19 December 1985
Ive just been to my first and last Samburu circumcision. I have been sitting here for five minutes now, not knowing what to say. My hands feel bloodless, light. Outlines. I guess Im in a shock of sorts. I was invited to a place of honor to hold the girls knee. Something so important to their culture, something I wanted, once, to be included in I didnt think twice about accepting.
Miriamo came for me, and we went to the house, and stood around with many other women milling, talking. The three sisters were adorned in beads and lots of ochre, heads shaved and covered with orange and oil. I stood near the door, shy, uncertain, looking constantly to Miriamo for guidance.
The first girl was brought into an adjacent room. A goat skin was laid on the floor. Miriamo knelt and clasped a knee, Lydia at the girls back, Helen at the other knee. We crowded into the room to watch. The girls back was to me. The circumciser knelt between the girls legs and began. Immediately the girl convulsed and screamed. Lydia slapped her head and held it pinioned under her elbow. Another cut, another convulsion, and many women crowded around to hold her still. I backed up against the wall. Still the circumciser labored. I was desperate, grabbing the wall, looking at women crowded around a girl to cut, give pain, mutilate her gone with clinical non-judgment my legs felt weak and stomach nauseous and I gritted my teeth because hell every Samburu woman has to go through this and I didnt want to shame myself or the mother and then the girls head twisted under Lydias elbow and her eyes wild with pain were looking at me I couldnt look long back, and broke the gaze and stared instead at the long thin river of blood blowing from the goat skin and felt a coward for standing there and a coward for wanting to leave but more a coward for watching this, supporting it by my presence. My vision blurred then, and my head was too light and somehow I was in the other room leaning against a wall, than again somehow sitting on a stool, and then nothing until I felt arms around me and myself cradled in Miriamos ample warmth and her laughing kindly, to comfort.
The first sister had been carried out; the second was being done. I paled again at the muffled moans and screams. And then I was expected for the third girl. Miriamo said, Ill hold her for you, in your place, but it is still your place. I nodded and watched her go, and then it was all over in two minutes.
Im saddened. Theres a mill of confusing feelings in me right now, hard to sort I guess because I felt a pulse of the heart of this culture, after three years and my reaction to it places me irrevocably and forever firmly outside of it. How can I understand how these women can must do this to their girls and at the same time see, from my cultures viewpoint, that this is savage? My good friends. Savage. People I love and would trust with my life but not my daughter savage. What an ugly word, ugly concept, but there it lies, right next to the intellectual understanding of it and yes, acceptance. And I see that I have to some degree fallen into Rousseaus idyllic vision/trap I only chose to see the nobility. Easy to ignore the savage when not faced with it. How staid, even prideful I have been at my acceptance here, and (I now see) my limited acceptance of here.
Because you cannot accept and love every part, do you forsake the whole? No. Of course not. You go back, distancing, intellectualizing the fact of imperfect existence but know that that distance is there that that distance must be there.
Melissa Chestnut-Tangerman served in Kenya from 1982 to 1985.