Thirty-five years ago I began my work among the Pokot people of Kenya. A semi-nomadic tribe, the Pokot practice initiation rites for both and girls. For the boys, circumcision is the first of two initiation rites into manhood. Unlike other tribes in the country, Pokot males do not perform this ritual every year but once every decade (give or take a year or so) and therefore the age of the boys for circumcision range between ten and twenty years old. This group is identified throughout their lives as an age-set, which would include a specific name identification (equivalent to baby-boomers or millennial’s).
For Pokot girls, their initiation into adulthood is called lapan. For those outside of Pokot this ritual is called FGM (female genital mutilation, or female circumcision). The average age of girls who take lapan is around fourteen years. After the procedure they are in seclusion for a month and under the care of older women. During this time of healing the girls are instructed in the ways of proper behavior as a wife. After the healing period the girls are then eligible for marriage. There is usually a joint celebration at the home of relatives, a coming out party, so to speak, where gifts are brought to the parents and prospective grooms attend to inspect this year’s crop of eligible brides. (below is picture of my daughter Becky with Pokot lapan girls).
When I was a resident working in Pokot my approach to FGM was latent, meaning I was not a social activist. As a student of anthropology I first wanted to know the meaning of lapan. As I tell my students, before you condemn people on what they do, you should know why they do it. I also did a great deal of field research how Pokot girls felt about this ritual as well as the Christian community. My conclusion was that, though a disgusting and potentially life-threatening procedure, lapan is a non-salvation issue. Working with unreached people with the Gospel, it is my opinion that every issue, no matter how repulsive it may be, is not the main thing Christians are to do. Challenging behavior rather than confronting people with the Gospel may, in some cases, cause more harm than good.
I have been criticized because of my non-engagement in social issues. Though I am quick to point out that I am opposed to FGM practices and talk at length with parents about its harm, it is not a cause I feel I need to champion. I have in the past, and believe today that it is the responsibility of the local church, not a foreigner or foreign organization that should lead the charge on social issues. The government of Kenya has made FGM illegal and it is a dying practice in Pokot, though held out by a few and vehemently defended among the Masai.
On my most recent trip to Pokot I met a local Pokot Christian who has started an organization called Exodus Rescue Education Centre. The five targeted groups for rescue are (1) FGM (2) early forced marriage (3) cattle rustling (4) children from poor families and (5) orphans. They now have ninety-five kids in this program, five which I interviewed (left to right).
Cheroto (15) ran away from her home because her parents wanted her to marry. She said she didn’t want to be married to an old man but wanted to go to school.
Kamarinyang’s mom died and she was living with her grandmother. She left her grandmother because she was insisting her granddaughter take lapan and marry.
Celestine (16) was the third wife and has a child. She was willing to run away and leave her child because, as she told me, “I was treated as a slave and abused.”
Loremoi (back row) was a cattle rustler, which is the main occupation for Pokot boys who don’t go to school. He told me that he regrets those days as he was involved in killing people in cattle raids. He wants to go college one day.
Mnangai left his grandparents applied to Exodus because they were too poor to help him go to school.
I am inclined to help this social project, but I still have questions. What is your opinion? This is one of those case studies where I challenge missionaries…You Make The Call.