Not the way I imagined it would go down
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!