Gesaka Chacha stands out in a group of women and young men assembled at a chief’s camp in Maeta Village in Kuria East, Migori County. He is the only elderly man in a group discussing female genital mutilation (FGM).
When he stands to address the villagers who are listening to radio programmes on female genital mutilation, he is received by an attentive audience. Without shame, the 74-year-old speaks about a taboo topic.
“It takes a strong-willed person to change the tune on ingrained cultural practices such as FGM. I have elected to be that person,” says Mzee Chacha.
Since March last year, Maeta Village has been part of community radio talk shows produced by the Association of Media Women in Kenya, with support from the Girl Generation. The programmes allow the community to discuss FGM openly.
Mzee Chacha’s presence in the group was not without resistance, but he defied calls from his fellow elders to stand by the female cut.
Mzee Chacha worked in Nairobi until his retirement, an experience that exposed him to the benefits of educating girls. That may sound like a no-brainer, until you look at the data and the implications educating girls has for FGM.
Statistics show that the more educated a woman is, the less likely she is to be cut. Moreover, shortly after the cut, girls get married (early).
While in Nairobi, Mzee Chacha, who is now a farmer, educated all his daughters and became a vocal campaigner against FGM and child marriage. This has often put him at loggerheads with his fellow elders, for violating cultural norms.
“When I began my campaign, they wondered how a man of my age would talk ill of our traditional practices. They even said I am bewitched,” he says.
Having lived in Kisumu, Mombasa and Nairobi, Mzee Chacha met women who had escaped genital mutilation as girls and gone on to become leaders in various offices. This inspired him to push his own daughters skip the cut and early marriage and aim for the stars instead.
“Mimi na boma yangu tumeamua kuuasi ukeketaji (My family has decided to say no to female circumcision),” says the father of six, who is now a champion for girls’ rights.
“I have also been telling men to have their sons circumcised at a health facility for the sake of their own health. But they believe that unless one has been cut by a traditional circumciser according to the Kuria traditional practices, the circumcision is not meaningful,” he says.
For the Kuria, the cut is more than just a surgical procedure; it is the rite of passage through which all girls must undergo to be ushered into womanhood.
FGM preparations begin in August when boys and girls practise songs and dances ahead of the circumcision season in December. Many children lose out on school hours while others drop out in the four months of preparations.
This is the same time that Standard Eight and Form Four students are preparing for their national examinations.
“The practice negatively affects the preparedness of the candidates, some of whom have to devote their time to the circumcision ceremony rehearsals hence risking poor performance in their examinations,” Mzee Chacha explains.
The biggest obstacle in fighting FGM is Mzee Chacha’s peers. When he brought the antiFGM campaign to them in early 2016, they shunned him.
“But I did not fear. I soldiered on because change begins with one person, then the next and the next, and before long, the outlawed practice (FGM) will be eradicated,” he affirms.
He has no illusions, though. He knows that cultural elders, and especially men, are key to eradicating FGM.
“Unajua wazee hapa ndio wanaleta shida (the men are the problem here),” he says while calling upon the area chief to lead the war against FGM.
In one circumcision season more than 100 young girls undergo FGM in the area. Mzee Chacha’s door-to-door campaign takes him to homes, schools and elders’ gatherings talking about the dangers of FGM.
His school training sessions intensify in July ahead of the December circumcision season.
Before then, very day he sits with three to eight cultural elders, discussing ways to end FGM in the community.
“I try to persuade them to see the dangers of the practice and I am optimistic that my efforts will eventually bear fruit.”