‘I saved my wife from the cut’: defying FGM in Kenya

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a deeply entrenched part of many Maasai communities. Lorna hears the story of a young couple who fought long and hard to defy the 'cut'...

"My decision not to marry a cut girl saved my wife from the cut," Revealed Parsanka, Programs Manager, Illaramatak Community Concerns during my interaction with him at the recent Maasai 7s #EndFGMMaasai event.

Parsanka  was born in Elangatta Olkaputiei, a remote village in Kajiado South, Kenya. He is the second born of twelve children. His mother is the first wife.

While growing up, FGM was a normal practice to him, and there was no law prohibiting the practice. Deep inside he felt it was a wrong practice that his community embraced - he could see girls from neighboring communities pursue education and excel in schools while girls from his village just lounging, getting cut and being married off at very young ages. He secretly vowed to save these girls in future, when he would have the power to do so.

Parsanka grew up in a wealthy family (the father owned many livestock) but one thing that he failed to understand was why they always fed on milk throughout the year, why they dressed poorly, ate poorly and why his father never saw the need to educate his children. His widowed neighbor who was regarded poor (didn’t have livestock) on the other hand lived a contrasting lifestyle to theirs. Why? He later on understood the puzzle. His ‘rich’ family, resources were controlled by a man, and the ‘poor’ family resources were controlled by a woman.

Parsanka

Parsanka

Among his siblings, Parsanka was lucky to pursue education thanks to his elite uncle who came to pick him when he was four years old to go to Nairobi to teach his children Maasai language. He interacted well with his cousins and after sometime he was enrolled to a primary school together with his cousins. After a few years, his father came back for him for he believed his son would lose his culture. Parsanka loved school he begged his parents to let him return. His mother persuaded his father and he eventually agreed. The only nearby school, Olchoro Primary School, was 10km away - the poor boy trekked for hours to and from school sometimes compelling him to sleep at a friends place whenever the night caught him up.

He performed quite well, something that impressed his parents such that they quickly agreed to sale livestock to enroll him to a nearby secondary school. He went to Oloitoktok secondary school and in no time he was emerging top student and the only learned boy from the whole village. He juggled between being a student during the day and a Moran at night. Nevertheless, being a Moran taught him great values such as respect, responsibility, maturity, and self-drive  - values that propelled him to an exemplary student in school.

Before enrolling to college, Parsanka had turned down 6 girls, 6 marriages for that matter. Every time he refused a girl, his father would part with a goat as compensation. At some point his father got very angry for depleting his goats and vowed not to consult him anymore but impose a wife on him. He would one day on his return home find a wife in his Manyatta! In his community girls are given as a reward and exchanged for cows. Parsanka being a disciplined, smart boy, he attracted many females whose parents not only wanted to marry to a rich homestead but also to a smart boy.

He later on joined Multi Media University, then, Kenya College of Communications Technology (KCCT) where he pursued telecommunications engineering - still being the only boy to have set foot to a secondary school and a university in his village.

Soon he was done with college. He volunteered to work for an organization empowering women called ‘Wings for Earth’ in Noomayianat village, Loitoktok.

Parsanka had now come of age and apparently according to his culture, it was much too late not to have married. He still stood firm by his decision not to marry a cut girl. He believed that cutting a girl was violating her human rights, threatening her health and denying her pleasure for sex at the expense of a man’s foolish belief that it will keep her sexual urge low so that she remains faithful. He saw it as very selfish, and considered marrying a cut girls as demonstrating his support for the practice.

He had definitely set his bar very high. At that time it was impossible to find such a girl to marry especially from his community. He really wanted to marry from his community.

Parsanka continued to volunteer for a few months and did well, and he was later employed as a programs manager.

He later on met a Samburu girl from Marsabit who was interning as a banker in Nairobi. He developed an interest for her and immediately started dating her. Josephine was not cut. Haleluhya! Parsanka thought to himself. Perfect match! He knew she was meant for him and he was undoubtedly going to marry her.

After one year of dating, Parsanka introduced her to his parents, he was given consent to go ahead and marry her, after all he was way too late not to have married. Now it was Josephine’s turn to introduce him to her parents. The parents right away loved Parsanka and gave him consent to have their daughter. Josephine’s father remembered her words; that she would marry at the right time. He was very proud of her! A goat was slaughtered as a sign of acceptance. That very night, Parsanka proposed to her queen with what he considers a very expensive gold ring, in a Manyatta where he was to sleep.

Before dowry negotiation between the two families could begin, it was mandatory that Josephine undergoes the cut first as a tradition and second as a prerequisite for marriage.

Earlier before the love birds had agreed to marry, Parsanka had made it clear to Josephine that he will not allow her to undergo the cut. That he loved her the way she was, and would fight the stupid tradition to ensure that she remains that way.

Josephine had narrowly escaped the cut in the past since she was in school and whenever schools closed she chose to stay at her uncles place in Nairobi. Her brother too was opposed to having her married. He had turned down two marriage proposals, and persuaded his father to let her complete school. Her brother was her keeper. He paid her tuition fees and constantly protected her. She, on the other hand worked very hard not to disappoint him.

