Behind the large, yellow light and the wash of the color gliding against the pool of water, her profile, erect and still is silhouetted on a natural canvas. Standing in the cold at the earliest hour of the day alone and frightened made me wonder what kind of celebration her new birth was. It was not every day that a young girl could prove beyond a doubt that she was pure and free of sin. This could only mean that she was revered. Only a pure woman could go to the higher women’s circle. Only a pure woman could understand when a flower has been pruned and a life changed forever. This “woman” was 5 years old and both excited and terrified of what was about to happen to her. She had heard stories from other girls.
Of all the Kikuyu life stages, circumcision (irua) was and remains by far the most important, signifying not only a child’s passage into adulthood, but a whole wealth of other socially significant meanings and assumptions of responsibility. For both boys and girls, initiation into adulthood – through circumcision or clitoridectomy – marks their admission into full membership of Kikuyu society, and was thus a momentous occasion, both socially and individually. Through circumcision and the period of initiation and instruction that accompanied it, an individual became a full participant in society as a whole, beyond the scope of the village (itura) and their families. Their responsibilities, therefore, extended not just to their family group, but to the Kikuyu as a nation.
Her mother’s voice echoed in her mind: “The women came to my home early in the morning at 7:00 a.m. and got hold of me and forced me to lie down. My hand and legs were held firmly and I could hardly move. They then spread my legs and the circumciser started his cutting. It was excruciating pain and I was screaming. To silence me, they stuffed a piece of clothing in my mouth and my screams could not be heard anymore. The circumciser went on with her work to what seemed like forever. She cut bits of me and when this was done, she started stitching me up with an acacia thorn. After this was done, they tied my two legs tightly together around the knees. I remained like this for two weeks, with minimum movement. During this time, as I healed I would experience pain as I passed urine. This was more so painful because the acid in the urine would burn the raw wound and also because it could not flow out easily because of the stitching. I was weak and hungry during this time. I would be fed with very little food because they didn’t want to clean me up because I could not take myself to the toilet. Time went by and I healed. In the course of time I was blessed with 5 children, 1 girl and 4 boys – you and your brothers.”
S. Nyanza and the Ugandan border are traversed by lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa. It is actually an inland sea, covering 24,3000 square miles and is shared by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. It is there that she was led to the edge of the water wrapped in a blanket, dressed in white at the break of day waiting for the start of her journey. She is a pretty girl of 5 who has learned to hold her body very straight for all the women in her village carry things by balancing them on their heads.
On the most basic level, the social consequence of a boy’s circumcision meant that he would now become a warrior, and would spend several years in the service of the entire people to defend and protect, and occasionally attack neighbouring tribes. Uncircumcised, the boy – for he would remain a boy even if he lived to ninety years – would also be barred from getting married and raising children. For a girl, circumcision meant that she was able to bear children, and marriage was usually swift to follow.
Her mama remembered her time. Wrapped in a blanket, feeling no cold, only the sensation of becoming not whole. “One would think because of what I had undergone, I would not allow it to happen to my children, but circumcision was so ingrained in our culture that I want to do it to my daughter personally. I am actually so involved in the practice that I’ve started doing it for a living. My first income was 2,200 Kenyan shillings ten years ago when my first son was born and other women in the village gave birth to girls, which at the time was a lot of money. We sometimes circumcised the really little ones. Over the next 10 years I did it to so many girls that I lost count, but maybe this will be my last one. I’ve been invited to a workshop by religious leaders and other people from NGOs, who will talk about female genital mutilation (FGM) and its consequences. But today it is my daughter, Matahanu’s day. Look how beautiful she looks!”
Hearing her whisper this to me made something inside me shake and move with reaction to the ties that bound her and the ambivalence she felt she must silence. What manner of horror would the girl at the water’s edge withstand that evening?A girl just pricked and sewn – and the bloody horror of it all – the senseless shame overcame the observer for the moment.
When Matahanu awoke, the woman was piercing holes through her skin, and then she “poked a strong white thread through the holes to sew me up … the pain was so intense that I wished I would die.” Matahanu was left with openings no bigger than a matchstick — one for urine, one for menstrual blood.
A silent observer stood on the sidelines abhorring the actions, helpless, forgetful of the shame and knowledge that mankind, even women do this kind of thing to each other each and every day all the time.
