Content Warning: This post is about protecting 95 young women from the Tarime FGM rituals. Some of the information is disturbing, and may be triggering. Certainly not for younger audiences. The final message is one of hope, though.
At QuadW Tarime, we are a community of 5 Tanzanians, 1 Mexican, and 3 Americans who follow Jesus. We do our best to love our neighbors as ourselves, and we make disciples; disciples who make disciples.
In May, Dinnah Sylvester and Nancy Martinez noticed that there were quite a few young women in our neighborhood. Dinnah is of the Kuria tribe, the majority tribe in Tarime, and she knew from her experience that the Kuria tribe generally does not value girls and young women. They make them work hard, insult them, and generally try to break down their confidence. Men do this to maintain their power, and then older women do this to younger women because this is the way that they were treated growing up. There are some beautiful exceptions, but by and large, it is very hard being a young Kuria woman.
So Dinnah and Nancy took an obvious step to start a disciple group for young Kuria women. They meet every Sunday at 4, anywhere from 8 to 20 girls. Dinnah and Nancy affirm their worth in God’s eyes, and they teach them to affirm each other. They give them decision-making power in deciding the group’s activities, and teach them how to lead our evening prayer meetings, doing their best to rebuild their confidence.
As they journeyed with these young women, they realized that the tohara season was coming up. The girls were talking about it in guarded whispers, and some adults were bringing it up as a prayer request during our evening prayer meetings. “We are nearing the twelfth month, the season of the tohara, a season of danger for young women, let’s ask God that he would be near to them, that he would help them.”
It’s a sad fact of life that some of the Kuria tribe (the majority tribe here in Tarime) continues to practice female genital mutilation (FGM). Different villages do this at different dates, but it is generally done from late November until New Year’s Day. It is a religious ritual, and the ritual itself is called the “tohara”. In the Kuria version of the practice, the clitoris is removed with a razor blade. It is generally done to young women who have recently gone through puberty. Once the wound heals, she is considered to be ready for marriage, and is normally married within 1-2 years.
These days, most Kuria women who I know have not had the practice performed. Inter-tribal marriage steadily decreases the power of the practice, and it is also illegal; at least two practitioners were arrested in the Tarime area over this last month. The growth of Christianity, Islam, and health education have also steadily poured water on the fire. There are, however, a group of rural Kuria elders who cling fiercely to the practice. They organize a secret tohara ritual in every rural Kuria village, every year, and then persuade as many people as possible to send their pubescent daughters. Many Kuria men who live in rural areas also continue to pay higher bride prices for Kuria brides who have had the practice performed. I don’t have any hard data on this, but my dear friend Mwita Baita, a Kuria, estimates that anywhere from 600 to 1,800 young Kuria women are cut each year.
So as Dinnah and Nancy were doing their best to love these young women, they asked the rest of the QuadW Tarime community what we could do to protect the young women during this season.
We agreed that they would need to have some careful, vulnerable conversations with them, to help determine who might be at risk. And not only them, but also any friends or neighbors who they knew who might be at risk.
And then Raphael suggested an idea, “I know at Gamasara UMC the Emmanuel Center does this camp to protect young women from the tohara. At least, they used to. Maybe, if anyone is in danger, they could go there.”
I replied, “Yeah, they did have a camp to protect young women, in 2018, 2019, and 2020. They didn’t have it last year, though. They didn’t have the funds for it, and they didn’t have enough volunteers to coordinate it. You know, it’s a lot of work to take care of all those young girls for however many weeks. BUT I did work with the Emmanuel Center folks on a grant application for funding a girls camp for 2022. I haven’t heard back, but maybe the Sunflower Foundation will agree to fund the camp. And then if y’all feel God, you know, giving you a call, or a passion in this direction, we could be the extra volunteers that Emmanuel Center needs to make it happen. So something to just be thinking about, talking with God about.”
