A tale from Sebei, where female genital mutilation is still culturally imbedded
Even as modernity sweeps across the world eroding some cultures especially in Africa, many cultures, beliefs, and traditions are withering the storm and efforts to carry them on are still intact.
This is true for the Sabiny people who live at the foot of Mt. Elgon in the Bukwo, Kapchorwa and Kween districts found in Eastern Uganda.
Together with colleagues from the Conservation Media Camp, I hiked for four hours through the tough steep hills to Sabu village in Yatui parish, Tuikat Sub country Kween district.
We were welcomed by a group of about 10 people to the village who sang songs and danced lively with uniform footwork.
This is always the drill whenever this village receives visitors, and impulsively, we joined the dance even when our moves couldn’t match those of the locals even by half.
“Eeh serotee aaah eeeh serote eeh toyik arots motyoo, Chikostoy yeyindentee, ahh, amu pasheetap rowutoo, eeh serotee, eeh, eeh, kee wamu kokwimenee, eeh, kachikonok kot kiting eehh,” we sang along in unison. (Meaning Visitors you are welcome and we love you our visitors. Thanks for coming, feel free and enjoy our cultural experience.)
According to Mr Job Soyekwo of Mulima Mountain Adventures who was our guide on the trip, the language in the song is by the Nilotic and is called Kupsabiny of the Nandi cluster now known as the Kalenjin. It is also spoken across the border in Kenya.
The feeling of community, union, harmony hovered all around us during this moment. It was certainly a beautiful feeling.
At the end of the dance, Soyekwo introduced us to 68-year-old Lydia Chelangat Kubungus, one of the elders in the village.
The barefooted elder was dressed in red with a head wrap, plus a kitenge (an African attire) around her arm, and barefooted.
Even at her age, Chelangat’s smile still remains affectionate and her stamina is still strong.
I laid bare my reasons for visiting to her, which included strong desire to discover and write about their culture and traditions, with female genital mutilation top priority. She calmly agreed to talk to me.
Female genital mutilation
Female genital mutilation (FGM), widely known as female circumcision, involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia.
The ritual has in the past been widely practiced by several communities in Sub Saharan Africa for different reasons but rights groups have called it an abuse of human rights, governments have criminalized it and communities have scaled down its practice.
For the Sabiny, Elder Chelangat said, the ritual is done on teenage girls as passage to adulthood. Although it is no longer widely practiced here because of a government crackdown, some families do it in hiding
The tradition which is locally named Wonsetibik originates from the Sabiny ancestors and is strongly rooted in their culture since it marks the beginning of an individual’s community and civic responsibility.
The ritual is normally performed during the month of December of an even year, such as 2022.
It is viewed as the counterpart to male circumcision and normally, girls aged 14 are cut.
The day before the ritual, villagers used to gather as a community to a huge feast, merry making and drinking off the famous local brew Lakwek which is made from honey and yeast.
The girls and boys would dance all night long in separate camps.
The following day, Chelangat says, the secrets of the culture and its history are taught to the potential candidates at dawn and they are asked to protect them from uncircumcised Sabiny and outsiders.
The ritual would be performed by specific families, although now every member of those families would qualify apart from elderly women who were believed to have been ordained by the spirits.
No restraints were used during this process and candidates simply lie down in turns on the cutting mat with their arms extended over their heads, skirts lifted and legs apart.
No cry of pain was expected, not even blinking of the eyes.
The wounds were then treated with cow’s urine.
“The girls were expected to be extremely brave as they undertook the procedure and thereafter, they would use a sharp tool as well to mark four marks on the right arm as a sign to identify the circumcised from the uncircumcised girls and also to show that one was an outstanding lady in the community,” Chelangat says.
Respect for culture and traditions has been a cornerstone of Sabiny practices for generations.
Before she undergoes circumcision, a girl child could not speak in public in front of people who have already been circumcised.
She couldn’t even perform important women’s tasks such as milking cows and drawing grain from a communal granary because she is considered “only a girl.”
After she is cut, she is then accepted as a woman, with all the privileges granted by the Sabiny, including full leadership as an elder among the tribe. It also appeases the spirits. The women would also be married off respectfully as strong, capable.
Circumcised females drew respect from men, which has decreased since so many girls now are not circumcised.
Girls who avoid circumcision would be put under heavy social pressure and intimidation from relatives and neighbors and even if they got married before circumcision, in-laws would pressure them to do it because if they don’t, then girls they shall forever be viewed as, even when they produce children.
“The Government stopping Female circumcision has affected us emotionally, not forgetting our dignity as well. The men in our communities no longer give the women the dignity they deserve like it was with us in the old days. Our culture has also deteriorated from the old ways that we followed. We are now faced with poor marriage everywhere with little or no ways to solve the issue,” Chelangat said.
The FGM law
The Government of Uganda banned Female Genital Mutilation and introduced the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2012, which criminalizes the performance, procurement, attempting and aiding the practice.
The law is coupled with a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison if one is found guilty.
But even with such a strict law the practice still goes on discreetly.
Effects of Female Circumcision
According to Plan International a non-governmental organization, over 200 million girls and woman have undergone a form of FGM and an estimated 2 million girls could undergo the same by 2030.
“Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn and maternal deaths,” Plan International says.