The tussle began during the first visit to her home when Josephine uttered the ‘stupid’ words "Mom, I will not undergo the cut!." Her mother thought she was teasing. She repeated again and again. It was now clear to her mother’s ears that she meant it. How could she? Coming from a community that practices FGM, it was impossible, it was unheard of. How will her father welcome the news?  ‘Your father will not accept it! Period!’ warned the mother. Their visit had brought both good and bad news!

They went back to think of the way forward. They both wanted to be role models in both their communities. Parsanka reached out to Josephine’s brother to convince his father about her sister’s decision but nothing yielded. It only worsened family relationship. It became so complex. He quit the talks and told them he can only wish them the best.

Parsanka and her fiancée were left with one option; to do away with traditional marriage and marry the civil way, but this meant cutting links with both families, which neither wanted to do. So this option was impractical.

They sought to go back home and succumb to the requirement that could alone bind them together, but this time be coy about it. They sought to convince the circumciser to cut Josephine’s thigh so that the blood that drops convinces the parents that she had gone through the cut. On arrival, they met the circumciser awaiting Josephine. The circumciser begged Parsanka to allow her to perform the rightful cultural procedure and stop embarrassing his father in law who was a respected member in the community. She refused to adhere to his tricks and feared for her life! She would only perform the real cut nothing else.

At this point Josephine’s mother was depressed, she could not eat, she developed ulcers and was not on speaking terms with her husband.

The stubborn love birds returned to the city to think of another smart way out. They were withdrawn, they had lost so much weight and the situation was putting so much pressure on their relationship. They were choking!

Parsanka thought of bringing his parents to negotiate dowry where he would quickly pay dowry and take off with his wife. Because by Josephine’s father accepting dowry it would automatically mean he had rightfully given off his daughter. He therefore set off to bring his father and a couple of elders to meet Josephine father. While on their way, Parsanka broke to them the news about him marrying Josephine who hadn’t gone through the cut, and that they should support him before his father in-law when he brings it up during their negotiations.

Hell broke loose! Parsanka’s father was furious for having been fooled. All this time it had never crossed his mind that his daughter in law to be was uncut! To him, she was an outcast and would never set foot in his compound. The village elders were very furious that Parsanka had wasted their time, and worried that he has lost his mind! They both threatened to cut off their journey. They could not be part and parcel to Parsanka’s mediocrity. How could they negotiate dowry of an uncut girl! He convinced them to proceed with the journey and stick to the main agenda which is dowry negotiation. The rest he would handle.

After many hours of persuasion they agreed - in addition the elders did not want to embarrass themselves by going back home after they had packed bags and bragged to their wives about their trip.

They made it to Josephine’s home the following day. The dowry negotiation went perfect. As the negotiations came to a close, Josephine’s father  stood up and made it clear that the girl had to undergo the cut. It was taboo, the ritual was more important to him more than the dowry. He requested Parsanka to stand up and admit before the elders that he will allow his wife to-be to observe the tradition. Parsanka stood up and explained how education had changed their view about many things including retrogressive cultures.

He did not move them a single bit. They stayed firm to their decision. ‘Josephine must be cut!’ reinforced her father. Well the tricky Parsanka convinced them that with both their work schedules Josephine could only be cut during her leave days since healing takes almost three weeks. They agreed to plan for leave (before their soon to be wedding) where both of them would be free to take care of each other - in the meantime they were going to settle the bride price.

Josephine

As soon as Parsanka was done with settling the bride price, he started planning for the wedding. He now said that the cut would take place after the wedding. Haha, Parsanka must be very funny! Josephine’s father declined to have the wedding ceremony of her uncut daughter carried out on his soil in Marsabit. It would put him to lifelong embarrassment. As a matter of fact, he denounced her. She was her favorite child but she had put him through enough shame, compelling him to leave the village and move to his second wife’s home far away..

Parsanka and Josephine planned their wedding to take place in Loitoktok, Parsanka’s home. They planned everything and even sent out invitation cards. Both Josephine’s parents and Parsanka’s parents declined attendance.

It took extreme external family intervention to convince them to show up for the wedding and that the cut would come afterwards. They agreed, though half-heartedly.

The wedding was the biggest ever to take place in that village. The parents were given royal treatment. Josephine was finally given off!

Five years later, Josephine and Parsanka are celebrating their strong beautiful marriage and the birth of their two beautiful daughters whom of course will not undergo the cut. Both their families have come to terms with the couples decision not to ever pursue the outdated tradition. The parents have stopped bothering them and the two have in fact grown to be their parents favorite children.

Josephine was absorbed in her organization and is now a banker, Parsanka runs a community based organization called Il laramatak Community Concerns where he empowers women and saves girls from FGM, the retrogressive culture.  He is happy that he has the law in place and the right support system.

Parsanka has also brought together civil societies in Kajiado to draft amendments on the law prohibiting FGM pointing out that it does not give a solution on the education and sensitization aspect of FGM as a violation of human rights. It only criminalizes the act forgetting it’s a cultural practice that communities can only drop if they are educated about its effects. That draft is at its ultimate process and will hopefully be launched soon.

Parsanka is also now working with both men, his father and his father in-law to end FGM in their respective communities. They have so far saved a good number of girls including family members from the cut. Both fathers have seen how educating children economically uplifts families and communities. Hopefully one day I can catch up with them to hear more!