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The Maasai Warrioress

“My culture means everything to me, but there’s one thing in my culture that I need to change”, explains Sarah Tenoi, member of the Loita community and co Project Manager of SAFE Maa, (the all Maasai team of Kenyan-based NGO S.A.F.E., working in the Loita Hills). Sarah was only 13 when she passed through the cut.

Sadly, she was just one of the many Maasai girls that went through the traditional ritual of cutting (FGM/C) during their graduation ceremony into adulthood, with an estimated 99% of all Maasai girls going through this process in 2010.

But by 2015, with the help of Sarah and the SAFE Maa team, and their cultural educational performances, informative workshops, events and one-on-one interventions, 30% of girls in the Loita community graduated through a new alternative ceremony called the “Loita Rite of Passage (LRP)”, where they are cleansed with cow’s milk, instead of ritual cutting – and the movement didn’t stop there.

The SAFE Maa team continue to spearhead the FGM/C abandonment movement in Loita, after Sarah stressed to her colleagues, the very powerful message that, “I don’t want my young girls to suffer what I went through”.

Steady progress was being made until late 2017, when the Kenyan government enforced a legal crackdown on FGM/C and the Christian church banned their members from the congregation if they were involved in any cultural ceremonies. As a result, the community felt that their culture was under threat. 

Some felt that the only choice they had was to either leave the entire graduation ceremony behind, abandoning their culture completely, or out of fear of arrest or expulsion from the church, turn to cutting their daughters at night and in secret. This threatened to undo all the good work Sarah and SAFE Maa had achieved in moving the community away from cutting and towards the LRP.

In the light of these developments, the campaign for the abandonment of FGM/C was at a critical turning point. The team knew they needed act fast to save their culture and protect the progress they had made towards abandonment.

In May 2018, they took a crucial step forward by reaching out to the Cultural Leadership in Loita to ask if the 42 leaders would join SAFE Maa on “World Zero Tolerance to FGM/C Day”, declare abandonment of FGM/C and publicly bless the LRP.

The Cultural Leaders not only agreed to meet and bless the LRP, but this event was the first time in a quarter of a century that all the leaders joined together, standing as instigators of positive social change by fighting for FGM/C abandonment. On the 6th February 2019, 4000 community members came together to witness their Cultural Leadership declare abandonment and publicly bless the LRP. We would like to take this opportunity, to celebrate our partners and their life-changing achievement on the one-year anniversary of this event.

However, changing perceptions of FGM/C continues to be an uphill battle one year on, as some families continue to not let uncut women marry their sons. If a woman remains unmarried, the loss of the bride price has a detrimental knock-on effect for poor families in the Loita community. Sarah explained, “When our girls are not cut, they will not be accepted, they’ll be rejected by our community”.

This is why the Cultural Leader’s public Declaration of Abandonment played a vital part in shifting perspectives in the community. It promotes the message that the LRP can graduate a girl to adulthood, allowing her to marry and take part in all Maasai Cultural events as a woman.  

This new alternative is the best way to not only preserve their culture but also to protect women and girls. An elderly woman in the Loita community stepped forward in agreement saying, “Our culture is changing, and we need to accept that.” This message is echoed by another key group driving change within the Loita community - the SAFE Moran.

Amos Leuka, SAFE Maa’s other co Project Manager commented, “The Morans are the guardians of our culture. They are the young warriors who protect us.” He continued, “they transfer knowledge and wisdom from one generation to the next, but most importantly, the Morans are the future husbands of our daughters. And a public declaration that they will marry an uncut girl is a hugely powerful statement.” At one of their performances in Loita, the morans proudly sang, “Our sisters have suffered in silence. We now say the cut has to stop. And when it is our turn to be married, a girl who is uncut is our bride.”

Since the Morans started performing in 2016, they have travelled through the Loita Hills and beyond, taking their message of change to other Maasai communities. Initially, their performances were met with resistance. However, slowly the Morans began to win the crowds over, with one of the most passionate displays in the community occurring during the February 6th Declaration of Abandonment, when young girls in Loita stood up and chanted, “No. We refuse to be oppressed. Wake up. Rise up. Together we can refuse FGM.”

Sarah was quick to comment, "The declaration has effectively changed the way women feel about themselves. They are happy, and they are proud. The declaration made by our leaders has made the cut much harder for anyone to justify. They now have to not only go against the laws of Kenya, but also against the new law of our culture. I see a new confidence in the women of Loita - they know their voices are being heard, but they also know they still have a battle to win".

While this is a monumental step forward in the abandonment of the FGM/C in the Loita community, this isn’t the end of the story. Even one year on since the event happened, there is still progress to be made. The more remote the area, the more they cling to tradition, which is why the passionate team at SAFE Maa continue to work around the clock towards their long-term goal of bringing the 40,000 strong Loita Community together under the Loita Rite of Passage and total abandonment of FGM/C. When asked, Sarah proudly commented, “I know change is coming for the Loita Maasai – and SAFE Maa is driving that change.”

Standing firmly with SAFE Maa on the FGM/C abandonment campaign, the Exodus Travels Foundation are honoured to have played a part in this life-changing ten-year journey. We have supported performance tours, gender specific workshops, one on one interventions, leaders’ meetings and school clubs, and have also helped to sponsor SAFE Maa’s work in remote areas that are on the edge of the Mara conservancies, such as Talek, Aitong and the surrounding schools and villages. 

“Workshops are very important because that’s where I can bring the change”, Sarah commented. “I cannot force you [the Maasai community] to change, but what I can do, is tell you the facts, and then you can understand the need for change.” And it’s this sheer tenacity in the face of adversity that makes Sarah the true Masai Warrioress who set this remarkable change in motion.

The powerful messages brought forward by Sarah Tenoi, Amos Leuka and their team at SAFE Maa has helped to create a ripple effect of change in the community and we’re proud to be in the presence of history in the making.

To track this inspirational story and what has happened since the campaign for total FGM/C abandonment began, click here.