Soon enough, The Sunflower Foundation in Melbourne, Australia (https://sunflowerfoundation.ngo/) did reach out to let me know that they had decided to award The Emmanuel Center a very generous $4,000 Australian dollars to protect young Kuria women from the tohara.
I brought the question back to the community, and the decision was unanimous. Cassidy, Dinnah, Doto, Glory, Nancy, Raphael, Tucker, and Veronica all wanted to do their best to help The Emmanuel Center to protect these young women.
On October 24th, we had a great meeting with the Emmanuel Center leaders; Rev. Anna Migera, Sarah Wambura, and Rev. Wikendi Juma. They were excited and energized, thankful for some sudden outside help in their everyday work of protecting and empowering women in the Gamasara community.
We all agreed that the next step would be a hard one.
Over the next month we would need to seek out girls who were in danger, and persuade the girls and their families to attend the girls camp, instead of the tohara.
As we moved forward with this, we faced all kinds of complicated resistance, but I will just give one example, which may illustrate the larger situation.
Dinnah, Nancy, and Doto quickly learned that an 11-year-old young woman who I’ll call Hope (not her real name) had decided to go to the tohara, once the time came. This seemed odd, since her father was of a different tribe. They talked with her mother, a Kuria, who explained that she did not want her daughter to go to the tohara, but she was afraid that her daughter would run away to the tohara anyways. She explained that another young woman, their neighbor, was from a very traditional Kuria family. It was her year to go to the tohara, and she had been doing her best to persuade as many young women as possible to go with her. I’ll call this young woman Bhoke.
Bhoke had told Hope that the tohara was how you become a real woman. She had told her that it’s just an injection, and you’ll get free candy and gifts if you go. Everyone will celebrate you. And you’ll be a woman, ready to get married.
Hope had been easily swayed by Bhoke, so Dinnah, Nancy, and Doto went to talk to Hope. First, they listened, to get a full picture of why she wanted to go. Then, they explained in detail about what the cutting is, how terribly it would hurt, and that it is irreversible. They explained that we can be good Kuria and followers of Jesus, but we have to leave the ancestor worship behind. Some things we just have to leave. God loves us so much, they explained, and if we follow him, he will be faithful to us.
They explained about the camp as well, and by the end of the conversation, Hope had agreed with them, and agreed to go to the girls camp instead of the tohara.
A few days later, Bhoke came back from visiting her extended family. It was heartbreaking; she had been given new shoes, new clothes, and some spending money. Her family had printed invitations to pass out to everyone for her upcoming tohara. She came to Hope again, with two friends who were also planning to go. They showed Hope the gifts, and told her that she had to come as well, if she was going to be a real woman.
Hope replied, “Myself, I cannot. I am a servant of God, and that is wrong.” They were startled, but then they laughed at her and skipped away. Shortly after, Doto saw Hope again, and Hope told her, “Please remember to take me to the camp. If I don’t go to the camp, I know I will give in and go with them. They are pressuring me so much.”
These sorts of interchanges played out all over Gamasara and Tarime as we did our best to persuade young women and their families not to go to the tohara. On December 9th, Hope and 66 other girls showed up at Gamasara UMC (which hosts King Emmanuel Primary School) for the Emmanuel Center girls camp. It is an overnight, 19-day event where young women ages 8-15 play together, learn about their value in God’s eyes, learn the truth about FGM and child marriage, and learn to affirm one another. It covers the entire duration of the tohara in Tarime and Gamasara, so that there is no danger of them being cut. Many strong women, including pastors, nurses, and government officials have come to teach them. Every day, more young women arrive, and we counted 95 young women on Thursday.
We are having a great time.
Duck, duck, goose ❤
Today’s Lesson: You have been wonderfully made
The Emmanuel Center heroes; Kuria women brave enough to host the camp. Here, they are preparing cabbage for dinner.
