No memory was more vivid. The blade glinting in the sweltering heat, the grimy weathered hand seeking – and then pain with no mercy. Innocence ripped from a girl-child’s heart; a different future silenced.
But the 11-year old female – now considered a woman after the ritual – vowed that she would stand someday between the rite-of-passage knife and her own daughter.
“My mom didn’t have a choice,” Rachael Tengbom says about the African tribal tradition. “She went through the ritual that every Maasai girl goes through. It was horrible.”
Rachael speaks with sorrow in her voice as she reflects on the age-old custom of a tortuous circumcision (Female Genital Mutilation) and how her mother, Sarah, was then immediately married off to a man 30 years her senior. She then bore four girls and two boys, while viewed by her husband as nothing more than “property” in a loveless contract.
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Yet, Sarah envisioned more for her daughters.
“She believed in education,” Rachael remembers of her late mom, “and she’d say, ‘That is the only thing that will make you better.’ She didn’t want us to be married off like her.”
Because Rachael’s dad had a government job in the Rift Valley of Southern Kenya, the family didn’t live the nomadic lifestyle of the Maasai tribe. Instead, the town of Kadjiado was their home – an exception very few experienced.
For Rachael and her sisters, this was a godsend. Nearby, an English woman had started a program to educate girls, and the teacher sought support from World Vision and other organizations.
“My mom took me to the boarding school,” Rachael reminisces, “and by the time all my sisters got to go, she was keeping more girls there longer.”
School days became school years in a protective environment. However, upon Rachael completing the elementary grades, pressure was mounting to conform to the traditional Maasai ways.
“My uncle wanted us to be married off, but my mom said no,” the attractive woman says with gratefulness. “Others didn’t approve and she became kind of an enemy.”
Her mom stood up to the Maasai men and endured tribal disrespect. And though Rachael was appreciative of her mother’s love and the schooling, she still couldn’t help looking at her Maasai peers and feeling alone.
“I remember when I reached sixth grade and so many (in my tribe) had been married off,” Rachael says of the memory, “and I felt like an outcast.”
Her teacher reached out with assurances, constantly reminding her charges there was a “bigger picture” in their future.
“She’d say, ‘Can you imagine being a nurse or a teacher?’ But, of course, all we ever saw were girls having babies,” says Rachael.
Nevertheless, the vision of what life might be for her someday began to make Rachael’s heart sing. With her mother’s financial support (and her father’s indifference) she went on to complete college and become a teacher.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before she saw the hopelessness of the situation. Young girls who would be seated at a school desk one day would disappear the next, never to return. Overnight their carefree and curious lives had been changed through the tortuous FGM and forced marriage to men the age of their fathers.
Because Rachael eventually married a missionary from the U.S., she came to live in America while making frequent visits to Kenya. Each time her sadness welled-up inside as high school graduates who had been protected at boarding school now faced the unthinkable.
“Parents don’t want to pay for their college so they want to marry them off for a dowry of livestock,” Rachael explains. “I worked at the Tri City Herald at night stuffing the circulars so I could get money to bring my sister here. But I kept thinking there was more I could do."
It was while Rachael attended a leadership conference that she voiced what she felt was her “life’s calling” from God – to help the post-high school Maasai girls facing FGM go on to college. Several weeks later a $35 check and a note arrived with a few scribbled lines: “Use this to give the girls their voices back.”
“When I saw that note with those words, it was really powerful for me,” Rachael says with emotion. “I had never thought of it that way before. A woman is always under a man’s control in my culture and their voices are never heard.”
And so, Voices of Hope was born in 2006. So far, the nonprofit has fully funded 41 young women’s college and educational opportunities. Empowered women who will be the main force in changing other Maasai girls’ lives.
It all started when Rachael’s mom stood between the rite-of-passage knife and her daughter. Now, Rachael stands in the gap for others. Will you stand there, too? To donate or volunteer, contact Voices of Hope at www.voicesofhopeafrica.org or contact Theo Dobie (509) 438-7898 to attend Voices of Hope Dinner and Auction on April 24. Follow Voices of Hope on Facebook: www.facebook.com/VoicesofHopeAfrica
If you have a story idea for Light Notes, email email@example.com. Follow Lucy on Twitter @LucyLuginbill