Thirty Minutes on the Cross
By JESSE MASAI
One of the benefits of being a Churchman and woman’s kid is that you get to travel around lots, often on a shoe-string budget.
You live, study, work, eat and do much else with people from cultures and backgrounds other than your own.
Life batters one just as much as it nourishes, you get wounded just as much as you are readied to serve as a healer in the various contexts you find yourself in.
You learn so much about people and your world at a tender age that, if unchecked, you both become overly sensitive to some things or entirely numb and callous.
In effect, nothing presents a more difficult challenge for a writer than to sift through experiences gained from such so as to offer the reading public some genuine wheat, distinct from the chaff of self-aggrandizement and sanitation of otherwise colorful legacies.
Personal Christian journals and autobiographies often make for great reading because of creative tensions emerging from such; I am in the process of compiling my own, documenting some of the events, crises and turns that have influenced my journey in the faith and life as an emerging Christian thinker and servant.
I have, in recent times, been working on a section detailing all the women who have played a role in my life.
It was while going through my draft for that section that I recalled my thirty minutes on the cross some fourteen years ago.
At thirteen, I found myself living with my parents in a certain, remote, Kenyan village.
My family occupied an imposing old manor, the legacy of early Dutch missionary activity in that place.
It was the only house of its kind in a village battling to catch up with trappings of modernity which, by the day, appeared more like a pipe-dream despite the villagers’ best of efforts at education and infrastructural development.
Still, life was going on in our sleepy surroundings.
We are a naturally friendly and outgoing household, so it was no surprise for us to get an invitation to attend a community function one early morning.
We had attended several already, including the betrothals of some of our friends, community dances and hunting celebrations.
At precisely 5:00 A.M, our minder led us through a thicket behind our house to a river bank nearby.
At precisely 5:30 A.M, my dad, my brothers and I found ourselves standing at a spot the female members in our family could only have been intuitive or lucky never to have heard about.
Squatting in front of a swelling multitude in the chilly morning were some twenty seven young girls my age, allowing five more or less years.
Behind each girl stood two stern-faced men with long whips made from animal hides, a natural tribute to the wild game that dotted the vicinity.
The girls were naked.
But in their slimy ochre, they appeared firmly at ease, periodically shifting their military-like gazes from the increasing spectators to the old, almost blind woman, who feebly walked before them like a Mother Superior with an old, dirty, sickle-like knife.
The girls appeared to be relishing the prospects of something everyone in the crowd, except a few like my family, appeared to already know and cherish.
At precisely 5:45 A.M, another old woman emerged from the thickets nearby and stood beside the knife-wielding woman, whom we now got to quietly learn was one of the community’s longest serving circumcisers.
“Wamefaulu (they have qualified),” our minder told us in Swahili, translating what the new woman was now saying for our benefit.
Apparently the woman had spent several weeks with the girls in the bush, taking them through various aspects of womanhood, including giving birth, child-rearing and how to pleasure themselves and their husbands after the cut.
“Mila na tamaduni zetu zitabaki imara baada ya hii sherehe (our mores and traditions will remain intact after this ceremony),” the old woman said as she now gestured her colleague to begin work on the girls.
With military precision and great mathematical exactitude, the woman had cut off some part of at least ten of the girls’ reproductive organs, a part I would later learn was called clitoris.
The cheers and ululations that rent the air at each surgical success was enough to give the new initiates smiling faces as they remained squatting, and tearless.
They had now joined the community’s club of heroines, the community’s fellowship of revered, hardy women who now could attract male attention and mate without thinking they could still be besmirched as big babies.
They were now women, worthy of the name.
There were no short-cuts to this fellowship.
In the community’s long-held traditions, there could not have been any more decent, alternative rite of passage.
No girl who ever avoided the knife, however educated and “cultured,” could land a man to marry in the village or anywhere else the community had its reach or influence.
But it was after the tenth girl that things began going awry.
As the cheers and ululations continued, the remaining girls began to chicken out, as the pressure piled on them to play up to the gallery just as their counterparts had successfully done.
All this while, I had stood monitoring the action, too shocked to do anything else.
A shriek rent the air as one of the girls wailed in pain.
She had trembled and shook big, allowing the circumciser to get away with nearly the whole of her pubic area in her haste to clear with everyone else in time.
The two men behind her descended on her with whips, more in visible hate than to cajole her into any new obedience, if at all.
The sequence was predictable.
The ground was getting all bloodied, as some in the crowd yearned to join the rite’s curia in whipping the wailing fifteen.
At least five of the girls were now bleeding profusely and in such a backwater village, it was difficult seeing how they were going to survive on the community’s herbal medication.
In the melee, someone apparently had had the presence of mind to whisk away the “successful” ten.
My dad, my brothers and I could stand it no more; we began walking away, tears forming in our eyes.
Time had hit 6:00 A.M and the chill of the morning that, together with the cold river waters, had served as an anesthetic for the ceremony was giving way to the warm African sun.
Silently, I made a resolution that I was not going to eat meat till my family moved out of that place.
“What was the point?” My dad asked, getting angrier by the minute.
Our minder, keeping pace with us, could not have been more prepared with an answer.
“Mchungaji, mambo yatakuwa sawa tu. Usijali . (Pastor, everything will be alright. Don’t you worry).”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“Mchungaji, wewe huhubiri kuhusu Mungu anayetaka maisha ya uadilifu katika ngono. Hizi ni juhudi zetu kumsaidia huyo Mungu maadili hayo yawepo. (Pastor, you often preach about a God who demands purity in sexual matters. These are our efforts to help God establish that purity).”
“I still don’t understand you.”
“Sherehe ya leo itapunguza umalaya na nyege zisizo na kipimo . (Today’s ceremony will cut down on sexual immorality and associated desires that have no limits).”
Never again have I given myself to attending another FGM ceremony – the closest I ever came to events of that day was descriptions in my biology lessons in high school, women health lectures at campus and an ethics class in graduate school, out of which I walked when debate shifted to the grisly details of Female Genital Mutilation in modern Africa and the Diaspora.
A Cameroonian friend of mine tells me that it is even worse in his community: Girls’ breasts are ironed with a hot press to achieve the same effect FGM does.
Who will do away with this cross that hangs on the shoulders of us all like an albatross?
For most recent updates on my campaign, visit http://www.jessemasai.com