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Liberation for Samburu Women Begins with a Song

If a Samburu girl in northern Kenya marries before she has been ‘cut’ (circumcised), tradition dictates that her family must create a small opening in the fence around the village, and the disgraced girl is asked to leave through the hole. Once she is gone, the opening is patched up, and she is forgotten forever....

If a Samburu girl in northern Kenya marries before she has been ‘cut’ (circumcised), tradition dictates that her family must create a small opening in the fence around the village, and the disgraced girl is asked to leave through the hole.

Once she is gone, the opening is patched up, and she is forgotten forever.

In Kenya, female genital cutting (FGC)––the ritual removal of the external parts of a woman’s genitalia––is illegal, yet nearly 100 percent of the women in northern Kenya’s remote Samburu communities are circumcised, often by crude and informal means, when they are young girls.

FGC causes many physical and emotional problems for these women, but the effects of the practice extend way beyond the trauma of the girls who are forced to go under the blade.

If they survive the process, once circumcised, sexual intercourse becomes at best unpleasant for both men and women in the relationship, leading to polygamous marriages. Men often have to travel far in search of work, and as a result, the HIV virus is now spreading into the Samburu communities at an alarming rate.

Samburu women in their colorful shawls and beaded necklaces. Photo by Ali Allport

A lyric for change  

It is market day in Ngutuk Ongiron, a rural village in the Westgate Samburu community in northern Kenya, and a crowd has gathered in front of a small metal stage on the dusty market street.

On the stage, a group of brightly dressed men and women begin to sing and dance. The tall Samburu men move in unison: thrusting, clapping and chanting, while the shrill voices of the women pierce the gusting wind.

A familiar beat echoes across village, as the performers move and sing to an ancient African rhythm, but the words they sing, and the message in the song, is something new.

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Yioo,Yio olosh o lee Samburu maintengen a itungana,” they sing.

“This is the truth that HIV has come to Samburu,

this is to pass the message – of the big disease that has come,

this disease has entered the country of Kenya,

let us unite to fight this!”

It is the first performance of the Westgate Umbrella Youth Group, a band of courageous singers assembled by S.A.F.E, a Kenyan NGO striving to deliver social messages to communities through the use of street theatre.

This is an important performance for the young team, not just because it is their debut show, but because many influential elders reside in the village, and the group wants to make an impact on the decision makers in the Samburu community.

Samburu women gather to watch a performance. Photo by Ali Allport

A steadfast culture

The Samburu people have always resisted change.

For many years before and after Kenyan independence in 1963, there was little social contact with people in the arid lowlands of north central Kenya, where the Samburu happily subsisted, free from political influence, throughout various national and tribal conflicts.

Similar in language and tradition to the Maasai nomads in the south, the Samburu are a peaceful and colorful people, dressing in red shawls and adorning themselves with bright beaded necklaces and headdresses. They have always moved with the seasons, giving their livestock the best possible chance of survival by following the rains, while living in respect and harmony with the wild animals that roam the dry lands.

A young Samburu girl gathers firewood for the afternoon. Photo by Paul Steyn

The Samburu are also a proud people, holding firmly to their culture, but are unaware of the dangers that some of their customs represent in a quickly modernizing Kenya.

“Many of the men we talked to believed HIV to be a disease that only westerners could catch,” says Ali Allport, community manager of Sasaab Lodge, a safari operator in the area, which has partnered with S.A.F.E for the project. “One person even said he thought that HIV was caused by the use of condoms.”

During one of the S.A.F.E workshops earlier in the week, one of the Samburu women said that she had never seen a condom. Some of the older women spoke openly about being in polygamous marriages. They confessed that, after circumcision, they could no longer satisfy their husbands alone, and so the men take on more than one wife to appease their sexual needs. The feeling amongst the women is that there needs to be more exposure and discussion around HIV in the community and how to prevent it, as this will encourage the men to use protection.

The Westgate Umbrella Youth Group on stage. Photo by Ali Allport

Power to women

There is far more resistance to new ideas about female circumcision. The ritual is firmly ingrained in Samburu society, and remains a traditional rite of passage for girls moving into womanhood.

The women explained that an uncircumcised girl cannot marry, and if she has a baby before she is cut, the mother and child will be stigmatized, ostracized and cast out from the community. In some cases, a child born from an uncut mother will be killed. The women are aware that it will take time to change this. They asked that the youth group address this issue with the men, who are the heads of the family and in a much stronger position to initiate changes.

Samburu men need to acknowledge the importance of women in their community, says Allport, and to realize that empowering women could help to raise their family’s standard of living. It would lead them to challenge the idea of polygamy, look for family planning services and to challenge traditions such as FGC and early marriage.

Educating Samburu girls and women during one of the S.A.F.E workshops

Hope for change

The performers receive a resounding round of applause as they leave the stage, still singing and clapping. It seems the message has reached the ears of the village elders, some of whom rise and address the crowd.

The area chief asks the audience to not be ignorant and to listen to the messages being sung, and to learn from them. He promises to support the youth group, and asks them be strong and to take their responsibilities seriously.

One of the elders stands up to address the crowd after the Westgate Umbrella Youth Group performed. Photo by Ali Allport

The day has been a success. The words of change have blown over the land, the HIV issue is now out in the open, and hopefully the message has taken seed in the community. But the S.A.F.E team still need to broach the sensitive subject of FGC, which, for the Samburu, remains highly controversial.

“Once we have gained the trust of the community, and they feel comfortable discussing taboo issues such as HIV and AIDS, the plan is to start performing and educating them about circumcision,” says Allport.

“In a culture where very little has changed for centuries, change will be slow for the Samburu,” she says. “Change cannot be hurried.”

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Paul Steyn
Paul Steyn is a widely-published multi-media content producer from South Africa, and regular contributor to National Geographic News and blogs. Having guided throughout Africa for some years, he went on to edit a prominent travel and wildlife magazine, and now focuses on nature storytelling in all its forms. In 2013, he joined a team of researchers and Bayei on a 250km transect of the Okavango Delta on traditional mokoros. In 2016, he accompanied the Great Elephant Census team in Tanzania and broke the groundbreaking results on National Geographic News . Contact: Follow Paul on Twitter or Instagram