Image Credit: ©2016 World Vision, Jon Warren
Elder William Lopetakou, also known as ‘Mr Culture’, leads hundreds of singing and dancing girls and boys at an Alternative Rite of Passage ceremony organised by the NGO World Vision in West Pokot, Kenya.
These rites, which include several days of training leading up to a public graduation ceremony, have been designed to offer an alternative to girls’ initiation into adulthood – but without FGM (female genital mutilation). FGM is against the law in Kenya, but is still widely practised by certain communities, who believe it is a marker of traditional initiation.
Alternative Rites of Passage have become very popular in Kenya in recent years, run by different NGOs (non-governmental organisations). They are usually held in early December to coincide with the ‘cutting season’. This is when girls are most at risk of FGM (and the forced early marriage that usually follows it) as they return home for the Christmas holidays, often from boarding school. FGM is colloquially known in Kenya as ‘the cut’.
Participant Sharon Cherop said the training had taught her that “culture is strong, and we treasure and keep it. But when it holds you back and causes pain, we throw it away”.
Not all NGOs include boys in their Alternative Rites of Passage. But World Vision sees this as vital, and includes them both in the training sessions and the public graduation ceremony, where they are awarded certificates of participation (just as the girls are). Boys are taught about the disadvantages of FGM, how to protect their sisters from it, and about the importance of children’s rights. They are also encouraged to marry uncircumcised girls, when the time comes to choosing a wife.
‘Mr Culture’ styles himself as a cultural ambassador for the Pokot community. He is employed (together with a female counterpart who calls herself ‘Mrs Culture’) by World Vision to contribute to their Alternative Rites, both the training sessions and the ceremonies. He is also a member of the local council of elders, which supports the concept of Alternative Rites and is trying to spread the message to others. “I always tell the old men that anything that causes harm to mankind is not a good culture. A good culture is one that brings blessings to the people, brings happiness for the people.”
He made sure his three daughters did not undergo FGM but continued with their education. Many girls who have been forced to undergo FGM drop out of school.
- Lotte Hughes (project leader) attended this and other ceremonies in West Pokot and Narok Counties in Nov/Dec 2016, to gather data for her case study on Alternative Rites of Passage. She will be writing about this in the coming months.
- Many thanks go to World Vision staff in Kenya for facilitating Lotte’s trip. Thanks also go to the photographer, Jon Warren, for sharing this image.