Defying the Maasai tradition of female genital mutilation
changed everything for alumna Juliet Naishorua
Juliet Naishorua is on a mission to tell her story — and she begins it the same way each time.
She was looking forward to “the cut.”
For a child of Kenya’s reclusive Maasai ethnic group, the rite of female circumcision marks the transition to womanhood, symbolizes chastity, and hails readiness to marry and bear children. For life to finally begin.
The idea of refusing female genital mutilation (FGM) never occurred to 12-year-old Juliet. She didn’t know anyone who had done so, including her mother, three older sisters, sisters-in-law, aunts, or her grandfather’s dozen wives.
It wasn’t until anti-FGM talks were given at the Pentecostal church her mother attended that Juliet learned she actually had a choice — and that her mother wanted her to refuse to be cut.
“I was angry. I thought, ‘No, you’re crazy,’” Naishorua says. “It’s something that you grow up knowing that you’re going to do, so you’re looking forward to it.”
Her mother grew adamant, though, and pressed Juliet to attend the enoto (circumcision ceremony) of a friend from school.
“It was a beautiful ceremony, (a) three-day ceremony,” Naishorua says. “They do all these things — they shave her head, they sing songs of praises, but the actual cutting … that day, very early in the morning, (it’s) freezing. You don’t feel as much when you’re numb and they pour cold water, but when you see how the girl behaved — she was shaking and there was a lot of blood. She panicked.”
To her mother’s relief, the enoto, as well as the wisdom of Naishorua’s three elder sisters, convinced Juliet.
“My sisters are very intelligent — unbelievably smart,” Naishorua says. “If they had the education, I joke to them, ‘Maybe you guys would be lawyers or engineers’ or whatever. So they used to tell me, ‘See the kind of lives we live? We would love to go to school but we are married, we are not young. We have to raise kids. If you can, I would rather you stay in school.’”
It was 1999, 12 years before FGM was officially outlawed in Kenya, when Naishorua became the first woman she knows of to stay whole.
Today, as a recent graduate of Cal State East Bay, when she describes the events that followed her decision — her father’s refusal to support her education, working manual labor jobs to pay for boarding school (or else face wild animals during the three-kilometer walk each way), befriending children with textbooks so that she could borrow them — there’s only one thing that makes her throat catch:
Her elementary school grade records.
It’s a plain booklet of 6x9-inch notepaper, stapled together and covered with brown paper — not so different from the grocery bags American students use to cover their textbooks.
But to Naishorua, its value is much different. “This was very expensive!” she says, gently passing a hand over the cover. “I wanted to protect it. I slept with this under my pillow for many years and I want to keep it for a long, long time.”
As she opens the booklet and flips through the pages, it’s clear that its worth is even more than its cost, measured out in liters of water hauled, bushels of weeds plucked, or secondhand clothes sold. “Nancy,” for instance, the name neatly printed under the parent/guardian signature column, is the memory of teaching her mother to write. “Never my father’s,” Naishorua adds, as she traces a finger over years of signatures.
At the bottom of each page is her personal class ranking, progressing from 15 of 37 students during her first year, to consistently attaining the No. 1 position — a reflection of her growing competitiveness and self-confidence.
The booklet also contains comments of praise from Naishorua’s teachers. Simple words that are barely personalized (“Good work, keep up!”; “Well done Naishorua; Keep same spirit!”), but for a child with one parent unable to understand her daughter’s activities at school and the other adamantly opposed to her attending, they were her only encouragement — and the seeds of an idea that she was good at something, that she was smart, that she could live a life beyond the Maasai.
The turning point came after Naishorua indeed graduated from St. Anthony’s Secondary School. She worked briefly as a teacher in a nearby village while saving for a two-year journalism program at the East Africa School of Media Studies, which led to a job with the Nairobi Star (currently the Star).
“I was in the office one day and everyone was gone — on vacation or out on assignment, and this man came in looking for a translator. I told him, ‘I’m sorry, everyone is gone,’ because I was still the junior person at the time, and he asked if I spoke Swahili. I said, ‘Yes, I do,’ and when he learned I was Maasai, he offered to hire me. I ended up traveling with him and translating for him several times, and he taught me to capture footage on a flip-camera.”
