In the Maasai community, female genital mutilation means removing the entire exterior of the clitoris. The practice is banned in Kenya, but Leng’ete’s Maasai elders spoke of the cut in terms of identity and cultural ideals of womanhood. Without it, they said, women can’t marry or have children — which means men can’t either. “Their families are shamed,” Leng’ete writes, “and the girls are outcasts.” Before she came along, every female member of her family had undergone the procedure. By the time she was 6, Leng’ete knew she didn’t want to be like them. This didn’t just make her an oddity in her community, it placed her life at risk. But, as she observes, it was the tradition that deserved to die.
Leng’ete’s memoir starts in the most dangerous place in the world for many women — at home. A psychologist recently told Observer magazine that “how someone comes out of an incident depends on what they took into it.” This might explain Leng’ete’s response to the challenges she would later face: Hers was a happy home with parents who doted on and nurtured her. They nicknamed her “Karembo,” meaning “beautiful.” Her mother woke up at dawn to ensure her children went to school with clean clothes and full bellies. Her father, a revered community leader, inspired her passion for activism. He died when Leng’ete was 7, and Leng’ete’s mother followed shortly after.
When my mother died, I was older, a teenager, and I had the time and space to grieve for her. To be permitted that process, I now know, was a luxury, and it’s one that Leng’ete, a mere child at the time she was orphaned, didn’t have. Instead, a parade of characters, the likes of which many will encounter only as stereotypes in films, emerged to terrorize the child. There’s a greedy uncle, who usurps her inheritance, and her guardian’s cruel new wife, who physically and verbally abuses her. “Most of the time I said nothing,” Leng’ete writes. “I did my work. I cried silently, and only when I was alone. If no one saw me, no one hit me. I was already small. I did everything I could to shrink to nothing.”
By the time she was 8, Leng’ete’s life might have ended for all intents and purposes — instead, by dint of iron will, it starts anew. One final beating persuades her to ask to go to boarding school. She has by then become an expert at running — she even runs away from the cut, becoming the only girl in her community to avoid mutilation.
Leng’ete completes her education, goes to college and while still in her late teens is spotted by a project officer at the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref). He sees her encouraging girls in her town to run from the cut, and from the life prescribed for them as Maasai women. He is impressed by her persuasiveness. A risk to life is also a risk to living, Homi Bhabha has said, and Leng’ete convincingly articulated the cost of submission. “They could see my life,” she writes. “They could see that I was the first girl in our village to go to college, and that, even without the cut, I was healthy and happy.”