family. I will never forget it. As we left, a young man there that had acted as our guide and translator blurted out that he would like to marry an American. He was talking to Sol. The family had offered 50 cows!