Esther's Story


August 20, 2005

Written by Rukia Kadidi
BEADS Program Manager
Isinya, Kenya

This report from the field is unedited by BEADS.

It is Esther Tinayo's coming of age ceremony. Esther's mother is the midwife and the female circumciser. Mama Esther is the first of 5 wives with 8 children of her own and more than 30 children in the family. Esther is a BEADS sponsored girl aged approximately 13 years. She is sponsored by BEADS and is in 9th grade at Rombo Girls School in Loitokitok, Kenya. She is on her term two break from school, and it is time for her to graduate from one stage to another — from childhood to adulthood.

A girl in the Maasai culture only has one ceremony to undergo to graduate to adulthood, and it is done during the full moon. It is a time that most girls look up to because they would be considered grown up and when addressed the name changes from "ndito" to a "siangiki" The ceremony entails cutting "Emuratare". It is painful, but one has to undergo it. When the exercise is taking place, the girl is expected not to blink, and when one cries, it is perceived that one will not get a good husband!

During the time, the girls' families are overjoyed, as their daughters are, to get suitors — and that means cattle on the way from dowry payment. Mama Esther is happy for her daughter, but for another reason contrary to what they have known all through. This is the first ceremony of its kind in the area — a coming of age ceremony without the cutting.

Esther woke up at 6:30 a.m. to get ready for her big day. She sits in the Manyatta (village) and waits for instructions from her mother. She slept in the house where the exercise would take place. When she got in the house the previous night, water was put in a container with a metal rod and leaves in it and was placed on the house roof. The metal was for cooling the water and the leaves to wash away young girlhood. The cold water is poured on the girl's private parts for numbing for the "cutting" the next day.

It is 7:00 a.m. and when there was light, a goat was slaughtered that was to be eaten later. After Esther woke up and had a shower, she went back in to the house and was dressed in a blue or black shuka (dress). All the beaded ornaments she was wearing were taken away from her and given to girls of the younger age set. When getting back to the house, two women accompany her — one to hold her back while the other one performs the exercise. The exercise takes 6 - 10 minutes. After the "cut" cow milk is poured on the wound and on the thighs to bless the initiate. Later on, milk and cow blood are mixed for the girl to drink to replace the one that was lost. This is vital for the ceremony, as these are important ingredients for any Maasai ceremony.

When Esther was in the house, I kept my fingers and toes crossed. I could not imagine someone so young sitting still to a knife with no anesthetic — just cold water cooled with a metal rod. The exercise lasted 4 minutes, and there was singing from the women inside the house with Esther to let people know that the exercise was over. Outside is all jubilation and now the ceremony officially begins for the village and goes on for the whole day. They are joined by women from villages in the vicinity.

At this point I am a little confused, as I do not have an idea of Esther's condition. I did not hear her give a sound, but I hoped she was intact. I was not let into the house where the ceremony was taking place. As I swim in my confusion, a group of Morans (warriors) approach Mama Esther and I. This is what they said to us, "Dance and eat with your daughter. WE cannot make merry for her because she did not sing and dance for us." The mothers says nothing. The looks on the warrior's faces are not that good. They walk away and leave the village.

Why did they say that? Mama Esther says nothing and she joins the other women in the singing. I got to know the reason why. The night before a girl is initiated, she would go to one of the houses in the Boma to sing and dance for the Morans. But Esther did not go, and the warriors did not like it and are angry. But to me, it was good news — Esther is strong- willed and can make good choices for herself.

After an hour I am allowed to go sit with Esther in the house, and what am I to expect? I have no clue but hoping for the best. And when I saw Esther she was covered with a blanket from head to toe and was very silent. I called her but received no response. My heart skipped a beat and again I called. She peered from an opening in the blanket and she uncovered herself, and she looks at me and smiles. She turns her head away from me, a good sign I guess, and with shyness and she says, "It was good". "What do you mean good", I asked. "They did not cut me" she responded. And at that point I relaxed. As we sit with her, the women outside are singing for her songs of happiness that she is now a grown woman and not a young girl. All Esther is doing is smiling. Her facial expression was full of satisfaction and unexplained excitement that she did not undergo any pain whatsoever. It was the happiest moment.

From Esther's words this is what she says about not undergoing the cut. "I am so happy that I have not been cut — I cannot find words to express how I feel — I am overjoyed and just happy to be a "ndito" with no cutting. I did not want to be cut (her voice shaky with fear at the thought of the knife). I did not want to feel pain. I am grateful to my mother's decision and to Debby's support to make this day a success."

Esther's sister in-law had this to say "Am happy she has not been cut — there is still singing, dancing and eating. It is not a must that there is cutting for people to sing, eat and dance."

As I took notes of the comments, outside there were bursts of laugher, and I was afraid people were laughing at Esther. I dashed out to see, and the women were playing a game for Esther — a game for the plump and the slim women. This is how it went and was still part of the celebration. The women would sing, and at a certain point in the song one would run to the house entrance where Esther is, and the other women would pull her out. If she managed to get in and get to where Esther was resting, she would be given lots of meat that was roasted to make her happy as she emerged the winner. The others prevented her from entering, because if she gets in and gets all the meat, what would they and the guests eat?

As we chat with Esther, she tells me of another girl who underwent the initiation the same day to and was not cut, too. I tried to go see her, but her mother could not let me in, so I gave up and concentrated on Esther.

Her brother too was there. He made sure Esther was fed and she drank. It was amazing to see her brother support Mama Esther's idea of a non-circumcision ceremony. These are his comments: "am happy that Esther has not been cut. It was because of the help am receiving from strangers (Esthers sponsor's). It would have been a load for me to help educate my sister and at the same time I have my own family to provide for. Out of Esther's sponsor and the lessons on F.G.M our mother attended, she learned the ills of the cutting and she shared with us. I learned that cutting is not good, and that is why I support the initiative."

Mama Esther too had something to say: "am speechless as I did not know the right word to use. I did not know what this sponsorship would bring along when I wanted my daughter sponsored, but now I see the fruits of the workshops I have attended. I learned a lot that has benefited my family and has enlightened me in the rights and wrongs of the society. I appreciate the help Debby offered to make this day a successful one. I greatly appreciate — may God bless all that made this day be."

By now people have eaten and they have sung, danced and are just rested as the ceremony is coming to an end. Before it gets dark, people start leaving because of the wild animals and the families they left behind.

The day was successful. BUT because there was not cutting not everybody was happy —mostly the Morans. It was their duty with the women to sing for Esther to prolong the day, but because of Esther's choices, they said no. Esther has no regrets for not entertaining them. She feels what she did was right.

Personally, I am so glad for Esther. There is always change in ways we thought that could not happen. When Mama Esther decided that her daughter was not going to be cut believing it was difficult. Most people assumed by the time it was August, Mama Esther would have changed her mind. But no — her will was stronger. For sure nothing is impossible.