And thus the story of Kenya begins on a cold February morning in 1987 in the earliest part of the day along the shores of Lake Victoria. The girl represents every girl and woman bound by tradition and trapped in its grasp. The observer – a young and naive international traveler who saw more than she could handle.
Rights of passage have followed mankind throughout the ages. For men, no honor is so great and all encompassing than the privilege of a first kill. In our primitive past this marked the boys from men, the eunuch from warrior.
But what of women? What have they endured throughout the ages to mark their passage through life and society’s timetable?
Matahanu is the 5th child and 1st daughter of a fisherman and farm laborer who worked land he did not own and a sea he could not tame. Over the years Salim had married three wives. It is acceptable and even encouraged by Matahanu’s society. Her mother is the 1st wife and enjoyed a favored position within the family. She actually liked the other women her husband married. They all got along well but she sometimes whispers to Matahanu “find a man who will only marry once. Find one whose heart only you steal.” Her mother was an animist who embraced her philosophy that every natural object, every natural phenomenon and even the universe itself possesses a soul or spirit.
A modest stone house with a corrugated iron roof, surrounded by a banana grove and a small garden was her first home located in Nyeri, the scenic community on the slopes of Mt. Kenya where many Kikuyu live. While her mother prepared irio – mashed red kidney beans and whole hominy boiled together until thick, Matahanu played. When she was allowed to go to school, momma would wrap the irio in banana leaves for her to carry to school. Her earliest moments were spent snug and warm strapped to the colorful cloth at her mother’s back as she toiled in the field. By the time she could move and grasp objects, her life of servitude and tradition began.
When she was very young she did not expect to attend school. Most of the boys in her village did, but few of the girls’ because they were expected to marry at a young age. Matahanu wanted to go to school even if it meant she would have to leave the life she loved at home. She grew up in the shadows of a beautiful, snow-covered mountain right on the equator. The lower slopes of Mt. Kenya are covered with thick forest. Below this forest belt lived the Kikuyu people and Matahanu’s family living with the snow on Mt. Kenya that stayed all year round – a very unusual feature. There are cliffs with steep sides that drop two to three thousand feel into the valley below. It is all part of the Rift Valley – perhaps one of the longest rifts in the world. Cool and fertile highlands and clear, trout-filled mountain streams were her playground and then part of her education. Matahanu loved going to visit her aunt at Lake Nakuru. When the flamingos were in flight, they looked like pink clouds to her. There was something about her personality that made her ask questions all the time. She wanted to know about the world, about places outside her village, beyond the mountain and flamingo flocks in Nakuru and the village of Nyeri. From an early age she would question the elders in her village about the world and her place in it. They often told her to stop asking so many questions, especially when she asked if she could go to school and her uncle told her “no.” She thought, “What is so wrong about going to school and learning about more things in the world?” Of course it was this kind of thinking that got her in trouble often. When Matahanu talks about growing up in Kenya, one particular morning often comes to mind. She and her brother were on their way to school and she was telling him how nervous she was about a big test she had to take that day. Even though she had studied very hard, she was still unsure of herself. “It doesn’t matter if you pass the test,” her brother told her in a well-meaning attempt to comfort her, “you don’t have to get good grades or a job when you grow up; you’re just going to get married anyway.” Matahanu remembers feeling relieved, thinking he was right.
Tall, strong boned with an astonishing face, quick wit and social grace that belied her station in life by the time she was 7, Matahanu’s hand was already in demand and her parent’s realized they could gain a pretty large dowry for their daughter’s marriage if they gave her the education she so desired.
So many thoughts fly into the mind when reliving the moments of the past that make up the current life and existence…for Matahanu, a continuous montage of flashbacks – from her “birth ceremony; i.e. circumcision, school years and youthful escapades surround her as tradition and circumstance raise her.
“At puberty I had my first period. It was deadly painful. Psychologically, I began to feel some anxiety and ill at ease when walking outside my home. Many times I wished time would go back and I return as I was-A normal and simple girl. I have heard about many girls who have been returned to their families after marriage because they were not circumcised and also about girls that have been circumcised after giving birth for the first time, others were circumcised shortly before their marriage. I guess if I didn’t have my period, I could have continued going to school and learning more about the world. I guess if I hadn’t been circumcised, Kiptum would not have married me. Maybe that would have been a good thing?”
She was effectively “sold” to a 30-year-old landowner named Kiptum for ¼ acre of land, $200 cash, four cows and a bag of seed on her 13th birthday thus ending her education and childhood.