In many societies traditional or clan elders are considered the custodians of tradition and culture. They represent wisdom, power and endurance of the society, and have a vital role in the ultimate decisions that affect clans, tribes or communities. This is no different when it comes to female genital mutilation (FGM). Even though, considered a female issue, elders are none-the-less involved in the process, as custodians of traditions and culture.
Neema, one of the five young activists on their journeys to understand more about FGM, visited Mzee Zablon, a Kurya traditional elder who lives in Kipunguni, on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam. Mzee Zablon, has become a devout activist against FGM, and he recounts the power and role that elders have in the decisions of their tribe, which is predominantly in Mara region:
“Every activity that touches or affects the community must have the consent of the traditional elders. Even the consent to conduct FGM comes from the traditional elders. In any societal issue, whether it is about disobedience, theft, cases of wife battery or abandoning the family; the elders are the last resort. They have the power of the oath. If you are taken before the council of elders accused of committing an issue, and then you swear by them, you will befallen by a bad omen, in case you were lying. People are warned of the consequences before they take any oath before the elders.
The traditional elders are believed to hold supernatural powers. They have the knowledge to perform magical rituals using special herbs. So once they perform the ritual your family will start getting affected. Some may even die, and eventually you may also die.
It is the same as with religious beliefs. Sometimes people go to churches to pray to get healed, and through their faith some get healed. And so if you believe that by offending the traditional elders you will be cursed, then that may also happen. It is strongly dependent on what you believe.
The elders play an active role when it comes to circumcision, including female genital mutilation (FGM). All the decisions of each season and the ceremonies are made in special meetings held by the elders. In our culture, the ceremonies are held every two years. So for instance after each traditional elder has consulted their ‘spiritual site’ and in the discussions with other elders they conclude that the year foresaw a bad omen for the ceremonies – maybe if they perform the ceremony there will be many deaths – then the girls prepared for that season would have to wait another four years.
Traditional elders are the ones who give the final consent before any FGM ceremony takes place. Such decisions involves all the elders and there has to be a consensus. They do not meet anywhere, there is a special place for these meetings. They take place under particular spots in the forest, where no one is allowed trespass or even cut trees in the area.
So they would take a goat, slaughter it and by observing its contents through their ‘spiritual site’ – they can conclude whether that year the rains would fall or not. Or whether that year FGM ceremonies should take place or not. Sometimes they would see dried blood in the gastro-contents of goat and they would know that the year bode ill and if any ceremony took place the girls would die.
If the community or some families push ahead and perform the ceremonies anyway, you will be surprised that the girls would die. And so you have two problems, first you have lost a daughter and second you cannot mourn or bury her. The body will be placed in the house, and no family member is allowed to show grief in public. If a visitor comes to your house, they should not, at any cost, know that you have lost a daughter or sister in that family.
The elders will then be invited into the house, they would perform a ritual on the body and then dictate where the body should be disposed. They are not allowed to bury her. It is believed that if you bury the body, more girls will die. So they believe that when a girl dies from FGM, there must be people who caused that through magical rituals and therefore the body must be disposed where they live. So the body could be taken miles away.
It does not end there. They have to throw away the body in a spot where wild animals can find it. So they will appoint people who would keep an eye on it to make sure that wild animals would find it and eat the body. If by nightfall no animals have found it, they would tie a goat nearby to attract the animals. So when the animals come for the goat, they will also eat the body. When that happens, it is a big celebration because they believe the curse will now attack the people responsible for the death of their daughter.
The family is not allowed to shed a tear, neither the parents nor any family member. They are not allowed to tell anyone outside the family. They have to celebrate with everyone else and if it happens that they show any grief or let the secret out, they will be heavily fined by the elders. Sometime up to five cows. If anyone asks after the girl, they will give any excuse – she has travelled or gone to stay with other relations in a different region – but they would never disclose that the girl has died. Some neighbours find out the truth but not from the family and they would not ask them either. It is a critical taboo.
You ask me, 'could traditional elders change their belief or their ways around FGM?'
Well, you have to understand the structures of the community and the different aspects that surround FGM as a traditional rite of passage. When a girl undergoes FGM, she is considered ready and suitable for marriage; who will respect her marriage and not cheat on her husband because her sexual desire is lessened. Moreover, she is considered a warrior because when she is cut, she is not allowed to cry. Therefore, if she can endure that, she is fearless.
You would have to change this mindset, and you would have to address the structures around FGM...”
It is clear that the consequences of FGM outweigh the supposed-importance placed on it. The next episodes will illustrate the extent of these damages, not only on the girl who is cut, but also on the people that come into her life.