The man was G. Pascal Zachary, an American journalist and professor of practice at the University of Arizona, who was working in Kenya on a Gates Foundation grant to understand the spread of HIV in rural farming communities.
According to Zachary, Naishorua’s tribal childhood and comfort in the bush made her the ideal field assistant. “She had real roots in an ethnic group, the Maasai, that are very tied to rural areas,” Zachary explains. “She was very interested (in) and connected well (with the people), especially with women. And also, these can be more rigorous physical environments … so the fact that she had grown up in this unusual, very rural ethnic group — she had a fluency that was really helpful.”
The travel Naishorua did in the role, interviewing women who wouldn’t share their information with a man, translating notes, and filming, also created opportunities to shed light on the issue closest to her heart — circumcision.
In 2008, she and Zachary were interviewing farmers in Uganda when they stumbled upon a rare public circumcision ceremony for two 17-year-old boys. Even within the Maasai, Naishorua explains, the ceremony would typically be private and segregated by gender. With the aid of her flip-camera, she was able to capture the festivities leading up to the cutting and spotlight the deep cultural mores surrounding circumcision in a rural African community.
The clip was ultimately picked up by the Bay Area’s nonprofit public access station, KMTP-TV.
That same year, through an introduction to the editor of Project Syndicate, a global alternative news site, Naishorua told her own FGM story for the first time. In the brief article, she explains how she escaped “the cut” but emphasizes that many girls are not so fortunate — including a 13-year-old whose father and husband-to-be tried to discard her body in the bush to hide her death by FGM. Through Project Syndicate, the piece was translated into 12 languages and reprinted across the world.
By early 2009, Naishorua was ready to continue telling that story, this time outside Kenya. “I grew up being curious about ‘What’s that world that is beyond us? I really want to experience this, I really want to meet other people outside here.’ But part of (telling my story) is wanting to make a change,” she continues. “Part of it is being the youngest (of eight children) and seeing there is a problem and wanting to correct it. That’s where the motivation came from.”
She obtained a one-year visa, and through Zachary’s connections in the Bay Area (he lectured at UC Berkeley at the time), Naishorua cobbled together a year of multimedia internships that included acting, radio, filmmaking, and writing. Shortly before she was set to return to Kenya, her life took yet another pivotal turn, though this one was completely unanticipated.
The man she had been seeing, a journalist and Kenyan radio personality named Edwin Okong’o (BA ’05), a graduate of Cal State East Bay’s Department of Mass Communication, proposed. The couple married shortly thereafter and had a daughter in 2011. With Okong’o’s encouragement, Naishorua applied to her husband’s alma mater the following year.
Now, she has just finished her final semester with a double major in political science and international studies — and graduated cum laude. On Sunday, June 12, 2016, when she put on her cap and gown, Naishorua marked a first, not only within her family, but for all women of the Nairagie Enkare in her rural village: She became a college graduate.
“Cal State has given me an opportunity to learn, grow and be myself. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned, and people have embraced me. For the first time, I feel like people are willing to help me and accept me for who I am.”
The countdown to graduation involved juggling a four-year-old, 22 units, and two high-impact internships — one under the Office of Sustainability at CSUEB in Parking and Transportation Services, and the other in Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s office, which includeded a special role as liaison with AC Transit and the Alameda Transport Commission.
“It was her dedication,” says Matt Nichols, Oakland’s policy director of transportation and infrastructure, describing the stream of emails Naishorua sent about available internships. “She has a certain magnetism. She is very humble and so sincere, and people respond to that.”
Although Naishorua says both internships being in transportation was a happy coincidence, the synergy between the two helped maximize her impact on the university.
“I have been using AC Transit for so long, and the shuttles on campus to and from BART, that I’ve experienced every possible situation that can happen,” she says. Her goals included increasing student ridership and convenience, and reducing the university’s carbon footprint.
“I have been looking at the reasons that students don’t want to use the shuttles through student surveys. One thing we’re trying to do is ensure that the breaks that the drivers take do not affect the evening shuttle wait just to get on the bus to get home.”
