In the Maasai tribe in Kenya, ritual female genital mutilation is a rite of passage for young girls.
It marks their transition to womanhood. And it’s typically followed by marriage — often to men who are much older.
That’s how it went for Rachael Tengbom’s mother, who was 13 when she wed a 40-year-old fellow Maasai.
“I’m the second born of the family. When I was born, Maasai women didn’t go to school — they still don’t (often) go to school,” Tengbom said.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
But a boarding school opened up, and Tengbom’s mother made sure she attended.
“My mom knew we’d be married off if she didn’t do anything,” Tengbom said. “Me and my sisters were almost the age to be forced to go through female genital mutilation, and she brought us to that school.”
My mom knew we’d be married off if she didn’t do anything. Me and my sisters were almost the age to be forced to go through female genital mutilation, and she brought us to that school.
Rachael Tengbom, Voices of Hope
Tengbom eventually graduated and went on to college, becoming a teacher. She now lives in Kennewick.
Although she escaped female genital mutilation and early marriage herself, the 49-year-old hasn’t forgotten about the girls back home who still face that possibility.
She started a nonprofit, called Voices of Hope, to help them. It’s been operating for more than a decade and is kicking off a fundraising drive on June 20 in which all donations are matched.
“If we keep on doing good, we can change the whole community eventually. That is the reason I do this,” Tengbom said. “We can all make a difference in this world.”
Voices of Hope helps young Maasai women pursue higher education. It acts as a bridge, providing resources and a safe place to stay while they’re going to college.
The group currently is helping seven young women, with more than 50 total served since the nonprofit formed.
If we keep on doing good, we can change the whole community eventually. That is the reason I do this. We can all make a difference in this world.
Rachael Tengbom, Voices of Hope
Voices of Hope also has partnered with the organization Women’s WorldWide Web to open an information technology skills training center in Kajiado, Kenya, for young women.
The center offers a yearlong IT course; about 20 young women are enrolled.
Tengbom came to the Tri-Cities in 1999. The mother of three, who also adopted a younger sister, met her husband, Daniel, while he was serving as a missionary in Kenya and she was working as a teacher.
They first moved to Minnesota, where Daniel is from, and then settled in the Tri-Cities.
She started Voices of Hope in 2003 with help from the Center for Sharing in Pasco.
The fundraising drive runs June 20 to July 20. Women’s WorldWide Web is matching donations made to Voices of Hope during that time period.
To make a donation, go to w4.org/en/project/empower-maasai-women-leaders-end-fgm or mail a check to Women’s WorldWide Web at 1268 Roscomare Road, Los Angeles CA 90077.
Voices of Hope — June 20-July 20 To make a donation, go to w4.org/en/project/empower-maasai-women-leaders-end-fgm or mail a check to Women’s WorldWide Web at 1268 Roscomare Road, Los Angeles, CA 90077.
It’s an important cause, Tengbom said.
The World Health Organization, or WHO, estimates that more than 3 million girls are at risk for female genital mutilation each year.
The practice — defined by WHO as procedures that involve partial or total removal of or injury to the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons — can cause pain, excessive bleeding and other complications. The long-term consequences can range from urinary problems to scarring, cysts, problems in childbirth and other issues.
Tengbom is grateful she escaped that fate. Her mother stopped the cycle for her, and now it’s her job to help others, she said.
“My mom was an example of making a difference. If she did not take that step, I would not be here. To me, it’s important that I do that for somebody else,” Tengbom said.
“I look at my life, how it would have been and how it is now. I see the difference one person can make. It is very powerful. If I can do that, if I can help even 10 girls, then (think about) the difference those 10 girls can make.”