Narok, KENYA Editor's note: Routt County resident Mary Walker works at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center provides a safehouse for Maasai girls who have escaped or been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage. Walker's updates from Kenya appear periodically in the Steamboat Today.
I am leaving the Rescue Centre a week earlier than usual. The girls have become accustomed to me sending them off to their boarding schools at the end of each holiday. I know that it is not a good idea, in the big picture of these girls' lives, for them to get too accustomed to anything, even my promises that I have every intention of keeping. So this holiday, I prepared them that I was to leave early to meet my husband in New York to attend the bar mitzvah of the son of dear friends. After all, it's been on the calendar for 13 years.
The girls at Tasaru were not pleased that, this time around, it was they who were to send me off from the Rescue Centre. But somehow, across a deep, wide cultural divide, the girls did understand when I told them that I was leaving early in order to attend the "coming of age ceremony," a "rite of passage," for the son of friends. This is language that these Maasai girls from the bush in Kenya, many of whom have undergone a most severe coming of age rite themselves in the form of female genital mutilation, can relate to. They gave me permission to go.
I love bar and bat mitzvahs. They are joyous, celebratory moments of extreme pride for the family and friends of the young boy or girl. As I listened to the rabbi, the cantor and the congregation recite passages from the Torah, praise god, sing and pray, I could not avoid comparing this ritual to the practices of the Maasai people.
Most Maasais, and most Kenyans, in fact, are deeply devoted Christians. The African Inland Church is the largest of many Christian denominations that are active in Kenya. The praising of god, the desire for peace, justice and the wellbeing of humanity are sentiments shared by Judaism and the Maasai people. The importance of ritualizing the coming of age of its young people also is shared by these two cultures. Even the words and prayers are remarkably similar. Sadaka is the name in Hebrew and in Swahili for the offering, the sacrifice, that the faithful give to assist their fellow worshipers.
In traditional Maasai culture, a boy is circumcised when he turns 13. Usually this is done in a hospital. Maasai girls are "circumcised" - a disregarding euphemism - any time that fathers decide that a daughter is to be "married" and sold for five cows. Many girls die in the bush from blood loss, shock and infection in the aftermath of being cut; because the cutting is illegal, no one would dare take their daughter to a hospital. So instead of a joyous occasion, the coming of age of a Maasai girl is marked by secrecy that can prove life-threatening, unbearable pain, even humiliation. It is considered an insult to her father if a Maasai girl cries out in pain during the cutting.
Fortunately, Alternative Rites of Passage are becoming increasingly popular among Maasai people who wish to celebrate the coming of age of their daughters without the cutting of their genitalia. It will be a fine day when all Maasai girls can enjoy the pride of their families, celebrate adulthood, and receive the blessings of their community with their bodies and their spirits intact.