Each day, I marvel at the courage and the hard work of the Kuria women who are putting on the camp. They are choosing, every day, to stand up to shame, verbal abuse, and threats of violence from their traditional Kuria neighbors who want to hold on to the practice. They wake up early to care for the girls, and they watch them all the way until bedtime, preparing food for 95 girls over open fires, three times each day. Courage and hard work are two hallmarks of the Kuria tribe. I would argue that God is making these women to be more fully Kuria, not less so, as they lead their community to abandon this practice. As they come closer with God, he is returning the Kuria to be the wonderfully unique people who he created them to be. As he does so, this practice, as well as other ways of oppressing young women, will fall by the wayside.
The title means, “Let’s protect her”. I’m so thankful that what was once a normal practice in Tarime is now on its way out. I’m thankful that so many people, from 4 continents, wanted to join together to protect 95 young women from this practice, and to teach them to teach others, as we help the Kuria in their efforts to usher this out, and usher in a little more of the Kingdom of God, here on earth. Specifically, I want to thank:
- Sarah Wambura, Community Coordinator of The Emmanuel Center for Women and Children
- Rev. Wikendi Juma, Pastor of Gamasara UMC, which hosts The Emmanuel Center
- Rev. Anna Migera, Communication and Reporting Coordinator for the Emmanuel Center
- The many Emmanuel Center women who have volunteered to help care for these young women
- The Sunflower Foundation in Melbourne, Australia
- Evan Lorendo and Rev. Eric Soard, for introducing me to the Sunflower Foundation
- Northside Church in Jackson, Tennessee, for your generous sponsorship of Emmanuel Center Primary School, which provides the space to host the girls camp
- Bernadette St. Amand and Sylvia Songe for all you did to get the girls camp started
- QuadW Tarime residents Cassidy Barker, Dinnah Sylvester, Doto Francis, Glory Sentozi, Nancy Martinez, Raphael Musa, Tucker McDonald, and Veronica Rhodes for all of your hard work to make this happen
- Lynn Barker, for giving generously to cover some expenses that were not covered by the grant
- Este Gardner, for giving generously to cover some expenses that were not covered by the grant
- Grace UMC in Dallas, Texas, for giving generously to cover some expenses that were not covered by the grant
- Larry Duggins, for giving generously to cover some expenses that were not covered by the grant
- Anna Grace Glaize, for giving generously to cover some expenses that were not covered by the grant
- Katie Kirk, for giving generously to cover some expenses that were not covered by the grant
- Paul Ott, for giving generously to cover some expenses that were not covered by the grant
- Patty Holley, for giving generously to cover some expenses that were not covered by the grant
You can make more of this happen by donating to QuadW Tarime at:
Tax-deductible: https://www.wesleycollegetzfoundation.com/donate2022 write QuadW Tarime in the comment box
Or to The Emmanuel Center (tax-deductible) at:
Or to The Sunflower Foundation (tax-deductible) at:
P.S. One frequently asked question is, “why?”
I cannot do justice to this in a few short sentences, and I do not really understand myself. But a few reasons:
- Traditional Kuria men pay higher bride prices for Kuria women who have been cut; they say it makes them more submissive and less likely to cheat.
- It is a religious practice. Many Kuria believe that their ancestors will curse them if they allow any of their daughters not to be cut.
- General social pressure; traditionally, women who had not been cut were unmarried outcasts, and “msagani” is still a common Kuria insult for women who have not been cut.
- The elders charge about $20 from each young woman to have the practice performed, and they don’t want this lucrative opportunity to end.
- An elder Kuria man once told me, “Long, long ago, our women were very wild. We had failed to control them. And some tribe from the North advised us to do this, they said it would work to control them.”
- The Masai, the Kikuyu, and several other nomadic or previously nomadic people groups from the Nile/the Horn of Africa have had the same practice( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_genital_mutilation ). Some continue to practice, and some have stopped in the recent past. The Kuria tribe formed when a nomadic tribe from the Nile migrated south and met with the Bantu tribes on the Eastern border of Lake Victoria ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuria_people).