Director of Sustainability Jillian Buckholz says Naishorua also worked on a digital transportation guide for students; promoted Zimride, a carpooling app that connects commuters; and built a new shuttle schedule that will better match university transit with train arrivals at Hayward BART Station.
“When you first meet her, she seems like any typical East Bay student,” Buckholz says. “However, it’s not until you get to know her that you begin to understand how she’s empowered herself and is forging her own future. Her attitude is a constant reminder to focus on what’s really important in life.”
In the long term, Naishorua plans to use the breadth of her experience — the journalism, the documentary filmmaking, the exposure to city planning and legislature, and her dual degrees — to launch a foundation that fights FGM in Kenya and beyond.
“I’ve seen a lot of nonprofit organizations with the same cause, but the weakness that I see is that they say, ‘Don’t do FGM. It’s not good, it’s barbaric, don’t do it. Period.’ But you cannot tell people to not do something without an alternative. The message without an alternative is that Maasai culture is bad — but it’s only that one aspect that needs to be changed. Maasai culture is very, very beautiful.”
For Naishorua, that alternative means opening up a new world of education, literacy, career potential, property ownership and independent choice for rural African women, who, she explains, are frequently accustomed to lives of subservience.
“The whole aspect of treating women as we ought to be treated, the foundation (for that) has to start for both boys and girls,” she continues. “And FGM is only one small part, actually. If you empower women, and then you don’t teach boys and men how to treat those empowered women, then (you’re) not solving the problem. If we keep just talking about one issue and overlooking the other one, it’s always going to be a seesaw. We need to come to a balance.”
Naishorua has already had an indelible impact on her own family, which includes seven nieces. She reports that none of them are circumcised.
And the man who once refused to support her education has also had a drastic change of heart.
“My father has softened over the years,” she says. “He is proud of me now and his attitude toward my daughter is completely different.”
Yet the work to build awareness is hardly over.
“As we progress into the future, I’ve seen things changing. (African) people are becoming more open because of technology, and because of a lot of nongovernmental organizations that now have gone to Kenya and other places in Africa to help women, (to) tell them it’s OK to talk about sexuality and be open about things, not to be embarrassed.
“But still. Yes, there’s a law (against FGM), but people are still doing it. Plus these are young girls — these are girls that are shy, that respect their elders, that cannot push on their dad, that are obedient.
“There are many cases still today where girls bleed until they die — it’s not rare. But who’s going to report it? (The Maasai are) such an isolated community. We are a minority within Kenya. How many reporters are there in the Maasai culture? Who of the Maasai is going to give his information?”
Juliet Naishorua need only look to herself.
OUR EXPERT: FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION: FACTS AND CONSEQUENCES
By Professor Emerita Laurie Price, Ph.D., MPH
As a cultural practice, female genital mutilation (FGM)* is both mysterious and pervasive. Evidence of it has been found among multiple ancient civilizations; its practice transcends ethnicity, race, and country; and it is frequently shrouded in the privacy of extremely conservative communities, making it difficult to stop — or track — even where it has been outlawed. UNICEF’s most recent numbers tell us 130 million women today have experienced FGM, most predominantly in Africa and the Middle East.
Facts about FGM and its consequences:
- FGM is the removal of a young female’s clitoris, but can also include the labia minora and much of the labia majora.
- FGM is believed to preserve a girl’s virtue (virginity); to enhance her marriage choices; and to reduce sexual drive and prevent sexual activity before/outside of marriage.
- FGM is often carried out in non-sterile conditions on girls three to 15 years of age and can lead to sepsis, death due to excessive bleeding and/or the transmission of infectious diseases.
- Females who undergo FGM have an increased risk of health problems and death their entire lives; health issues include higher rates of urinary tract infections, infertility, cysts and tumors.
- Psychological problems such as feelings of deep betrayal, having been sexually abused, PTSD and more, are common in women who have been cut.
- The World Health Organization reports a higher likelihood during labor of hemorrhaging, caesarean section, and hospitalization for women who have undergone FGM, and a 66 percent increase in infant resuscitation.
Despite these facts and international support for abolishing FGM (the United Nations banned FGM worldwide in 2012), the UN reports that 2 million girls per year — 6,000 each day — continue to be cut.